Board hears support, opposition to budget, tax hike

Abby Walters, of Strasburg, speaks in support of a tax increase for public schools during the public hearing for Shenandoah County's 2018 fiscal budget Thursday night at W.W. Robinson Elementary School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders on Thursday heard mostly support for the proposed increase in the real estate tax rate and the proposed fiscal 2018 budget.

A smaller-than-usual crowd assembled in the cafeteria at W.W. Robinson Elementary School for the public hearing on the proposed tax rates and the fiscal 2018 budget. A handful of the nearly two dozen people spoke against the proposed spending plan and tax rate. The county advertised a real estate tax rate of 64 cents per $100 of assessed value – an increase from the current levy of 60 cents. Chairman Conrad Helsley reminded the audience that the board can adopt a tax rate at or below, but not above, the advertised levy. The board plans to take action to adopt the budget and tax rates at its April 25 meeting.

Several speakers urged supervisors to take action to pursue economic development. Supervisors declined to include in the proposed budget approximately $70,000 for a position dedicated to economic development.

Karen Whetzel, chairwoman of the School Board, spoke in support of the proposed budget and tax rate. Whetzel cited newspaper articles covering budgets and tax rates from other parts of the state before noting that the county school system’s spending plan was not a “pie in the sky” request. Whetzel said the tax rate as advertised would set back the county but voiced support for the proposed levy.

Eloise Hahn, of Woodstock, also voiced support for the proposed budget, saying that more people like her will continue to speak up about the needs of the school system.

Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors Dick Neese, from left, Chairman Dr. Conrad Helsley and Vice Chairman Richard Walker listen as citizens comment on the 2018 budget. Rich Cooley/Daily

Patricia Botts, of Fort Valley, criticized county spending, citing the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail and calling the facility a boondoggle. Botts pointed out that the jail board’s make-up ensures that Shenandoah County holds no power over the facility’s spending.

Katheryn Freakley, a School Board member, spoke in support of the budget and mentioned the needs of several county agencies and departments, many of which she said remain underfunded. Freakley noted that while some people argue against raising taxes because of the impact on senior citizens, underfunding leads to reduced services for the same population group.

Dan Walsh, president of the Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools, pointed out that the Board of Supervisors chose a less-than-ideal night to hold the hearing given the conflict with the religious holiday. The board had originally scheduled the hearing for the previous Thursday but supervisors delayed action to set a budget and tax rates for advertisement.

Walsh noted that the school system faces about a $1 million gap between its spending needs and expected revenue. Walsh said the proposed tax rate increase would require the average property owner to pay an additional $50 per year.

Abby Walters read an email she said she sent to District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz. Walters said she and her husband own six properties valued at $1 million and they would gladly pay the extra money from a tax rate increase to support schools.

Kevin Rooney, of Maurertown, tells the supervisors to vote no for a tax increase. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kevin Rooney, of Maurertown, argued against taxation in general and called it theft. Rooney said he can’t afford a $50 increase in his tax bill.

Eugenia Kemble, of Fort Valley and board member of Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools, spoke in support of the budget and tax rates. Kemble said the school system suffers from a high turnover rate among teachers. Kemble also said test scores appeared to suffer. She lauded the efforts of the school officials to do what they can under duress.

Superintendent Mark Johnston pointed out that most of the school system budget goes to pay for teachers and other employees. Johnston provided a list to the board of the numerous teachers not planning to return to work for the division next year. The superintendent asked supervisors to work with the school system and fully fund its budget.

Luther Santiful, chairman of the Shenandoah County Democratic Committee, urged supervisors to listen to their constituents. Leaders need to pursue economic development to help meet the county’s needs, Santiful said.

Seth Coffman, also affiliated with Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools, said he opposes anyone’s efforts to pore through data in pursuit of ways to support a predetermined opinion or theory. Coffman said he felt the Board of Supervisors has lacked direction and vision as well as leadership while falling back on obstructionism.

Jerry Copp, of Woodstock, sits among empty rows of chairs Thursday night during the hearing. Rich Cooley/Daily

Linda Allen said the county could pursue the needed economic development by hiring a dedicated employee for that task at the price of about $73,000. She warned that the county could fall into a regression.

Karen Kwiatkowski said philosophical differences drive decisions but the math doesn’t always match the philosophies. Kwiatkowski said the 64-cent rate would still not satisfy the needs and wants of the county or its school system. Kwiatkowski said the fifth largest employer in the area is the county school system. She argued that the division hasn’t shrunk despite claims it’s underfunded. Kwiatkowski urged for prioritization, noting that the county would never have enough money to meet its needs.

Ryan Richmond spoke in support of the tax rate increase. Richmond said he hesitated to speak because he knew that Supervisors Marsha Shruntz and Cindy Bailey support level funding and his statements would not change their minds. Richmond criticized the board and said he had no faith that supervisors would vote for a tax increase. Rather, Richmond said he expected to see change in November when voters elect supervisors in three districts.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com