Supervisor says budget reflects compromise

Richard Walker Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – A Shenandoah County leader says the Board of Supervisors did compromise on next year’s budget adopted a month ago.

Vice Chairman Richard Walker said Tuesday night that members reached a deal on the fiscal 2018 spending plan, contrary to Chairman Conrad Helsley’s comments made earlier this month. Helsley explained at the board’s May 9 meeting that he voted in favor of adopting the budget two weeks earlier only because the county needed a spending plan. The School Board also needed to know where its budget stood so the division could issue contracts to employees by May 1.

Walker noted Tuesday that some supervisors didn’t feel the budget reflected a compromise. The board began working on the budget in the spring in an effort to close an $8.5 million gap between funding requests and expected revenue. However, that amount assumed the county would take $1.5 million from savings to balance the budget so the board actually faced a deficit in excess of $10 million, Walker explained. That amount also reflected an estimated $1.4 million in additional revenue, he added.

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey and District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz pushed for a budget that would reflect no additional spending. Helsley along with District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese and District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker felt the budget should include larger spending increases and that the county should raise taxes to do so, Walker said. Helsley, Walker, Shruntz and Bailey voted in favor of the budget. Neese and Baker voted against the budget.

“My position was one where I felt that we did have some items … where funding had to be increased,” Walker said.

The county needed to increase its school division’s contribution to the Virginia Retirement System by two percent. The county also needed cover a 14 percent increase in the cost of insurance for its employees, Walker said. The board already agreed to fund an increase in fire and rescue services.

“So I plied on Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Shruntz to ask them to accept those increases in spending as a deficit and honoring their request to keep our tax rates the same,” Walker said. “It wasn’t easy. We didn’t especially always agree but I would like to recognize that they did compromise … “

The county should need to use about $800,000 out of the fund balance, Walker estimated.

The budget reflects an increase in funding to the schools by just over $1 million, Walker pointed out. Additionally, the budget includes $400,000 in additional spending for health insurance and about $200,000 for increased fire and rescue service, Walker said.

“I did feel it was a compromise and I know that Dr. Helsley and the others wanted to spend more money and wanted to raise taxes but it would have been five out of six years to do it and I thought the people of Shenandoah County deserved a rest,” Walker said.

The compromise to which Walker referred did not result in funding as many emergency responders as Baker and residents of the Conicville area sought in the budget. Nor did the compromise lead to a budget that included enough funding for the school division to give salary increases to employees as requested by the School Board, though it can pursue some of its capital improvement needs.

Baker defended his push for an increase in the budget.

“I asked for it for the Conicville community along with the western corridor,” Baker said, adding that people from that area posed the request to the board several times. “It didn’t happen.”

The community now does have some increased emergency response coverage up to the weekends, Baker noted. Once the coverage ends, the county doesn’t have paid responders at stations in Mount Jackson, Orkney Springs or Conicville, he said, adding that instead, paid responders in either Woodstock or New Market would need to respond.

“The people have asked me to do that for them and that’s why I am stepping up for the community of Conicville,” Baker said.

Walker noted the county budget now includes funding for paid responders in Conicville but Baker pointed out that these employees only provide service at certain times during the week. Walker said the working group on fire and rescue services likely will address the situation in Conicville. Walker asserted that a policy he proposed in December for fire and rescue services would have helped the situation in the area.

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