MARK JOHNSTON

Mark Johnston

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County supervisors on Tuesday passed an ordinance adopting the proposed tax rates and budget for the fiscal year 2020, which begins on July 1.

The county’s general fund totals $71,458,171, a slight increase from last year’s $69,096,328. Including state and federal revenues, the county’s total budget appropriation is $123,640,922.

Supervisors unanimously approved budgets and tax rates for a handful of sanitary districts but Rich Walker, the supervisor for District 3, cast the lone dissenting vote on the county’s decision not to increase tax rates this year, as well as disagreeing with the overall budget ordinance.

“I find it distasteful that last year we did bounce personal property taxes up by 30 cents,” Walker said, “while we left business and machine tools taxes the same.”

County supervisors did not propose any tax increases this year from last year’s rates, a problem, Walker said, that puts an outsized burden on citizens. Walker said supervisors should have increased the business and machine/tools taxes this year in the same way property taxes went up last year.

Dennis Morris, the supervisor representing District 5, said that Virginia being a Dillon’s Rule state handcuffs them in terms of raising revenue.

The Dillon Rule limits local government power, preventing them from taking any action that isn’t specifically granted them by the General Assembly.

“We are very limited in ways we can search out to generate revenues,” Morris said.

Evan Vass, the county administrator, echoed Morris’ sentiments after the meeting, pointing to property taxes as the biggest contributor to county revenue, and one of the only tools the county has for generating revenue.

“Counties are limited in their revenue diversification,” Vass said. “That’s a function of state law, not a function of choice.”

While tax rates remained steady, the overall budget — encompassing both revenues and expenditures — did increase due to slight increases in state and federal funding. A large portion of the county’s budget is going to education, which was the main focus of the April 4 public hearing on when supervisors first presented the budget to the public.

Vass said Shenandoah County’s large investment in public education isn’t an outlier by any means.

“In any county or city in the state of Virginia, it’s generally going to be around 50 percent of a locality’s spending, so it’s always going to be talked about,” Vass said about education spending. “I think if you compare us to any other locality with respect to how much attention it gets, it’s the same in any locality across the commonwealth.”

Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston said after the meeting he was pleased with the county’s willingness to hear the School Board’s request, even though supervisors didn’t fully fund their proposed budget.

“Last year and this year, the Board of Supervisors has been very open to listening and hearing what our needs are,” Johnston said. “With the board’s approval of the budget, we’re going to have to make some cuts from what was initially proposed, but I think we’re going to be able to make those cuts and still preserve and protect those good things that were in the School Board’s budget.”

The School Board’s approved budget was $30,081,906, and the supervisors approved $29,989,710, an increase of a little more than $2 million from the current year.

The biggest blow to the School Board’s budget was a 20.4 percent increase in health care costs, Johnston said. Supervisors pushed enough funding to the schools to cover those increases as well as a 3 percent pay raise, allowing the school system to remain competitive when recruiting teachers, he said.

“Unlike a lot of county departments and other departments around, we’re not competing in Shenandoah County for teachers,” Johnston said. “We have to go outside Shenandoah County. So that’s really important for us to remain competitive.”

Walker said he didn’t think the county should have provided as much to the schools as it did, citing the state increase of about 3 percent for schools. He said he believed the county should match that figure; instead, they gave the schools about 8 percent more than they did last year.

“The school system, while they had an increase of less than 3 percent from the state, our increase has been almost three times that,” he said. “We have to live within the means of what our population can afford.”

Vass, who took over as the county administrator at the beginning of the month, said the budget process is much more than what unfolds in the final months of public hearings.

“It’s a process that really is a year-long process when you think about it,” Vass said. “The board starts their deliberations in the winter to get to this point…the board, any governing body really, has tough decisions to make when dealing with public funds.”

Supervisors are done adjusting tax rates for the year but one more potential tax is still before voters. Morris talked about the potential for a meals tax that could appear on the ballot in November, allowing the county to create another revenue stream that lifts some of the burden off of property owners.

“I think this year we have an opportunity to possibly get another revenue stream...by voting in a meals tax,” he said. “We’re asked to be frugal, make smart decisions…be diversified as much as we can in our taxing.”

“I think the meals tax is a way to generate additional revenue,” Morris continued. ”I hope we keep the meals tax opportunity not in our rear view mirror but right in front of us.”

– Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com