WOODSTOCK — More than a dozen educators, parents and citizens came out Thursday to express support for the Board of Supervisors’ proposed county budget and urged them to fully fund the county schools budget.
Supervisors held their public hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, anticipating a large turnout and citizen feedback.
The hearing was broken up into five separate public hearings, four of which passed without comment.
Citizens saved their comments for the final hearing, which was held for comments on tax rates — which the county is not increasing — and the general fund budget.
The proposed general fund budget for 2020 is $71,458,171, a slight increase from 2019’s $69,069,328.
The bulk of Thursday’s comments encouraged the board to fully fund the $30,081,906 the Shenandoah County School Board requested from the county.
Earlier in the evening, supervisors heard about the impact education has on economic development prospects.
School Board Chairman Karen Whetzel told the supervisors the future of the county depends on decisions they make now about funding schools.
“I urge the board to fully support the School Board budget,” she said. “Here in Shenandoah County, future economic development depends on keeping the school system great and preparing our students for the future.”
Whetzel said the School Board’s budget was a needs-based budget and not a wish list.
Curt Hoover has two daughters in Shenandoah County schools and his wife is a teacher in the county. He said people look at school rankings when they are considering moving to an area.
“What are the rankings of those schools? That means something to people,” he said. “When people are looking for a place they want to live, or start a business or invest, it’s a factor.”
Cindy Walsh, another School Board member, said the proposed budget will help keep pay for teachers competitive, as well as help cover increasing health care costs.
“Shenandoah County Public Schools covers the cost [of] the lowest level of employee health insurance coverage,” Walsh said. “We’re not able to pay for any of the increase for family coverage.”
Karl Roulston, the supervisor for District 4, said after the meeting that the board is unlikely to be able to fulfill all of the School Board’s request.
“I think we are going to cover the raises that were asked for,” Roulston said. “We are going to cover the health insurance. The health insurance really was a knockout punch for the budget. That increase meant we couldn’t do things elsewhere, and it just came back to preserving what’s the biggest priority. The biggest priority is the county employees.”
While education dominated the discussion, some citizens raised other funding concerns.
Sarona Irvin, the clerk for the Shenandoah County Circuit Court, said she needed the county’s support to convert one of her part-time employees to full time.
“The point is, for my office not to be fully staffed is a disservice to the citizens of the county,” Irvin said. “It’s not just me and my staff who are working long hours. It’s the citizens not having timely and efficient papers to look at. Having to wait in lines. Phone calls may not be answered as quickly as we would like.”
Overall, Roulston said, he thought the hearing went well — due in part to the board’s decision not to raise taxes this year.
As it stands, the budget proposal maintains all taxes at current levels. If the supervisors want to raise taxes before they adopt a budget later this month, they are required to hold a public hearing to discuss the increases.
Roulston said he didn’t think raising taxes this year was necessary but some hard decisions are coming soon.
“What I would really like to get through in my next two budget cycles is get Shenandoah County on a flat line of ‘this is what we need to cover our budget,’” he said. “And quite honestly, I don’t think we’re there right now. We are taking some money from the unassigned fund balance to cover this budget, and that’s not right. We can’t do that forever. We are just taking it out of a savings account, effectively.”
One tax still on the table is a county meals tax. All of the towns throughout the county have a meals tax, effective in town limits, but restaurants on county land are not taxed. Roulston said Shenandoah County stands out in a bad way by being the only county along the Interstate 81 corridor without a meals tax, but the board cannot institute that tax alone. A meals tax can only be passed by a ballot referendum.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve the 2020 budget on April 16.