Last week, more than a dozen county residents voiced their opinions regarding the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget.
The approximately $42 million budget, $25 million of which is in the general fund, is a “maintenance and catch-up budget,” said county administrator Jack Hobbs. He said the budget is built around the idea that existing services will continue while the county also addresses a series of challenges that have existed for several years. Those challenges include the need for a new public safety radio system, IT concerns and a renovation of the Madison Primary School.
Included in the budget is a new investigator position at the sheriff’s office and a county employee focused on IT. They are also vehicle replacements for various departments; a partially grant funded ambulance and cardiac monitor for EMS as well as an ultrasound machine; the beginning of the public safety radio system; funds to consolidate Thrift Road and the Main Street Administration Complex; funds to deal with Criglersville Elementary School; and the beginning of the Madison Primary School renovation. A 3 percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is included for employees, as well as some pay adjustments for those who have obtained additional certifications in their respective fields.
The budget also includes approximately $1.2 million set aside in contingency to cover a variety of items which still need additional information including the implementation of the IT and compensation studies; funds to take EMS to a fully paid system; a proposed 30.8 percent increase in health insurance; and funds to cover a new transfer fund contract which is currently out to bid. The budget doesn’t include any new debt, but Hobbs said borrowing is likely to occur next fiscal year.
The budget is balanced using approximately $1.1 million in fund balance as well as nearly $955,000 in addition real estate revenue due to the proposed five-cent tax hike. A one-cent increase in the rate yields approximately $167,000. No other fees are increased in the budget.
Three public hearings were held last Tuesday regarding the budget. They focused on the proposed real estate tax increase, the budget itself and the administrative fees.
Resident Joe May said he’s unhappy with the proposed tax increase, especially since his property went up 22.5 percent in value with the recent reassessment. He said he’s unsure what citizens get from the county beside its beauty.
“Technology is outpacing our ability to pay for it,” he said. “We’re getting squeezed by the feds and the state. If we keep this stuff up, I may as well move down south where the winters are nicer.”
Jim Smith also took issue with the increase in taxes. He said his property increased 24 percent in the recent reassessment. He questioned how the tax increase would be spent, asking for greater transparency. He noted that the largest part of the budget is the schools, also the largest employer, but the budget contains no data as to how the funds are spent and the return yielded.
“Madison Public Schools constitutes 40 percent of the budget yet there are no metrics regarding the effectiveness of those expenditures,” he said. “We know through state sources that the schools are not high ranking.”
Smith also stated that the citizens should not be paying for better benefits for county employees than what can be obtained in the private sector.
Like May and Smith, Linda Vegan said her real estate value after the reassessment was a shock.
“It seems ridiculous for what we get,” she said. “This will run a lot of fixed income people out of here. The assessment is really hurting a lot of people.”
Timothy Williams pointed to a number of issues in the budget, noting that increasing the real estate tax rate is not something that be continued in future years. Like Smith, he pointed to demographics, noting that 52 percent of county residents are outside the normal earning age of 19-60 and only 21 percent are school age yet school funding accounts for half of the county budget.
Kim Smith said the county has been kicking the can down the road on several issues. She questioned why the county would purchase the Moore Building, which is currently leased and houses the tourism office and visitor’s center, for more money than the county originally sold it for. The purchase of the building is included in the budget. She also asked why the county has so many people at the regional jail and said there’s an issue when young people are not being educated and retained.
Dr. Leri Thomas took issue with the unknowns in the budget, stating that if the information is delayed, the decisions may need to be delayed as well. She said not only is the county catching up, but due to the recession citizens are catching up as well. She said the county needs to start being more business friendly. Thomas is one of dozens of citizens who own property that is rented out to short-term visitors. She said the county not only taxes transient rental income, but also taxes the contents of the properties. She encouraged the supervisors to come up with new ways of doing things and not continuing the status norm just because something has always been done one way.
Eleanor Montgomery questioned the 3 percent COLA asking why it is so high.
Meanwhile, three speakers spoke in support of the budget. Carl Kirby said the board has done a tremendous job, dealing with a lot of things that are coming all at once.
“There are a lot of things that have been kicked down the road for years and years [and] things are coming home to roost,” he said. “I commend you on making tough choices. It’s time the county modernizes. In order to attract businesses, we have to be able to support them. I wish it wasn’t such a big increase.”
Nick McDowell also praised the board. He said 25 years ago, the Madison County Rescue Squad wouldn’t respond to some locations and the sheriff’s department wasn’t functional. He said the current department costs more money, but the sheriff does things most don’t realize. He said the Madison Emergency Management Services also has a ways to go, but is second to none.
“The budget is about goals,” McDowell said. “The glass is half-full.”
Carty Yowell said this year’s budget process was a perfect storm and taxes haven’t been raised in four years.
“Everything that came down the pike has to be funded,” he said.
Yowell said county officials do want to bring more business in and has worked to do so with the approval of the site plan for the upgrade of Shenandoah Hills campground and the Wieland property adjacent to Food Lion. The county also recently approved a rural resort ordinance, supporting plans for a rural resort development at the former Ken-Walt Farm.
“We are business friendly,” he said. “We need to get right businesses in.”
One organization happy with the budget was the Madison County Library. While library board has expressed dismay in previous years at budget time, this year is a different story.
“We’re very thankful for the board’s generosity in putting us back on track and in good graces with the Library of Virginia,” Bonita Burr said.
The budget includes a $143,600 contribution to the library, up 8.81 percent from the current year.
The supervisors said they worked diligently on the budget, often juggling large, but necessary expenses.
“It did seem like everything was coming down at once,” supervisor Kevin McGhee said. “[Previous boards] have kicked the can. We have to begin [doing things.] This year, health insurance felt less like good capitalism and more like extortion. It’s frustrating.”
“There were a lot of times we had large numbers come at us,” supervisor Amber Foster added. “We were sick; how are we going to do this? We were crunching numbers.”
Supervisor Charlotte Hoffman said like several of those that spoke her property also went up in the reassessment. She said things like the radio system are needed. In some areas of the county, emergency responders can’t communicate due to a lack of service.
“One life if worth the money if we save somebody,” she said.
Hoffman said many organizations who wanted funding were turned down. She encouraged citizens to call supervisors to talk about the budget.
Supervisor Clay Jackson said the real estate rate was increased by one-cent in his first year on the board and hasn’t been touched since. He said some suggest raising it every year by one penny, but why raise the rate if the income isn’t needed.
“It’s needed this year,” he said, noting that the county is still trying to find savings in the proposed health insurance rate increase.
Jackson also said IT is an issue and has been deferred in the past while facilities have been neglected.
“We’re still talking about the administration building 40 years later,” he said. “EMS we need to work on. The volunteers have done and continue to do a good job, but if they can’t provide it we have to pay for it.
“Schools cost more everywhere,” he added. “Technology is outpacing us. We’ve deferred and deferred and deferred and now it’s biting us. We’re the same; we pay taxes. We’re looking at options.”
County supervisors were expected to vote on the budget Tuesday evening after presstime.