Sunday, April 13, 2014

Augusta Supervisor Chairman Larry Wills: Reasons county needs 5-cent tax hike

By Larry Wills (Middle River District)
Chairman, Augusta County Board of Supervisors

The recent decision by the Board of Supervisors to advertise a five-cent tax rate increse was not an easy one nor was it a decision that was undertaken without a thorough examination of the proposed county budget and a review of the county's current and upcoming needs. Each member of the Board is also a taxpaying citizen and landowner in Augusta County. Two of us are retired and know what it is like to live on a fixed income.

Augusta County public schools
The money that will be raised from the increase in taxes has been designated for key and essential county services. The schools will get a two (2) cents of the increase or approximately $1.39 million to address salary needs that were unfunded in their balanced budget along with $1.29 million permanent funding that had been year-to-year since the change in the composite index two years ago. Over those two years, this money was taken from the fund used to address roof and major equipment repairs and replacements on county-owned structures. In addition to this, the county will also advance to the schools $1 million per year for three (3) years to address the technology initiative for the children of Augusta County. This money will come back to the county coffers when Ladd Elementary School is sold.

Sheriff's Department
With the additional money raised by the tax increase, the county will provide enough funding to the Sheriff's Department to hire four (4) additional deputies along with funding for active shooter training for the department. The Fire and Rescue operations of the county will receive one (1) cent or $697,000 for personnel, subsidies to the volunteers, and to save for future equipment purchases.

Emergency responders communications equipment
The county has many other needs that remain unfunded and will have to be funded in the future either by growth in revenues or through bonding out of the projects. These projects include many that are required by the federal or state governments but must be funded locally. The most pressing is $4 million to complete the upgrade of our equipment for emergency response brought about when the Federal Government sold the bandwidths for phone communication and now requires emergency responders to operate on a narrower bandwidth.

Storm runoff requirements
The new state and EPA regulations will require a more refined handling of storm water runoff in our populated areas. Augusta County is now an MS4 community which means storm water runoff must be controlled for both flow and quality. Populated areas such as Stuarts Draft, Fishersville, and Verona will fall under the same regulations as the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro. Each of those cities are now charging an additional fee to each of their landowners to cover their cost. That fee is not practical or fair in the county since the majority of county residents do not live in our MS4 designated areas.

New road construction and maintaining existing roads
Another major expense that will eventually be the responsibility of the county is the building of new roads and the major upgrades to existing roads. We have a major backlog of needed projects. We are currently receiving only $540,000 per year to address these needs. This compares to receiving over $2 million for secondary road improvements in 2003. I believe the future for major road improvements on secondary roads will require a 50/50 split in the construction costs of the improvements with the state.

An example of this is the Rt. 636 project in Fishersville where the county has provided over $6 million to provide a road that was badly needed to alievaiate traffic congestion associated with the hospital and the new Murphy Demming College along with the growth that is occurring in the area because of those institutions.

 Miscellaneous needs
Those are only a few of the future projects. We will also have upfront cost related to industrial recruitment for economic development, upgrades of water and sewer facilities to meet the county's fire flow requirements, upgrading the current Courthouse or building a new one, closure of cells at the landfill, along with other capital needs when they arise.

Real estate tax rate
I would note that from 1983 until 2009 the tax rate in Augusta County was 58 cents. That rate, along with the natural growth, funded the county needs quite well. As reassessments occurred, the increased revenues funded the increasing operational costs along with providing savings to pay for capital needs when they occurred.

In 2009, because of a disputed reassessment and the state of the economy, the rate was dropped to 48 cents. While this rate served the citizens of the county well for a short time and forced the county and the schools to economize and downsize staff, it is not a rate that can be sustained in the future if the county and the schools to economize and downsize staff, it is not a rate that can be sustained in the future if the county is to provide a quality educational experience for our children and the level of services from our Sheriff's Department and from our Fire and Rescue agencies that our citizens expect and deserve.

Public hearing
The Board of Supervisors of Augusta County takes seriously the responsibilities that the citizens gave to us in the election of 2011 to spend money wisely and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the citizens of Augusta County for the long term. We look forward to hearing from you at our budget hearing on Wednesday, April 16, at 7:00 p.m. in the Board Room of the Government Complex in Verona.

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