HARRISONBURG — Rockingham County’s proposed budget for next year doesn’t include higher taxes or fees, but the issue was central to discussion Wednesday during a public hearing on the spending plan.
County Administrator Joe Paxton describes the $321 million blueprint for fiscal 2015 as a “guardian budget,” meaning it maintains service levels and revenue streams for now with the expectation additional local funding will be needed in the future.
While this year’s budget holds the line on taxes and fees, county officials say the existing path is unsustainable, and taxpayers will need to pay more to maintain a high quality of life.
“There’s going to be a lot of folks that probably aren’t going to like it,” said Supervisor Pablo Cuevas, chairman of the board.
No decisions have been made as far as taxes and fees go, but it’s sure to be a hot topic as supervisors meet next month to evaluate funding for public safety, employee compensation, technology, and the landfill, among other areas.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, the Board of Supervisors recessed its meeting until next Wednesday, when it will approve a budget just in time for Rockingham County Public Schools to meet a May 1 deadline to send out teacher contracts for the next academic year.
Supervisors held off on approving a spending plan for fiscal 2015 for as long as possible with the hope that state lawmakers would finally resolve their differences and pass a budget.
That has yet to happen, however, leading to the expectation that changes to the county’s budget may be necessary later when state allocations are finally approved.
The General Assembly adjourned March 8 without approving a budget, leaving cities, counties and towns with nothing but guesses to work with as the localities try to put together their own spending plans.
“This is a tough budget time, especially when the state doesn’t do their job, but we are left with the task of continuing ours,” Rockingham County School Board member Dan Breeden told supervisors.
Rockingham’s proposed budget, which takes effect July 1, is about $6 million more than the current fiscal year’s spending plan, with the largest increases in capital funds and education.
A 2 percent raise for all employees, including teachers, is included in the budget, but according to two employees of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Social Services Department, it will do little to bring the agency in line with salaries in neighboring and comparable localities.
Joan Good and Adrienne Whiteside told supervisors that their pay is far below what their counterparts in Shenandoah County earn, for example.
At the same time, employees at the local office face more challenges and caseloads than other agencies, Good and Whiteside said in urging the board to try to find additional funding for salaries.
“It’s not just about revenue — it’s about priorities,” said Whiteside, adding that supervisors should consider Social Services as a supplement to education to ensure at-risk youth have the opportunity to succeed.
Education continues to be the county’s largest expenditure.
For the coming academic year, the School Board requested $54.4 million from the county, an increase of $1.9 million in local funding over this year’s budget.
Supervisors granted all but about $500,000 of the request, delaying action for now on a plan to upgrade technology throughout the division.
It’s one of several issues the Board of Supervisors wants to address with a two-day work session in May to evaluate the county’s long-term funding obligations and revenue sources.
County officials say demand for services has been increasing for several years while costs continue to rise, particularly for education and public safety.
Public safety is the second-largest funding area.
Officials with the county and those with the city of Harrisonburg are beginning the process of evaluating how to expand the Rockingham County Jail and how ultimately to pay for expansion.
Further straining the county’s budget, Paxton said, is that Rockingham has had to continue to put more and more money toward fire and emergency medical services.
Volunteerism has been dropping for years at the nonprofit volunteer fire-and-rescue organizations. As a result, additional full-time staff members have been hired to cover calls in the county’s 850 square miles.
In addition to fewer volunteers, a growing and increasingly older population has led to more calls for service.
Funding for volunteer fire companies will go up 3 percent under the budget proposal.
Supervisor Mike Breeden, Dan Breeden’s brother, summed up the board sentiment succinctly.
“Tough budget,” he said.
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or email@example.com