Clarification: The article has been changed from the original version to reflect the fact that the board's Feb. 18 vote was to advertise no increase in the tax rate. The board does not actually set the tax rate until May. If the board decides between now and that point to raise the rate, it would have to advertise a second time.
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 at their Feb. 18 budget work session to advertise no increase in the real estate property tax rate in the next fiscal year.
But members generally agreed they will need to raise taxes or borrow money, or both, in the next five years.
Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell made the motion to advertise leaving the tax rate at 72 cents per $100 of property value. Supervisors Fitzgerald Barnes, Tommy Barlow and Willie Gentry (Patrick Henry, Mountain Road and Cuckoo districts) voted with him.
Duane Adams, Chairman Bob Babyok and Toni Williams (Mineral, Green Springs and Jackson districts) voted no.
The board’s decision was to advertise the 72-cent real property tax rate. The personal property tax rate is currently $2.43 per $100 of value.
The vote followed a lively debate among board members about how to best address $61 million in capital improvement projects over the next five years. They decided they needed more models than the three options placed before them.
Board members must think about “what can you afford to pay and what can you afford to let go,” said Barlow.
County Administrator Christian Goodwin presented two of the options, both of which involve raising taxes and incurring new debt for Louisa County Public Schools projects through a 30-year loan. The main difference between the two options is when these and other capital projects would be completed.
The first option calls for a nine-cent tax increase in 2025. A new rescue station at Lake Anna and an enclosure for the Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center pool would be pushed back two years to 2023. Several pricey school building improvements, including a middle school addition and a new career and technical education center, would be delayed until 2025 when the tax hike kicks in.
The second option proposes completing projects earlier, with a five-cent tax increase in the fiscal year that starts this July.
Williams offered a third option: Increase taxes by 10 cents for the next five years, allowing the county to pay for project costs without requiring the county to borrow any money for school projects.
Besides the middle school and career center projects, the schools had also proposed expansions at Jouett and Moss-Nuckols elementary schools. The Jouett expansion is planned to come first, with a $2.4 million price tag. That would eliminate the need for classrooms in trailers outside the main school building.
This week Goodwin shared a revised proposal from schools officials, for an $8 million expansion at Jouett that incorporates the separate project previously envisioned at Moss-Nuckols. Putting the two expansions together would save money.
The largest proposed school project, the career center, would feature 36,000 square feet of space for offices, classrooms and labs.
Gentry said he was concerned about how the schools are planning for future growth. Superintendent of Schools Doug Straley has said he prefers to maintain one middle and high school for now to maintain county unity.
“When are we going to realize that in another 20 years, the county will need another elementary school, middle school and high school?” he said. “Right now, it’s not built into the plan.”
Adams had a different perspective on how the county should direct its limited resources.
“There are certain core functions we need to focus on,” he said. “They are education, emergency services and the sheriff’s office. With the school expansion, we’ve got to do something. But the real crisis on our hands is with EMS.”
Adams proposed a hiring freeze for all vacant county positions, including at the schools, to help alleviate the problem of “being spread too thin” when it comes to emergency services staffing.
Goodwin inserted $2 million in the draft budget as a placeholder to address a shortage of adequate space for the sheriff’s office and fire/EMS.
Sheriff Donald Lowe was asked at the meeting to describe what improvements should be made in his department if money is available. He noted that a new building for his agency and fire/EMS was proposed in the county budget 20 years ago, but has been pushed back ever since. The department has grown three times as large since then, but the facilities have remained the same.
He expressed concern over many aspects of the current building, including that there is no space for staff meetings, rooms lack privacy and evidence storage areas are jam-packed. At times, deputies have to use holding cells to store evidence such as drugs.
Sometimes “you can smell marijuana all through the office,” he said.
Babyok said he agrees the needs of the sheriff’s office “deserve our full attention.” The board agreed to create a new subcommittee to explore space considerations for county facilities.
Adams pointed out that he and three other board members are up for reelection in 2021, suggesting that is a factor in how members are considering their budget and tax options this year.
The board will continue budget talks at its next meeting in early March.