County Administrator Bryan Hill unveiled a proposed $187.7 million budget for fiscal year 2016 on Wednesday afternoon, including an 8.2 cent increase in the real estate tax rate. The tax hike would boost the real estate tax from 77 cents per $100 of assessed value to 85.2 cents.
The tax increase, if passed, would be the first for James City County in nearly two decades. But getting that done will be contentious as a trio of conservative groups have already launched a campaign to oppose any tax hikes. Adding to the political pressure is three of the board’s seats are up for election this fall.
Starting Thursday evening, the Board of Supervisors will host individual meetings in each of their districts to discuss the budget.
Hill stressed the budget was a "fiscally conservative plan" aimed at addressing long-needed items for the county.
"As your county administrator, I was hired to bring a fresh set of eyes to county operations and to go out into the community to listen to the citizens," Hill wrote in a memo to the Board of Supervisors.
"The Board of Supervisors stressed their desire to move the county forward, maintain our AAA bond rating and our quality community," Hill said.
"In reviewing operations, there is a need to address the inevitable challenges associated with a decreasing water supply, stormwater, schools, economic development and the appearance of the county, which includes aging infrastructure, increased capital maintenance as well as ensuring our attractiveness to numerous tourists."
Without the tax increase, Hill said the budget was otherwise fiscally flat, just $200,000 above the plan approved last year by the board at $178.7 million.
"I have five strategic initiatives, tell me what you would like to do, tell me what you would like not to do," Hill said, referring to the upcoming budget discussions.
The proposed tax increase means the average homeowner in James City County, with property worth about $300,000, would pay an additional $20 per month, or roughly $240 on top of their regular tax bill each year.
The $187.7 million budget would be a roughly 6.8 percent increase over the projected 2015 budget of $175.08 million.
Revenue for the county budget would be driven largely by real estate taxes of $123.9 million, followed by other local taxes of $21.7 million. Licenses permits and fees would total $8.5 million. The state chips in $27.1 million and charges for current services amounts to aabout $5.6 million.
What does the increase fund?
The 8.2-cent tax increase would generate an additional $9.02 million in revenue. $1.8 million would be devoted to stormwater management. Of the funds dedicated for stormwater, management, about $332,000 will be used for reinstating a Neighborhood Drainage Program, which was suspended in fiscal 2014. To get the neighborhood program done, a partnership with each community would be developed prior to any work commencing, Hill said. He writes in his budget notes “Rain is free. Getting rid of it is expensive.”
More than $3.2 million would go to additonal funding for the Williamsburg-James-City County School system. Of that, $1 million would fund replacement school buses. $1.8 million would go for Clara Byrd Baker Refurbishing, and $360,000 would fund roof replacements.
Sue Mellen, director of finance for the county, said while the county could not obligate the funding be used for school bus replacements, it was the county’s understanding that’s what it would be used for.
Some $2.38 million of the tax increase, or 2.17 cents would go to improving the county appearance, including increased VDOT mowing of county medians and roadways, from one cutting per quarter to three per quarter.
The mowing would cost $75,000. The remaining money would go toward funding capital maintenance including replacing the courthouse roof for $450,000, rehabilitating the James City County Recreation Center to the tune of $335,000, HVAC/Electrical improvements for $339,000 , and Building/Energy Improvements for $276,000.
Finally, the tax increase would provide $1.5 million in revenue to replenish the county’s debt service reserves, which have been tapped each year since fiscal year 2007.
“A trend of annually drawing down funds is not a sound financial practice that AAA bond rated communities across the nation do over a long period of time,” Hill writes in his budget memo. Hill said if the county were to lose its AAA rating, it would face a steep increase in interest rates on financing future projects.
The tax increase would not make a major difference in growth of departments. Right now, with the planned fiscal year 2016 budget approved last year, 5 new employees would join the staff. With the tax increase, that number would climb to 7 employees, including an administrative coordinator for drainage as part of the stormwater plan.
The budget also recommends approval of a plan to institute a fixed surcharge rate for the James City County Service Authority. To help maintain infrastructure costs, the majority of residential customers would pay a $7.22 cent quarterly fixed charge for water and $5.66 for sewer services.
To help defray costs, the county would lower the water fees from $2.85 per 1,000 gallons to roughly $2.47. Sewer services would also be lowered to $2.93 from $3.22 per 1,000 gallons.
The surcharges would bring in an additional $650,000, $425,000 of which would be devoted to reserves with the remainder servicing the operational fund for JCSA. Infrastructure needs may be important in the coming years as the county may have its groundwater permit reduced by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. If so, the county may have to make as much as $16 to $18 million in infrastructure improvements to purchase water from Newport News Waterworks.
County staff will get ,on average, a three percent raise in the budget, with a performance-based raise system that would range between zero percent and 4 percent for the highest performers.
The raises would not be funded through the tax increase, but were budgeted as part of the fiscal 2016 plan approved last year. The county would get an events director to help promote tourism, a measure supported by the Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce. Hill said it would not take any new funds to create the position.
The county will host a public hearing on the proposed budget on April 14 in the James City County Government Center. In addition, five public forums will be hosted, the first beginning April 3 hosted by Supervisor John McGlennon. In other county news, the JCC Planning Commission recommended approval of a revised comprehensive plan Wednesday evening that will now be sent to the Board of Supervisors for consideration.