By MELINDA WILLIAMS
Pulaski County educators came out in full force Monday night to support a real estate tax increase they feel will retain and attract quality teachers by improving pay and coverage of increasing health insurance premiums.
However, a few county citizens questioned the impact a rate increase will have on senior citizens and one pointed out she doesn’t have anyone to tax to pay her skyrocketing health insurance costs.
Almost a dozen people spoke during a public hearing on a proposed tax hike which has been advertised at 10 cents, but County Administrator Pete Huber said will likely be less, if any at all. Prior to Monday night’s hearing, county staff presented those in attendance with three proposed budget scenarios: one without any increase at all and the other two with four- and six-cent tax increases.
Huber said a 10-cent rate hike was “taken off the table” due to the fact a 10-cent increase most likely will be needed to address the county’s middle school needs and it isn’t “feasible to consider two back-to-back 10-cent increases.”
As a result, Assistant Administrator Robert Hiss said he took the county budget and went through it “line by line by line” over a couple of weekends and cut more than $266,000 from it. He said the proposed 2013-14 fiscal year budget is less than the current fiscal year budget. In fact, it is more in line with the 2010-11 spending.
Hiss and Finance Director Diane Newby provided the audience with a rundown on the impacts to county capital improvements (emergency services vehicles, buses and other one-time expenses) and school needs under each of the three budgets they prepared (no increase and four- and six-cent increases).
The impact ranged from no capital improvements (CI) without any increase to $1.36 million in CI, including a fire tanker, five sheriff’s office vehicles, an ambulance and fairgrounds improvements, with a six-cent increase.
Without an increase, the impact to schools included fewer security cameras and about half the amount of funds requested to cover employee health insurance premium increases resulting from the Affordable Healthcare Act. While a six-cent increase would provide the full $1.3 million needed to cover insurance premiums, more security cameras and three new buses.
Before taking public comments on the tax rate, Massie District Supervisor Andy McCready pointed out that while many localities had tax increases last year, Pulaski County didn’t raise its rate despite being mandated by the state to increase its contribution to the Virginia Retirement System.
“That was something that was handled by this board without an increase,” he said. “We were able to do that when other localities weren’t.”
Now, he said, the county is facing a 15 percent increase in health insurance costs. He added that 2-3 percent of that increase is said to be the result of “Obamacare,” although he believes the figure is actually higher than that.
McCready went on to point out that the state sends less money to the localities each year to fund education.
“Every board member is concerned about the citizens’ ability to pay (a tax increase),” he said. “There’s never a good time to raise taxes, but, like it or not, Pulaski County is an employer and we have to comply” with mandates placed on it by the state and federal government.
Pulaski County Education Association President Steven Lavery and several county teachers expressed concern to the board about what they described as a mass exodus of quality teachers from the county school system as a result of better pay and benefits in other jurisdictions.
Lavery said he had come prepared to support the full 10-cent increase, saying it has been years since teachers received a “substantial raise” and that many teachers are making less now than they were last year.
High school teacher Scott Peterson said he keeps being told “maybe next year” teachers will receive a raise, but it never comes. He said his own children are getting ready to start school and he questions whether he should join others in sending them outside the county for their education because he is concerned about whether Pulaski County is dedicated to its schools.
Bill Benson said he understands tax increases are hard on people with limited incomes, but added, “every year I’ve gotten an increase it’s been eat up by insurance.”
Pulaski County High School Senior Katelyn Dobbins told the board she didn’t intend to speak during the hearing, but she decided to because “I want to defend my educators.” She said she has grown up in the county and loves the area, but described PCHS as a “revolving door” of teachers, particularly in the math department where Lavery said 24 teachers have left.
It was Genie Zunic who brought up the impact a tax increase would have on the elderly living on fixed income. She pointed out increases in gasoline, electric and food prices have already eaten into the income of the “aging population” so “they cannot afford to have their taxes increased.”
Zunic said if the county school board wants to cut its budget, its administration building “is the place to look.” She said it was located in a small house next to the library when she was in school and “now it takes a whole bank building.”
Tina Pratt said she’s sympathetic with the school system employees because “I’m in the same boat,” but she pointed out she doesn’t have anyone to tax to pay her family’s health insurance premiums which have increased 400 percent since 2010. She noted that her husband had to take a pay cut so he, too, is making less now than he was in 2010.
“The school system isn’t the only place this is happening,” said Pratt, adding that it is “a hard pill to swallow” for her to pay more real estate taxes to fund someone else’s insurance premium increases.
E.W. Harless agreed with the supervisors that there’s going to have to be a tax increase, but he accused them of putting the blame on the back of the school system.
Debbie Mohay chided the board of giving money to The Crooked Road instead of using it to maintain the schools. She said the teachers deserve a raise.
Mark Capps merely promised he would “send home” during their next election cycle any supervisor voting for a tax increase.
After several teachers and Zunic spoke, Ingles District Supervisor Ranny O’Dell asked teachers in the audience how many of them lived in two-income homes. Several raised their hands. He indicated the teachers have two incomes to live off of while the elderly population often does not.
But Benson and others questioned O’Dell’s reasoning, saying the teachers also have more mouths to feed and Benson said he has sent $100,000 to Virginia Tech to further educate his children.
“I think it all averages out in the end,” said Benson.
The supervisors have two more budget work sessions (April 1 and April 8) before voting on the tax rate April 8.