By MELINDA WILLIAMS
Pulaski County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Monday night to increase the county real estate tax rate by 5 cents, to 59 cents per $100 of assessed value, effective with the June 5 billing. Voting against the increase were Ranny O’Dell of Ingles District and Charles Bopp of Robinson District.
Although a 10-cent increase had been advertised, County Administrator Pete Huber recommended the board approve a 6-cent increase. Draper District Supervisor Dean Pratt made the motion for a 5-cent increase instead, citing the need for capital improvements that have been put on the back burner too long.
Pratt said the county has been balancing its budget at the expense of capital improvements for too many years and if it continues to do so, the condition of its buildings and schools is only going to get worse in the years to come.
It was pointed out during earlier budget discussions that several county buildings, including the courthouse, have leaking roofs that need to be repaired or replaced.
Pratt said he has commented on several occasions that Virginia Department of Transportation shouldn’t build new roads until it can take care of the ones it has, then he realized the county is doing much the same in that it isn’t taking care of its buildings.
Massie District Supervisor Andy McCready seconded Pratt’s motion. He pointed out that a 3-cent increase is needed just to meet requirements of “Obamacare” (the Affordable Healthcare Act). He commented that the Affordable Healthcare Act hasn’t made healthcare affordable for many people.
“The county is ultimately an employer,” said McCready. “Obamacare is forcing us to make changes in our healthcare coverage.” He said the impact to the 2013-14 fiscal year budget alone is $770,000 and additional regulations coming in 2014-15 could require another 2.5- to 3-cent increase.
McCready said he is hoping, and it is his goal, that a 5-cent increase in the coming fiscal year will be sufficient to meet 2014-15 healthcare requirements without a need for another tax increase during that budget cycle. However, with “Washington being Washington” he said he’s afraid the board may not be able to meet that goal.
He called it “maddening” trying to keep up with the government’s ever-changing regulations.
He said county and school staff has worked hard to “wade through” the 10,000 pages “so far” of new healthcare regulations employers have to meet. Plus, he said he is confident the schools have been diligent in making cuts where possible.
McCready noted that “helping the school system fix their health insurance problem” has been at the top of the board’s list and he thinks it is appropriate to do so in order to ensure county schools can be competitive with other jurisdictions for employees.
“Obviously, that comes with some pain,” he added.
While the board may not be able to provide sufficient fundsing to the schools for teacher raises in the coming fiscal year, McCready said the health insurance changes will result in decreased premiums that will save the covered employee $2,500 on an individual plan, $2,100 for a teacher/spouse or teacher/child plan and $360 for a family plan.
If the county didn’t have the “burden” of addressing the healthcare changes and making up for reduced state education funding, McCready said it might be able to provide a pay raise. “Pulaski County can’t keep making up for the inability of the state to pay it’s part in the funding of schools,” he said.
He pointed out that the county’s taxing abilities are limited by the state, but localities have been hit with a “double whammy” the past two years. He explained that the state passed off Virginia Retirement System costs to the localities starting with the current fiscal year and the federal government is now imposing an additional burden with healthcare reform.
“The county and its citizens can’t continue to take these double whammies,” said McCready. “But, ultimately, the county is an employer and we must comply with the law whether we like it or not.”
Supervisors Chairman Joe Sheffey agreed that the state is passing off its responsibilities for education funding on the localities. He noted that the state sets Standards of Quality (SOQ) requirements schools must meet, yet it doesn’t provide sufficient funding to meet those requirements.
As for capital improvement needs, Sheffey said his concern is that if the county continues its practice of not providing sufficient funding to meet capital needs, “One of these days it will be time for reckoning. At least we’re starting the process to implement a better way to fund them.”
O’Dell said he has had a number of his constituents call him to oppose a tax increase. He said they elected him to vote their wishes, so he cannot support any increase.
“My daddy told me your word is your bond and if you don’t abide by that you’re no man,” he said.
Bopp said he couldn’t support an increase either.
A 5-cent increase should result in a little more than $1.33 million in additional revenue.
The supervisors will hold another budget work session Monday, April 15, at 6 p.m. to continue deciding what will be funded and what will be cut in the 2013-14 fiscal year budget.