Supervisors Sign Off on Public Safety Budget Requests

During the first budget work session of the new Board of Supervisors, members on Monday night largely waved through the spending requests and recommendations for the county’s public safety agencies and the county administrator.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s Office, Combined Fire-Rescue System, Department of Animal Services, and Community Corrections went before the board March 2 to make their cases for the increased funding requested in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. And although they gave some scrutiny to those requests, supervisors made only one change to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s budget recommendations, adding a position for pretrial supervision in the Department of Community Corrections.

As usual, supervisors are using Hemstreet’s recommended budget, based on a real estate tax rate of $1.035 per $100 of assessed value, as a starting point, adding or subtracting from that proposal. That is a one-cent cut to the current tax rate, but still an increase to the tax bill the average resident will see as property values continue to grow.

Discussions with Sheriff’s Office senior personnel—Sheriff Michael L. Chapman was at a conference in Las Vegas and did not attend, and Col. Mark Poland spoke instead—brought up an election-season political fight again. Chapman and former Republican candidate for county chairman John C. L. Whitbeck had proposed putting a School Resource Officer in every elementary school; however, when budget deliberations came around, Chapman had not put the program into his budget request.

This year, the $3.5 million proposal to hire 16 new SROs ranked third among the sheriff’s requests for new funding, but Hemstreet recommended funding for only first- and second-ranked budget requests.

A School Board has not embraced the proposal to expand the SRO program to elementary schools. Instead, the adopted school budget calls for hiring more security officers.

“It’s an expansion of the SRO program which, in a nutshell, is community policing at its finest,” Poland said. “The ability for deputies, guys and gals on the ground, to interact with their children within their communities that they work, and build those bonds, discuss safety, discuss education whether it’s vaping, or it’s bullying—that’s priceless.”

County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) opposed the idea or “armed security in the elementary schools.”

“Couldn’t almost all of the educational things that you’re talking about now be done with someone who’s not armed?” Briskman asked. “…Everything you’ve just said to me as a justification doesn’t require someone that’s armed.”

“I have read a lot about this, and nothing ever speaks to that,” Randall said. “In fact, it actually would have a fairly negative effect according to all that I’ve read.”

Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said he supports the idea—“I wish we had two at every elementary school”—he said it may not be “prudent” to add them to the county’s budget while it’s uncertain whether to School Board will allow them into the schools.

Supervisors added only one position: A new pretrial officer in the Department of Community Corrections.

That, according to Department of Community Corrections Director Jim Freeman, is needed in part because of changes at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office that are seeing more people awaiting trial—including people charged with violent felonies, including manslaughter—being released from jail and placed on pretrial supervision. Freeman said currently there are 41 defendants on pretrial supervision charged with violent felonies, in some cases with violent histories.

Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said “this is probably not an area where we should be skimping.”

“The last thing I want to see is unsupervised violent offenders, and I do believe in part because of some decisions that are being made at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s level, that’s the situation we may find ourselves in,” Letourneau said.

Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said while he would support adding the position in a straw poll for now, “I don’t plan on supporting this amendment if we can’t find other places to cut from other departments” to keep the tax rate down.

Only Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) voted against adding the pretrial officer.

That addition, just over $100,000, bumped the tax rate up a half-penny to $1.04. That means supervisors currently will have to make at least that much in cuts elsewhere to bring the tax rate back down to $1.035.

The bump happened because, traditionally, Loudoun has rounded the real estate tax rate to the half-penny. This year, each penny on the tax rate is projected to be worth about $9.5 million in tax revenues.

Randall raised the possibility of adjusting the tax rate by smaller fractions. Director of Management and Budget Erin McLellan said the county has traditionally rounded to the half penny for several reasons—among them, that it’s easier for the taxpayer to understand, and that it has been the advice of Treasurer H. Roger Zurn.

In the departments that supervisors heard from Monday, Hemstreet has proposed adding staffing for the new animal shelter slated to open this summer; a financial manager including grant oversight and a domestic violence probation officer in Community Corrections; an EMS clinical coordinator, technology manager, and payroll specialist in Fire and Rescue; and a School Resource Officer at Lightridge High School; 16 new positions as part of the second-phase of a three-year project to staff up for the planned new courthouse complex; another fingerprint examiner; and a property evidence technician in the Sheriff’s Office. Unless supervisors revisit those departments later in their budget deliberations, those positions will remain in the budget.

Supervisors continue their budget deliberations Wednesday, March 5, with plans to adopt a budget in early April.

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