Gather with me, readers, as we gaze into a budgetary crystal ball. We’ll focus on Roanoke schools in the fall of 2012. The picture is clouded by questions.
The big ones are, “How many schools shall we close? And which ones? Or shall we increase the real estate tax rate by a dime, or more?”
These are not at all unrealistic questions, in light of the hullaballoo earlier this month over Roanoke’s meals tax increase and Eat for Education, a related though separate program supported by some Roanoke restaurants.
Critics had predicted that the temporary tax would spell doom for restaurants in Roanoke. That turned out to be hogwash: It’s been a big success.
By the end of this month, the surtax will have added more than $4 million to the schools budget in the past 12 months. Restaurant business in the city increased slightly over the same time period, despite the shuttering of the Roanoke City Market Building shortly after the tax went in to effect.
The tax will likely add more than $4 million in the coming budget year, too. But in July 2012, the surtax is slated to end, because the Roanoke City Council unwisely made it a temporary, two-year deal when it was enacted in April 2010.
Any discussion of extending it has already been colored by politics, because next spring is a city council campaign season. Mayor David Bowers, who is running for re-election, already has vowed he’ll vote against an extension.
“A deal is a deal,” he proclaimed to WDBJ (Channel 7).
If the council sticks to its promise and allows the tax to expire, there will be a $4.4 million hole in the 2012-13 school budget, just for starters.
The real gap will probably be much larger, because it’s likely that state support for Roanoke schools will continue to erode. The General Assembly, obligated by the Virginia Constitution to provide free, quality public schools, is providing $13.5 million less in the current budget year than the assembly did in 2008-09.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly is likely to demand higher payments from local schools into the seriously underfunded Virginia Retirement System.
For those reasons, Roanoke’s total budget gap for the two years likely will be at least $6.5 million, maybe more.
Now, you could say the schools should merely cut the fat to close that gap. That’s easy to say, but it ignores reality. In recent years, the school administration and school board have:
- closed five schools;
- cut the full-time staff by 166 positions;
- sold school buses and jobs of drivers to a Pennsylvania company;
- handed the nursing operation over to Carilion Clinic;
- ended a costly early retirement program and subsidies for retirees’ health care;
- restructured school maintenance;
- changed employees’ health insurance plan;
- increased the average class sizes in elementary, middle and high schools.
Those measures have trimmed millions in annual expenses. The budget is pretty much down to the bone.
With the city council’s peremptory warnings that the meals tax increase will not be extended, there will be only a couple of ways to close the 2012-13 budget gap.
One is by closing more schools, and cramming the students into the ones that stay open, and laying off more staff.
So which schools should be closed, and which ones should stay open? And what average class size are Roanoke taxpayers willing to tolerate?
Another way to deal with the gap is by raising the real estate tax. In Roanoke, a one-cent increase in the tax rate yields about $650,000 in annual revenue. So the city could raise real estate rate by 10 cents to close a $6.5 million gap.
That would ding every homeowner, renter and business in Roanoke, and it is not at all voluntary.
Much of the meals tax, on the other hand, is paid by people who live outside the city and dine in its restaurants. And that tax is voluntary.
When you think about it, an extension of the meals tax increase is looking better and better.
I hope this has broadened your views about the future. We still have months to deal with these questions, but they are important.
So call your city council members today and tell them which taxes you’d like to see raised, or extended, or which schools you’d liked to see closed.
That will help inform them in the coming months.