‘County Conversations’ begin (with legislative response)
“You think schools have an effect on property taxes? Roads would have a huge effect,” County Administrator Craig Meadows said as he and other officials explained the growing financial pressure on the county.
Set up as a sort of primer on local issues and what the county can – and can’t – do about them, as well as a chance for residents to ask questions and offer opinions, the County Conversations are to continue through October in Blacksburg and Christiansburg.
About 20 people joined a platoon of county officials and staff Monday at the Meadowbrook library in Shawsville for the first in the series.
Officials took turns explaining the role of the board of supervisors and school board in setting various budgets, how constitutional officers like sheriffs or treasurers are largely independent of other government agencies, and how the Dillon Rule, a central tenet of Virginia governmental law, limits localities’ powers to those specifically granted by the General Assembly.
The Dillon Rule was cited repeatedly as officials explained that the county has few options for raising revenue other than its property tax.
That tax was increased a record one-time amount of 12 cents this year, bringing Montgomery County’s rate to 87 cents per $100 value. The real estate tax brings in a bit more than a third of the county’s $163.3 million budget, Assistant County Administrator Carol Edmonds said.
State and federal support still provide about 45 percent of the county’s overall budget, but “What we’ve been facing for five years is the ongoing reduction of state support,” Edmonds said.
County Administrator Craig Meadows agreed, saying that local and state government had always been partners in providing many services. But “In recent years it’s like the state doesn’t want to continue that partnership,” he said.
Meadows and other officials worried that though sales taxes and other measures indicate a slowly strengthening economy, there is not enough new business to fix the county’s budget problems.
The next blow to the county’s finances could be a much-discussed shift in responsibility for maintaining roads in the county, Meadows said. The state highway department now maintains roads but some legislators want to end that duty.
“That’s going to be a huge challenge for us if they decide to do that,” Meadows said. “We don’t have a public works department.”
Supervisor Chris Tuck said that from his talks with General Assembly members, he’s sure that maintenance for many roads will eventually be left to counties. It costs $1 million to pave a mile of road, he noted.
Montgomery County has something like 115 miles of paved roads, added supervisors Chairman Jim Politis.
Officials said that if road maintenance duties fall to the county, the state likely would provide some support, then taper it off over time.
Montgomery officials have been urging residents this year to contact legislators and ask them to do something to lessen the county’s burden by granting new taxing authority or increasing state support or some combination of measures.
“It would really help us out,” Supervisor Mary Biggs said. She noted that she and other local officials, and organizations like the Virginia Association of Counties, routinely try to discuss budget pressures with legislators.
“They listen, but nothing seems to happen,” Biggs said.
School Board member Phyllis Albritton spoke up from the audience to say that Virginia was the sixth-wealthiest state in the nation and should be able to do more for schools, roads and services.
“We have the money in Virginia if we could just help legislators recognize our need,” Albritton said.
Shawsville businessman Marty Childress told officials he appreciated their candor.
“It’s not an easy pill to swallow to say we have to pay more taxes, but it’s good to have a better understanding of what we’re facing,” he said.
The three state senators and three members of the House of Delegates whose districts include part of Montgomery County were asked last week for comment on local officials’ budget concerns. Three legislators replied:
- Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg –
“At a time when localities are continually facing increased budget pressures, I am not supportive of the devolution of road maintenance to local governments. While there may be an agreement, if devolution were to move forward, that the state would provide its share of maintenance monies, there is no guarantee of such in future budget cycles. In the end, I think what you would end up with is 134 different transportation systems through Virginia with some having the ability to maintain their roadways better than others. You could drive from Giles County where Route 460 is paved with asphalt and hit the Montgomery County line where Route 460 is paved with tar and gravel.
“Additionally, I will be the chief patron of the bill to allow sales of liquor by the drink at the I-81 128 & 109 interchanges. With this exemption in place, it is my hope that restaurants, hotels, and gas stations will be more likely to build thereby diversifying the tax base and increasing revenues.
“I have been and will remain committed to work with our local government leaders as we move forward.”
- Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg -
“Having been on the Montgomery County Board for Supervisors for 12 years, I know how difficult these issues can be and how important the relationship is between the local and state government. That is why I voted against several measures and did not support the devolution of road maintenance to the county, which would have increased costs to the local government. I would encourage all of my constituents to weigh in on these or any other issues that they feel are important as we head into the 2013 legislation session.”
- Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke -
“Road maintenance – I don’t think that was going to happen. … That’s one of the worst ideas there ever was. … Transportation can only be fixed by raising the gas tax, which I’ve said before and which I think people are starting to understand. …
“We need to get a tax structure that pays the bills on an annual basis and not robbing Peter to pay Paul. … When the state doesn’t pay its share, localities have to scrounge.
“I support the localities. I think they have a legitimate gripe and I think the state should step up to the plate.”
More County Conversations
All events start at 7 p.m.
Oct. 4: Kipps Elementary School, Blacksburg
Oct. 15: Christiansburg Middle School
Oct. 29: Blacksburg Public Library
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669
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