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2018 Tax Rate Adopted

The Board of Supervisors voted to adopt tax rates for 2018 as a part of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget process.   The tax rate that garnered the most attention was the real estate tax rate.   Unanimously the Board voted to set the tax rate at $0.99.

Speaking to their support of teachers, fire and rescue, law enforcement and county employees Supervisors stated they were willing to set the rate at $.99 that will effectively be an increase on the average tax bill in the county, to ensure their priorities were funded.   Supervisor Maurer made it clear that  the rate at $0.99 will not fully fund the School Board’s funding request.  In order to fully fund the school’s request, according to Maurer, it would require a rate of $1.05.   Several Supervisors stated that they will encourage and watch the School Board to ensure the money they allocate to schools provides the 2.5% across the board salary increases.

 

County Budget

We have been planning to do a deep dive into the FY19 Stafford County Budget.  Unfortunately we didn’t realize the level of effort that would take.

First the only document on-line, at the time of this writing, is the FY2019 Proposed Budget that was prepared by the County Administrator.   The Board of Supervisors does not typically develop other documents during their discussions while working on the budget.  Furthermore the Board does very little discussing of the budget during meetings that are recorded on video.  Often discussion occurs during committee meetings of the Finance and Budget Committee, whose meetings are not recorded.   The full Board will discuss the budget in a future Board meeting and will eventually adopt the final budget.

The proposed budget was developed with a tax rate of $0.965 which is the equalized rate intended to not change the average tax bill for Stafford County home owners. We have previously detailed the level of education funding in the proposed budget.   The Supervisors, in various meetings, have nearly unanimously indicated their desire to ensure school employees receive a 2.5% salary increase, as proposed by the School Board’s budget.   To that end the Supervisors have advertised the tax rate at $0.99.  It is expected they will adopt that rate when they adopt the final budget.  That rate will provide additional revenue that is expected to be dedicated to education enabling the School Board to provide raises to school division employees.

Reviewing the FY2019 Proposed Budget – budget book is more challenging than expected.   The online version of the budget is nearly 450 pages long.  It’s always concerning when public bodies expand their budget presentations and documents.   Public body budgets should be simple to read, concise and not filled with useless filler intended to distract the reader.  We will withhold judgement as to whether that is the intent of the the county’s budget book, however there is much more material than necessary within it.

The budget book is structured by chapter with a second chapter that is over 40 pages long that contains documents and parts of documents such as the Comprehensive Plan,  BOS Financial Guidelines and other guiding documents.   As we chronicled in a previous post the county lacks a single Strategic Plan and relies on several plans and documents guide priorities and direction.  The County Administrator included these plans in the budget, presumably to provide some sort of measure of success of the budget meeting the goals of the documents.

As we dive into the financial information of the budget itself it starts with information about the revenue side of the ledger.  However, we are going to focus our time on the expenditure side.    Starting on Page 114 of the document the County Administration expenditures and FY19 budgeted items are laid out.  Well at least some of the information.   The budget summary is limited to two lines, Personnel and Operating.   While there are two data points of previous years actual expenditures FY 18 is only represented with what was budgeted in last year’s budget and budgeted amount for FY 17 is not included.   It makes it difficult to see any trends in budgeted versus actual costs and analyze how the county administration and Board is doing hitting the marks on budgeting accuracy.

Furthermore, the Board of Supervisors has been critical of the School Board for having spent money and budgeted for professional development for school staff.  However, it is interesting that in the call out it states there is increases to funding for “seminars and conferences based on historical data.”   The only unfunded items listed are a total of $2,000 for webinars and leadership courses.

The budget continues to go through each county government department.   It’s interesting that there are a number of additional positions added throughout the county government and a number of funding increases.

Members of the Board of Supervisors have stated their commitment and priority to education and ensuring teachers get 2.5% raises in this years budget.  In order to accomplish that the BOS has been very critical of every line of spending proposed by the School Board.  It will be interesting to watch to see if they will be as critical of their own budget as they are of the schools’.   It is obvious there are plenty of opportunities to scrub the county budget to find savings and help the BOS meet their goals.

A particular interesting section of the county budget is the section on Economic Development.  Supervisors, and Rockhill Supervisor Wendy Maurer in particular, were critical of the accuracy of data the School Board provided in student population,  budget numbers and staffing requirements.   They are right to press the School Board on accuracy of data, but the Board of Supervisors should want to ensure data in the county’s budget is accurate as well.  In the Economic Development Department section there is a call out box with department accomplishments.   There are items the department is chalking up as accomplishments, but there should be scrutiny on the claims.  At least one of the companies listed in the section taking credit for adding jobs and leasing corporate space is nothing more than a corporate name change.

DXC is listed in the call box.  The company is a new corporate name for HP Government services.  They are a large contractor supporting Marine Corps IT services.  They lease space in a building on Woodstream Drive.   The company name changed in 2017 and the amount of space leased did not change and the number of jobs did not change.  The good news for Stafford County Economic Development is the company is set to change it’s name again this year . . .perhaps they can take credit for jobs and leased space for the same company again next year.

Another peculiar thing they list as an accomplishment is Aquia Town Center . . .things that make you go hmmm?

How do you define insanity?

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”  -W. Edwards Deming

For years the School Board and Board of Supervisors have developed the county’s Capital Improvement Plan by first the School Board setting their priorities and adopting their version of the plan.   The School Board would then send their plan over to the Board of Supervisors who would take a look at the proposed School Board projects, combine them with county projects, re-prioritize the whole list, then adopt the county’s Capital Improvement Plan.   Projects the School Board prioritize and included in their plan may or may not have remained on the final plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors.   The school division would have to live with whatever the county adopted as the final plan.

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is how the county plans and finances large expense projects.   Capital Improvement Plans are typically reserved for new buildings, renovation of existing buildings and park and transportation projects. The plan details estimated costs and the availability of debt from year to year.

Due to the way the county has developed the CIP for years projects get promoted and demoted on the list somewhat randomly.  The current way of doing it  gives members of the Board of Supervisors more powerful to advocate or eliminate projects than School Board members.   It also enables stronger voiced members to advocate louder for projects in their districts over broader county needs.   Over the years this had lead to situations like Ferry Farm Elementary School continuously being pushed down a list of priority and not being considered for renovation or rebuild in a timely manner.

In 2017 the two board embarked on a fix to the CIP process to adopt an actual process in which the needs of the county as a whole were examined above political or personal motivations of individual board members.   The new process involved a review by committees of staff from both the school division and county administration to analyze needs, projects and prioritization.   The staff committee recommendations were then sent to a joint committee of equal number of Supervisors and School Board Members to review the recommendations.

 

In August of 2017 both boards adopted the CIP process unanimously.    In November of 2017 the two boards held the joint CIP committee meetings and discussed the projects.   There was concern expressed by various members of both boards about various projects.  Three projects of particular note were the new courthouse and whether it would be planned for the full $70 million replacement cost, or if it would be built in phases.   A second project that created discussion was the rebuild of renovation of Ferry Farm Elementary School.  And the final project of significant discussion was whether the School Board should move forward on purchasing the now vacant building owned by the Fredericksburg Christian School in north Stafford.   The FCS school building is proposed to be purchased to help add capacity to the school division and potentially house parts of the division’s preschool classrooms.

After three meetings the members of the joint committee came to a decision, with some information still pending to be collected and decided up on about the courthouse rebuild, to take the recommendation back to their respective boards and continue moving forward in the process.

Somewhere along the way wires got crossed and the process fell apart.  Both boards have now reverted back to the old way of developing the CIP and it appears to be ready to create strife between the boards once again.   The School Board considered and adopted their version of the CIP at their April 11 meeting.   They have adopted the following school division projects in the following order of priority: 1. Purchase and Renovate Fredericksburg Christian School building, 2. Renovate Ferry Farm Elementary School 3. Build High School #6 4. Rebuild Hartwood Elementary School 5. Build Elementary School #18

The sole vote against the CIP was cast by Aquia District School Board member Irene Egan, who has long advocated and supported the development of the new CIP process, citing her reason for voting “no” was due the CIP not being developed within the guidelines of the newly adopted CIP process.

The CIP is now in the court of the Board of Supervisor.  They will need to decide how to work the School Board’s priorities into those of the county and may or may not accept the priorities as the School Board has sent them over to the BOS.

Strategy and Priorities

A well-managed modern organization should have a well developed Strategic Plan with clearly defined priorities and strategies to inform leadership and the organization’s stake-holders of where it is going and how it going to get there.

In this year’s budget battle there has been a lot of questions about priorities.  In particular members of the Board of Supervisors questioning what the priorities of the School Board are and how they are reflected within the school divisions funding request.   Supervisor Shelton in particular asked the School Board about priorities during the March  20th joint hearing.

However, as members of the School Board pointed out to the Supervisors, the board annually adopts budget goals and priorities and they are printed within the budget book provided to Supervisors.   Furthermore, a quick search of the school division’s website the SCPS 2017-2022 Strategic Plan can be found.   The Strategic Plan clearly lays out the strategy and priorities of the division and School Board.

A particular issue of concern for recently appointed Supervisor from the George Washington District, Tom Coen is the expense of a professional development opportunity for county teachers – the Teaching and Learning Summit.  In questions Coen forwarded to the Superintendent after the joint hearing he indicated scrapping the Teaching and Learning Summit could reduce school division costs by $400,000.  Coen has been critical of the division provided professional development opportunity in other pubic settings as well.

However, the School Board has clearly made the professional development opportunity a priority that it desires to provide to school division employees.  In the FY17 budget the School Board included the following in the budget priorities for that year “Provide additional funding for professional development”, in FY 18 the following priorities were presented by the School Board in their adopted budgets “Fund professional development program for all SCPS staff to enhance skills”, “Fund phased computer initiative for teachers and staff to assist in classroom skills.”

Furthermore within the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board also identifies professional development as a priority.  In Board Priority 1.1 of the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board makes this statement “Provide professional learning opportunities to expand capacity of staff to support students developing critical thinking, creativity, citizenship, communication and collaboration skills, and wellness across content areas,” and in Board Priority 2.3 “Expand professional growth opportunities for all employees.”

The School Board’s budget priorities and Strategic Plan further detail their priority on staff compensation and student achievement.   The Strategic Plan identifies what the division values and where the School Board would like to drive the division.

So where is the county and the Board of Supervisor with their priorities and Strategic Planning?   If you Google “Stafford County Strategic Plan” you get results that lead you to a couple of documents and plans that inform you about the direction of the county.   However, there is no one Strategic Plan for the county.

A web page titled “Board Priorities for the Community” is undated, but appears to have been written in 2013.  The page references the 350 anniversary of Stafford County, the renovation of Grafton Elementary School and an economic development plan to attract data centers to the county.

The strategic direction of the county is contained in multiple documents, including the Comprehensive Plan, the BOS Financial Policies, and the Economic Development Strategic Plan.  All of the documents and plans that feed the strategy are detailed in this table.

The county severely lacks a well defined strategic plan and vision for the future.   Furthermore there are no discernible measures for success to enable residents of the county to determine if the county’s leadership strategy is meeting the goals of the county or not.

 

Budget Public Hearing – Spring Break Style

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on Tuesday April 3rd to hear from the public on the FY19 Budget and the advertised tax rate of $.99.   Unfortunately the Supervisors scheduled the public hearing during Stafford County Public Schools Spring Break.   Many families take advantage of the week off of school to get away and vacation with their family.   Holding a public hearing on such and important topic during a period of time that many county residents are unable to attend is a trigger of concern of transparency.

Board members addressed the concerns that were raised by speakers about the public hearing being held during SCPS’ break.   Supervisor Wendy Maurer stated the scheduling of the meeting was not by designed and continued to state “we have a very strict calendar in order to get our bills out.”   During their March 6 meeting the Supervisors discussed the timeline for setting the tax rate and the concerns of both the Commissioner of Revenue and County Treasurer for completing their work related to tax bills and collection of taxes.

However, the Board ultimately has flexibility on when they can hold meetings, hearings and adopt the tax rate.   Furthermore the county’s budget schedule is often predicated on the Board of Supervisors receiving the School Board’s funding request.   This year the School Board was preparing for presenting their funding request on March 6, but it was delayed by the Board of Supervisors until March 20th.

In September of 2017 the School Board adopted a budget calendar that set March 6th as the target for the School Board to present their funding request to the Board of Supervisors.   The Board of Supervisors adopts a similar budget calendar, however this year the goals of having the School Board’s funding request presented by early March was not met.  Had the board worked together to ensure the funding request was to the Supervisors by the March 6th date the public hearing would have had greater opportunity to have been held on a date other than during Spring Break.

In a previous post we detailed the ideal schedule for the county’s and School Board’s budgets.   Over the years, there has been a lack of communication between the two boards in the time leading up to the budget to ensure both boards are on the same schedule and all conflicting dates are clearly identified.

To see a larger image click here.

Both boards should take note now that Spring Break next year is April 15-19.  It will be helpful to the community if no meetings of significant importance are scheduled during that week.

To see a larger version of the calendar click here.

At the public hearing the Supervisors did hear from several folks expressing their concerns about school funding and other needs.  From Fredericksburg.com

Stafford County residents urge more funding for schools