24 April 2013
“Unanimity at last,” Shaun Kenney, the chairman of the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisor, said as the FY14 operations budget and tax rates passed 5-0 at Wednesday night’s (April 17) meeting.
The budget battle fizzled away when the advertised tax rate of 79.5 cents made cries for higher school funding a moot point. After that, little suspense existed about the board’s final decision. Although last year’s tax vote certainly set precedent for an eleventh-hour surprise, the board seemed unlikely to dip below the 79-cent rate suggested in the county administrator’s initial budget proposal.
Fluvanna’s real property tax rate is now set at 79.5 cents per $100 valuation, and the personal property tax rate is $4.15 per $100 valuation. The average household in Fluvanna will therefore see about a $40 tax decrease for 2014.
Although the budget and tax rates passed unanimously, the FY14-FY18 capital improvements plan (CIP) passed only 3-2, with Supervisors Donald Weaver and Bob Ullenbruch dissenting.
Weaver took issue with $20 million for a new elementary school, scheduled for borrowing in FY18. While he supported good planning, he considered $20 million “an arbitrary figure” and felt reluctant to “preempt” the school board in determining its own needs. Rather, Weaver wished to revisit the issue once the school system has had time to settle into its new arrangement of housing two separate schools within the Central Elementary building. “We could wait another nine months and have more information,” he stated.
Kenney disagreed. “We have a very bad habit in this community of kicking things down the road,” he replied, noting that the board could change the figure from $20 million when the school board determines a more precise need. Supervisor Joe Chesser explained the figure as a “catalyst for conversation,” and County Administrator Steve Nichols agreed, calling it a “placeholder.” The CIP is not binding for FY15-FY18.
To some, the rationale behind planning to borrow $20 million for a new elementary school makes little sense in light of the controversial closings of Cunningham and Columbia elementary schools. In February, forced to cut nearly $1 million from the budget, the school board voted to close the schools effective this summer, thereby saving between $650,000 and $750,000.
With the addition of nearly 300 students, however, Central will find itself close to capacity. In December at a joint work session between supervisors and school personnel, Assistant Superintendent Chuck Winkler estimated that only three to five years would elapse before trailers again become necessary. Kenney then mentioned the necessity of beginning to plan for a new elementary school.
This scenario doesn’t add up to Elizabeth Franklin of the Fluvanna Taxpayers Association (FTA), who asked, “What is the economic sense of closing two elementary schools to save $750,000 a year if it forces taxpayers to spend $20 million within five years on a new elementary school?”
Of course many factors come into play. Cunningham and Columbia schools are not necessarily centrally located to the current and projected future student populations. Also, the age of the buildings drives up maintenance costs, though probably not to $20 million. Most compelling is the low capacity of the buildings: Data from 2011 places the capacity of both schools combined at 260. A new school would undoubtedly share student population more equally with Central.
Franklin summed it up: “Maybe a new elementary school is a good idea and maybe it isn’t. But at least our county leaders should explain the rationale to taxpayers – the folks who have to fund the new school.”
After the vote, Chesser announced that he will not seek re-election to the board of supervisors. “I went back and forth about it,” he told the Fluvanna Review, “but decided it was best for myself and my family.” Chesser hopes to continue his involvement with the county’s plans for economic development.
In other matters, Supervisor Mozell Booker noted that April 27 is a big day for Fluvanna, referencing:
• Celebrating Children Fair at Carysbrook Elementary from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m;
• Third annual Fork Union Community Day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m;
• Fluvanna’s Got Talent at Carysbrook Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. (cost: $10 per person);
• Fluvanna County High School prom.