Saying Prince William County residents are more concerned about overcrowded classrooms than their annual real-estate taxes, Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart proposed a change in local tax policy Tuesday that would focus more on raising needed revenue for schools and county services and less on capping tax hikes.
Stewart, R-At Large, floated the idea during a joint meeting of the county Board of Supervisors and School Board held at the Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center.
Pointing to the recent two-year county survey, as well as a separate survey his campaign conducted for political purposes, Stewart said increasing traffic congestion and school overcrowding are more immediate concerns for many residents than taxes.
“Regardless of your political stripes, people are more concerned about their quality of life at home than they are about keeping tax bills so low, I mean 30 percent lower than in Fairfax and Loudoun counties,” Stewart said. “There’s a price we are paying for that.”
The discussion, held in advance of upcoming annual spring budget talks, focused on tax policy as well as Stone Haven – a proposed residential development on the county’s west end that promises to bring a $24 million proffered site for the county’s 13th high school.
The controversial 1,650-home development, located near Jiffy Lube Live, has been put on hold until after the Dec. 23 special election that will pick a replacement for former Brentsville Supervisor Wally Covington, who resigned in September.
Stone Haven has prompted widespread concern among western county residents that the development will only exacerbate traffic congestion and school overcrowding.
But in response to questions from Stewart about the need for the new high school, Superintendent Steven Walts said the school division needs a 13th high school -- whether Stone Haven is ultimately approved or not.
Walts said nearby high schools – including Battlefield and Patriot -- will be about 1,500 students over capacity by 2019, the planned opening date for the new high school, even without estimated 300 high school students projected from Stonehaven.
“To somehow imply that by not doing Stone Haven our number problems are going to go away is just not factually based,” Walts said. “We need that high school to relieve overcrowding as its primary reason.”
Regarding real-estate tax policy, Stewart explained that supervisors have begun their annual budget discussions in recent years by voting first on a “tax guidance policy” for the coming fiscal year.
That vote, usually in December, effectively caps the largest source of county revenue – real-estate tax receipts – by dictating a ceiling on the average bill.
The problem with the policy, Stewart said, is that if often results in schools getting less revenue than projected under the county’s five-year budget plan.
In the past few years, supervisors have agreed to “out year” tax-bill increases of about 4 percent but rarely stick to that goal in response to political pressure to push taxes as low as possible, Stewart said.
For Prince William County Schools, which last year received 57.23 percent of county tax money under the long-standing revenue-sharing agreement, those decisions have typically meant cuts in proposed school revenue in the millions. As a result, efforts to lower class sizes and raise teacher pay – two long-stated priorities of the school board – have been largely impossible because of constrained revenue growth.
“In my view, this is the problem,” Stewart said. “To focus on a tax-bill growth policy… is not serving the county or the schools at all.”
Still, when Stewart effectively asked school board members for their political support of the change – saying it wouldn’t likely happen unless they publicly requested it – several school board members balked, including left-leaning Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) and right-leaning Vice Chairman Gil Trenum (Brentsville), who led the meeting in School Board Chairman Milt Johns’ absence.
Jessie said the school board would need more specific numbers about how a change in tax policy would affect school revenues.
Trenum said more consistent revenue projections would be appreciated but stopped short of saying he’d support real-estate tax increases to get them.
“I say that because there might be other ways to do that,” Trenum said, noting in an interview after the meeting that supervisors could increase the schools’ portion of the revenue-sharing agreement to ensure actual revenue for schools is more consistent with projections.
“If we’re going to talk about being flexible, we should talk about being flexible with that,” Trenum said.