Deputy Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Tara Mooney recently had to juggle a lot of cases.
In one day, she said she had to leave a murder trial to sprint to two preliminary hearings before returning to the trial in shortly later, while her colleague covered in her absence. That’s just one example of a stretched-thin office she said is in danger of not not adequately serving victims or defendants.
“They all deserved my very best, not my multitasking trying to do my best,” she said.
Mooney’s anecdote was one of several heard by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors during a public hearing Tuesday evening on its proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1.
County Executive Chris Martino has proposed a $1.35 billion budget, along with a $1.02 billion six-year Capital Improvement Program. The capital program includes $224.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
The budget comes with a potential 7% increase in real estate tax bills for county homeowners because, although the tax rate isn’t proposed to rise, higher assessments will drive up bills.
Tuesday’s hearing drew 49 speakers, with 28 in person and 21 online.
They included 17 attorneys who came out in support of increased staffing for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office after an earlier board work session. Judges, court clerks, public defenders and prosecutors said more positions are needed to keep up with an increase in caseloads.
“We are in desperate need for employees,” said General District Court Judge Robert Coleman.
Martino’s budget includes funding for two additional staffers in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and pledges to add two more each year for the next five years. Prosecutors and some defense attorneys said that is not enough.
“We ask for these resources because the resource we need the most is time,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kathryn Pavluchuk.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth said in just Prince William Circuit Court, attorneys are dealing with about 20,600 cases in 2020, compared to 7,600 in 2000.
“We cannot continue this trend,” she said. “We cannot keep up with the number of cases coming in.”
Ashworth presented four staffing options to avoid severely cutting services. She said that the “bare minimum” would be 12 attorneys, six administrative staff and five case managers. By adding that number of people, the office would still be able to prosecute only felony cases, state-mandated cases and misdemeanor domestic violence and drunken driving cases. Other cases would not be able to receive a dedicated attorney because there’s not enough manpower.
“Getting out of all misdemeanors except domestic violence and DUI is going to be hard on a lot of people,” she said.
James McCoart III, whose father is the namesake of the county’s administrative building, said as a defense attorney he sees the struggle facing the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
“I am in the trenches every day with them,” he said. “Whatever they’re asking for, give it to them.”
Three speakers supported a larger pay increase for police officers, and one called for adequate funding for all county departments.
Twelve people spoke against the potential tax bill increase, with many decrying wasteful spending. Only four people spoke in favor of the budget as presented.
Nine speakers called for creating dedicated positions to address climate change and sustainability.
The real estate rate has been advertised at $1.125 per $100 of assessed value, but rising property values are expected to increase the average residential homeowner’s tax bill by $306, according to county staff.
The budget proposal says residential real estate values increased by an average of 7%, while commercial real estate values dropped an average of 4.5%. The increased assessments would result in an effective tax increase for residential properties, but a drop for commercial.
For example, a home valued at $400,000 in 2020 would be worth $428,000 for tax purposes in 2021, at a 7% increase. If the real estate tax rate remains the same, the homeowner’s taxes would go up from $4,500 to $4,815.
Budget Director David Sinclair has said the real estate tax rate would need to drop to around $1.05 per $100 of assessed value to avoid the effective increase. Reducing the rate, he said, would cut proposed revenues by $51.2 million, of which $29.3 million would come from the allocation to the school division, with the other $21.9 million going to the county’s general fund.
The personal property tax, which primarily applies to vehicles, is advertised to remain at $3.70 per $100 of value.
The spending plan calls for a $1.60 tax per $100 of value on business computers and peripheral equipment, a 25-cent hike over the current rate. That levy primarily applies to data centers. The proposal also includes a 30-cent per pack tax on cigarettes, which would be a new tax estimated to generate $3 million in revenue.
The board will hold another work session on the budget March 16, followed by another public hearing in April. The board is scheduled to adopt the budget in late April.