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Prince William County is getting a better idea of how much it will cost to meet its goals to tackle climate change.

Activists have been pushing the Board of County Supervisors to establish a sustainability plan and office of sustainability to meet the county’s climate goals.

In November, the board adopted the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ interim climate mitigation goals, joining other Northern Virginia jurisdictions in aiming for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 100% renewable electricity by the same year. 

In a report to the board Tuesday, county staff said it would probably cost about $200,000 to start an office, and a sustainability plan should cost no more than $450,000.

Some activists have proposed using revenue from a tax on plastic bags to fund the office, and the board held an early discussion about implementing such a tax during Tuesday’s meeting. 

The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation in 2020 allowing localities to impose a 5-cent tax on disposable plastic bags at grocery, convenience and drug stores, with some exceptions.

The state code requires retailers to collect the tax proceeds in a similar manner to sales and meals taxes. Through Dec. 31, 2022, retailers can keep 2 cents from the tax collected on each bag, with the retailers’ share dropping to 1 cent starting Jan. 1, 2023.

Finance Director Michelle Attreed said revenue from the tax is “not great” and would probably start around $50,000 to $55,000 a year before increasing to about $90,000. However, she said reducing use and waste is the tax’s goal – not revenue collection.

The board did not vote on the tax during Tuesday’s meeting. The discussion will continue at a future meeting.

School Board budget

In other business, the School Board formally presented its budget proposal to the supervisors.

Superintendent Steven Walts has proposed a $1.33 billion budget for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1. The spending plan includes an average 2.8% step increase and a 2% cost-of-living adjustment for staff. 

County funding makes up about 45% of the school division’s revenue while state money accounts for about 41%.

County Executive Chris Martino’s proposed $1.35 billion budget for the county includes $664 million for the school division, a $34.4 million increase over the current year. That proposal is largely in line with Walts’ request.

A majority of supervisors’ questions focused on how the school division has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and its plans to make changes before the next school year. 

School Board Chair Babur Lateef said the board’s priority is to get students safely back in school full-time in the fall semester. However, he said the pandemic hasn’t led to massive savings because the majority of staff are still working and teaching virtually and in-person. 

“We recognize the challenges you all are facing, but we hope you recognize the challenges we are facing,” he said. “If you give our school division more money, you will get a better return on investment on that money than you will anywhere else, I truly believe that.”

The proposed county budget includes a potential 7% increase in real estate tax bills for county homeowners; although the tax rate isn’t proposed to rise, higher assessments will drive up bills.   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 potential drop for commercial.

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 new tax on cigarettes of 30 cents per pack, estimated to generate $3 million in revenue.

The budget also comes with a $1.02 billion six-year Capital Improvement Program. The capital program includes $224.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

In a presentation on parks projects included in the capital program, county staff said it shifted funding to start design on the Neabsco Greenway in the upcoming fiscal year. 

The design is expected to cost about $500,000. To offset the change, county staff plans to push off $500,000 in parkland acquisition to fiscal 2024.

Nolan Stout covers Prince William County. Reach him at nstout@insidenova.com or @TheNolanStout on Facebook and Twitter.

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