Budget hawks prepare for battle

Budget hawks prepare for battle
Previous coverage:

Supes struggle over tax rate
County approves 68 cents, city opts for 95 cents

Pressured leaders lower tax rate
County schools look to lose some funding

County attacked for tax rate
Supervisor Slutzky irked by “intellectual dishonesty”

Last April, as the county Board of Supervisors were trying to set the real estate tax rate as part of the year-end budget, they were faced with a dilemma. A rate of 74 cents per $100 of assessed value was recommended by county staff, but a widespread call for a lowered rate was gaining momentum. As the budget process wound down, supervisor meetings were increasingly filled with landowners who voiced their displeasure at a real estate tax rate that had effectively skyrocketed in recent years. Instead of 74 cents, many of these county residents were demanding a significantly lower rate of 58 cents. Landowner after landowner marched to the lectern as those in the audience raised orange signs reading "58¢." It was a powerful display of citizen revolt that the Board seemed to take into account that night as they lowered the tax rate to 68 cents.

Last year, Keith Drake and the county GOP’s Truth in Taxation Alliance pressured the Board of Supervisors to lower real estate tax rates. Last week, they started working on this year’s version of the campaign.

At least part of the success in getting the tax rate reduced could be attributed to the Albemarle Truth in Taxation Alliance, which had printed the orange flyers. Comprising members of the Albemarle County Republican Party, they were led by a former candidate for the Board, Christian Schoenewald, who on the night of April 11 had triumphantly invoked the Boston Tea Party and raised a tea bag in defiance of the supervisors.

Six months later, he stood in Lane Auditorium again, but this time was facing the audience for a town hall meeting hosted by Truth in Taxation. And on November 12, instead of holding a tea bag, he was flapping a piece of paper called Budget Form 4, a form that the county itself dispersed to every department head in August, asking them to look at ways to cut costs by 10 percent for the upcoming fiscal year.

"You all need to come to the Supervisor meetings between now and April and you need to bring your friends, your family, members of your churches and the members of your businesses," Schoenewald commanded the gray-haired audience sprinkled around the auditorium. "And every chance you get, you need to come to that lectern there and demand that the Board of Supervisors implement Form 4."

Two days later, on November 14, the Board convened for a work session to kick off discussion of not only the annual budget, but a five-year plan to balance the county’s revenues over their expenditures. Laying out the broad plan, staff started with a 68 cent rate and recommended raising it to 69 cents in fiscal year 2011, sparking one supervisor to object.

"Last year, the reason we dropped the tax rate ultimately was because we had such an extraordinary aberrational increase in assessments that gave rise to a jump in revenues, in response to which we cut," David Slutzky said, reasoning that as the housing market has bottomed out, so will assessments and the correlating revenue. "Now that we’re not even close to that scenario, I’m suggesting that a revisit to the tax rate in the spring will be inevitable."

Somewhere, Schoenewald must be salivating.

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