Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mucking out

More pain ahead

The initial proposed $44.8 million Goochland County budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1, was publicly presented to the supervisors last night. This included drastic increases in county utility rates and another hike in the ad valorem tax levied on land in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

County administrator Rebecca Dickson stated that there may well be changes before the final budget is adopted in April. Public input is encouraged and welcome, she said. The proposed budget with extensive background material will soon be available on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us. Please take a look at this document. It provides good insight about county operations.

Residents from the Parke at Centerville and Kinloch expressed their outrage at both the ad valorem tax and utility rate increase.
These folks have every reason to be furious about the ad valorem tax. They bought homes in good faith and learned only at closing that they had another tax to pay.

Of greater concern are the homeowners in the older subdivisions of Hickory haven and Sammary Forest who were bamboozled into joining the TCSD about ten years ago. These folks were led to believe that the ad valorem tax would be around 15 cents instead of the 50 cents that showed up on the tax bill. These communities pay full ad valorem tax but have only water service.

Residents of the Parke urged the supervisors to spread the ad valorem tax county wide contending that all Goochland taxpayers should share the burden. Aside from the fact that the ad valorem tax can probably only be legally levied on landowners in the TCSD, the county collects real estate tax on only 45 percent of any increase in TCSD land value over the 2004 base year. The remainder is used for debt service. So the whole county is contributing.

To add insult to injury, a significant sewer overbilling came to light, to the tune of about $200,000. The county has made adjustments, but the change had a negative effect on assumptions for the entire system. Haven’t they found all the inconsistencies in utility billing yet?

To mitigate utility rate increases, a consolidation of all county utility systems was proposed. This would establish one set of user rates county wide resulting in bimonthly water bills of $52.96 and sewer bills of $76.88 for an 8,000 gallon minimum use. That is a total bimonthly increase for the TCSD of $29.16 and $8.44 for other users. Several speakers contended that they use far less water than that and resent being billed for something they do not use.

For unknown reasons in the past utility rates did not factor in the cost of routine maintenance and eventual replacement. Going forward, the administration is working hard to make utilities self-sustaining and wean them off of general fund support, of about $400,000 annually. This is yet another way that the entire county chips in to fund the TCSD.

“This will be a bit painful for TCSD users whose rates did not increase all along as did those in Courthouse Village,” Dickson explained.

The real problem with the utility system is that is far too small to be run efficiently. According to information in the budget, there are only 1,187 utility customers county wide, 942 residential and 123 commercial.

A four cent increase in the ad valorem tax to 38 cents was also recommended by staff. Aggregate property values in the TCSD fell from $777 million in 2009 to $661 million in 2012.

More users are needed forthwith. The county must be fiercely proactive in finding ways to increase the utility customer base. A plan to add more than 300 apartments to the TCSD is wending its way to the supervisors. Speeding this along could nearly double the current TCSD customer count of 345.

Residents in Kinloch and the Parke at Centerville were instrumental in the election of supervisors Ken Petersen District 5 and Bob Minnick District 4. They pretty much accused the other board members of not caring about the TCSD mess. Board chair Ned Creasey District 3 assured them that the entire board is very concerned about the situation.

The whole board does seem concerned about the TCSD, but it cannot dig out of this mess overnight, especially in this fragile economy.

In March, all supervisors and school board members will hold joint town meetings in their Districts. Please try to attend or let your supervisor know your thoughts on the budget. They really do want to hear from you.

Based on a 53 cent per hundred dollar of valuation real estate tax, the proposed budget includes new approaches to funding some segments of county services.

For instance, a cost recovery program for EMS is expected to generate approximately $271,000 for the last half of the fiscal year assuming a January 2013 implementation.

Insurance of patients transported to area hospitals by Goochland rescue squads will be billed for the service. Details of the plan will be forthcoming in community meetings and public hearings. A “soft billing” collection method will be part of this policy in which charges for the uninsured or unable to pay will not be aggressively pursued. No one will be denied EMS transport.

Personal property taxes will be collected twice a year, which is expected to result in a one time “bump” of $2.6 million. This windfall will be used to build a new fire-rescue station, probably at Hadensville.

A major emphasis will be put on economic development next year. Hopefully, this will attract new business to the TCSD to deal with the burgeoning debt burden and utility costs.

The supervisors seem mindful that they must keep tax rates competitive to attract new business. This will be a delicate juggling act.

Dickson said that shrinking real estate values are expected to decline an additional three percent next year. We’re not out of the woods yet. Keeping tax and utility rates competitive and adequately funding county services will be a delicate juggling act.

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