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In all, 13 speakers supported a tax proposal that would increase taxes and set aside revenue for future schools capital needs. Nine speakers opposed it, and another three urged funding for various noncounty agencies.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
CHRISTIANSBURG — Supporters of a tax increase outnumbered opponents at two Montgomery County budget hearings Tuesday.
The session was far shorter and milder than last year, when school construction prompted the largest increase in the county’s real estate tax in years and residents packed local government meetings to deliver hours of criticism or support. The New River Valley Tea Party emerged as a loud critic of county spending, especially on schools, while members of the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech Occupy groups called for more support for education.
In contrast, Tuesday’s back-to-back hearings, one on tax rates and one on the budget, were over in about two hours. There were few references to the tea party and even fewer to other groups. In all, 13 speakers supported a tax proposal that would increase taxes and set aside revenue for future schools capital needs. Nine speakers opposed it, and another three urged funding for various noncounty agencies.
“I’m not here to bash your tax increase. I’m for it,” Gary Fissell of Christiansburg said. “I’m tired of all these tea partyers griping.”
The scaled-back session reflected the smaller size of this year’s proposed tax increase. Last year’s real estate tax jump moved Montgomery County’s rate up 12 cents to 87 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Administrator Craig Meadows is recommending this year that supervisors bump it up another 2 cents, to 89 cents per $100 value, and also increase the personal property tax from $2.45 to $2.55 per $100 value.
Supervisors plan to continue discussing the budget for another few weeks, and to vote on April 15 on a final spending plan and tax rate for the coming year.
Meadows recommended a $167.9 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, about 3 percent more than this year’s budget. Schools receive the largest part of the county’s money, and Meadows’ proposal included $94.8 million for the schools operating budget. The proposed budget increased the county’s contribution to the schools by $2.2 million from this year, about two-thirds of the increase the school board requested.
On Tuesday, the schools were the target of most critics of the tax increase.
Barbara Skinner of Blacksburg called for increasing class sizes to reduce the number of teachers and suggested the county’s succession of new schools could have been avoided if old schools were kept up better. “Maybe our expenses have skyrocketed because even years after the collapse of the Blacksburg High gym, we still do not properly address the funding of maintenance,” she said.
“Have a backbone and stand up to the school board,” advised Roger Averhart of Blacksburg.
Jack Selcovitz of the New River Valley Tea Party attributed decreased sales at area businesses to the last tax increase, saying residents had less to spend.
But Tom Zuckerwar said sales also might be down because teachers and other county employees hadn’t received pay increases from a budget that remained tight despite the real estate jump.
“Some would have you believe the bad weather … is the fault of Montgomery County schools,” Zuckerwar said, drawing chuckles.
He urged supervisors to carry on with plans for another tax increase, a sentiment also voiced by Laura Gruss of Blacksburg. “Most of us don’t realize how close our kids are to doing without things most of us would consider essential” such as field trips and classroom supplies, she said.
Lindsay West of Blacksburg, a former county supervisor and member of numerous other local government and agency boards, said she supported Meadows’ plan.
Mark Cherbaka of Blacksburg said the school budget was “cut to the bone and beyond” during years of economic doldrums and needed help from supervisors. “We’re not facing a spending problem. What we’re facing is a funding problem,” he said.
School board member Joe Ivers of Blacksburg described “forgotten citizens” he’d met through a volunteer home repair group that helps the needy. “They all agree a better education is the answer,” he said.
Paul Thomas of Christiansburg said he agreed that schools were important, but still questioned the need for a tax increase. The Latin roots of the word education meant “to lead out, to lift up,” he said, then added, “The fact is, more money isn’t always going to serve that end.”
Penny Franklin of Christiansburg said that as a 14-year member of the school board, she knew well why the schools needed money. “Public education is the equalizer,” Franklin said. But that won’t happen “if we’re not able to pay for the equipment, the teachers — and the buildings.”
The technology-equipped “21st-century classrooms” that Montgomery County schools have installed in recent years are expensive, but they let students use their minds on new levels, Franklin said.
“This isn’t 1930,” she said.
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