BOTETOURT – If the Board of Supervisors did not know that citizens love their schools, their libraries, and the parks and recreation programs, they know it now.
More than 500 people of all ages turned out at the public input meeting Tuesday night, and the vast majority wanted to save Botetourt County.
Students pleaded for the chance to continue their education at the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School. Moms wanted to be sure that special education programs did not suffer so their children could continue learning. Fathers urged the supervisors to fund athletics.
For two hours, the supervisors, along with members of the School Board, listened as citizens filed to the podium. One by one, they told the supervisors that Botetourt County services are dear to them. In all, 37 people spoke. They asked the board to find funding for the Sheriff’s Office so that there is police protection. They wanted a rescue squad to come when someone is sick.
They said they wanted to visit the library, walk the trails at Greenfield, and watch the kids play soccer in the recreation league.It was a meeting unlike any other that the supervisors have held in recent memory.
This time, instead of hashing out the problems with the budget and telling the citizens what they were going to do, they went to the community to see what the public might suggest.
The problem is a $3.6 million anticipated shortfall, caused, the supervisors said, by unfunded state mandates.Supervisor Chairman Steve Clinton, who represents the Amsterdam District, started the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the budget and what he called “cost shifting,” the method the state is using to move budgetary burdens from the state coffers to that of localities.
This diminished state support has forced the county to come up with more money to keep the schools at level funding over the last four years.The current problem stems from a move the Virginia legislature made during its recent session. Late passage of legislation in the General Assembly could force municipalities and school divisions to make employees start paying their 5-percent share of Virginia Retirement System (VRS) contributions while giving the employees a 5-percent pay raise to offset the drop in their take-home pay. It’s a mandate localities were not expecting.
To make the numbers balance, the Board of Supervisors and the School Board have suggested draconian cuts to services. Proposed cuts on the county side of the budget include closing libraries for all but three days a week, stopping the senior van service, and cutting the parks and recreation budget.
All of the county’s departments would take a hit to absorb the impact of the fiscal shortfall.The school system would eliminate eight positions, halt capital improvements (including fixing a leaking roof at Lord Botetourt), and not replace school buses, Superintendent Tony Brads said. Additionally, the school would dip into its capital reserve fund.”
Anytime you use your savings to pay the electric bill, you’re headed to a place called broke,” Brads said.Clinton told the audience the supervisors could take money from the county’s fund balance, raise taxes, or make cuts in order to make the budget balance. Then he handed over the microphone so the long list of speakers could offer advice.
First to the podium was Jonathan Ballard of Troutville. The Colonial Elementary School student told the supervisors it was not fair to take away the sports programs. The youth received hefty applause for his efforts.”It would be an embarrassment for us to lose the middle school and high school athletics,” Chuck Baker of Blue Ridge said. “There’s so much that these kids get out of the team sports.”
Michael McBane, a junior at LBHS, said high school sports has changed his life. He noted that Franklin Roosevelt stepped up during the Great Depression because “he wanted to save humanity. Save the humanity of this county,” he said.
Paul Hanson of Blue Ridge said the loss of athletic programs would impact property values and be detrimental to county efforts to attract businesses. “If you think it’s hard to put someone in Greenfield today, wait until they learn we have an inferior school program,” he said. “If we want to be competitive, we’d better not cut programs. We need to be looking to increase programs.” He said that he would relocate if the school system makes cuts. “I would rather pay more taxes than a real estate agent,” he added.
Ronald Toliver said high school sports was the only reason he and his brothers went to school. And thanks to those sports, they went on to college, two of them with scholarships.
Janet Moran worried about school closures. “We need to fight to keep good teachers and keep schools open so our kids can succeed,” she said. She has children at Greenfield and she said she feared that increased class sizes would affect their education.
Josh Humphries, a senior at Lord Botetourt, suggested that a four-day school week could help save on expenses. He offered up a list of localities throughout the nation that have made this move and found it beneficial. “If we want quality, we have to buckle down and make hard decisions,” he said.
Malanie Jones of Fincastle, who needed assistance to reach the podium, asked the supervisors to continue the senior citizen’s van program. She pointed out that there is no grocery store in the county seat and her doctor has moved Daleville, Social Services is headed there, too, and she needs the van service. So does Norma Johnson, who said her husband uses the service three days a week in order to receive dialysis. Johnson, a cancer survivor, is not able to drive and her children work when he needs care.
“The senior citizens are what made the county what it is. Respect that, please,” said Jill Albers of Fincastle. She said she did not want anything cut from the list of services.Paige Ware, who has worked in the library system for more than 30 years, noted that over 700 children read books through the summer reading program and that the bookmobile serves the senior population by taking books to nursing homes and to areas where seniors have access. Both programs are on the chopping block.”
If you cut things like that, kids will get into trouble,” Sabrina Toliver of Lithia said in her support of libraries.”Keep the services we have,” said Sally Eads of Fincastle. “I would hate to see what we have accomplished in Botetourt County diminished in any way at all.”
“Raising taxes is the single shared burden,” Heather Simmons of Roanoke said. “It is time to raise the taxes in answer to the problems.”
While the majority of folks seemed to agree with that, a few did not. Chuck Rider in Buchanan said the county should fund only essential services and cut the rest. Mark Tyson accused the new supervisors of running the county into the ground in the 90 days they have been in office. Don Assaid, former Valley District supervisor, and Jim Crosby both blamed the budget snafu on raises the supervisors gave to staff last year.
The county budget committee and school board have meetings this week to hash out the details of the budget. The county plans to advertise its proposed tax rate and budget on April 11 and will hold a public hearing on April 18. The budget will be in place by April 30.