Wythe County supervisors have some big decisions ahead of them during this budget season. Among their tasks: decide how much of a raise to give employees, how to cut more than a million dollars from expenditures to balance the budget and not raise taxes, and how much to allot the school system, which has asked for $600,000 more than it received last year.
Estimated revenues are estimated at about $82.4 million for the next fiscal year. Total requested expenditures is about $83.5 million, for a difference of $1.1 million.
“I wish I could paint a rosier picture,” County Administrator Stephen Bear told supervisors when they met to discuss the budget Tuesday.
The county is losing employees to the private sector and is having trouble filling some positions, so supervisors know they want to initiate a pay raise, especially for those employees making in the high teens and low $20,000 range. Employees in that range will get a bigger bump than other employees.
Supervisors are looking at several options, including raises for employees and splitting raises, giving less to those who earn the most.
Another variable in the salary discussion is increased pay for deputies. The sheriff’s office is asking that supervisors supplement salaries, which are paid for by the Virginia Compensation Board.
In a budget presented to supervisors, the sheriff’s office said that Wythe County ranks near the bottom of commonwealth counties regarding the amount it supplements the sheriff’s office.
“We have found that hiring and retaining employees has proven to be very difficult for the salary that is provided as a base salary from the Compensation Board,” the document said, adding that the office is having trouble filling a school resource officer because the starting pay is lower than what other agencies offer.
Sheriff Keith Dunagan is asking the board to approve approximately $112,500 to supplement the salaries of his deputies and initiate a step salary increase, guaranteeing a raise for deputies each year, similar to what teachers receive. Having a pay scale will help the department hire and retain deputies, he said.
Deputies argue that a first-year deputy makes thousands less than a first-year teacher. In Wythe County, a first-year deputy makes about $31,000, compared to nearly $39,000 for a first-year teacher.
Supervisor Brian Vaught, who is also a deputy, said in a letter to the board that he will not accept any pay raise provided by the taxpayers of Wythe County and asked that his raise amount be removed from the budget. He said that he has been in law enforcement 22 years and has a bachelor’s degree and is just now making what a first-year teacher makes. He said it will take Deputy Jacob Goins, who was injured in a shootout with an armed robber in November, 20 years to make what a teacher just starting out makes now.
Dunagan said he is having trouble retaining officers. Last year, the department paid $28,000 to train a deputy, who worked one full day after his training before leaving for a better-paying job with another law enforcement agency.
According to the sheriff’s proposed budget, the Wytheville Police Department has a salary scale that increases every year for the first six years.
“This is very alluring because an officer can start at their agency at $32,073 and within six years be making $48,612,” the budget document said. “The Sheriff’s Office has employees at this agency with over 25 years of employment with Wythe County and making far less than $48,000. The Wytheville Police Department is made up of 24 officers, and 11 out of 24 officers are former Wythe County employees. They all left because the pay scale is stagnate.”
Bear mentioned that deputies have the opportunity to earn overtime and suggested that the supplement might come from the Police Activity Fund, which is made up of money deputies bring in from fines and forfeitures. The sheriff’s office keeps 80 percent and the county gets 20 percent. The sheriff’s office is against that idea because it means dipping into its 80 percent. The fund averages about a million dollars a year; the sheriff’s office uses it to pay the salaries of about 10 people, for vehicles, special weapons and equipment, and overtime pay.
Board Chairman Tim Reeves said supervisors should not give sheriff deputies raises without giving other employees raises, too.
“That’s not right,” he said.
Supervisor Joe Hale asked if there was a certain point in their career that deputies go to other departments.
“It’s top to bottom, Joe,” Vaught replied.
Regarding the salary issue, Bear will present new numbers to the board during its meeting Tuesday that include a variety of scenarios using different raise percentages.
School Board Budget
The Wythe County School Board’s budget requests an additional $600,000.
School Superintendent Scott Jefferies explained the overage in a recent presentation to supervisors.
He said the state funds school systems based on Standards of Quality, which only provide funding for four elementary school principals and one nurse for the entire county. The state gives no money to the county for secondary assistant principals. This leaves the county responsible for paying several uncovered positions.
Another factor Jefferies noted was increasing costs for special education. He said the number of students identified to receive special education services is increasing at an alarming rate, and this is a statewide issue. According to Jefferies, there have been 33 new pre-K students identified this year alone. The law requires that pre-K teachers have a maximum of 12 students on their case load, and because of this, the school system needs more pre-K teachers. It also needs more aides and transportation services.
Supervisor Joe Hale questioned some of the reclassification of students for special education, hinting that the move might have also helped overall test scores.
Vaught, whose wife is the principal at Rural Retreat Middle School, took offense.
“If you are saying it was a move to improve test scores, that’s an accusation you are making, and it’s a big one,” Vaught said. “It’s a slap in the face to every teacher in Wythe County. Better look at where you got your information.”
Bear said the school system’s request was a little higher than he would recommend. Reeves said he didn’t think the school system needed that much more money. Reeves and Hale plan to meet with school board officials before the Tuesday’s supervisors meeting to discuss possible budget cuts.
Another budget item discussed during the meeting was money for the Appalachian Regional Exposition Center. The budget proposes borrowing $2 million for improvements (road, water, sewer, etc) to the land around the APEX center so that the county can sell it to businesses.
The county hopes to recoup some of the millions of dollars it has spent on the APEX Center by selling off adjoining land it owns. The county is working with an engineering firm to design an access road that contains five marketable lots on Chapman Road.
The board also is discussing plans to borrow an additional $1 million for APEX area improvements. The payments on that loan will not begin until the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Regarding how to pay for this year’s budget increases, Vaught suggested using reserves from the county’s general fund.
County Administrator Bear said he is not opposed to using reserve funds, but added that it is best not to use such funds for recurring costs like salaries. It’s better to use them for one-time expenditures like capital improvements, he said. If you start using the funds repeatedly to balance the budget, you start getting into trouble, he added.
Vaught said that county projects like Lot 24 in Progress Park – a $24 million mega lot completed in 2013 and waiting for a big business to settle in – and the APEX Center are gambles on the county’s part to bring in revenue.
“It was a gamble,” he said. “Let’s gamble on people, that if we pay them well, they will stay. It may be time to tap into our reserves. For years, we called it a rainy day fund and it’s raining. People are leaving Wythe County, not just in the sheriff’s department, in all departments. I’m not saying we go out and waste it, but something’s got to break.”
All of the supervisors agree that they do not want to raise taxes this year like they did last year, increasing the real estate property tax by 5 cents per $100 of value to pay for improvements at George Wythe High School.
One cent of real estate property tax nets the county about $220,000.
They Board of Supervisors will meet for a budget session at 5 p.m. Tuesday before its regular meeting at 7 p.m.
To reach Millie Rothrock, call 228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.