Supervisors hear good news on proposed budget

By Heather Michon

The Fluvanna Board of Supervisors started off its Wednesday night budget work session (March 8) with nothing but good news.

Since setting a maximum advertised real estate tax rate of $0.865 cents per $100, Commissioner of the Revenue Mel Sheridan “has given us some extra taxable values,” said County Administrator Eric Dahl, “so right now, the [proposed budget balance] is to the plus by $862,000.”

Dahl added that his proposed budget had anticipated a 10 percent increase in healthcare costs but “the actual increased costs came in at 4.3 percent.”

These updated numbers give the supervisors more flexibility to shape the budget as the mid-April deadline approaches.

Several School Board members and administrators were on hand to press their case for their $22.4 million budget request – about $2.7 million more than their funding in FY23. Much of this increased funding would be focused on making faculty and staff compensation packages more competitive with adjoining school districts.

School Board member Perrie Johnson (Fork Union) told the supervisors that raising salaries was “the single best thing we can do for our students at this point in time,” as it increased the likelihood of drawing more talent to the school district. If the county didn’t fund the request, she added, “I am committed to going back into our budgets and re-prioritizing whatever we can” to shift funds towards compensation.

Andre Key (Rivanna District) added that the schools needed to prioritize mental health support for students, another significant part of the district’s funding requests. Emotional and disciplinary issues have been on the rise in county schools since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the schools do not currently have the qualified staffing they need to meet student needs. 

Although the state-run Children Services Act (CSA) program is independent of the schools, CSA coordinator Bryan Moeller said his department has become “the de facto mental health structure for Fluvanna County Public Schools.”

Moeller said his office had normally requested around $100,000 each year in state dollars for community-based mental health programs, but this year had upped the request to $350,000 to meet the heavier caseload. That represented about 9 percent of the state’s total funding pool for those types of programs and was more on par with Northern Virginia and Richmond than rural districts. 

“We’re going to be a severe outlier unless we can actually provide the schools funding to develop their own mental health infrastructure for their students,” he said.

Both Moeller and School Board Chair James Kelley (Palmyra) agreed that filling open positions was a challenge. There is a shortage of trained professionals on the market, and the public sector generally doesn’t offer the same pay or benefits as private practices.

The School Board budget includes a new position for a district-wide Coordinator of Mental Health with a starting salary of $100,000.

“We take students as they are and then we return them back home, but what happens in the building is a function of all the things that have gotten darker and more difficult over the last couple of years,” said Kelley. By hiring a qualified mental health coordinator, he hoped they would be able to design programs that could start to get a handle on students’ needs.    

Dahl reminded supervisors that they would need to set a maximum advertised budget at their regular meeting on March 15. “That budget number is the high-water mark,” he said. Among other things, the board will need to decide on the $5.25 million in capital improvement program (CIP) requests. 

Residents will have the opportunity to weigh in at a special public hearing on the tax rates on April 12 at 7 p.m. at the Carysbrook Performing Arts Center. The final vote on the FY24 budget is currently scheduled for April 19. 

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