In a surprising reversal, Stafford supervisors agreed to raise the county’s real estate tax by 2 cents Tuesday night after first deciding against an increase.

Supervisor Wendy Maurer introduced the initial motion to keep the tax rate at the current 99 cents per $100 of assessed value. Included in that motion was a recommendation that the school system scour its budget for other spending reductions to provide educators with the 5 percent pay raise that they requested.

The motion passed 4–3, with Supervisors Meg Bohmke, Cindy Shelton and Tom Coen voting no.

After the vote, supervisors began to consider the impact of their decision and how the conclusion not to raise taxes—while giving school employees a 5 percent raise and county government employees a 2.5 percent boost—would negatively impact public safety programs.

Meanwhile, news of the board’s decision not to raise taxes was posted on social media, prompting outrage from area educators.

One wrote, “Mass exodus coming to a county near you! That was disgusting.”

Another wrote, “It’s wonderful the teachers care so much for the students. It’s really sad that the BOS don’t care for the teachers or the students…”

When the supervisors reconvened about 8 p.m., an intense discussion ensued among board members about how county schools and services might be negatively impacted by the decision not to raise additional revenue to accompany pay increases.

Citing possible losses of law enforcement, fire, rescue and social services personnel, Coen said, “It doesn’t seem to be prudent fiscal policy trying to find money in the budget.”

Bohmke said she favored as much as a $1.03 tax rate. “I know classes are overcrowded and people are leaving. In my humble opinion, we cannot afford a 5 percent pay raise at the 99-cent rate. We are not where we need to be in Stafford County. I cannot support the 99-cent rate because it digs too much into county and school budgets.”

Shelton added, “I cannot support cutting public services to find money for raises. We need to look forward to see what we can do to make out futures brighter. I will never support cutting our public services from the budget.”

Some supervisors said they were frustrated that School Board members had not attended some meetings to help hash out details on the budget.

“I cannot condone the nonparticipation in this budget process that the School Board has shown,” Board Chairman Supervisor Gary Snellings said.

School Board officials said they had done all they could before Tuesday’s meeting.

“The supervisors sent over questions that were responded to,” said School Board Chairwoman Patricia Healy. “We were not invited to attend. I wasn’t aware they had additional questions or needed additional information.”

Asked about the failure of any School Board members to attend Tuesday’s meeting, Christian Peabody, a music teacher at Falmouth Elementary School and president of the Stafford Education Association, said, “We’re very disappointed because we’re the ones who were here all day working for this.”

After the board failed on a couple of attempts to reach compromises, Cavalier moved to set the tax rate at $1.01, with the stipulation that the supervisors could reduce the county transfer of $129 million to the schools if the School Board does not provide a 5 percent raise for school employees.

The motion passed 4–3, with Maurer, Mark Dudenhefer and Snellings voting no.

“We can’t sustain tax increases year after year,” Dudenhefer said. “There’s plenty of money in both budgets to accommodate raises and not reduce services.”

Officials had initially said a 3- or 4-cent tax increase would be needed to provide 5 percent raises for school employees. Chris Fulmer, the school system’s chief financial officer, said Superintendent Scott Kizner would propose other cuts in the school budget to make room for the pay raises before it adopts its budget April 30.

Members of the Stafford Education Association, who earlier in the evening appeared to be losing hope for a pay raise, turned jubilant.

“We’re excited that we were able to secure this and that we’re going to be able to bring Dr. Kizner in now and he’s going to really be able to help reconcile both boards to move forward,” said Peabody. “I am confident the 5 percent raises will be fulfilled.”

Supervisors did some cutting from the county budget Tuesday, axing a plan to raise their own salaries by $5,000 each.

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James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438 jbaron@freelancestar.com

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