Article VII, Section 10, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia requires local governments to obtain voter approval to issue bonds. Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked to consider four bond referendums on this year’s November ballot.
Bonds are debt. When they are sold, the issuing government receives an immediate influx of cash from the purchasers. But, like a bank loan, all of that money must be repaid over time (plus interest). As such, bonds should be used sparingly, and only for large, unusual projects where funding them directly from the general fund is not possible.
Parks and Recreation Projects
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $76,115,000 in general obligation bonds for parks and recreation projects. These would be used to finance the construction of a community center in Ashburn, a park in the Blue Ridge District, and “other public park, recreational, and community center facilities.”
Loudoun County has budgeted about forty million dollars for the department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services (PRCS) in the 2017 fiscal year. The county provides roughly half of that money, with most of the rest coming from licenses and fees. Our parks system also gets about half a million dollars from state and federal sources. Only two percent of the county’s budget is used to fund PRCS.
This bond referendum would authorize the county to take out a debt equal to about two years of the PRCS department’s entire budget . . . to build one park and one community center. Meanwhile, nearly seventy percent of the county’s budget is inexplicably tied up with our ineffective and over-funded schools. This referendum’s entire ask could be funded by a one-time five-percent reduction in the school budget . . . or by a mere one-percent reduction in the school budget spread over five years.
PRCS does good, important work. It should be funded through the general fund, not through unnecessary debt. The county raises more than enough money from property tax revenue to fund PRCS, including occasional large projects such as these. I endorse a NO vote on the Parks and Recreation Projects bond referendum.
Public Safety Projects
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $17,500,000 in general obligation bonds for public safety projects. These would be used to finance the expansion of the Leesburg Fire and Rescue Station, the replacement of the Lovettsville Fire and Rescue Station, and “other public safety facilities.”
Loudoun County has budgeted about seventy-three million dollars for the department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Management (FREM) in the 2017 fiscal year. The overwhelming majority of that funding comes from the county’s general fund. Funding for FREM accounts for about six percent of the county’s annual budget.
We live in one of the fastest growing counties in the United States (in terms of population), and our fire and rescue services have done an excellent job coping with this growth. Not only have they kept pace with a changing county, but they are also faced with a number of unique challenges . . . not least of which being the presence of one of the nation’s largest airports on our eastern border.
In past years I have reluctantly endorsed public safety bonds, not because debt is the most prudent way to fund their operations, but because it was necessary to provide for the department’s expansion along with the population of the county, and to keep FREM properly equipped. And I have no doubt that the Leesburg Fire and Rescue Station needs to be expanded, or that the Lovettsville Fire and Rescue Station needs to be replaced. But these projects are basically ‘regular maintenance’ for the existing system, and they ought to be funded through the general fund.
Perhaps our schools, which receive about seventy percent of the county’s budget, could spare a mere one or two percent of their budget so that the county could use that money for these projects instead. I endorse a NO vote on the Public Safety Projects bond referendum.
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $18,000,000 in general obligation bonds for transportation projects. These would be used to finance a new extension of Shellhorn Road, improvements at the intersection of Braddock Road and Supreme Drive/Summerall Drive, an interchange at Route 7 and Hillsboro Road/N 21st Street, and “other public road and transportation projects.”
The Shellhorn Road extension will be new construction, extending Shellhorn Road east from its current terminus at Loudoun County Parkway to connect with South Sterling Boulevard near Route 28. It will be funded through this referendum and regional funding sources. The Braddock Road improvements involve widening the road and installing a traffic light, and will be funded entirely through this referendum. The Route 7 interchange will be new construction, and will be funded through this referendum and other state and regional funding sources.
Loudoun County budgets only about three percent of its annual revenue for transportation projects, which is an embarrassingly low amount in a county that is growing so rapidly. A significant amount of school funding—which accounts for an absurd seventy percent of the county’s budget—should be redirected to more beneficial and effective transportation projects, at least until the schools can show themselves to be good stewards of their largess.
Although I would prefer that these projects—which are important, but comparatively small—be funded through the general fund, I am also mindful of how urgent it is that we expand and improve our local transportation network. This is especially true in the eastern half of the county, where the public road network must compensate both for continued growth and for the under-utilization of the Dulles Greenway under its price-gouging private owners.
In this case, the Shellhorn Road extension alone justifies the new debt that would be authorized by this referendum. It will provide an important new alternative to Old Ox Road (Route 606), Waxpool Road (Route 625), and the aforementioned Dulles Greenway. I endorse a YES vote on the Transportation Projects bond referendum.
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $233,070,000 in general obligation bonds for school projects. These would be used to finance a new elementary school in Dulles South, additions to six other elementary schools, a new high school in Dulles South, and “other public school facilities.”
Nearly seventy percent of Loudoun County’s annual budget goes to the schools. For the 2017 fiscal year, the county will be writing a check to Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) in the amount of $837,115,351. That is more than four-fifths of a billion dollars.
But the county isn’t the only source of school funding. LCPS receives another $321.8 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia, $16 million from the federal government, $11.8 million from “other” sources (like fees, tuition, and grants), $4.9 million from private sector ‘proffers,’ and lots more ‘nickel-and-dime’ sources. All-told, across all budgets, LCPS plans to spend $1,462,618,420 in the 2017 fiscal year. Yes, that is approaching $1.5 billion.
LCPS estimates that its 2017 enrollment will be 78,665 students, and calculates a projected annual per-pupil cost of $13,121. This calculation, however, is an outright lie. School systems in the United States hide their actual annual costs by calculating their ‘per-pupil’ values only against the operating budget, thereby excluding separate budgets for capital improvement, debt service, school nutrition, asset preservation, vehicle maintenance, and more. If you divide the total annual LCPS budget by the projected number of students, you will get a much more realistic number . . . one that is forty percent higher than advertised: $18,593 per student per year.
Like most of America’s schools, LCPS is not underfunded. In fact, it is over-funded. The United States spends more per-year on each student than almost any other country in the world, and yet our schools consistently under-perform against their lesser-funded peers. And despite their more-than-generous level of funding, LCPS wants us to put another $233 million dollars on the county credit card. And next year they’ll probably be back again asking for yet another big, fat check.
In the absence of a top-to-bottom reform effort, and in the absence of a full, critical accounting of where LCPS’s largess is going and why, it would be insane to give them even a cent more . . . let alone the hundreds of millions of dollars that they are asking for. I strongly endorse a NO vote on the School Projects bond referendum.