Article VII, Section 10, of the Constitution 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 ballot.
Bonds are debt. When they are sold, the issuing government receives an influx of cash from the purchasers. But, like a bank loan, that money must be repaid over time with interest.
Like any other loan, bonds should be used only when necessary. Most projects should be funded directly from the general fund (i.e., from the “money in the bank”). Only when some specific project is very important, but too large to fund directly, should we turn to using bonds for financing.
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $123,755,000 in general obligation bonds for school projects. These would be used for the Douglass School renewal, other facility renewals and alterations, improvements to school security, and “other public school facilities.”
Much of what I have to say about this will sound familiar to my readers. There are school bonds on almost every ballot, and I almost always have the same thing to say about them.
About 59% percent of Loudoun County’s annual budget goes to the schools. For the 2020 fiscal year, the county will be transferring about $1.03 billion to Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS). LCPS gets another $408 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia, $32 million from the federal government, $249 million from fees, and $11 million or so from debt proceeds and other sources. Across all budgets, LCPS plans to spend a mind-boggling $1,721,630,894 in the 2021 fiscal year. Yes, you read that right . . . $1.72 billion.
LCPS is estimating that its 2021 enrollment will be 85,755, an increase of 1.9% over the previous year. In most years, LCPS makes absurd budget requests that far outpace enrollment growth . . . last year they requested a 7% increase for growth below 2%. This year they are only asking for a 2.4% funding increase, which is an improvement but still outpaces enrollment growth.
The annual cost-per-pupil is listed by the school system at $15,214, but, as always, that figure is a lie. It is calculated against only the operating budget and ignores separate budgets for capital improvement, debt service, school nutrition, asset preservation, vehicle maintenance, and more. The real annual cost-per-pupil is more than 32% higher than advertised: about $20,076.
LCPS is not underfunded. If anything, it is overfunded. In the absence of a top-to-bottom education reform effort, and a long-overdue critical accounting of where LCPS’s money is going and why, we should not incur any new debt for schools. I strongly endorse a NO vote on the School 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 $29,516,000 in general obligation bonds for public safety projects. These would be used for an expansion to our Fire and Rescue Training Academy, replacing the Philomont Fire and Rescue Station, and “other public safety facilities.”
Loudoun County has budgeted about $108 million for Loudoun County Fire and Rescue (LCFR) for the 2021 fiscal year. The overwhelming majority of that funding comes from the county’s general fund, and LCFR accounts for about 5.5% percent of the county’s annual budget.
In a fast-growing county like ours, debt is necessary to pay for the expansion of our public safety infrastructure—new fire stations, new equipment, and so on. The expansion of the LCFR academy and the replacement of the rural, outdated Philomont station is justified. I endorse a YES vote on the Public Safety Projects bond referendum.
Parks and Recreation Projects
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $3,825,000 in general obligation bonds for parks and recreation projects. These would be used for phase two of the Philip A. Bolen Park, phase three of the Scott Jenkins Park, and “other public park, recreational[,] and community center projects.”
Loudoun County has earmarked about $58.8 million for the department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services (PRCS) in the 2021 fiscal year, which is roughly 3% county’s budget. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of the county’s budget is tied up with our ineffective and over-funded schools.
We could easily fund all PRCS capital expenses through the general fund. There is no need to incur this debt. We could redirect just a tiny portion of the school budget, for example, to pay for these projects. I endorse a NO vote on the Parks and Recreation Projects bond referendum.
Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $151,210,000 in general obligation bonds for transportation projects. These would be used for widening parts of Braddock Road, Loudoun County Parkway, and Route 15; building a parallel road north of Route 50; building a roundabout at Route 50 and Trailhead Drive; adding sidewalks along River Creek Parkway; building a county sidewalk and trail network; and “other public road and transportation projects.”
Loudoun County has budgeted only $32.8 million for transportation and capital projects in 2021, which is about 1.7% of the budget. This has been—and remains—an embarrassing drop in the bucket in the face of massive and growing transportation infrastructure needs. A significant amount of school funding—which accounts for nearly 60% of the county budget—should be redirected to these more beneficial and effective projects until the schools can prove themselves deserving of their largess.
But there is still an urgent need to make these road improvements. They are important and they are legitimate capital expenses that justify incurring debt. I will continue to urge the county to allocate much more of its general fund for transportation so this kind of debt is less necessary in the future, but, in the mean time, these projects cannot be put off. I endorse a YES vote on the Transportation Projects bond referendum.