Loudoun Referendums, 2023

Seal of Loudoun County
Seal of Loudoun County

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 three 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. Like a bank loan, that money must be repaid by the taxpayers over time with interest.

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”). We should only incur public debt when a specific project is very important, but too large to fund directly.

School Projects

Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $362,711,000 in general obligation bonds for school projects. These would be used to build a new high school in Dulles North (HS-14), renovate Park View High School, renovate Banneker Elementary School, renovate Waterford Elementary School, make school security improvements, and renew and alter other school facilities. They can also be used to fund “other public school facilities as requested by the Loudoun County School Board.”

Some of these projects have been partially funded in previous referendums, so they may sound familiar. The county now splits single projects into funding chunks that carry across multiple referendums, which makes it more difficult to work out where all this money really goes unless you have time to pore over the county’s budget . . . which is 914 pages long . . . good luck!

We have school bond referendums on practically every general election ballot, which might lead you to think that Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) are in great need of funding. They aren’t. Our schools are extremely well-funded. For the 2024 fiscal year, the Loudoun County government is allocating 63% of local tax revenue to the schools—$1,324,613,843, or just over $1.32 billion.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until everybody gets it: We spend more on schools than we spend on fire and rescue, the sheriff’s office, parks and recreation, mental health and substance abuse services, information technology, family services, building inspection, libraries, community development, public health, county administration, planning and zoning, budgeting and revenue, debt repayment, human resources, transportation, the courts, the commonwealth’s attorney, economic development, animal services, corrections, county legal expenses, mapping, and elections . . . combined.

The schools are getting revenue from other sources too. Their budget for the 2024 fiscal year shows $506.9 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia, $308.6 million in “charges for services,” $175.4 million in “debt proceeds,” and $42.6 million from the U.S. federal government. In total, they expect to spend $2,190,389,726—almost $2.20 billion—in 2024 alone.

For 2024, LCPS expects an enrollment increase of only 1%, but plans to increase spending by about 8.2%. Inflation did briefly spike close to that level last year but is now below 4%. Given how exorbitantly funded the schools have been in past years, there is no reason they can’t absorb a year or two (or twenty) of relatively high inflation without large budget increases. The annual cost-per-pupil given by LCPS is $19,903, but, as always, this is a deceptive number based on a subset of school budget categories. With an estimated enrollment of 83,061 students, and a total annual expenditure of nearly $2.20 billion, the actual annual cost-per-pupil is $26,371—more than 32% higher than advertised.

Imagine what parents could do if we gave them that kind of money for their kids’ education. The parents of ten kids could pool their money and pay a private teacher $263,000 per year. We’d get smaller class sizes, give teachers a big raise, eliminate tons of waste, and not spend a cent more than we already do.

This referendum is also put before us on behalf of a school board that has completely and irreparably lost the public trust. Seven of the nine members on the board today were elected in 2019 and were complicit in the many national embarrassments we have been subjected to—the overreaction to COVID-19, racially-charged curricula, insane gender policies, attempts to silence parents, and, worst of all, the attempts to cover-up how LCPS disastrously mishandled a series of sexual assaults. Denise Corbo (at-large), Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian), Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn), Ian Sorotkin (Blue Ridge), John Beatty (Catoctin), Jeff Morse (Dulles), and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) should all have resigned in disgrace. Erika Ogedegbe (Leesburg), who came into office after a special election in 2022, has since voted with the majority to continue hiding information from the public. That leaves Tiffany Polifko (Blue Ridge), who also came into office after a special election in 2022, as the sole member not worthy of condemnation.

Vote NO on the School Projects bond referendum. Not one cent for anything LCPS does until this shameful board is drummed out of office (and preferably prosecuted and kept out of public office for the rest of their lives). Even then, no new debt and no funding increases for schools until they can explain where the present billions are going and why, since they’re obviously not going to supplies and teacher salaries.

Public Safety and Parks and Recreation Projects

Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $59,574,000 in general obligation bonds for public safety and parks and recreation facilities. These would be used to build the Leesburg South Fire and Rescue Station, Dulles Adult Day Center, Fields Farm Park, Linear Parks and Trails Signature Project, and Sterling Neighborhood Park. They can also be used to fund “other public safety and public park, recreational[,] and community center projects approved in the County’s Capital Improvement Program.”

For the second year in a row, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has combined public safety projects with parks and recreation projects in a single bond referendum; in past years they had always been presented separately. This appears to be part of an ongoing, deceptive effort to fund projects that do not justify large debts by linking them with other projects that do. According to the county’s fiscal year 2024 budget, about $23.8 million (40%) of this referendum is meant for public safety and about $35.7 million (60%) will go to parks and recreation.

The costs of maintaining and expanding parks and recreational facilities in Loudoun County should be paid out of the general fund, not with debt. There is more than enough money available; it just needs to be redirected from the parts of the county government that are wasting it.

Public safety always deserves more careful consideration. Loudoun continues to grow, and it would be very difficult to build the new police and fire stations we need without incurring some public debt. But we are a wealthy county with plenty of money. We should not need to rely on debt for every little project. There’s no reason for us to have multiple bond referendums on every single general election ballot!

If these had been two separate referendums, I would be inclined to endorse a ‘yes’ vote for the safety projects . . . only because it is for brand new construction on a fire station. And I would endorse a ‘no’ vote for the parks and recreation projects, which rarely—if ever—warrant public debt. Our board apparently combined them in hopes that people like me would vote ‘yes’ in support of public safety and take everything else along for the ride. I suggest we do something else:

Vote NO on the Public Safety and Parks and Recreation Projects bond referendum.

The board can resubmit the public safety project in a “clean” referendum next year if there’s really no other way to fund it.

Transportation Projects

Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked in a referendum to authorize the county to issue up to $156,619,000 in general obligation bonds for transportation projects. These would be used to build extensions and improvements to Crosstrail Boulevard, Dulles West Boulevard, Evergreen Mills Road, and Westwind Drive; build shared use paths for Harmony Middle School and on Route 7; install roundabouts at the intersection of Route 9 and 287 and the intersection of Route 15 and Braddock Road; and provide funding for the county’s intersection improvement program. They can also be used to fund “other public road and transportation projects approved in the County’s Capital Improvement Program.”

Transportation projects in Virginia are supposed to be managed and funded by the state, but poor leadership in the General Assembly and Virginia Department of Transportation has resulted in the disproportionate redirection of transportation funds out of northern Virginia—where most of that money is coming from—to less urgent rural projects. To get things moving, local voters approved a special regional sales tax that funds transportation projects through the Northern Virginia Tax Authority (NVTA). Some localities also add local funding.

Loudoun County has been more proactive than most, which is why transportation bond referendums feature regularly on our ballots. We shouldn’t need to do any direct local funding, but it’s our only option until the state gets its priorities straight. We can either fund critical transportation projects through local back-channels, or accept that they won’t get done for decades, if ever. Maybe after VDOT finishes putting toll lanes on every interstate they’ll have some time for the public highways that serve all taxpayers. But I digress.

For the 2024 fiscal year, Loudoun County’s “Capital Improvement Program” will spend about $210.2 million on local transportation projects. About $93.6 million (45%) comes from public debt in the form of bonds, about $55.5 million (26%) comes from the transportation sales tax through NVTA, about $28.1 million (13%) comes from local taxes through the county’s general fund, about $22.9 million (11%) comes through cash proffers from developers, and about $10.1 million (5%) comes from the state . . . which, remember, is supposed to be primarily responsible for these projects.

Loudoun County will bring in about $2,144,674,400—that’s $2.14 billion—in local tax revenues in the 2024 fiscal year. The $28.1 million we’re allocating to transportation is only 1.3% of the total. That’s pathetic. Transportation is one of the most critical local priorities, but we’re not acting like it. We could pay the existing transportation allocation, then add the total amount of this referendum to it, and it would still account for less than 10% of our local tax spending this year.

Consider, for example, that the county is handing over $1,324,613,843 to our dysfunctional schools and the despicable board that runs them. If we reduced that allocation by about 11.8%, bringing it roughly back in-line with where it was a few short years ago (even after adjusting for enrollment and inflation), we’d have all this money sitting in the bank and no need for new debt.

I have reluctantly accepted past transportation referendums because we need to get these projects done. I have also called—over and over and over—for reducing reliance on bonds and drastically increasing transportation allocations from the general fund. The people and businesses of Loudoun County pay more than enough into local, state, and federal coffers to cover every transportation project you could ever dream of—and more. We pay taxes on cars, taxes on gasoline, taxes on property, taxes on purchases, taxes on income, taxes on business revenue, and taxes on plastic bags. We pay fees to register our cars, fees for safety and emissions inspections, fees for our drivers’ licenses, fees on fluids and batteries, fees to register our dogs, and fees to ask for the government’s permission to build things on our own property. We pay tolls on more and more local highways. When we get caught driving at a highway’s highest safe speed, instead of its artificially low speed limit, we pay a fine.

You guys have enough money. Build the damn roads.

Vote NO on the Transportation Projects bond referendum.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.