By Hendley Badcock
Buena Vista is doing its best to preserve its bare-bones budget for the coming fiscal year. But state increases for retirement and health insurance rates are making some departments, like the school board, hope for more money.
School Superintendent John Keeler has been juggling his hopes for curricular improvements with an expected quarter-million-dollar cost increase for the Virginia Retirement System and health insurance .
“For a school system our size, that’s huge,” Keeler said. “It’s unrealistic to think City Council is going to fund all of our needs that come up because they’re not in the position to do that,” Keeler said. “But I’m hoping they’ll help us with at least one of the initiatives.”
While Keeler plans to bring new courses and art opportunities to the four schools, City Manager Jay Scudder’s goal for the upcoming budget is to just smooth out the wrinkles of last year’s, without making any major changes.
“I want to work this budget within the parameters of the existing taxes,” Scudder said. “I’m hoping like the dickens that I’m going to be in that position because I do not want to have to, with the budget that I control, ask Buena Vista to raise the citizens’ taxes again this year.”
Buena Vista has a higher property tax rate than Lexington and Rockbridge County. But because it also has lower property values, the higher rate ends up bringing in nearly the same amount as Lexington in tax revenues.
Buena Vista Director of Finance Tim Dudley said each department will have to give up something to prevent more tax increases.
“We’re just going to kind of have to suck it up,” Dudley said. “Each department might have to give a little. We might not be able to give a salary increase, or…we might have to delay [a project for] a little while or something like that.”
Property taxes make up 47 percent of Buena Vista’s annual revenue. Around a quarter of what is left comes from the state.
According to the Composite Index of Local Ability to Pay, which measures a school division’s ability to fund its school system, Buena Vista gets a higher percentage of school support from the commonwealth than most other Virginia localities.
“The state gives us almost $8 out of every $10,” Dudley said.
That ends up being around a quarter of the city’s general fund and nearly three-quarters of the school budget. Both budgets total around $11 million each.
Keeler said he understands the city’s fiscal situation and is relying on those state funds to make his goals for the next school year possible. His proposals include hiring a writer teacher for F. W. Kling Elementary School, bringing Chinese to the Parry McCluer High School, expanding project-based learning in Parry McCluer Middle School.
But Keeler is perhaps most excited about refocusing the school system’s attention on the arts. He said he wants to make full-time positions out of the middle school’s part-time drama teacher. He also said he wants to hire another full-time music instructor to assist the one who now works for both the middle and high schools.
“We have kids that have different interests,” Keeler said, “and I want to make sure that I am offering something for every child.”
Keeler said the schools are already working to shave support positions in order to hire those new instructors before fall.
“That’s just a sacrifice you have to make in order to protect instruction, in order to get the middle school music teacher, [or] the writing teacher that you want and that you must have,” Keeler said.
He did not give any details on what positions were going to be replaced or consolidated.
The tightening of staff has been a city-wide approach to wring out extra funds and finish the year in the black.
Scudder said he has worked with departments to reorganize their personnel by eliminating or consolidating jobs.
“That’s five, six, seven positions that I‘ve not filled through attrition,” he said counting the retired or resigned employees on his fingers.
For now, the budget is in a good place and Scudder does not see the need for more consolidation. Nor does he want to increase expenditures or revenues.
“We’ve done a lot of accurate budgeting,” Scudder said. “We’re narrowing it down to what’s realistic and appropriate to run the city under the financial stress we’re in. I hope I’m going to be able to basically maintain the status quo without raising tax rates.”
Though Keeler is working toward change, he knows to be reasonable.
“It’s a challenging process,” Keeler said of forming a budget, “but it gives us an opportunity every year to look at our school system and make sure we set goals that we hope are reachable and practical and find a way to fund them.”
Keeler will present his budget to the school board tonight. Then, he will take the final proposal to City Council for approval on April 17.