By Emma Mansfield
Rockbridge County has big thoughts and big dreams. But over the last few weeks, budget season has hit the county with a harsh reality check. Specifically, a $1.9 million reality check.
The county is facing a $1.9 million gap between its anticipated revenues and the spending that its departments have requested for the upcoming year. The board of supervisors must now cut the departments’ wish lists.
“Those five people have an incredibly hard job,” said Steven Hart, member of Rockbridge County’s Board of Equalization. “Their job is incredibly hard because you’ve got stuff you’ve got to pay for and some of it is mandated from state and federal governments, so they don’t have a choice.”
State-mandated salary raises for constitutional offices such as sheriff, treasurer and clerk of the Circuit Court represent most of the county’s rising costs for the 2024 fiscal year, said Ashton Harrison, Rockbridge County finance director.
Rockbridge County Public Schools hopes for more money
Officials at Rockbridge County Public Schools also want to give their employees a raise. The schools are asking for $17.2 million from the county. The money would mainly cover 5-to-7% increase in salaries for all school employees.
The county’s public schools have struggled with understaffing for years. And Rockbridge County is feeling competition from nearby counties that are providing their teachers with salary raises.
That’s why the schools cannot compromise when it comes to the pay raises, said David Daniels, director of financial services for Rockbridge County Public Schools.
“If we give anything below that, then we stand a chance of some of our teachers leaving for better pay,” he said.
Rockbridge County’s Fire and Rescue Department also wants more money. It’s requested over $4 million to cover increased personnel and operational costs.
“We work hard to make sure that when someone is in need or when someone calls 911, they get the services needed in an efficient and timely manner,” said Rockbridge County Fire Chief Nathan Ramsey. “We only ask for the things we feel are needed in this business.”
The county’s new three-man emergency nighttime crew is responsible for some of the rising personnel costs.
Ramsey said the department also wants to add a second full-time instructor who would help Fire-Rescue Chief Thomas Andrews train volunteers, teach night classes, and assist with EMT classes at Rockbridge County High School.
Fire and Rescue’s rising operational costs also come from the county’s shared services agreement with Lexington. The agreement requires Rockbridge County to pay Lexington for any services it provides to residents outside of the city. This year, 58% of the emergency calls that the Lexington Fire Department responded to were in the county, Ramsey said. As a result, Rockbridge County is facing an $870,000 bill from Lexington.
But like the county schools, the Fire and Rescue Department has little wiggle room with its request.
“There’s not really anything we can do about that,” Ramsey said.
But the board of supervisors cannot make any final decisions on the shortage until the county gets notified about how much money it will get from the state.
Finance Committee member Dan Lyons said he is not worried. In past years, the county has seen shortages from $400,000 to $3.1 million. He said the board will eliminate the gap by May. The new budget for 2024 will then go into effect July 1.
“We’ll definitely close it,” he said. “We don’t have any other choice.”