Fairfax County Budget Proposes Tax Increase, Cut in School Funding
February 24, 2010
In the latest reminder that Washington’s wealthy suburbs are not recession-proof, Fairfax County officials Tuesday proposed a property tax increase, about 100 layoffs and cuts to education, public safety and social services to offset a roughly $257 million shortfall. It is the third consecutive year of service cuts in the region’s biggest locality, with one or two more years of lean budget times expect ed.
Among the proposals offered by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin was the return of a vehicle registration license fee, which had been abolished in 2006. The $33 annual fee would generate about $27 million.
Also unexpectedly, Griffin proposed reducing funding for the county’s nationally recognized public schools — a politically fraught plan, given an intense lobbying campaign by parents and school officials. To help make up the gap, Griffin pushed for a 5-cent increase in the county’s real estate tax rate. Even with the boost to a rate of $1.09 per $100 assessed, however, the average homeowner’s bill would drop by about $48.50 next fiscal year because home values continue to slide.
"At a time of declining revenues from both county sources and our intergovernmental partners, we are also seeing increased demand for county services by our residents," Griffin said. "These strains and stresses have made developing this budget much more complex and difficult than in years past."
The recession has affected Washington’s suburbs more than its urban centers, and many communities across the region have doled out similarly grim assessments this year. For most localities, this year will be defined by how much can be cut without running afoul of state or federal mandates or sacrificing the services residents have come to expect.
Tough cuts for counties
Montgomery County officials released new figures Tuesday showing a continued hemorrhaging of tax revenue, and they pointed to painful spending cuts and a $600 million budget shortfall that they said they are not sure how to fix.
They are considering 20 percent cuts in most departments. County income tax revenues are down sharply, especially from residents earning more than $1 million a year. Some who were in that bracket are earning less now, and others responded to a higher tax rate approved in 2008 by leaving the state, officials said.
In hard-hit Loudoun County, officials this month proposed a $1.40 per $100 assessed value tax rate, a 10 percent increase, which would make it the highest property tax in Northern Virginia. The county continues to grow, with 10,000 new residents and 6,300 new students projected to move there in the next year and several new facilities scheduled to open.
Arlington officials last week also proposed a 10 percent increase in the county’s residential property tax rate and the elimination of 87 positions, 20 of which are filled. Prince William raised its tax rate by 1 cent, and the county has recommended stopping all road and park bond projects not under construction, freezing salaries and closing two libraries.
In Fairfax, the money earmarked for schools — or the lack of it — is likely to get the most attention this year. Griffin said slicing about $16 million from the schools budget would be "reasonable," given that every other county agency saw a funding cut last year while the growing school system maintained funding of $1.6 billion. Superintendent Jack D. Dale has requested $58 million, and the county’s School Board more than $80 million, in additional funds for next fiscal year.
School officials are hopeful that some of the proposed cuts will be restored, because Griffin gave the 10-member Board of Supervisors some flexibility in increasing the tax rate and because about $100 million in state cuts and increases are up in the air, said School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville). Supervisors are expected to formally adopt the county’s $3.3 billion budget in April.
"There’s still a lot of time left, and a lot can ch ange," said Strauss, chairwoman of the board’s budget committee.
Falling property values
After extensive cuts last year, Fairfax was forced to put a mix of lesser-known services on the chopping block this time, including funding for a program that provides free taxi rides for disabled residents ($120,000), the bicycle signage and maps program ($214,000) and nighttime lighting at 123 county-owned tennis, basketball and volleyball courts ($60,000).
A freeze on employee salaries was recommended for the second straight year, and Griffin left open the possibility that merit and cost-of-living increases might not be reinstated until 2013.
Karen Conchar, president of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union, said she is concerned that some of the cuts, particularly layoffs and the elimination of programs for parks and libraries, would leave lasting damage. "It’s a whole lot cheaper to fund something appropriately instead of having to go back later and pick up all the pieces," said Conchar, an engineer at the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.
Supervisors are scheduled to finalize the budget at eight meetings in March and April, with formal adoption set for April 27.
Staff writers Michael Laris, Christy Goodman, Jennifer Buske, Michael Alison Chandler, Sholnn Freeman and Jonathan Mummolo contributed to this report.