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Posted at 10:37 AM ET, 03/24/2012

Fairfax County executive urges caution on budget

Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin warned that people who have become accustomed to the county’s full array of excellent services will probably have to scale back their expectations for some time to come because of the recent recession.

In a visit to the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations Thursday night to discuss his proposed budget, Griffin directed his remarks about managing reduced expectations to both the residents and elected officials he serves on the Board of Supervisors.

Griffin said that while trying to hold down taxes, he has pared library staffs to focus on mandated services, pushed his staff to the limit while holding down their pay and put off hiring more police and firefighters despite the looming need to add public safety staff because of Tysons Corner’s transformation into an urban center.

“My advice to the board is they can’t put back everything they’ve cut,” Griffin said.

Griffin has drafted a $6.73 billion budget that would hike spending about 2 percent in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. If the residential property tax rate remains the same, at $1.07 per $100 assessed value — as Griffin recommended — the typical homeowner would pay $34 more because of rising home values.

But because Griffin also proposed adding one cent to the stormwater rate — from 1.5 cents to 2.5 cents per $100 assessed real estate value -- the typical household would pay $45 more for utility service. Combining property taxes and stormwater fees, a typical household would pay $79 more.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors has also agreed to at least consider raising the property tax rate by one cent to give more money to schools or make up for state and federal cuts, though several supervisors say the board is leaning toward maintaining a flat rate.

Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, said that if the board raised the tax rate by one cent, he has calculated that the typical household would pay $124 in property taxes and stormwater fees, in addition to car registration and other fees.

Griffin told the Federation meeting Thursday that county revenues will probably rise a little more than 3 percent. At the same time, the county is squeezed by a trend in which state and federal governments send less money but require localities to carry more mandates, such as those needed to comply with environmental regulations. The government is also expecting to pay higher fuel prices and perhaps 10 percent more for health insurance.

In response to questions about his proposed one-cent increase in the stormwater rate, Griffin said the county will have to spend still more to meet stricter water-quality regulations designed to clean up Chesapeake Bay. He estimated that the stormwater rate will probably have to increase by six cents or more soon to cover the expense of upgrading treatment plants to comply with standards imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its state counterpart.

Griffin also spent some time explaining why the Lorton Arts Foundation needs more financial support from the county than had been anticipated.

Griffin, who negotiated the $4.23 million purchase of 2,300 acres from the federal government 10 years ago, said he still believed that the acquisition of the former Lorton Correctional Complex would be a long-term boon for the county. It has already paid off in terms of land for schools and parks, he said.

This year, however, Griffin has proposed giving $2.6 million more to the foundation for a total of $3.35 million in fiscal 2013. That includes $750,000 in annual operating costs that, since March 2010, the county has agreed to give to the foundation when needed.

Part of the problem, he said, is that county officials underestimated the costs of rehabilitating a historic structure and overestimated how much the foundation could raise on its own.

In 2010, the foundation received $1.44 million in contributions and grants, compared with $1.25 million the previous year, according to the nonprofit’s most recent tax documents. But the revenue from programs plunged from $2.75 million to a deficit of $560,000, according to the foundation’s Form 990.

Discussing county staffing, Griffin said employees’ pay cannot remain flat much longer while the county also attempts to provide the same degree of professional services. Employee morale and retention has already been affected by pay increases that averaged about 1 percent over the past four years.

“The problem I have is that we have police officers on our force four years and they’re training people coming out of the police academy and they both have the same pay,” Griffin said. His proposed budget includes money for a 2.18 percent pay hike, which he said is in line with inflation and raises in other regional jurisdictions, including the federal government.

Griffin’s customary round of budget town halls across the county has taken on the tone of a valedictory tour as he winds down more than a decade of service as the county’s top manager. The dozen or so people who attended Thursday’s forum ended the night with a round of applause for his service.

By  |  10:37 AM ET, 03/24/2012

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