It was not a big meeting, but the spirited debate that occurred during Wednesday night’s budget town hall in the Dranesville district offered a glimpse of the larger, sometimes emotional, debate over the size of Fairfax County’s government and its spending priorities.
Twenty people or so showed up at the McLean Community Center for a presentation on the budget hosted by Dranesville district Supervisor John W. Foust (D). After two county staffers explained the budget-setting process now under way, it didn’t take long for the discussion to turn to whether county employees, and teachers in particular, are overpaid.
“I think Fairfax County employees are pretty well insulated from the ups and downs of the economy,” said a man in a dark pinstripe suit who started off the Q&A. “The citizens have to face unemployment and reductions of salary and reductions of benefits and so forth, and I don’t see that overtly in the budget.”
Then the man, who did not identify himself, fired off a list of questions: What was the average county employee’s salary? What was the average teacher’s salary? How long is a teacher’s official work year? What was the retirement age for county employees? How much money must county employees contribute to their health-care plans? How many county employees are there?
As the staff provided answers to most of Mr. Pinstripe’s questions (see below), Mr. Pinstripes expressed his displeasure again and again. He suggested that county employees were living very high off the beleaguered taxpayer.
“Sir, are you just making these pronouncements of your own personal opinion or are you representing someone?” demanded Tom Van Wazer, a McLean resident.
“I’m representing myself,” Mr. Pinstripes replied. “I’m a taxpayer. I pay $30,000 in real estate taxes. I think I paid for the right to ask these questions.”
Michael “Spike” Williams, a Republican from Herndon who has announced his intention to run against incumbent Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D), sat quietly in the back of the room scribbling notes.
County Executive Anthony H. Griffin has proposed a $1.24 billion spending plan that would maintain the current level of school funding, freeze county employee salaries for a third year, and leave the current tax rate of $1.09 unchanged — although that would mean the average household would pay about $111 more because of rising home values.
Griffin’s proposed budget would also give the Board of Supervisors about $34.7 million to tinker with. They could use the money to give county workers a small pay increase or boost school funding, or place the money in reserve as a safeguard while the economy remains shaky and federal spending is in question. Or, the board could give taxpayers a break — an option Foust endorsed Wednesday.
“I’d want to see the tax rate reduced from $1.09,’’ Foust said. “There is a lot of hurt out there in this community right now. ... We have a lot of residents who are still hurting.”
If Foust were to use the extra money on anything else, he said, he would probably boost county employees’ pay.
Several women in the audience, including one who brought her child, said the county should spend more to implement full-day kindergarten in all its schools.
“We’re really tired of waiting for this program. It’s a core need for our kids,” said Nancy Trainer, who said she is the mother of two young children. About 100 schools have full-day kindergarten, but 37 do not, and eight of those are in Dranesville, Foust said, adding that he also would push the school district to implement full-day kindergarten throughout the county.
But several others argued for cutting spending, often while suggesting that the county workforce’s pay and benefits should be cut.
Eventually, Luke Levasseur rose to defend the public workforce. Levasseur, who is an attorney in private practice, pointed out that the average mid-career Fairfax County teacher makes $57,000 a year.
“If you have a couple who are both teachers living in McLean or Falls Church trying to raise two kids on $114,000 in the middle of a career — I don’t understand how you do that. That’s not a lot of money for this metropolitan area,” Levasseur said.
What about their generous benefits? a woman shot back.
“But people don’t live on their benefits,” Levasseur said. “I’m talking about trying to raise children in this county at this point in time. It’s very difficult.”
Answers to attendees’ questions, according to staff, Foust and/or other sources identified below:
Q: What was the average county employee’s salary?
Q: What was the average teacher’s salary?
Q: How long is a teacher’s official work year?
A: At least 180 days.
Q: What was the retirement age for county employees?
A: Rule of 80 — that is, any combination of age and years of service adding up to 80. For instance, a 55-year-old person could retire after 25 years of service, according to Marcia C. Wilds, revenue and economic analysis coordinator with the county’s Department of Management and Budget.
Q: How much money must county employees contribute to their health-care plans?
A: The county pays 85 percent of an individual plan and 75 percent of a family plan, according to Marcia C. Wilds, revenue and economic analysis coordinator with the county’s Department of Management and Budget.
Q: How many county employees are there?
A: Approximately 11,000. The county executive’s proposed budget says the current ratio of 11.34 per 1,000 residents is the lowest in 17 years.