With the economy still struggling to recover, Fairfax County is preparing for at least two more years of tough budgetary choices, the county’s top appointed official said Tuesday.
In a presentation to county supervisors and School Board members, County Executive Edward Long warned that while many had expected that the coming year would be easier, the days of funding cuts and shortfalls are far from over.
Although the numbers are preliminary, the county is projecting that its 2014 budget could be out of balance by $170 million, and as much as $275 million in 2015.
“These are large numbers that are not going to be easily solved,” Long said, adding that looming federal cuts could make the situation worse. “I wish the news was better.”
In addition to cutting programs and services, the county may need to consider further reductions in staff, Long said. His message to the School Board, which gets most of its funding from the county, was clear: Don’t count on us for much help with your own funding shortfall.
Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the board of supervisors, called Long’s presentation “sobering.”
Long made the remarks as the county begins putting together its next annual budget. He will present a draft spending plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, in early 2013. The Board of Supervisors will approve a final budget — including how much it will give to schools — in April.
This fiscal year, the county’s total approved budget is about $6.5 billion. Of that, $3.5 billion is general funding spending, and a little more than half — $1.8 billion — went to schools.
“Even if we gave schools no more money” than in the past, Long said, “we’d still have a problem.”
The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In August, Long issued a memo to county department heads asking them to scour their budgets for cuts of as much as 5 percent, saying he anticipated considerable shortfalls in the next two years. County budget officials said the projections were based primarily on real estate data that showed weaker-than-anticipated home sales and prices. The county gets more than 60 percent of its revenue from real estate taxes.
Long said Tuesday that on top of that, the bad economy has led to higher demand for county social services.
He said that while Fairfax withstood the recession far better than many other parts of Virginia and the nation, uncertainty over the federal budget is hitting the county especially hard, given its economic dependence on federal jobs and contracts.
To begin preparing for local cuts, the county held a series of public meetings this month to hear feedback from residents about which services they see as expendable and which must be preserved. The county also is soliciting input through an online survey.
Staff are reviewing county contracts and employee benefits for potential savings, Long said.
One bright spot he highlighted: Redevelopment in Tysons Corner and Metro’s new Silver Line, which is under construction, will most likely boost Fairfax’s economy and tax base markedly.
But the benefits probably won’t be realized until at least 2016.
Long said supervisors need to think about what the county can do without until then, and they need to strike just the right balance. If they cut too deeply into schools or transportation and other infrastructure, the county could ultimately dig itself in further by damaging its reputation as a place where businesses want to locate.
“We don’t want to lose that,” Long said.