Sequester, slow recovery loom large in Fairfax Co. budget

With the economy still recovering and with the threat of massive federal cuts looming, Fairfax County officials are bracing for another tough budget season that could be as challenging as any in recent years, despite initial hopes that 2013 would usher in easier choices, officials said.

County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. will present a first draft of the proposed budget to the Board of Supervisors and the public Tuesday.

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Local impact of sequestration
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Local impact of sequestration

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While budget officials tend to be tight-lipped about details before a draft is unveiled, Long has been warning since summer that Fairfax would be facing sizeable shortfalls in both of the next two fiscal years. He projected this fall that the county’s 2014 budget shortfall could be $170 million and as much as $275 million in 2015.

Deep federal cuts slated to begin Friday without action by Congress would make the situation markedly worse, given Fairfax’s heavy reliance on government jobs and contracts.

“The threat alone has already depressed our revenue sources, especially commercially,” said board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), who also heads the board’s budget committee.

Long said the uncertainty over the pending federal cuts, known as sequestration, was the biggest challenge he faced in drafting the spending plan.

In closing out the last fiscal year, supervisors set aside roughly $8 million as a buffer against federal reductions.

Among the few specifics that are known about Long’s proposed budget: County employees won’t see raises in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and schools, which get the bulk of their funding from the county, aren’t likely to get all that they’re asking for.

At the same time, county officials say any cuts needed to balance the budget probably won’t be drastic or across-the-board; rather, they’ll be targeted and bearable. “No one’s going to be using a meat ax,” Long said. “All of these cuts will be surgical.”

And the county’s aim is to keep residents’ tax bills about the same, Bulova said.

“The board feels that’s especially important right now,” she said. “What we’re hearing from residents is that they’re ready for recovery. . . . The thing that is holding us back is the federal situation.”

Last August, Long issued a memo to county department heads asking them to scour their budgets for cuts of as much as 5 percent, citing newly anticipated shortfalls. The projections were based primarily on real estate data that showed weaker-than-expected home sales and prices. The county gets more than 60 percent of its revenue from real estate taxes.

On top of that, the bad economy has led to higher demand for county social services, such as housing assistance.

In preparation for spending cuts, the county held a series of public meetings in November to hear feedback from residents about which services they see as expendable and which should be preserved. The county also solicited input through an online survey, and staff began reviewing contracts and employee benefits for potential savings. In the past four years, the county has eliminated more than 500 jobs in an effort to reduce expenses; its total workforce is now about 12,000.

This summer, Long ordered the implementation of a multi-year budget process (the county will still adopt budgets annually) to bolster long-term planning and to discourage measures that make following years harder, such as the use of one-time funding to fill holes.

The board of supervisors will hold budget committee meetings and public hearings on Long’s proposed budget in March and April. Supervisors will approve a final budget April 30.

One key question will be funding for Fairfax County Public Schools, which are facing record enrollment and need to add teachers. About 70 percent of the school system’s budget comes directly from a county allotment that will be decided along with the county’s spending plan. School Superintendent Jack D. Dale has asked for roughly $92 million more than last year — a 5.5 percent increase — but even he has acknowledged that his request probably won’t be met.

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.

Since 2009, county general fund spending has increased relatively little — about 1.4 percent annually.

Bulova said schools, public safety and human services will remain among the board’s top priorities, but a lot also will be decided by what supervisors hear from the public in the coming months. She said the county’s approach to budget time has always been intensive and inclusive, and she hopes people will take advantage of opportunities to weigh in. “This is the most important thing we do all year,” she said.

One bright spot county officials have highlighted: Metro’s new Silver Line and redevelopment in Tysons Corner, Reston, Springfield and Merrifield will help boost Fairfax’s economy and tax base. But the benefits probably won’t be realized until at least 2016.

Meantime, Long said his goal is to keep the county afloat without cutting so deeply that its future success is compromised. Drastic spending reductions for schools, transportation and other infrastructure could damage the county’s reputation as a place where businesses want to locate — and that’s the last thing Fairfax wants to lose, Long said.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “We have to make sure that our product remains strong.”

 
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