Northern Va. property values, and tax bills, are up — but public services aren’t


After parking his car, Animesh Gupta walks his two children, ages 5 and 7, to their school on March 11 in the Falls Church area. Homeowners in Fairfax County have seen their real estate tax bills go up but not their wages or the quality of government services. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The ranch homes, colonials and McMansions of Northern Virginia are increasing in value — a sign of a regional recovery, economists say, after years of falling home prices and recession.

But higher assessments also mean heftier property tax bills when pay raises are still scarce, the cost of living is up, and roads and schools look worn after repeated government cutbacks.

“What are we getting for our money?” asked Animesh Gupta, 38, a computer consultant who is supposed to pay about $700 more in taxes on his Falls Church rambler and is tired of waiting for sidewalk repairs and a traffic light outside his children’s elementary school. “This neighborhood has been neglected. It is just a mess.”

Such aggravation is boring into Northern Virginia officials who want to keep spending down in the still-sputtering regional economy despite growing demands to invest in schools, roads and other services. As counties prepare to adopt new budgets, polarizing debates are underway over whether to raise tax rates for spending projects or lower them to help homeowners who feel besieged by escalating expenses.

At packed public meetings and in angry phone calls, local officials say, the same message is echoing from all sides: We’re fed up.

“It’s very frustrating, right now, to try to manage expectations,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County, which, like neighboring Loudoun County, is locked in a battle over school funding that could lead to a higher tax rate — and even larger monthly payments.

“People are impatient to see an end to the recession and its aftermath,” said Bulova (D). “They are paying more and getting less service.”

Cuts to libraries, parks, schools and bus routes since the 2008 recession have negatively affected the quality of life of some residents in this part of Virginia, where top schools and amenities have long been a magnet for families. When much-needed infrastructure projects were launched, officials often paid for them by creating special tax districts and other charges that they passed on to increasingly resentful residents and businesses.

In Fairfax, sewer rates have nearly doubled since 2008, to $6.62 per 1,000 gallons of water, while real estate property taxes have climbed nearly 20 cents during the same period to a current level of $1.085 per $100 of assessed value. That means a house worth $500,000 in 2008 would have had a property tax bill of $4,450, and a house of the same value today would have a bill of $5,425.

Fairfax officials recently advertised a new residential property tax rate cap of $1.105 per $100 of assessed value, which will allow the county to raise the rate by up to two cents to fill a $64 million funding gap projected by school district officials. There is also a push to raise the tax rate in Loudoun, to bridge a $40 million school funding shortfall.

In those jurisdictions and in Alexandria and Arlington and Prince William counties, officials are starting to debate whether it’s time to start spending more on schools, athletic fields and government programs. Assessments, and therefore tax bills, are also up in the District and the Maryland suburbs, where budget debates will begin in the next few weeks.

Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) said he is girding for a political battle over plans he supports to allow the average tax bill in the county to increase by 5.5 percent — a jump that accounts for higher property values and a slightly lower tax rate cap of $1.158 per $100 of assessed value.

“I led the board into the cutting that we did” after the 2008 recession, Stewart said. “What I didn’t realize was that it was going to be just as difficult to lead the board out of the austerity program and into normal times.”

His colleague on the county board, Supervisor Peter K. Candland (R-Gainesville), argued that normal times have not arrived and that the recovery from the recession is far from complete.

“How many people since last year have received a 5.5 percent increase in their pay?” Candland said. “The economy is getting better, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to take more money from folks.”

Although some property owners say they are happy about the growing value of their properties, others are frustrated by the heavier financial burden.

“All of these things add up,” said Darren Ewing, who lives in McLean and anticipates a $600 increase in his annual tax bill. “Five dollars more here. Fifty there. Next thing you know, you’re transferring a significant portion of your wealth over to the municipality and you’re going: ‘Wait a minute. Am I getting anything for this?’ ”

Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, called that frustration part of a lingering “hangover from the recession.”

“We’ve all had to tighten our belts,” Fuller said. Although job growth has started to recover in many industries and the overall gross domestic product has rebounded, “it just doesn’t feel good yet,” he said.

The tension can be palpable. On Monday night, more than 70 people crowded into the Alexandria City Council chambers to object to another year of proposed austerity. Judges argued against cuts in supplemental funding for juvenile court clerks. A police officer who had two heart attacks last year and is about to retire objected to the city manager’s plan to have retirees pay their own life insurance premiums.

Mayor William D. Euille (D) urged more patience from the standing-room-only crowd, saying projects underway in the city will eventually pay off. “These are challenging times,” Euille said. “Without economic development, we’d be seeing a tax rate increase.”

Residents in other jurisdictions are also pushing for more spending, particularly on schools. More than 60 people — many wearing T-shirts that read “Class Size Matters” — lined up at a recent Prince William board meeting to seek more money for schools there. In Fairfax, a crowd of teachers and parents cheered after the Board of Supervisors voted to advertise the higher tax rate cap — which gives it flexibility to try to meet a request for $98 million in additional school funds.

Vienna resident Kelly Lund said her tax bill will probably go up about 10 percent this year because her home has increased in value. She’s willing to pay extra taxes, she said, if it means class sizes at her son’s elementary school will shrink to the level before recent funding cuts. She also wishes her daughter’s high school would not have to eliminate a class period, which could affect the girl’s ability to take college prep courses.

“There needs to be some way to have a reliable funding formula in the schools so we don’t have to do this,” an exasperated Lund said. She said she would back creation of a meals tax at county restaurants — an option Fairfax voters have rejected in the past.

Gupta said he plans to appeal his property assessment in hopes of lowering his bill — an option exercised by about 180 homeowners, county officials said. He received a letter from Fairfax County last month saying the house, built in 1954, is worth $70,000 more than it was two years ago.

Money has been especially tight since last year, Gupta said, when federal sequestration cuts cost him a major consulting job. He seethes each morning as he drives his children the two blocks to school — a trip he says is unsafe for them on foot because of the narrow, unkempt sidewalks and the chaotic, signal-less intersection.

“Do you see that?” he asked on a recent morning, as a car rushed past county police officers directing traffic. “With 20 percent more [in taxes after assessments], come on, you’ve got to do something.”

Caitlin Gibson and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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