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Proposed Fairfax County budget would raise taxes, avoid deep cuts

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Fairfax County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. proposed a $7 billion budget Tuesday for fiscal 2014 that would keep spending roughly the same as this year and raise real estate taxes by $260 for the typical household.

To close a deficit that was estimated in November at $170 million, Long’s plan calls for a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, which would be guaranteed to stay the same the following year, along with modest cuts that would largely spare human services and public safety. He also proposed eliminating 91 county jobs, 79 of which are now vacant, and employee pay raises.

For county schools, which are facing record enrollment and receive nearly three-quarters of their funding from the county, Long proposed a 2 percent increase over this year’s $1.8 billion allotment. But that’s about $62 million less than what the school district sought. To meet the district’s request, Long said, the county would have to raise real estate taxes by an additional 3 percent — far more than he was prepared to suggest.

The county executive’s proposed budget is essentially a first draft, and a lot could change before the County Board of Supervisors approves a final spending plan on April 30. Over the next two months, the county will hold community meetings and public hearings on the budget as supervisors decide what to fund and what to cut.

Long has warned since summer that Fairfax would be facing sizable shortfalls in each of the next two fiscal years. In August, he issued a memo to county department heads asking them to scour their budgets for cuts of as much as 5 percent, citing newly anticipated deficits. 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 and slow recovery have led to higher demand for county social services, such as housing assistance.

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

“We are not yet out of the woods as we recover more slowly than we would like from the great recession,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said in a statement. “County revenue projections are essentially flat and contributing to our challenge is the effect that sequestration will have on our economy. Already our commercial tax base is negatively affected by inaction on the part of Congress.”

Because so much is unknown about how the federal cuts would play out, Long said he could do little to prepare except estimate revenue cautiously.

While the total proposed budget is about $500 million more than this year’s spending plan of $6.5 billion, general fund spending under Long’s proposal would decrease by 0.37 percent.

Rather than drastic, across-the-board cuts, Long’s plan includes targeted reductions that would not close facilities or eliminate entire programs. “We spent a lot of time going through each and every agency,” he told reporters.

In addition to the 91 job cuts, which are spread among agencies, his plan would modestly reduce money for some services, such as libraries, parks and neighborhood cleanup, and it would raise fees for others.

Long said he did not consider more severe cuts because he thought the public would object and because the county has already eliminated many programs that were seen as expendable. He said he and the county’s budget staff spent recent months “turning over every rock” looking for efficiencies.

“These reductions were made surgically, not with a budget ax,” he said.

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.

The real estate tax rate would rise 2 cents to $1.095 per $100 of assessed value. For the first time, supervisors will make some budget decisions this year that will last two fiscal years as part of a new, multi­year budget approach that Long implemented shortly after he was appointed last year.

The tax increase would raise about $40 million, most of which would be used to fund the increase for schools and new public safety jobs, including nine additional officers that Long said are needed when the Silver Line opens later this year.

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