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Pr. William Budget Passed With 16-Cent Cut in Tax Rate

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B04

Prince William County homeowners will see the lowest real estate tax rate in nearly four decades, but they will still pay on average $128 more in property taxes this year under the $765 million budget the Board of County Supervisors approved in a 6 to 2 vote yesterday.

The tax rate reduction follows the lead of other Northern Virginia counties that are slashing rates to mitigate skyrocketing real estate values, which have roughly doubled in the region since 2000. In Prince William, the average assessment of an existing home has soared from $266,502 to $327,433 in the past year, according to the most recent data available.

The fiscal 2006 budget, which begins July 1, establishes a tax rate of 91 cents per $100 of assessed value, meaning the average tax bill will be $2,980 -- considerably less than in neighboring Fairfax County, where the average tax bill will be $4,448, based on Fairfax's average home value of $444,766 and a tax rate of $1 per $100 of assessed value.

Tax increases in Prince William have been a shock for a community known for its affordability. Rapid growth, especially among the population of school-aged children, has increased the need for schools, roads and other infrastructure and services, said board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R).

"We're seeing 3,000 additional students a year. That's $30 million a year," he said, calculating school spending of nearly $10,000 per student.

About 57 percent of the budget goes to schools under an agreement with the school board. The spending plan includes the construction of two elementary schools and nine road projects, Connaughton said.

Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) praised the budget as addressing the county's needs while keeping taxes reasonable. The current tax rate is $1.07. The last time the tax rate was under $1 was 1967, when it was 90 cents.

In the fall, the board directed County Executive Craig S. Gerhart and his finance staff to hold any tax increase to 5.9 percent or less. This budget season, Gerhart proposed that increase and a 92.4-cent tax rate. Connaughton recommended shaving another penny and then some by dipping into an estimated $15 million surplus from this fiscal year. Under the budget approved yesterday, the county will use $5.2 million of that surplus to reduce the tax rate, and taxes will increase an average 4.5 percent.

Jenkins challenged supervisors Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan) and John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who cast the dissenting votes, to find places to cut the budget.

"In fact, if you wanted to cut the budget back, we could have cut what school you wanted or a road project," Jenkins said.

Stewart said that schools and roads are fundamental services of government and that he was not interested in cutting them. "We don't want to cut the flesh. We need to look at the fat," he said.

The fiscal 2006 budget increases spending by 12 percent over the current $681 million budget.

The fat, Stewart said, was in $11.9 million dedicated to community groups and charitable agencies, which was about $2 million more than this fiscal year and $700,000 more than Gerhart's proposal.

Stirrup said the county continually adds services without looking for cuts. "There was no discussion of an offset," he said.

Stirrup and Stewart said they would suggest holding any future increases to the rate of inflation, which is currently less than 4 percent.

In an interview, Connaughton said population growth should be considered in any formula for a tax cap.

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