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After Pleas, Fairfax Set to Cut Tax Rate By 13 Cents

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page B01

Fairfax supervisors are preparing to slash 13 cents from the county's property tax rate Monday, making it the lowest in modern history.

But even at that rate -- 3 cents lower than what the county board initially advertised -- the owner of a house valued at the county average of $444,766 would pay $4,448, which is $364 more in real estate taxes than last year.

The reduction of the real estate tax rate from $1.13 per $100 of assessed value to $1, and two sources of money earmarked to preserve affordable housing and fight erosion and pollution from storm water runoff, are the highlights of a $3 billion spending plan the board approved yesterday during its final budget work session.

The board is scheduled to take a preliminary vote Monday on the budget for fiscal 2006, which begins July 1. A final vote is expected April 25.

Virginia's largest local government, like its neighboring counties and cities, is under pressure to offer relief from spectacular real estate tax increases that have accompanied a 23 percent jump in home values last year. Almost every government in Northern Virginia has proposed tax rate cuts this spring.

But at the work session yesterday, the real meaning of tax relief and the political pressure many local officials are facing from angry taxpayers set off a rapid-fire exchange between the board's top Democrat and its most vocal Republican.

"Have we ever returned $230 million to the taxpayers before?" board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) asked budget chief Susan Datta, calculating the value of the 13-cent reduction.

"No," Datta replied.

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) shot back: "Have we ever had a 23 percent increase for residential properties in a single year? This is not a tax cut. People are paying more in actual real money."

Connolly countered that the increase in values will give the owner of an average home as much as $100,000 in new equity.

About half the money it will take to cut the tax rate by 13 cents and the $18 million dedicated to affordable housing will be funded mostly by a windfall in real estate recordation fees and the cigarette tax, which both increased last year. Cuts to the spending plan proposed in March by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin will cover the rest.

For example, a book-buying program for the planned Oakton library will be put off, and the board will not fund a request from the Economic Development Authority to open an office in California. Sheriff's deputies will not receive a pay increase they requested above a cost-of-living raise to reach parity with police.

Most of the budget's 6.9 percent spending increase will go to schools, which will receive $1.43 billion, 8.4 percent more than they got last year.

The budget also would fund about 200 new positions, the majority in public safety.

Affordable housing is quickly becoming out of reach in a county that created 25,000 new jobs last year but has some of the region's priciest housing. The board's priority is to preserve existing houses or condominiums that otherwise would be converted to the luxury market. The new money would preserve 1,000 units.

The budget also includes $4.1 million in new spending, much of it requested by individual board members, for new radar units for the police, increased pay for court magistrates, part-time workers to address increased use of some county parks, automated defibrillators and expanded after-school programs.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company