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Arlington Cuts Tax Rate by 8 Cents

Alexandria Residents Call on Their Officials to Do the Same

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C06

The Arlington County Board approved a $759 million budget yesterday, cutting the real estate tax rate by 8 cents amid a protest organized by Republican activists clamoring for greater tax relief.

Discontent over government spending has been sharper in Arlington and neighboring Alexandria this year than in recent years as property values have skyrocketed and local spending and pricey capital improvement projects have increased.

In Alexandria, which has had an organized anti-tax movement this budget season for the first time in a decade, about two dozen residents showed up at a hearing yesterday on the city's proposed 8-cent tax-rate cut.

In Arlington, where real estate tax bills have doubled since 2001, officials said one of their chief aims was to help those hit hardest by the boom.

The board approved a general fund operating budget that increases spending 5.6 percent over the current fiscal year. It includes $2.1 million for a new program that will give moderate-income homeowners a $500 grant toward their real estate taxes, and earmarks an additional $1.6 million for the county's affordable housing trust fund.

The county is also adding 15 staff positions, including a motorcycle police officer, social workers, and parks and library staff members.

"I think it's a strong, constrained budget," County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) said. "We're reducing the rate of growth, providing significant tax relief and increasing our efforts in affordable housing. It's a good balance."

But some residents said the county should provide more tax relief. Even with the 8-cent cut in the tax rate -- to 87.8 cents per $100 of assessed value -- average county homeowners will see their tax bill increase $482, to $4,023.

"There's not a single one of us that's not experiencing such a serious crunch that we don't know what to do," said Michelle Presson, 35, a stay-at-home mother and member of the Arlington County Republican Committee. Presson was one of about 30 protesters who showed up at yesterday's meeting.

The budget includes an increase in the commercial utility tax, which will bring in an estimated $2 million in additional revenue. Other new fees mean residents will pay about $6 a month more for water, $3 more a year for trash collection and higher fees for some parks and recreation activities.

After the $36 million tax cut and funding the new programs, the county's spending increase will be slightly higher than the 3.7 percent increase proposed this year by County Manager Ron Carlee. The larger increase was attributed to higher costs for transit, benefits for county employees and debt service.

Peter Rousselot, chairman of the county's citizen fiscal advisory commission, praised the county's decision to hold the increase to 5.6 percent, compared with 7.9 percent last year. However, Rousselot expressed disappointment that the county had not funded a proposed $9.7 million rainy-day fund that the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission had argued was necessary in case the hot real estate market stalls over the next few years and revenue falls.

In Alexandria, meanwhile, where City Manager James K. Hartmann has proposed increasing spending 8.7 percent in the city's $471 million operating budget next fiscal year, residents turned out for a hearing on a tax-rate cut yesterday. Even with the proposed tax relief, the average homeowner's tax bill would increase by $418 over last year, to $4,043.

Several neighborhood groups have endorsed plans that call on the city to provide more relief by holding spending increases to 3 to 3.5 percent. Others have called for cutting the school system's budget or delaying several projects, such as a $20 million expansion of Chinquapin Park Recreation Center.

Vincent Argiro, 75, a retired naval officer, said taxes on his Old Town condominium have increased from $1,117 in 2003 to an estimated $3,505 this year, a 214 percent increase. He and his wife live on a fixed income of pension and Social Security.

"It's a worry," Argiro said. "We can't do as much as we'd like to. I'm wondering, are we going to be able to continue living here?"

The Alexandria City Council will vote on its budget May 2.

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