Fairfax Surplus Expands Tax Aid, After-School Programs

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fairfax County supervisors broadened a tax reduction program for the elderly and disabled, expanded an after-school program and bolstered the rainy-day fund yesterday as part of a series of decisions on how to spend a $46.6 million budget surplus.

Unexpectedly high revenue from business and real estate transaction taxes accounted for the bulk of the additional money, county budget officials said.

Soaring real estate assessments in recent years have allowed officials in Fairfax and elsewhere in the region to increase their budgets and also offer a range of more modest tax-rate reductions. Public officials have also been able to expand schools funding and other popular programs, even as complaints about government growth and the rising tax burden have grown louder.

Despite a 13-cent cut in the tax rate this year, Fairfax homeowners are paying about 85 percent more in property taxes compared with 2000 -- for an average bill of $4,448, according to county budget figures. Adjusted for inflation, taxes have increased 57 percent in that time, according to the county. The county's general fund now totals nearly $3.1 billion.

The elderly and disabled, who are often on fixed incomes, have received increased aid from other local jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Prince William counties. Yesterday's move in Fairfax puts county aid at the most generous level allowed by Richmond.

"I would go higher if I could, but the state limits us," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

By loosening eligibility requirements, officials expect to increase the number of people who receive aid under the elderly and disabled program by more than 50 percent, to 8,963. Those with an income of up to $72,000 a year are now eligible if their assets -- outside their primary residence -- are $340,000 or less. The additional yearly cost to the county is $5.8 million. Residents must apply for the aid at the Fairfax County Department of Tax Administration.

For the hundreds of thousands of other county taxpayers feeling the pinch of assessments, Connolly said, "we're doing everything" possible to keep spending and taxes in check.

Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said she hopes to find a way to help low-income homeowners of all ages with their ballooning property taxes. She called on the county staff to help think of creative ways to offer aid without overstepping state limits. Unlike in Alexandria and other cities, Fairfax officials lack the authority to offer poor residents explicit property tax breaks, Hudgins said.

"We do grants all the time. . . . Is there another way to categorize it than tax relief?" she asked. "It's a big problem, and it's a larger population, most likely" than the elderly and disabled, she said. Limits would need to be put in place to keep the cost of any such effort from spiraling, she added.

Among the other budget items approved as part of deliberations on the surplus was an expansion of after-school programs in middle schools, from three to five days a week, at an additional cost of $1.1 million in the first year.

Supervisors also put $14.6 million into the county's "Revenue Stabilization Fund," approved spending $3.5 million on books for the new Oakton and Burke libraries and set aside $2 million for "catastrophic occurrences."

Supervisors yesterday also reiterated how they are allocating unspent funds from fiscal 2005. That includes a previously approved $400,000 for efforts to manage and serve day laborers, which probably will be used at a controversial Herndon site, in Annandale and elsewhere, officials said.

Connolly and his colleagues announced details of a public and private relief network for victims of Hurricane Katrina called Fairfax Families Care, at http://www.fxfc.org . The initial goal is to find 200 jobs, 100 long-term homes and spots for 400 children in public schools.

And the supervisors called on County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to reexamine preparations for a local disaster, including how Fairfax's 14,000 households lacking cars would be evacuated.

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