Fairfax Tax Bills to Rise for 6th Year

"It makes you gulp a little bit," said Victor Nakas of Falls Church, whose bill could top $4,500. But "if you want good government, you have to pay for it." (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

For a sixth straight year, Fairfax homeowners will see the value of their property and almost certainly the size of their tax bills jump in assessment notices, which were sent yesterday.

Even with the 7-cent tax-rate cut that County Executive Anthony H. Griffin proposed in a budget announced yesterday, homeowners can expect to pay an average of $544 more in property taxes this year, bringing the average bill to $5,029. That number could dip as county supervisors yield to residents' demands for more tax relief. But the value of residential properties in the county's torrid real-estate market rose 20.5 percent on average last year, putting the value of a typical home at $540,746 and virtually guaranteeing that most residents' tax bills will rise.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) pledged to make deeper cuts in the tax rate, which is $1 for each $100 of assessed value. "I do think that we can do even better," Connolly said. "We can clearly afford to do that. We just have to figure out what is a sustainable level" of tax relief.

This year's assessment increase was slightly less than the 23 percent rise in 2005 and reflected similar growth in communities from the District to Loudoun County.

Although the Lorton area in southern Fairfax still has the county's lowest values, those assessments skyrocketed by 25.7 percent, reflecting the growth in that area since the closing of the Lorton prison. And for the first time, the average value of a home in Great Falls topped $1 million.

Although there are signs that Northern Virginia's hot real estate market is beginning to cool, the new round of assessments reflects little, if any, trend down. But analysts say valuations typically lag one to two years behind economic conditions.

This year's assessments once again present homeowners with a double-edged sword: increased equity in what is probably their most significant investment and the likelihood of higher property taxes.

"It makes you gulp a little bit," said Victor Nakas, 52, who lives with his wife and daughter in the Broyhill Park section of Falls Church, a neighborhood of 1950s and '60s homes. His four-bedroom single-story house, valued at $164,670 in 2000, is worth $493,780. If the Board of Supervisors approves the proposed tax rate of 93 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, Nakas's 2006 tax bill will be $4,592 -- more than double the $2,025 he paid in 2000.

Still, Nakas, executive director of public affairs for Catholic University, says he accepts escalating taxes as an inevitable part of life in Fairfax. "If you want good government, you have to pay for it," he said.

Thomas Hamilton, 53, a home improvement contractor who lives around the corner from Nakas on Hickory Hill Road, said he isn't so sure county residents are getting their money's worth. Hamilton, whose tax bill has gone from $2,054 in 2000 to a proposed $4,335 this year, said Fairfax government "spends far too much. I see a lot of waste."

Griffin said he focused his $3.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 on "strengthening our community infrastructure." The blueprint offers few initiatives beyond expanding public safety services and after-school programs, increasing funding available human services, and enhancing bus shelters and stops. It would continue dedicated streams of money -- about $21 million each -- approved last year to battle erosion and pollution caused by storm runoff and increase the county's stock of affordable housing. And it sets aside about $20 million for a Connolly initiative to scrap the annual $25 auto decal fee paid by county motorists.

But Griffin said the theme of this year's budget proposal reflects a cautious approach to finances, given the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. The storm and its aftermath demonstrated "how quickly circumstances can change and how quickly demands can be placed upon a community in a catastrophe," he said as he told the supervisors that he hoped to fully fund a $93 million rainy day fund they created in 1999.

Most of the budget plan's 2.74 percent spending increase would go to Fairfax schools, which would receive $86 million, or 6 percent more than last year. However, the county School Board has requested an additional $40 million, so school officials and the county board will have to resolve their differences.

For about 40,000 households that receive county trash pickups, the annual fees would be boosted from $270 to $315, an increase that could draw opposition at public hearings on the budget in April. The supervisors are scheduled to approve a budget in May.

Other proposed spending increases include 156 new positions, most of which would augment fire and rescue and police staff to reduce response times, staff new stations, fight growing financial crimes and pay for raises for county workers.

County officials said they are buoyed by an increasingly healthy commercial and office market, which experienced steep vacancies in recent years with the dot-com bust. Griffin said a slowing of sales is likely in the county; the median home price rose 7.6 percent in January, compared with 26 percent in January 2005.

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