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Fairfax Cuts Tax Rate, but Bills Will Still Go Up

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

Fairfax County supervisors agreed yesterday to cut 11 cents from the property tax rate to help offset soaring assessments. At the same time, they gave themselves a 27 percent raise.

The tax relief and raises highlight a $3.2 billion spending plan that also would eliminate the county's annual $25 auto decal fee, sparing drivers not only the cash but the annual ritual of scraping the stickers from their windshields. A first vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, but that is largely a formality after yesterday's so-called markup.

Supervisors cut the tax rate to 89 cents per $100 of assessed value -- the lowest in modern history and 4 cents lower than what County Executive Anthony H. Griffin had proposed in his budget. But even with the reduced rate, homeowners will pay higher real estate taxes. The owner of a house valued at $540,746, the county average, will owe $328 more this year, or $4,812, under the spending plan the Board of Supervisors approved yesterday during its final work session on the budget.

The tax relief was a salve for homeowners who, like their neighbors across Northern Virginia, face a sixth straight year of rising real estate values. County officials said yesterday that the value of houses probably will not rise as much in the next year, providing some relief for homeowners but depriving the county of a steady and predictable source of revenue.

"We're starting to see the sale of homes at less than they were selling for before," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), the board's budget chairman. "We need to remember for next year that we're starting to see a different revenue picture."

The budget for the coming year provides for a $93 million rainy-day fund, creates 156 new positions, mostly to increase police and fire staffs, and boosts school spending by 6.5 percent. The $106 million increase is far less than what school officials requested but includes $8 million to increase teacher salaries and keep Fairfax competitive with other systems. The board pledged to give the schools another $8 million from the surplus at the end of the year to help at-risk schools meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The supervisors' first salary increase in eight years will bring their pay to $75,000 from the current $59,000, reflecting similar moves by other Washington area governments. It would not take effect until 2008, after the next election. The 10-member board in Fairfax technically works part time, but the job of serving a county of more than 1 million people is widely acknowledged to be full time. Griffin said he proposed the raise based on an analysis of elected officials in similarly sized governments nationwide and locally, where salaries are higher.

The budget -- 6.4 percent higher than last year -- includes $87 million in new county spending to fund an average 4.25 percent salary increase for fire and police staff and 4.3 percent for employees not in public safety.

But the increases did little to mask tensions among county workers, hundreds of whom picketed public budget hearings last month. Rank-and-file workers protested a pay-for-performance system that began six years ago to reward merit over seniority. Workers got the attention of some board members after complaining that the system rewards some new hires with salaries equal to or higher than those of veterans.

Supervisors agreed yesterday that the system needs to be overhauled but could not agree on how to make changes and whether they could be made this year.

"I think we have the potential for serious morale problems," said Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville). A proposal from Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) for an across-the-board bonus this year was met with skepticism by colleagues who said it would perpetuate any inequities in the system. Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) expressed concern that blue-collar employees would not be eligible for the highest merit raises.

The board agreed to fund a $750,000 study of its salary system by an outside consultant, a decision that did not have widespread support.

To eliminate the decal fee and pay for the lower tax rate, the board made cuts to Griffin's original spending plan. Renovations to courtrooms in the Jennings Building will be delayed, for example, as will acquisition of open space for parkland.

The budget also includes $4 million in new spending requested by individual board members, including $465,000 for a bicycle coordinator and comprehensive map of county bike trails, $104,000 to extend a middle school after-school program, $550,000 to leverage private funding for arts programs and $550,000 to help at-risk teenagers.

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