Board Approves Budget, Increasing Spending by 7 Percent

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Arlington County Board unanimously adopted an $888.5 million budget yesterday for fiscal 2008, up 7.2 percent from the budget approved for 2007, allowing it to boost school spending, restore human services that had been cut, broaden its environmental initiatives and give employees a raise.

County officials also raised fees and are adding a utility tax, but they stressed that they have avoided real estate tax-rate increases this year, unlike some neighboring jurisdictions.

Arlington's property tax rate will stay at 81.8 cents for each $100 of assessed value. Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, and Loudoun and Prince William counties have raised taxes or are preparing to do so to help balance residential real estate assessments in a slumping housing market against intense demand from residents for good government services.

Arlington officials credited the county's diversified tax base, which is less dependent on residential real estate assessments.

Although those assessments were flat in the past year, commercial real estate assessments, which include apartments and retail properties, rose 13.9 percent.

Under the new budget, the county will reduce car taxes for buyers of low-emission vehicles. It will restore about 10 social-service positions of the 30 it lost last year because of a legal dispute with state and federal officials and spend $25,000 to begin designing a year-round homeless shelter.

The county will raise education funding to $331.3 million, up 6.4 percent from last year; that means it will spend about $18,500 per pupil.

"We spend more per pupil than any school in the region," said Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D), adding that although "some may criticize that," he thinks Arlington residents are proud of their school system and see it as an investment.

The county is also giving its employees a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment on top of the "step" adjustments most workers get, giving them an average raise of 4 percent. County officials said it is necessary to reward good workers to keep them.

Some Arlingtonians think the county is not doing enough to rein in spending when gains in commercial real estate assessments might not be sustainable and when some economists have predicted a long downturn in the housing market.

"There isn't any frugality in this budget," said Wayne Kubicki, a former member of the county's fiscal affairs advisory committee. "This kind of budget growth can't be maintained, nor is it warranted."

Kubicki also criticized some of the new fees and taxes. They include an increase in some parking meter rates from 75 cents an hour to $1 an hour and the creation of the utility tax, which will cost energy-conserving residents little but could hit $72 a year for those who use a lot of power.

The county also is increasing many park and recreation fees. The cost of a half-day nature camp for children, for example, will rise to $102 weekly, up from $80; residents will have to pay $145 a year for a fitness center membership, up from $115. The cost for a nonresident to use the skate park, now $6, will be $8.

During the public hearing at which they approved the budget, officials reiterated support for human services programs and environmental initiatives.

"This budget screams environmental things, which I think is great," said board member Barbara A. Favola (D). "It's a fair budget that reflects our values," said Walter Tejada (D), vice chairman of the board.

The board also authorized the Meridien Group to shift the permitted uses in the Potomac Yard megadevelopment to allow it to build more housing and shops. Meridien is giving the city land for a park, providing money for the county's affordable housing fund, creating public art on the site and pledging to give several roads to the county to maintain them as part of the public street grid.

Several Arlington residents who spoke at the hearing said the county should have required the developer to build housing for people of varying economic levels.

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