Board Takes Step to Raise Commercial Tax

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors paved the way yesterday for an increase in the tax rate on certain commercial and industrial property to pay for up to $110 million in transportation improvements.

The board's unanimous vote does not automatically raise the rate. It prepares the legal ground for the county to take advantage of the transportation bill passed by the General Assembly in April. That measure allows localities to increase the tax rate on shopping centers, office buildings and warehouses by as much as 25 cents for each $100 of assessed value to underwrite transportation projects.

Commercial and residential property in Fairfax County is currently taxed at the same rate of 89 cents for each $100 of assessed value. One penny of the tax rate is equal to about $4.4 million.

The board has not decided how much of an increase it will seek. The resolution passed yesterday authorizes County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to propose a higher rate as part of the budget proposal he will submit to the board early next year.

The measure drew no opposition at a public hearing preceding the vote. William D. Lecos, president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said the business community had long opposed any differentiation between residential and commercial tax rates.

However, "desperate times call for different measures," he said in a letter to the board, referring to the need for transportation improvements. He said chamber members expected a "modest" increase of about 10 cents for each $100 of assessed value.

Brian Gordon, Virginia vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association, said his organization did not oppose the tax but urged caution in deliberating about its size. He also said that a 10-cent increase would be acceptable.

The state transportation bill is the target of numerous legal challenges that could wind up being decided by Virginia's Supreme Court.

In other business, the board approved a Saturday start date for implementation of a new "living wage" policy to lift the salary of low-paid county employees. It calls for county workers to be paid at least $12.75 an hour and encourages -- but does not require -- private employers and county government contractors to pay the same rate.

The county joins Alexandria and Arlington County among the more than 130 communities to pass some form of the law. Fairfax's measure, however, directly affects fewer than 50 employees.

Arlington's living wage law, in effect since 2000, is more expansive, applying to contractors working in county buildings. Arlington based its ordinance on the General Assembly's amendment to the state purchasing law, which allows localities to select competitive bids based on "best value." Arlington officials have construed that to mean that contractors that pay their workers higher wages deliver a better product.

Fairfax County Attorney David P. Bobzien has told the board that the county lacks the authority to impose a living wage requirement on contractors without express approval from state lawmakers.

The measure will cost the county an estimated $55,000 a year.

The board also approved a $1.1 million expansion of Fairfax's Code Enforcement Strike Team, a new effort to crack down on overcrowded housing and other neighborhood-level problems.

The county launched the team in June in response to complaints that problems such as junk automobiles, noise and trash were degrading the quality of life in some communities. The current set of multi-agency teams has been stretched thin, officials said. The additional money will be used to pay for 10 positions in fire and rescue, the county attorney's office, planning and zoning and other departments.

The funds come from a $30 million surplus carried over from the fiscal year that ended June 30. The bulk of that sum will be set aside for next year's operating budget.

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