FAIRFAX COUNTY BOARD RACE
Republicans Offer an Ambitious Pledge Amid a Sour Budget Outlook
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Pat S. Herrity wants a new elementary school and middle school for southern Fairfax County. Douglas R. Boulter wants to hire more zoning inspectors. Vellie S. Dietrich Hall calls for more and better-paid police. Gary H. Baise promises roads, an expanded auditor's office and the newly created post of county ethics officer.
And they all pledge to lower property taxes.
Meet the Republicans running for the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 6, when Fairfax voters will fill all nine district seats and chairmanship of the lawmaking body in the Washington area's largest county. Democratic opponents characterize their approach as "cut-tax-and-spend" at a time when Fairfax can ill afford it. Like most counties faced with falling property tax revenues, it will soon have trouble paying for existing programs and services, let alone adding new ones.
Democrats, who hold a 7-3 majority on the board, have a few potentially pricey initiatives of their own. Jeff C. McKay, running against Boulter for the Lee District seat opened by the retirement of T. Dana Kauffman (D), is one of several who want to expand the Code Enforcement Strike Team organized this spring to crack down on overcrowded homes, junk automobiles and other neighborhood-level violations.
And across partisan lines, virtually all candidates agree that new investments in transportation and traffic management problems are a must. None of the Democrats, however, have explicitly promised to also draw down real estate taxes.
Five of the six Republicans running for the board, including incumbent Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), recently signed a seven-point position paper that commits them to reducing property taxes, raising ethical standards and halting development not accompanied by new roads, schools and other public improvements. The lone Republican on the ballot who declined to sign the "Seven Commitments for a Better Fairfax County" -- Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville) -- said she's already working on just about everything outlined in the document.
Republican signatories say that by growing the county's commercial tax base, forcing developers to underwrite more of the costs of infrastructure improvements and taking a hard look at waste in the county's $3 billion budget, services can be enhanced and taxes cut.
"We need to look at creative ways to finance things," said Herrity, son of former chairman John F. "Jack" Herrity (R). He is running against Democrat P. Mike McClanahan for the Springfield seat being vacated by the retiring Elaine N. McConnell (R). Herrity would like, for example, to involve the private sector in school construction.
Democrats reply that this is a familiar tune from the GOP, already played out on the national and state levels.
If elected, "candidates who are running on increasing services and programs are going to get a dose of reality," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, who is running without Republican opposition for a sixth term. Her message is typical of the Democratic incumbents: a more soothing, and largely revenue-neutral, call for protecting current investments in schools and police.
The reality Bulova describes is Fairfax's increasingly tenuous budget outlook. County officials project that residential assessments -- which dipped slightly in 2007 after six years of double-digit leaps -- will drop 4 percent in 2008. For a county that receives about 60 percent of its revenue from real estate taxes, the forecast portends little in the way of new spending.
"It will be extremely difficult to support current operations, much less provide service enhancements in the [fiscal] 2009 budget with such restrictive growth," County Executive Anthony H. Griffin told supervisors in an August report.
Griffin, in anticipation of the looming financial squeeze, has quietly started a "lines of business" review of the county budget, an unusually intense, program-by-program deconstruction of government operations. His analysis, and probably some recommendations, will most likely be presented to the board early next year.
Even Republican incumbent Frey, who signed the "Seven Commitments" and provided mini-tutorials on county issues to the other GOP candidates, concedes that it's impossible to square the proposals for expanded spending with the county's fiscal outlook.
"I felt I had to sign on to some things I know there are contradictions in. You can't promise the moon and lower taxes, too," said Frey, who is running without Democratic opposition for a fifth term. He called the position paper "a little bit of a consensus document."
The challengers might be encountering a more fundamental obstacle this election season: the mood of the Fairfax electorate. Although residents are clearly frustrated by traffic congestion and other results of the county's growth, they aren't necessarily prepared to see big changes in how the county is spending its money, Democrats say.
Celinda Lake, pollster for incumbent Democratic Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, said that despite unhappiness about traffic, she has seldom seen a more content electorate. When likely voters were asked this year if Fairfax was on the "right track" or the "wrong track," a polling question traditionally used to measure the public's desire for change, 61 percent said "right track," 24 percent said "wrong" and 15 percent said "not sure." A Washington Post poll this month found similar results.
"Frankly, there are just no other jurisdictions that feel that good about government right now," Lake said.
Republicans strongly dispute those findings. Boulter said residents are deeply fearful of developers coming into established neighborhoods with infill projects that ratchet up density.
"The opinion work we did suggests that people are really fed up with growth," said Boulter, who favors having one full-time staff member in each supervisor's office responsible exclusively for neighborhood code-enforcement issues.
Republicans have ideas for cutting back. Baise, running against Connolly, wants to tap Northern Virginia's community of retired government budget experts and inspectors general to form a "blue ribbon" panel to review county spending, which he regards as in a "frenzy." He would start by eliminating the county's Richmond lobbying effort, which involves at least 10 county staff members, some who have other duties when the General Assembly is not in session.
Hall, a financial consultant who is challenging Democratic incumbent Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), proposes rolling back the 27 percent pay increase for supervisors that will take effect next year when the new board is seated, raising salaries from $59,000 to $75,000 a year. She would tighten management of the county's housing programs, the subject of a recent Post article reporting that Fairfax is subsidizing rents for some families that earn well into the six figures. She would also more carefully scrutinize the use of outside consultants.
"Fund only the essentials first," Hall said. "Police, firemen, the teachers. Those are the essentials."