28% Higher Property Tax Rate Eyed in Pr. William

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart proposed yesterday a budget for the coming fiscal year that calls for a 28 percent increase in the property tax rate to cover a shortfall and to pay for public safety programs, including a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Like its Northern Virginia neighbors, Prince William faces a major drop in revenue because of the nose dive in the housing market. The county's problems are magnified by the large number of foreclosures, which has contributed to a 16 percent decrease in residential property values.

After cutting spending by about $19 million, officials said, the county wants to increase the tax rate. The tax rate, 78.7 cents for each $100 of assessed value, would rise to $1.01 under Gerhart's proposal. He said the average tax bill would rise 8 percent.

Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) said he could support a budget that trims $10 million more and keeps residential tax bills flat. Officials said that because of the decrease in property values, the tax rate could rise as much as 19 percent without increasing tax bills. The budget year starts July 1.

"We need to balance the budget without increasing the tax bill on the public," Stewart said. "We need a flat tax bill that makes room for the illegal-immigration crackdown."

Enforcement of the illegal-immigration initiative is expected to cost $6.4 million in the first year, more than twice as much as first estimated. Gerhart said the increase was prompted largely by Police Chief Charlie T. Deane's recommendation to install cameras in police cars to protect the county from allegations of racial profiling. The five-year cost to implement the program is $25.9 million.

The program, which starts Monday, directs county police officers to check the citizenship status of people suspected of breaking the law, no matter how minor the crime. The county also will start to deny some services to illegal immigrants.

Gerhart said the county has no choice but to pay for implementing the policy, which was approved in the fall and divided the community.

"We are entering an environment where the whole world is watching," Gerhart said, adding that Prince William will be considered a "test case."

An opponent of the illegal-immigration program blamed the county's budget troubles on Stewart, who was reelected in November and has said he plans to run for lieutenant governor next year.

"This action took place so Corey Stewart could make a name for himself in the election," Nancy Lyall, a coordinator for Mexicans Without Borders, said of the board's approval of the illegal-immigration initiative in the fall.

"We knew he was going to run for a higher office," and this amounts to taxpayers funding his campaign, she said. Residents are "paying millions" to bolster his political career.

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