By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Fairfax County taxpayers should brace for a 3-cent rise in the property tax rate to cover funding shortfalls for public schools and human services this year, several supervisors said.
After three marathon evenings of budget hearings last week during which almost 300 residents, business leaders and program advocates spoke, supervisors said they are inclined to increase the tax rate because of what they say is broad public support to protect schools and such social services as homeless shelters, a suicide hotline and other mental health programs. The county board is dominated by Democrats who say they intend to listen to those who spoke passionately at the hearings.
"You can't just ignore the community when it speaks," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock). "There is reason to have some increase in the tax rate in order to fund our highest priorities and to make sure that we're protecting the quality of life that people value."
Bulova and others added that the size of increase and how it will be divided up must still be decided by board members over the next two weeks. But one likely scenario, she and others said, is to dedicate 2of the 3 cents, or about $45 million of the $68 million total, to the school system with the rest going to various county programs. The board is scheduled to adopt a final budget April 21.
Because of an average decline in property values of 3 percent this year, most tax bills would remain the same or decline slightly with a 3-cent rate increase, to 92 cents for each $100 of assessed value. Such an increase would produce a tax bill of $4,600 for a property worth $500,000.
"What was striking in the hearings was clear consensus from the school community, human services, business leaders and public safety," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), board chairman. "A3-cent tax increase still reduces in real dollars the average tax bill. It is a modest refinement of a low tax rate, especially when you look at what our neighbors are doing."
The region's worsening economic climate has hit Fairfax with its most difficult budget crunch since the mid-1990s. In late February, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin proposed a $3.3 billion annual spending plan that called for flat spending on schools and government services for the year beginning July 1.
After years of booming growth, Griffin predicted a 3 percent decline in residential property values and a decline in revenue for the first time since the 1992 recession.
Raising the tax rate 3cents would enable supervisors to add spending or eliminate some of Griffin's cuts. For example, Griffin, facing a $152 million shortfall, proposed giving schools none of the $64 million in additional funds they requested. Now, board members are leaning toward giving them about two-thirds of that.
The rest of the tax-rate increase revenue would be used to establish a third strike team to help crack down on zoning violations that contribute to neighborhood blight. Without the additional team, Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee) would not support the budget, he has said.
Supervisors also would reverse Griffin's proposal to use approximately $7 million of a $23 million program for storm-water management projects to cover salaries. They would restore funding for a number of programs operated through the county's Community Services Board, including CrisisLink, a suicide hotline service that would have lost its entire $135,000 allotment under Griffin's proposal.
CrisisLink sent 67 supporters to the budget hearings.
"What's at stake is provision of our free, confidential hotlines for the region," Carol Loftur-Thun, CrisisLink's executive director, said in a telephone interview, noting that Fairfax accounts for 74 percent of the agency's calls in Northern Virginia. "Fairfax's support allows us to provide 24-7 services."
Both Bulova, who leads the board's Budget Committee, and Connolly said that further cuts are in order. Connolly said he is adamant about reducing Griffin's proposal to add 41 positions plus the necessary office space, at a cost of almost $9 million, to the county's transportation department.
"This is the wrong year to expand," Connolly said. "This is the wrong year to make new endeavors."
At least two board members -- Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) and Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) -- would like to cut even further. But as the board's only Republicans, they are likely to be outnumbered.
Still unresolved is whether the final budget will tap into the county's rainy day fund, which is reserved for emergencies but which Bulova, Griffin, Herrity and business leaders say should be left alone because next year's budget cycle is expected to be even worse ("Some of us plan to be on the board next year," Herrity said, a dig at Connolly's campaign for Congress this year).
Connolly supports using part of the reserve fund and perhaps raising the tax rate by only 2 cents . One compromise, he said, would be to leave the fund alone but insert language in the county budget giving Griffin broader latitude to use it during the year if the county's financial health worsens.
Also unknown is whether the county will follow Griffin's recommendation to impose a 12-cent surcharge on the property tax rate for commercial land owners. State lawmakers authorized local governments to impose the surcharge as part of landmark transportation legislation last year to pay for road and transit projects. But with the economic downturn still worsening across the region, business leaders have asked the board to raise the tax by 10 cents this year.
"We want to keep Fairfax County competitive," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.