Pr. William Warns Big Service Cuts Are Likely

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart has asked department heads to slash their budgets by one-third in the coming fiscal year to make up for plunging property tax revenue and home values that have fallen more than 37 percent.

Although everything is on the chopping block, including public safety and education, Gerhart said some departments would eventually be spared the most severe cuts. The request was not meant to suggest an across-the-board reduction, he said, but to identify the potential impact of severe budget cuts.

"Everyone understands why we are going through this exercise," Gerhart said. "The best thing we can do is identify as many options as possible.

"Clearly, there are some agencies that cannot sustain a one-third cut," he said. "For an agency to be two-thirds the size it was means we are not going to do some things that the community has expected of us. At that level of budget reduction, we are looking at service curtailments."

Gerhart said he does not know how much of a shortfall the county is facing but expects to have details by later this month, when the Board of County Supervisors will hold its annual fiscal retreat.

"It's going to be ugly," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), board chairman. "We are going to balance this budget through cuts, not tax increases."

Prince William is among several Washington area jurisdictions facing huge budget deficits. Local governments rely largely on property tax revenue to fund their budgets, and declining home values and sluggish sales are taking a toll.

This time last year, Prince William was facing a $51 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year. The board closed the gap by raising the property tax rate to 97 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, amounting to a 5 percent increase in the average tax bill.

Supervisors and county staff employees also cut more than $20 million from the proposed budget, reducing, among other things, fire and rescue staffing as well as police, foster care and protective services for the children of deported illegal immigrants.

So far this budget season, most jurisdictions are proposing solutions that affect county and school employees more directly than residents.

Arlington County has implemented a hiring freeze to make up for part of a projected $10 million deficit. District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has proposed leaving 400 government jobs vacant and postponing a retirement benefits package for city workers to close a $131 million gap for fiscal 2009.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has proposed unpaid government furloughs and also called on department heads to trim $50 million in spending to shrink an estimated $250 million gap for fiscal 2010.

Unlike other Washington area jurisdictions, Prince William's county employees are not covered by a union and therefore aren't protected by collective bargaining agreements. The county will continue to "manage vacancies" during this fiscal year, Gerhart said.

The fiscal 2009 budget appears to be on target, Gerhart said, with the exception of a reduction in revenue from the state.

"These are uncertain times. We aren't hanging our fiscal hat too heavily on the trend data we have to date," he said, adding that Prince William will continue to slow down capital projects to save money. "Anything we can save against this year's budget will represent cash we can use next year."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company