Fairfax Orders Cost-Saving Steps, Proposes Furlough

By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fairfax County officials yesterday proposed a one-day furlough of all county employees and ordered across-the-board program cuts and a virtual halt to hiring, capital spending, travel and vehicle replacement as the nation's worsening economy continues to affect the region's largest local government.

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin announced that downturns in the stock market and consumer confidence and continued stagnation in the housing market have combined to pinch a long list of county revenue sources, including real estate recordation and business and sales taxes.

As a result, Griffin predicted a $58.2 million budget shortfall for the current year. Following the pattern of many other local governments in recent days, he ordered a series of what he called "unprecedented" midyear spending cuts to ensure that the county ends the fiscal year in the black.

"I am supportive of the county executive's actions," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "I think they are prudent, preemptive actions in anticipation of a possible shortfall in the range of $50 million to $60 million of revenue based on current economic conditions."

Fairfax joins a growing list of jurisdictions confronting the reality of deep service cuts to offset the local effects of the country's growing economic crisis. In Prince William County, officials announced this week that they might have to slash the budget by as much as a third because of a 37 percent decline in home values. Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland are pursuing furloughs to cut costs.

In Fairfax, Virginia's largest jobs center and one of the country's wealthiest counties, officials must balance the community's demands for quality classrooms, parks, police protection and highways with the reality that doing so will require big tax increases or deep cuts elsewhere.

For the current $3.3 billion budget, which covers county spending through June 30, Griffin said county agencies must freeze all but the most critical vacant positions; cancel all nonessential travel and training; and eliminate all capital equipment spending not already being processed. He also ordered a halt to the county's capital construction, such as library renovations and work on other government buildings.

In addition, Griffin has asked county departments to trim their personnel budgets by 2 percent, on top of the 5 percent approved previously.

Griffin has suspended vehicle replacements for 2009, including those for public safety agencies. And he will recommend that the Board of Supervisors consider a partial withdrawal of $20 million to $30 million from the county's rainy-day fund. The current economic conditions allow such a withdrawal, which is permitted only when revenue forecasts dip substantially below estimates. If the supervisors approve, it would be the first withdrawal since the fund was created in 1999, he said.

Most dramatic, however, is Griffin's proposal to furlough, or send home without pay, thousands of nonessential employees Jan. 2. The idea requires supervisor approval and is likely to be unpopular with county workers accustomed to a paid holiday the day after New Year's.

"The furlough of county employees for even one day is not an action I consider lightly," Griffin wrote to supervisors yesterday. "Clearly, this is not business as usual for the county, but the economic events of the last several months have been unmatched, and I am not optimistic about substantial gains over the next two quarters. Due to the national economic crisis faced by all local jurisdictions, immediate action must be taken."

Although they said it was regrettable that a furlough was necessary, Connolly and Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said Jan. 2 was the best choice because many employees will already be off.

Employees were notified of the proposed cuts yesterday afternoon in an e-mail from Griffin. Yesterday evening, as workers left for the day, several said a one-day furlough seemed reasonable under the circumstances.

"I think, if it's going to save my job, I'm all for it," said one 58-year-old worker in the community recreation department who declined to give her name because she said she is prohibited from talking to the media.

Griffin said yesterday that he was not recommending layoffs, but that he could not rule it out as the county continues to adjust to the volatile economic situation.

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said he would consider supporting the furlough only if it applies to supervisors and senior county managers in addition to the rank and file.

Beyond the current year, the county's budget outlook has also worsened. Griffin had predicted a $430 million shortfall in the 2009-10 spending plan, but that figure is now likely to reach or exceed $500 million, officials said.

It will be difficult if not impossible for supervisors to close that shortfall without substantial tax increases or deep cuts in such core county services as public schools, public safety, parks, libraries and human services, officials said.

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