Tough Choices in Fairfax

Monday, December 22, 2008

COME FEBRUARY, Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin will present a budget that must factor in one of the most severe shortfalls in the region, and voters will choose the next chairman of the Board of Supervisors. The potent brew of a historic shortfall and an impending election threatens to inject unneeded politics into the budget debate. Already, Supervisors Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) and Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) are at odds jockeying to replace Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who will resign in January to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Mr. Herrity has called for immediate cuts; Ms. Bulova favors a more deliberate approach. There's room for healthy debate, but the crisis shouldn't become a political tug of war.

Fairfax officials announced last week that the county faces an estimated $650 million shortfall in a $3.4 billion budget for fiscal 2010. The gap, more than $200 million higher than estimates in July, is mostly attributable to plummeting housing values; property assessments have fallen 14 percent since the start of the year. Officials have already instituted hiring freezes, delayed construction projects and called for a one-day furlough of some county employees. They are considering slicing agency budgets by 15 percent, which would generate about $170 million. It's likely the county will delay pay increases for employees, including cost-of-living adjustments. It's also possible that officials will raise the property tax rate incrementally, to make up for some of the revenue lost to falling house values.

The most painful decisions involve the county's superlative school system. School officials have presented three "tiers" of cuts, each more severe than the last. The first two tiers, which would save about $125 million, would require hiring freezes and possible layoffs but keep class sizes about the same. The third tier, which would save more than $200 million, would increase the average class size by three students. With $650 million to cut, there isn't much the county can salvage. But officials should stop short of mandating this final level of cuts, which could debilitate the school system and set achievement levels back for years.

Mr. Herrity says the board is "stuck in process" and is doing little to address the "fiscal train wreck." He said that officials should act now to trim library hours and eliminate other nonessential services. But, as Ms. Bulova and others point out, immediate cuts are apt to lead to layoffs. Although trimming the workforce may be inevitable, the county should follow established procedure for making such decisions. Besides, these are squabbles over relatively few dollars.

The county has been aggressive in educating residents about the budget crisis. Residents should gird themselves for unprecedented, painful cuts.

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