Bitter Medicine In Fairfax Budget

By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fairfax County officials yesterday proposed a property tax increase, layoffs and cuts to education, public safety and social services, all dramatic steps to address a budget crisis caused by the economic downturn that is crunching local governments across the nation.

Although one of the country's wealthiest communities, Fairfax proved that it is not insulated from a recession marked by historic declines in real estate values -- a sobering fact for area jurisdictions still preparing budgets for the next fiscal year.

The loss of property tax revenue prompted Fairfax officials to propose a hefty binder's worth of cuts, a 13.5-cent property tax increase and the elimination of more than 800 jobs. As if to underscore the dire forecast, supervisors voted unexpectedly to block a $95 million plan to centralize county school headquarters in Falls Church.

Gloomier, perhaps, is the news that Fairfax's troubles are likely to continue for at least another year.

Fairfax's property values declined more than 12 percent last year -- less than in outer suburbs but more than in urban centers. As a result, it is something of a bellwether for the region, and residents of surrounding communities can expect to hear similarly grim assessments that government services will be pinched beyond the coming year.

"We're still sliding, and we don't expect that slide to finish until 2012," County Executive Anthony H. Griffin told the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, which is expected to approve a final budget in April.

In Prince William County, the local epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, property values declined 32 percent last year, and leaders are predicting service cuts at least until 2014. And in Maryland, where properties are assessed on a rolling basis over three years, the full effect of the downturn won't be felt immediately. Still, Maryland communities are facing budget troubles of their own, fueled primarily by declining sales and income tax receipts.

"Some bus lines won't run, and lines will be longer at clinics. In some places we may eliminate programs all together," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who is putting the finishing touches on his blueprint for closing a projected $450 million shortfall, about 11 percent of a $4 billion budget. "We have a huge gap to fill."

In Fairfax yesterday, even as assessment notices were being mailed to homeowners reflecting an average decline in value of 12.55 percent, Griffin proposed a $3.3 billion spending plan that is significantly leaner than this year's and attempts to close a $650 million gap. The proposed property tax increase -- to $1.05 1/2 per $100 of assessed value -- is the largest in many years, but the average tax bill would remain even because of declining home values.

Griffin suggested freezing school funding at $1.6 billion, the same level as the current year, despite a projected enrollment increase of 5,000 in the 169,000-student system. School officials, who had asked for a $57 million funding increase, must now trim programs or lobby supervisors for more money.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale predicted in January that if the county did not increase school funding, the schools would have to raise average class size by two students, eliminate summer school and cut some popular after-school activities, including indoor track. Dale said it would take decades for the school system to recover.

The outlook was not dire enough for Griffin to close any police or fire stations or curb the county's signature $20 million program to preserve low-cost housing, and he proposed to increase funding of the county's storm water management program from $20 million to about $30 million a year.

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