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.
But the list of cuts was long. Griffin proposed closing the county's community libraries on Fridays and shuttering the Groveton Senior Center, the David R. Pinn Community Center, the Annandale Adult Day Health Care Center and a mental health clinic in Chantilly. He proposed cutting 524 full-time positions from the county's workforce of about 12,000 and 300 limited-term positions. Griffin said he expected about 200 of the affected full-time employees to be able to stay with the county in other jobs.
In addition, Griffin proposed giving no pay raises to county workers -- a policy that is likely to continue in fiscal 2011. "This is going to be tough," said Sharon S. Bulova (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "This is going to be a very, very difficult budget."
Griffin scattered hundreds of trims among an eclectic list of services. He cut a police program to curb geese and deer populations (to save $127,000); got rid of the county's popular "showmobile" traveling outdoor stage for civic groups ($74,000); and proposed slashing $6,000 for the "I Voted Today" stickers handed out at the polls.
Among the more controversial cuts were those targeting public safety jobs. Griffin proposed slashing 89 positions in the police department and 98 positions in the fire department. Both departments hope to use attrition and, in some cases, demotions to reduce staff levels, but layoffs could occur.
In the police department, 28 positions for school resource officers would be eliminated, many of them from the county's middle schools. Officers who work full time at Tysons Corner, Fair Oaks and Springfield malls would be reassigned. The motor carrier safety program and a program to track known sex-offenders also would be dropped.
In the fire department, two heavy rescue companies -- for serious car crashes and building collapses -- and four ambulances would be shut down, resulting in a 48-person cut.
Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said he is not comfortable with the cuts to public safety and will work to restore them. "To me, cutting 200 public safety officers is not acceptable," McKay said. "We have tons of nice-to-have programs that we need to look at first."
Griffin would raise a host of fees, including for child care, facility rentals and youth sports.
Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler, Tom Jackman, Michael Laris, Kristen Mack, Ann E. Marimow and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.