Fairfax Supervisors Approve $3.3 Billion Budget

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a budget yesterday that reflects the impact of the economic downturn on the region's most populous jurisdiction but keeps taxes steady and maintains what officials described as a safety net for the most vulnerable residents.

The $3.3 billion spending plan slashes 300 county government positions and guts a program for affordable housing. Supervisors also voted to freeze funding for the school system at $1.6 billion, despite projections that thousands of new students will enroll next fall.

However, the budget preserves many programs for seniors, families and the poor that initially had been targeted for reductions. Supervisors restored some of the money initially cut for public safety programs, eliminating the need for layoffs among the uniformed ranks of the police and fire departments.

The blueprint raises the real estate tax rate by 13 cents to $1.05 per $100 of value, including 1 cent to upgrade stormwater management systems. But most residents will see at least a modest decrease in their overall tax bills because of a drop in home prices last year.

The unanimous vote on the budget, which is to be formally adopted Monday, was significant for a board that is often divided along party lines. It was a political victory for Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), who was elected in February after 21 years as the Braddock District supervisor. Known as a consensus-builder, she penned the budget with input from her colleagues after an initial draft by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin.

"I want to thank the chairman for her efforts to reach out and craft a budget that probably didn't make anybody 100 percent happy, but made the most people as happy as we could be," said Michael R. Frey (Sully), one of three Republicans on the 10-member board. "It was a very difficult balancing act."

But it was not without casualties. Karen Conchar, president of the Fairfax County government workers union, estimated that as many as 35 of the county's 12,000 employees could be demoted. An additional 50 could be laid off as of July 1. Most of those targeted are administrative workers, many in the Department of Tax Administration, she said.

"Many people are very demoralized by these cuts," Conchar said. "We feel that before cutting positions, they should have looked at how we do things and come up with some efficiencies."

Among the more contentious reductions was the "penny for affordable housing" program, which used a cent from the property tax rate to preserve affordable housing. Adopted in 2005, it was designed to prevent low-rent apartments from being converted into luxury condominiums.

Advocates, including hundreds of members of the county's faith community, wrote letters in support of the penny program. But yesterday they said that they were heartened by Bulova's assurances that the county would figure out another way to provide housing, including through federal stimulus money.

"What we see in our churches are a great number of people, a dramatic increase in the need for housing, whether it's homeless needing shelter or families being unable to afford their rent," said Henry G. Brinton, pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. "The need for affordable housing has never been greater."

The final version of the budget reverses course on earlier proposals to cut popular programs and increase fees. Supervisors voted not to enact a new local car tax but said they would consider it next year as a way to diversify the revenue stream. They decided against increasing the fee for county children to use sports fields, which had been dubbed the "kiddie tax" by opponents.

They decided not to close any senior centers, including the Groveton Senior Center in Alexandria. They restored several of the public safety programs that were slated for elimination, including a police department unit that inspects trucks for safety violations. And libraries will not close on Fridays, as had been expected, but will have reduced hours Sundays through Thursdays to cut costs.

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