Thousands in N.Va. Face Tax Hikes Despite Efforts to Keep Bills Affordable

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Thousands of homeowners in Northern Virginia will see a jump in their real estate taxes this year despite the efforts of local officials who have slashed programs, raised fees and laid off workers to keep tax bills affordable during tough economic times.

Local officials have promoted their efforts to keep the average tax bill from rising. But not everyone was spared: More than 150,000 households in Fairfax County alone will owe more than they did last year.

"I don't mind paying my fair share. I know we need the money to do all this for the county," said Al Woolf, whose bill will swell by about $1,000, equivalent to a 10 percent jump. "But a 10 percent increase? That's hefty."

Across the region, local officials have spent the past few weeks patching together budgets ravaged by the economic crisis.

Local governments in Virginia get the bulk of their revenue from real estate taxes, which are imposed based on the assessed value of each person's property. When home values plunged by double digits in some parts of Northern Virginia last year, the governments were drained of the money they rely on to pay for schools, public safety, social programs and other services.

Officials across the region are increasing their real estate tax rates to help make up for that loss. In most cases, however, tax bills will go down because of the precipitous drop in home values. But because of the uneven effect of the housing crisis, residents in communities where home prices have been relatively stable will not get the same tax benefit.

In Sterling, one of Loudoun County's aging and densely populated communities in the east, the average homeowner's property tax bill will drop $907. But in some of the more wealthy reaches of western Loudoun, with elegant farmhouses and spacious new homes, bills will rise by about 5 percent, or $241 a bill on average. It is a mixed blessing, said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who represents western Loudoun and has asked for a review of the data to ensure its accuracy.

"Places like Sterling and Leesburg [further east] were hit especially hard by foreclosures. . . . We've been fortunate not to have that happen in my district," Burton said.

The same pattern is evident in Fairfax, where property values have declined by 7 percent in some places and by more than 20 percent in others.

Woolf's four-bedroom home in the upscale Fairfax Station community was assessed this year at $1.05 million, slightly less than last year. But he said he will feel the sting of a $1,000 tax increase. Woolf lost his job in the technology industry in 2002. He works part time as an emergency room technician, and his wife is a public schoolteacher. In his free time, he is also a volunteer paramedic and firefighter.

Unlike in the other jurisdictions, every Prince William County homeowner will see a lower tax bill. The average tax savings will be $435. But it came at a price.

The Prince William school system will receive $26 million less from the county this year despite the expected influx of about 1,420 new students in the fall. Officials said they expect federal stimulus funds to make up the difference. The county also is slashing 140 positions, reducing some library hours and eliminating its Office on Youth.

"We've slashed the budget. We've cut our costs. We've made our government more efficient. And by doing so, we are able to reward our constituents with a sizable tax cut," said Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

In Fairfax, supervisors absorbed a $650 million shortfall by curtailing an affordable housing program, laying off dozens of workers, raising a variety of fees and approving a tax rate designed to give the average homeowner a modest break. That left about half of the county's 330,000 households with at least a slight increase in their taxes.

They said their approach enabled them to better protect the qualities that make the county an appealing place to live: the top-rated schools, the low crime rate, ample services for the needy, environmental initiatives and popular parks and recreation programs. They are the same qualities that help keep property values healthy, officials said.

"I've heard it over and over and over again: 'We're willing to pay a little more,' " said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "I have heard this from everyone from community activist types to retired military Republicans. . . . People recognize what they get for their taxes."

Ted Smith, a McLean resident, said he understood what a difficult task officials had. Although his home value declined slightly, to about $650,000, he expects to owe about $500 more under the new tax rate. It's an amount he doesn't relish paying. But he doesn't resent it, either.

"It's painful. It's kind of like, 'Oh, well, what are you going to do?' We're not going to move," said Smith, who moved to his home more than 40 years ago. "I'm a citizen of one of the best counties in the country with one of the highest incomes in the country. I hope we've learned [from] our spending ways and steer clear of them in the future."

Staff writers Jennifer Buske, Derek Kravitz and Michael Laris and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company