Fairfax budget has small tax hike, avoids major school cuts

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

Fairfax County homeowners' property tax rate will rise, but not as much as initially thought, and its public schools will have to make do with slightly less under a budget agreement to be unveiled Friday that relies on better-than-expected state aid and the reinstatement of a local car registration fee.

Although the board's majority has agreed to trim funding to county schools by $16 million, or about 1 percent of its contribution in the last budget, county and schools officials say Fairfax County Public Schools should have sufficient money to avoid drastic cuts in its programs or boosting class size.

But for the second consecutive year, the Board of Supervisors' final draft budget calls for $90 million in cuts. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the budget draft includes cuts that will eliminate about 176 positions through layoffs and attrition, force libraries to shorten hours, and reduce other services.

Last year, the county also eliminated positions, which resulted in reassignments to unfilled slots and layoffs of about seven salaried employees. And, the county imposed a one-day furlough on all employees except those in the schools.

At a time when governments throughout the region are imposing furloughs and layoffs because of the economic downturn, a majority of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors have reached a consensus on closing a $257.2 million gap in fiscal 2011 through a mix of higher taxes, fees, the consolidation of certain agencies and the elimination of some services.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D), who heads the budget committee, said the average homeowner will save $40 a year on property tax bills. Her draft, which was assembled after one-on-one meetings with supervisors and dozens of community forums, will be presented at a workshop Friday. The final markup is Tuesday.

"If you are a homeowner struggling to pay your mortgage, we have not increased your mortgage payment," Bulova said. "We have attempted to keep people in their homes."

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who is not part of the consensus group, the draft fell short in trying to reduce the taxpayers' burden.

"I don't think we should be socking our residents with taxes," Herrity said by telephone while campaigning in a Republican primary for the nomination to challenge Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Fairfax). "Taxes have doubled between 2000 and 2007. We need tax relief."

The board, which had formally indicated it might raise property taxes as much as 12 cents, instead would raise taxes five cents to $1.09 per $100 of assessed value. Because residential property assessments have fallen by 5.56 percent, the average homeowner, whose assessment is about $413,305, would pay $40 less.

But that same homeowner would also pay more to register vehicles. The re-imposition of the car registration fee represents the return of the so-called "decal tax" but without the actual decal that drivers used to affix to windshields to prove that the tax was paid. Under the draft budget, motorists would pay $33 per vehicle, raising $27 million. The fee was eliminated under Connolly when he was the board's chairman.

In addition to the car registration fee and the property tax, other levies will rise. A tax designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay by upgrading storm-water drainage systems will add an additional half a cent to property tax bills. Sewer taxes would also rise 17 percent, costing the average homeowner about $90 more a year.

Bulova said the higher taxes and the car registration fee will spare cuts to popular services. At community forums, people repeatedly said they would prefer to pay more in taxes to maintain the quality of the county's schools and other services, she said.

Among the threatened cuts that have been restored in the final draft are police officers assigned to middle schools; several mental health and social service programs; and connector bus service, such as the RIBS line in the Reston area and the REX line on the Richmond Highway.

The county was able to restore some anticipated cuts because of a decision earlier this year by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the General Assembly to unfreeze a school funding formula, known as the Local Composite Index. That action returned $61 million to Fairfax County. State officials also spared schools from deeper cuts by reducing contributions to the state retirement account. But the savings will have to be repaid, starting in fiscal 2013. That's why county and school officials will set aside about $45 million in reserve.

Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.

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