Arlington County officials are hoping that for the second year in a row, the county may be able to make a small cut in the real estate tax rate.
Last year, the county cut the rate by 2.2 cents to $1.49 per $100 of assessed valuation.
County manager W. Vernon Ford is scheduled to present the proposed $150 million budget to the county board Feb. 11. It will cover the 1979 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
County board member Joseph S. Wholey, who exerts considerable influence on the board on budget matters, said, "I like the idea of reducing the real estate tax rate as much as possible. Every little bit helps. I think we should demonstrate that we have the interests of the taxpayer at heart. I don't think that the Republicans have to be the only people trying to cut taxes."
"There is no question that the tax rate will not be (raised)," said conservative board member Walker L. Frankland. "In fact it looks like we might have enough money to reduce the rate even further." Speculation about a tax cut comes at a time when county employees are seeking pay raises of 7.15 percent.
Although Wholey was elected to the five-member board with the support of the Democratic Party and the liberal Arlingtonians for a Better County (ABC), he has often split with his ABC colleagues on fiscal matters and voted with the Republican-backed members, Frankland and Dorothy T. Grotos.
County board chairman John W. Purdy, who has consistently opposed cuts in the real estate tax rate, said he believes that Arlington's schools and services have suffered because of recent cuts. "I think its ridiculous to toy with the tax rate in this way. Last year's reduction was ludicrous. It saved the owner of a $60,000 houses only $13." Purdy said he favoured raising the rate this year to $1.50 and spending the additional money on improving existing services.
Wholey said that his hope for a tax cut is based on the board's careful examination of proposed expenditures, expected revisions in revenue estimates and money the county would receive should the General Assembly pass either a proposed one cent regional sales tax or a four percent gasoline tax to pay for public transportation.
"As the year goes on things change," Wholey said. "The county manager tends to be conservative in projecting revenue. I've always made it a policy to double check revenue estimates."
Funneling additional revenue into the county's capital improvement program would be an alternative to a tax cut. Wholey noted.
"Reduction of the real estate tax is a priority for at least a majority of the board," said county fiscal analysis chief Anton S. Gardner who oversees preparation of the budget. "There are several bills in the legislature that could lead to increased revenue. Once the budget cycle begins we make new revenue estimates and based upon more recent data we frequently revise earlier estimates."
Ford's presentation of the budget marks the beginning of a three-month marathon of meetings, work sessions and public hearings, during which the county board will scrutinize even minor expenditures. The process, dubbed "a ritual dance" by one participant, culminates in the adoption of the budget and pay raises for county employees scheduled for May 15.
Despite last year's tax cut, made possible by unexpected federal money and revised revenue projections. Arlington homeowners paid more in taxes because assessments rose an average of 8.7 percent.
Despite the possible tax cut. Ford and other county officials say that next year's budget will look quite similar to this year's. "Much of it will be a continuation of current programs at current levels," Ford said of the zero-based budget which will be presented in shopping list form with options for cuts and additions. "The range of choices will be smaller than last year because we have cut and cut and cut," he said.
Ford and Gardner said that Arlington's personal property tax, already the highest in the state, is likely to remain at the $5.90 per $100 valuation it has been for two years. Gardner said that total assessed valuation will probably increase by 8 percent again this year.
Speculation about a tax cut comes at a time when the county's 2,5000 employees, who last year received pay raises ranging from 2.5 percent, are asking for 7-15 percent. Although Ford Declined to name the figure he would recommend to the county board, he said that "anything with two digits is unreasonable."
Public employees in Virginia lost the right to negotiate contracts when the State Supreme Court struck down a collective bargaining law in January, 1977. Public employees groups must rely instead on a "meet and confer" procedure. Last week county manager Ford held a series of meetings with employee groups.
"Last year no one had gotten their act together," said Sgt. Bill Jeannette, president of the Arlington Police Association since 1968. "It's different this year. We're putting together a political action group" to try and influence the size of the pay raise.Jeanette said the police are asking Ford to recommend a 6-7 percent salary increase. Last year county police and fire fighters received 3 percent increases.
Albert Stutz, president of Arlington's Professional Firefighters' Association, said that group is requesting "at least a 15 per cent increase." "The federal government got 7.1 percent," Stutz said, echoing spokesmen for other employee groups.
At a recent meeting of clerical employees spokeswoman Liz Boaz told Ford, "I think the consensus last year is that we weren't listened to at all. I wonder what we're doing here today. I firmly believe that the county knows what it's going to give us before this procedure."
Wholey, who disputes the contention by county employees that they are underpaid, said his budget projections include a 5 percent total salary and benefits package increase for all county employees. "The (2 percent) pay raise the teachers got last year brought them into line with the metropolitan area."
"The problem is that Arlington's salaries have been the leader," said board member Frankland. "Is it necessary to continue that? Can we move into the middle or even fail behind for a while? Many citizens feel we pay too high salaries to county employees."
Arlington's teachers, half of whom are at top scale and currently earn an average of $18,687 annually, have little sympathy with the position of the fiscal majority. Majorie Sale is executive director of the Arlington Education Association which represents 95 percent of the county's teachers.
Sale notes that although Arlington has lost 25 percent of its student population and teaching staff in the last five years, the influx of non - English speaking students has made the needs of the school system more complex.
"The average family income in Arlington is huge." Sale added. (Arlington's median family) income in 1977 was $18,553.) A teacher who lives in Arlington has to compete with these folks for groceries. No one says, "Oh, you teach, here's 10 percent off this basket of groceries.'"
"The superintendent and individual (school board) members have represented to me that 2 percent is unacceptable. I don't know if 7 percent is sacred, but I have some hope. I think the school board is committed to more equitable increases this year."
However, school superintendent Larry Cuban noted that the $36.2 million budget guideline for this year's county contribution to the school system is almost identical. Supt. Cuban, who is scheduled to present his budget to the school board Feb. 2, has repeatedly characterized that guidelines as "unfair."
"If the county board (sticks) to the present guideline then there could not be adequate salary increases for all employees, which they need," he said.There would also have to be program reductions." Supt. Cuban decliined to specify which areas might be affected.