After more than three months of acrimonious debate, a divided Stafford Board of Supervisors narrowly passed a $239 million budget for fiscal year 2000. The budget freezes funding for most county departments and cuts money for a few.

Notably, the 4 to 3 vote last week ensured that there will be no real estate tax increase. Supervisors had debated a number of tax options, including 3- and 6-cent increases, but decided to forgo a hike in favor of reduced spending. The tax rate will remain $1.08 per $100 of assessed value.

"I think we acted very responsibly, holding the line on taxes and having a balanced budget and doing away with what we could do without," said David R. Beiler (I-Falmouth), who voted with the majority. "Some critics on the board claimed it was chaotic and we took too much time. We had to trim back quite a bit. When you do that, you have to be careful."

In lieu of a tax increase, services were cut. The final budget included slashing $238,000 from the sheriff's office, $310,000 from the Geographic Information Systems Department and $75,000 from the parks and recreation department.

That decision could prove problematic for an ever-increasing number of residents, some supervisors say.

"It looks like to me people who come in and want things are going to have to stop wanting things because there won't be

anything there to do them with," said Lindbergh A. Fritter (R-Griffis-Widewater). "When a baby asks for more candy and you just have a quarter in your pocket and the baby asks for a dollar's worth . . ."

Fritter was among those who voted against the budget, along with Ferris M. Belman Sr. (I-At Large) and Alvin Y. Bandy (R-George Washington). The three old guard members of the board cast their votes against the spending plan over concerns about how the county will pay for the increased demand for services.

Without a tax increase, the county's reserve fund balance sinks to $3.7 million, its lowest level in years. The fund stood at a relatively healthy $9.8 million at the beginning of this year, but the county repeatedly dipped into it to pay bills.

Fears of that happening next year are prevalent.

"It's not a good business move," Belman said. "When you have to start borrowing money to pay bills, that's bad business."

At the start of budget negotiations, a tax hike seemed imminent. County administrator C.M. Williams Jr.'s first proposal called for a 6-cent increase. That was pared in half by supervisors leery of dumping such a large hike on homeowners.

Then Robert C. Gibbons (R-Rock Hill) suggested freezing all spending at current levels, holding off on any tax increases and conducting a five-year prospectus of county spending.

The proposal by Gibbons, who is up for reelection in the fall, sparked cries of election-year politicking, and some members quickly denounced the idea. But the plan proved attractive to other members of the board, eager to shift the burden of services to developers rather than putting it on homeowners.

Thus, the coalition that eventually approved the budget was formed.

"The pressure was tremendous, because of continued growth, to raise taxes," Beiler said. "Next year, we won't have any cushion or fluff to peel away from spending. We're pretty serious about our next task, which is making growth pay for itself."

County planning administrators last week proposed a list of 26 changes that would increase the amount of money that builders pay. While avoiding any mention of proffers, the list proposes changes to county fee structures and building regulations that would require developers to pay more money more quickly. The list is now in the hands of the supervisors.