An article yesterday on a proposed Fairfax County tax break for the National Wildlife Federation misspelled the names of two federation employees. The group's president is Mark Van Putten and the spokesman is Philip Kavits. (Published 12/09/1999)

A national nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $82 million would get a tax break worth more than $300,000 annually, under a plan approved by Fairfax County but now under attack by some critics as precedent-setting and too costly.

Unless the vote is reversed by the General Assembly, which has ultimate authority in the matter, the National Wildlife Federation, with headquarters in Fairfax County, will be permanently exempt from property taxes. Some supervisors and other legislators say the measure is too expensive when there are unmet needs in county schools and services.

Typically, such tax breaks have gone to small groups, such as swim clubs and local charities that usually get a reprieve on no more than a few thousand dollars annually. But two years ago, amendments to county guidelines made it possible for national organizations to apply. The federation did so, and after some objections raised by Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), the board approved its request on a 6 to 3 vote Monday evening.

"We're just giving away taxpayer money to an organization that doesn't need it and shouldn't get it," Connolly said yesterday. "I'm delighted they do what they do, and I'm delighted they're in Fairfax County. And I think like everybody else, they ought to pay their taxes."

Connolly said the vote could set a precedent for the county's major nonprofits, which include the National Rifle Association and the American Red Cross.

But Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) defended his vote for the tax break.

"They meet our criteria," he said. "I don't know that we have a right to say no."

Besides, he argued, the federation is a good Fairfax citizen, providing local environmental and educational programs.

Philip Kafits, the federation's vice president for communication, said the group's mission and efforts--not its size--should determine eligibility.

"We think that the conservation, education and advocacy work that the organization does is exactly the kind of exemplary work that the state of Virginia and the county of Fairfax want to encourage," he said. "Yes, it's a bigger exemption, but I think that means we're also doing that much more good."

Despite Monday night's action, the exemption still needs the General Assembly's approval, and Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) was not enthusiastic about the applicant.

"We have typically turned down people who have got large staffs and salary commitments as inappropriate for government assistance in that regard," he said, noting that the federation was turned down in 1997 for a sales tax exemption because of President Mark Van Tutten's $190,000 salary. Nonetheless, the group received a property tax exemption that year in Frederick County, Va., which was approved in Richmond.

Marcia Dykes, president of Citizens for Sensible Taxation, said a tax break for the federation will mean that someone else will have to pay.

"Who's going to make up the difference?" Dykes asked. "Where is the $300,000 going to come from?"

Joining Connolly in opposing the exemption were Supervisors Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) and Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (R-Hunter Mill) was absent.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.