The average value of a Fairfax County home rose about 14 percent this year, county officials said yesterday, meaning that real estate tax bills for homeowners could very well take a double-digit jump for the third straight year.
Property tax bills, which rise and fall with home values, jumped 13 percent last year and 14 percent this year, according to county figures for a typical household bill. Next year, barring a plunge in the real estate tax rate, the typical bill is likely to rise by 12 percent or more.
"We recognize this increase as a very serious problem for homeowners," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee. "I'm sure we will hear this year from people who say taxes should be cut. But at the same time, we will hear from people about the degradation of services that they value, and that's when things will get tough."
The forecast, presented by the county's chief financial officer, Edward Long, at a meeting of county leaders Monday, and first reported in the Journal newspapers, portends a lively political tug-of-war over taxes within the county and between the county and the state.
Each of the county board's 10 seats, including the chairman's, is up for election in November.
As the electorate faces rising tax bills, the state is expected to be of little help. Virginia, which partially funds Fairfax schools and other services, is facing a $6 billion shortfall in its $50 billion, two-year budget and is expected to cut its allocation to the county by $52 million.
Responding to these bleak forecasts, supervisors have begun lobbying members of the General Assembly for the authority to levy new taxes on hotels, cigarettes and meals, taxes that would fall, at least partially, on nonresidents rather than homeowners.
"The object is to lessen our reliance on the real estate tax," Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), chairman of the county's legislative committee, said. "Virginia makes local governments rely on the real estate tax. It's unhealthy."
Some critics of the county's budget said they are skeptical of the dire predictions. They argue that the supervisors need to cut back on what they call frivolous school spending.
"I see it's time for the annual Fairfax budget crisis," said Arthur G. Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance. "It's all staged every year. You know that in January, [School Superintendent Daniel A.] Domenech is going to ask for more money. Then the teachers will rally outside the county building. Then there will be tense discussion. And then the supervisors will raise taxes and blame it on the schools."
Some supervisors appear impatient with the demands for school money.
"We don't have time or room for games," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), suggesting that school officials have at times raised the specter of budget cuts to mobilize political forces. "If we say we need to cut the schools budget, they say, 'Fine, we'll drop the gifted and talented programs,' which means you fire up the most persistent and active parents."
Domenech rejected such notions, however, saying he is planning on a 7 percent increase in the county contribution for schools.
"If I don't have the money, then things have to get cut," Domenech said. "This is a schools system that is growing, and no one seems to want to acknowledge that. Somebody has their head in the sand."
Because the Board of Supervisors has yet to set an official tax rate for the 2004 fiscal year, no one knows just how much tax bills will increase. But for planning purposes, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin (D) has been asked to prepare a budget that assumes that the tax rate will drop slightly, from $1.21 per $100 of assessed valuation to $1.19. At that rate, the typical bill would rise about 12 percent.
It's not something to which such homeowners as Gene Hall, 68, look forward. People are already at their financial limit to buy a house in Fairfax, he said, because "you keep saying to yourself, 'Okay, I'll push it now, and I'll buy this home.' But then they raise taxes on you. "You can't really do anything about it. You can contest your assessment, but it'll go up again next year."
Staff writer David Cho contributed to this report.