In a Feb. 25 article, it may have been unclear that the increase of $102 million in the spending plan proposed in Fairfax County for the next fiscal year includes a $70.4 million increase for the county's public school system. (Published 2/28/03)
Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin yesterday proposed a $2.58 billion budget for next year that asks residents to pay new and higher fees for ballfields, parking and emergency dispatching, eliminates 49 jobs and reduces a range of services to trim 2 cents from the property tax rate.
But the property tax bill for homeowners in Washington's largest suburb would still be, on average, $424 more than this year's charges -- $3,775 for a house assessed at $317,240, which is the county mean.
With home assessments soaring and other revenue drying up, Fairfax, like neighboring counties, is relying more and more on property taxes to fund its government. Griffin said his spending plan tries to balance two competing needs in a weak economy: sustaining the generous services Fairfax offers its residents while relieving their tax burden.
"Our reliance on the real estate tax has been increasing in a way that is unsettling," he told the Board of Supervisors. "But if we want to maintain the basic services the county is accustomed to and that we take pride in delivering, we have no choice but to rely on it."
Griffin said his budget "touches almost every aspect of this organization in terms of making reductions."
The county would serve fewer mentally retarded adults in work programs, spend $1 million less to hunt down car owners who do not pay personal property taxes, cut counseling for women and teenagers in juvenile detention, fix fewer street signs, mow less grass at parks and hire fewer sign language interpreters. Mental health and alcohol and drug services would be cut, as would funding for new library books. The police department's marine patrol unit would disappear.
Griffin also urged supervisors to consider two other new fees: a $200 charge for ambulance trips, which could generate $2.5 million a year, and a $3 monthly tax on cell phones, which could bring in $11 million.
The property tax rate, now at $1.21 per $100 of assessed value, would slide to $1.19, saving the owner of an average home about $63, officials said. Several board members said that's not enough.
"We're going to have to figure something else out," said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville).
Board members have set up a series of workshops next month to tell the public what a bad budget year it will be and to explain the restrictions imposed by Virginia lawmakers, who bar counties from levying most other taxes.
The budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 would increase spending from this year by 4.12 percent -- $102 million on the county side and $70.4 million for schools. The proposed spending increase is slightly smaller than last year's, when the budget grew by 5.15 percent.
New spending would cover: 52 new police officers and 15 firefighters; surveillance for mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus; staffing for new after-school centers; a new west county recreation center; and a new shelter for homeless families. The budget would eliminate 114 positions through attrition and reassignments.
County staff members are working out details of fees proposed for youth and adult sports leagues, which would affect 176,000 players. Fees for sewer hookups for single-family homes would increase, to $5,431 from $5,247. The so-called E-911 tax rate, a fee that appears on phone bills to defray police communication costs, would rise to $2 per line per month from $1.75. Fares on Fairfax Connector buses would rise to 75 cents from 50 cents.
Griffin also wants to increase salaries for county workers by $11.5 million under a system that ties their pay to the quality of their work. The average raise for county workers, excluding police and firefighters, is now 5.3 percent, he said, higher than the 4.7 percent he envisioned when the program started in 2000.
The only major county agency to be spared a cut is the Economic Development Authority, which Griffin said is "trying to fill all the vacant office space we have." That has rankled some budget watchdogs.
"It just raises the question of whether this should be a fully government responsibility or a service that's shared with businesses," said Sally Ormsby, a leader of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.