The Prince William Board of County Supervisors says the public outrage has registered and the complaints have been heard, and it plans to lower the county real estate tax rate beyond the amount County Executive Craig S. Gerhart recommended in his budget.
"The county government and the school division have met and outlined a proposal [that] will be brought to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday and to the School Board Wednesday to reduce the tax rate a total of 7 cents, to $1.16" per $100 of assessed value, said Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large). "There is also consensus to revise the county and school agreement to preclude there ever being a double-digit increase in taxes in the future."
Other supervisors said they would like to go even further. "I'm calling for something $1.15 or below," said Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco).
The spending plan that Gerhart released last month called for lowering the rate 4 cents, to $1.19, usually a substantial one-year decrease. But this is not a usual real estate market. Assessments have risen so sharply that property tax bills would go up an average of 12 percent even at a rate of $1.19. That would come on top of similar increases in recent years.
Supervisors said they would likely cut the county's capital budget -- money set aside to build schools, firehouses and other structures -- to offset the lower tax rate. One cent on the tax rate equals about $2.7 million in annual revenue.
"I think that we might have to take a look at some of our capital improvements programs and defer some of the things we're aggressively pursuing," Jenkins said. "I think everything's on the table to get this tax rate down."
Connaughton said Gerhart would present a revised spending plan in the coming weeks.
Supervisors dropped the rate 7 cents last year and 6 cents in 2001. Whatever rate they adopt this year will be the lowest in county history.
School officials were included in the talks because of their working agreement with the county.
"We don't recommend what the tax rate should be," Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said. "But we can make a recommendation of what we can live with. It's a general understanding that we work together and that we're partners in this."
A reduction to $1.16 is within the range that the school system can deal with, Kelly said. Each penny that the property tax rate is reduced means about $1.5 million less going to the schools because the school system receives 56.75 percent of the county's revenue.
Such a reduction would mean that in future years, the school system might not be able to advance some of its building projects. It may have to reduce the amount of money set aside for renovating and rehabilitating schools. But it won't put a halt to any projects, delay them for years or force class sizes to rise, officials say.
"There will be some blood, but we won't bleed to death," Kelly said.
School Board members have known for several days that such a reduction would be likely. At a School Board work session last week, staff members walked through a scenario in which the tax rate dropped to $1.17 or $1.16.
The work session was intended for the School Board members to "mark up" their proposed budget, making changes and adding or subtracting new projects. Because the property tax rate proposal was still up in the air, the School Board put off proposing big changes in its own budget and will do most of the work this week.
The county's booming economy makes these changes bearable with few changes in services, School Board officials say.
"We can take [the tax rate] to $1.17 or a $1.16 without too much pain because of the new revenue coming in," said School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp. Because revenue from last year was higher than expected, the School Board is expecting extra money in the fall.
Connaughton praised school officials for helping to "address citizen concerns with rising assessments."
"We could never have gotten to this point if it was not for the cooperation and the assistance of Chairman Beauchamp and the School Board," he said.