More than 100 Arlington residents attended two public hearings last week to voice their opinions about the county's fiscal 2004 budget and proposed tax rates, and speakers ranged from those who want their taxes cut to those who say they are willing to pay higher taxes to maintain the current level of county services.
The forums were held to give residents and special-interest groups an opportunity to make suggestions, offer support for programs and raise concerns about County Manager Ron Carlee's proposed $662 million budget, which board members will vote on this month.
About 80 people spoke at the first hearing, with comments that included sharp complaints about budget priorities and pleas for more money for the elderly and social service programs.
Affordable-housing advocates lobbied for additional support for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a county program that helps subsidize affordable housing projects either through the purchase of properties or by teaming up with developers to convert individual affordable units in market rate buildings.
The largest and most vocal group, however, were representatives of the county's general employees -- clerks, janitors and others who do not work in public safety or schools jobs and who beseeched the board to revamp their retirement plan. Many said that Arlington has the poorest retirement system for employees in their classification in Northern Virginia and that it desperately needs an overhaul.
At the second hearing, residents expressed their opinions about the county's tax rates and spoke most passionately about the real estate tax rate, currently 99 cents per $100 of assessed value. Carlee did not recommend a tax rate cut in his proposed budget. The average county homeowner faces a $462 increase in real estate taxes if the board does not cut the rate, a result of rising property value assessments. Last year the board reduced the rate by 2 cents, but many residents are pushing for a larger cut this year, arguing that the difference could be made up by cutting funding for several county programs and departments. About 30 speakers testified at the hearing.
"The question tonight should not be 'shall we cut the rate?' but rather, 'how much do we cut the rate?,' " said Wayne Kubicki, a member of the county's Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission and a frequent critic of the board's financial management.
Kubicki said he is concerned that Carlee's budget calls for a 5.4 percent increase in spending from last year -- a jump of $34 million -- even with minimum population growth projected and low inflation. He, and others, said the county should be able to weather a cut in the rate of about 5 cents, particularly if the board follows some of the recommendations made by the Fiscal Advisory Commission, including cuts in some departments and services.
But other speakers said the board should keep the tax rate where it is to maintain social services such as support for the mentally disabled, and affordable housing and living wage initiatives -- some of which Carlee has included in his spending plan.
"I want to be counted as an Arlingtonian who is more than willing to pay the taxes needed to support the governmental programs and services that a good community needs," said Betsy Samuelson Greer, a North Arlington resident who saw the assessment of her Henderson Street home increase 25 percent. "You should know that many Arlington citizens see the current assessment rise as an opportunity to maintain county revenues to expand worthy but under-funded services," she told the board.
At the earlier forum, however, much of the focus was on county employees, many of whom stormed the public hearing with signs that read "Fair Retirement: Arlington General Employees" and other slogans. Several employees told the board that although they enjoy working for the county, they think that the retirement system for the 2,500 general employees is unfair. The workers, represented by the Arlington General Employees Network Association, say that the county's contribution to the retirement system -- about 3 percent -- is not enough. They want the county's contribution raised to match what employees contribute -- 5 percent. The employees argued that all other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia generally have better systems, resulting in more money being contributed to monthly pension payments for their employees.
"General employees should be compensated not only like other counties but [like] other employees within Arlington County," AGENA President Brenda Kriegel said, referring to the group's contention that county police and fire employees have better retirement benefits.
County officials said they would consider those concerns during budget deliberations but pointed out that other parts of the Arlington retirement plan were competative in comparison with other jurisdictions.
"I'm a listening mode right now," said Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D), who pointed out that there were some advantages to the Arlington benefits program, including a relatively high health benefits package. "It'll be one of the many things we'll have to consider as we look at the manager's budget."