An article April 13 about Fairfax County candidates who have taken an anti-tax pledge incorrectly attributed to Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) a statement that property tax bills would rise by more than $300 on average if supervisors shave 5 cents from the current tax rate. (Published 4/15/03)
A dozen Fairfax Republicans running for the state legislature or county board -- including a candidate for Board of Supervisors chairman -- have pledged to cap property taxes, grabbing hold of an anti-tax fervor they hope will define the fall elections.
The pledge is modeled after the broad Taxpayer Protection Pledge, created by conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and taken by many candidates seeking national and state office. But the Fairfax pledge -- a first-ever commitment by GOP candidates for local office in Virginia -- is far more specific: It limits the revenue their county can raise from real estate taxes.
"The keynote of my campaign is restricting the growth of property taxes to reduce the burden on families," said Mychele B. Brickner (At Large), a school board member running for board chairman. She decided Friday to take the pledge.
The candidates who have signed on say that if elected, they will vote for budgets that limit the county to a 5 percent annual increase in property tax revenue.
The other option, they say, is that Fairfax could raise its real estate tax rate by its rate of population growth plus the rate of inflation. The higher of the two tax rates would prevail and the cap would apply to commercial and residential taxes.
The pledges were quickly assailed by Brickner's opponent in their June primary and by incumbents on the Board of Supervisors, who said a tax cap would devastate public safety and services for the poor and schoolchildren in a county that cannot tax incomes but must rely increasingly on property tax revenue to balance its budget.
Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (Providence), who probably will be the Democratic candidate for board chairman in the Nov. 4 general election, called the pledge "the height of irresponsibility and political pandering."
"It sounds nice and it feels good," Connolly said. "But it won't be successful in Fairfax County." He said that since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the county has spent upward of $80 million on homeland security, police hiring and bioterrorism protections -- costs that the county would not be able to cover if its revenues were restricted. He also said supervisors probably will enact a cut as deep as 5 cents in the tax rate of $1.21 per $100 of assessed value. Tax bills still would rise by more than $300 on average, he said.
In recent weeks, candidates for county supervisor and the state legislature have been approached about the pledge by Peter Ferrara of McLean, founder of the Virginia chapter of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group.
"I expect to win a lot of elections on it," Ferrara said of the promise to restrict property taxes. "It's a very reasonable limit. It just says, 'I won't vote for a budget that raises my average tax bill by more than $1,000 over three years."
John F. "Jack" Herrity, a former board chairman who is challenging Brickner for the GOP nomination for chairman, said the board he led from 1976 to 1988 raised taxes by an average of 4 percent a year.
"They want to cap spending at 5 percent," Herrity said. "Well, I've been there and done that, and I don't want Peter Ferrara or anyone else telling me how to do that."
The anti-tax pledges reflect the hopes of conservative Republicans to capitalize on a victory last fall, when they helped defeat a new regional sales tax for transportation projects.
Activists are targeting property tax increases that in three years have added $1,200 to the tax bill of a home assessed at $317,000, which is the county average.
Legislators who could not win passage of bills mandating local tax caps say they plan to press the issue on the campaign trail.
"State senators told us to take care of this issue locally, so that's what we're doing," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), who co-sponsored a tax-cap bill last winter that became a model for the pledge.
The activists have scheduled a "tea party" rally for April 26 at the County Government Center, invoking the tax protest in Boston Harbor that helped ignite the Revolutionary War.
Ferrara said he plans to next bring his campaign to Loudoun and Prince William counties, where incumbents face opposition on the tax issue.
Supervisors asked the county's budget chief to calculate how much money Fairfax would lose if taxes were capped as assessments rose in a hot real estate market. Chief Financial Officer Edward Long estimated the loss in annual revenue at $74 million, an amount Republicans said could be cut without huge sacrifices.
"You have to determine your core priorities," said Herschel V. "Buzz" Hawley Jr., a Republican trying to unseat Democrat Penelope A. Gross in the Mason District. "You can improve efficiencies." Hawley, who has taken the pledge, and other Republicans seeking office have said the county should hire an independent inspector general to find waste.
Connolly and other supervisors said their opponents have offered few specifics.
"Our fire and police department would never be able to hire another officer, and I don't think anybody understands that because they're not saying it," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), a moderate facing two primary challengers who have taken the pledge.
Prince George's County is the only local government in the Washington area to enact a property tax limit, a cap voters approved in 1978 and reaffirmed seven years ago. Opponents of the limit say it has hurt the public school system by restricting spending. County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has said he intends to bring the issue to a vote again.
About one in three states limits property tax revenue or growth in assessments, including California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington state.