Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) took office last week as president of the Virginia Association of Counties, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. VaCo represents 95 counties and the interests of local government in Virginia. In an interview with staff writer Lisa Rein, Connolly reflected on the organization's role in lobbying the state legislature to provide localities with more money and with more autonomy to raise their own revenue -- in part to reduce their dependence on property taxes.
Q What do you consider to be VaCo's mission?
A It is truly the voice of local government in the commonwealth. In the last few years, you've seen local governments flex their muscles in calling for tax restructuring and a fairer deal for them, with more funding for education, more flexibility to raise revenues, to fight unfunded mandates. And we're getting more powerful.
The General Assembly joined Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) this year in approving a tax increase that will allow the state to increase its investment in schools, colleges, police and health care. Did VaCo help buck the legislature's traditional opposition to higher taxes?
You can credit VaCo and [the Virginia Municipal League, which represents towns and cities] for helping to drive the agenda last year. We started a public relations campaign to get the bill passed. . . . It was local governments that helped turn that tide, mobilizing citizens to go to their legislators. I think our campaign helped set the groundwork for the governor's initiatives.
In your speech to VaCo last week, you called for the end of the Dillon Rule, which restricts counties as to what laws they can pass without first obtaining approval from state legislators.
The era of "Richmond knows best" is over. I don't know that a frontal assault on the Dillon Rule is even going to be effective, but I do believe that we need to loosen up the rule so there is more home rule. . . . Citizens aren't asking for less services; they're asking for more. We need to make sure we have the requisite tools with which to finance those services. We're overly reliant on one source of revenue to provide essential services, the property tax. It's a very primitive method of financing government in the contemporary era.
But . . . the state also has to step up to the plate and do more than it has in the past.
Devolution is a conservative principle -- that is, it pushes power and decision making to a level closest to the people. I'm calling for a new compact between the state and localities.
In Fairfax, you represent Virginia's largest local government and its most affluent county. Is there any common ground between Fairfax and the rural counties of southwest Virginia?
We have a lot of common ground. For example, Rockingham County has the same problem Fairfax does in miniature in financing its school system. Then there's mental health and public safety funding. You've got to be able to speak for the rural, suburban and urban counties. We are blessed in Fairfax with a growing employment base; we understand that that's not the case in every other county. While we're the biggest county in the state, we don't control the General Assembly. So we have to be involved in coalitions . . . so we're speaking with a bigger voice than just Fairfax.
What are VaCo's goals for the General Assembly's upcoming session in January?
The assembly failed to address transportation needs last year, and we're headed for disaster in terms of funding. . . . If we don't do something, Virginia will not be able to provide matching funds for federal aid. We're actually disinvesting in transportation infrastructure.
The time has come . . . for the state to look seriously at letting localities tap into the revenue from income taxes. In Fairfax County, we send Richmond in excess of $2 billion a year in income tax, but we only get 19 cents back on the dollar. How about 5 or 10 cents more? It's our own money. There are a lot of us that could really use that.
Are there legislative proposals that VaCo is preparing to fight?
Yes. There will be a bill to abolish the local telecom fees used to finance emergency 911 services. That's a service we can't do without, and about three-quarters of the cost is covered by this fee.