In Fairfax County, the police can swoop down to fight crime from the area's only local helicopter fleet. A team of highly trained rescue workers is on call to respond to disasters around the world. The elderly can call a taxi anytime to any destination and the county will pay two-thirds of the cost. And the mentally retarded can get door-to-door service to jobs that the county pays companies to give them.
Washington's largest jurisdiction has always promoted its gold-plated services, even promising to inspect three of every four street signs this year and replace any damaged ones within three days.
The region's suburban governments pride themselves on the benefits they offer their constituents -- competing to run the best schools, acquire the most parkland, provide the best parks and serve the greatest number of vulnerable residents. Fairfax has always helped set the pace for expectations.
But today it is an anxious place. State cuts are coursing through the human services, library and sheriff's budgets. Investment income and tax collections keep plunging. Close to 18 million square feet of office space in Tysons Corner and the Dulles corridor sits empty.
To buoy its compassionate but costly commitments, the county is putting ever more of the burden on homeowners, whose property taxes are soaring in a raging home-buying market. Where four years ago real estate taxes made up half of Fairfax's revenue, the share is now 59 percent. As the value of commercial property has sunk, homeowners pay three-quarters of that money, the largest share in more than a decade.
State and local governments everywhere are struggling to close deficits. In Fairfax, indignant taxpayers are pressing their leaders to curb spending and shrink the county's $2.4 billion government. Some of them contend that extras such as a $500,000 Office for Women staffed by eight people, a growing fund to buy open space, and garbage drop-off spots that benefit a few communities are unnecessary.
Civic values are shifting and clashing. In the next two months, it will be up to the Democratic-led Board of Supervisors to decide whether Fairfax, one of the country's wealthiest and best-run counties, is reaching the limit of what taxpayers will pay for services.
"We're known for the best of everything," said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville), who has tangled with school leaders over budget increases. "But we're getting to the point where we can't afford it. We have to decide what's essential to keep and what's just nice to do. There's a restless populace."
Making Ends Meet
Tomorrow, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin will propose a budget for next year that is expected to pare spending substantially. The reductions are likely to go deeper than two years of around-the-edges trims.
A second-straight two-cent cut in the real estate tax rate, to $1.19 per $100 of assessed value, will be on the table. So will a range of new and increased fees, for soccer and baseball games, bus rides, overdue library books.
After expanding services over two decades as the county has grown and developed, Fairfax leaders are left with potentially painful choices.
Ron Corso, like thousands of homeowners in Northern Virginia, has watched the assessed value of his split-level house on a Vienna cul de sac more than double in three years. Last year, because the house was assessed at $280,000, he paid the county $3,388 in property taxes, up from $1,651 in 1999. He has not yet received this year's tax bill, but residential property assessments are jumping an average of 14 percent.
"Where I live, there is no crime, and it has nothing to do with the numbers of policemen," said Corso, 66, a retired federal worker. "We just have too many luxuries in this county. You could cut the budget by 10 percent, and no one would know the difference."
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), under whom the state has laid off 1,800 workers and launched a retooling of government, has castigated local leaders for spending beyond their means and dodging hard choices. He says they need to rethink "what we really expect from government."
Even as the economy has slowed since 2000, budgets in Fairfax for public safety, courts, human services, schools and raises for county workers have ballooned. The cost of running the county has increased by 16.8 percent. Tax-supported spending on the 165,000-student school system has surged by 26 percent, largely to accommodate thousands of new students. During that time, the county's population grew by 3.6 percent and inflation by 2.4 percent.
Spending in Montgomery County grew faster, by 20.9 percent, records show, while the county's share of school funding grew more modestly, by 19.1 percent.
With its workforce of 11,400, a land area of 395 square miles and a population that hit 1 million this year, Fairfax is a big place. Its government has earned plaudits from watchdog groups for financial management. The county dwarfs every local government in the Washington area, not to mention Vermont, Maine and Wyoming.
Yet Fairfax also chooses to do more for its citizens, often stepping in where Virginia provides only meager help. An annual study by state auditors found Fairfax at or near the top among Northern Virginia governments in growth in per capita spending on schools, human services and public safety from 1995 to 2001, the last year for which data is available.
The pressures county supervisors face are magnified by local and state elections this November. A flourishing anti-tax movement whose leaders helped defeat a regional transportation tax last November is on alert. Board members from both parties are being targeted by candidates pledging to tax less and spend less.
"It's hardly that we've been profligate," Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said. "You can argue, just cut the fat out. But that's a cheap way of getting out of our responsibilities. . . . One of the reasons a lot of us have moved to Fairfax is for the services."
And while pressure increases to cut taxes, vocal constituencies will rally to every service.
"There comes a point where the homeowners start rebelling," said Sally Ormsby, a leader of the county's Federation of Civic Associations "But we tend to say, stay the course for most programs. We don't want to see big cuts, especially for low-income people."
Board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said the county "will be looking for ways to deliver services more effectively." And she said, "There will be some things people will come to us and ask to be in the budget that won't make it."
The Root of the Problem
Fairfax officials say their biggest obstacles are not of their own making. By Virginia law, counties cannot structure their own tax systems, making it impossible to levy local taxes on incomes, meals or cigarettes. Warner and Northern Virginia lawmakers have recognized the problem and pledged to fix it. But for now, for every dollar in income tax Fairfax sends to Richmond, just 19 cents comes back -- too little to meet the county's needs and far less than the return in other areas, officials say. By contrast, Maryland counties can piggyback a local income tax on top of the state's.
With no easy way to expand revenue in a sluggish economy, "There has to be a significant review of priorities," said J. Hamilton Lambert, who was county executive from 1980 to 1990, Fairfax's biggest post-war growth spurt.
"It's a highly educated and wealthy county, and with those come demands for superb services," Lambert said. "The type of citizens you have are very, very active. Do you decrease or stabilize some services to rely less on the property tax?"
Looking for Cuts
Major surgery will not come easily. In the booming 1980s, the county pedaled furiously to keep up with a surging population, adding programs, fire stations, schools and libraries.
"We became gold-plated then," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), a board veteran who heads the budget committee. "There was no opportunity to look back and ask, how cost-effective were the expansions?"
By the mid-1990s, Fairfax faced a recession with plummeting revenue and widespread taxpayer revolts. Supervisors slashed $55 million from the budget in 1996, eliminated close to 300 jobs and raised the tax rate 7 cents. Mini-libraries and seven satellite county government offices closed.
"We picked the low-lying fruit," Bulova said. "We've been careful not to creep back up."
But in fact, as Northern Virginia's economy hummed with the technology boom, Fairfax made ends meet and then some. The county has added 626 positions since 1997 -- police officers and firefighters, after-school aides, probation officers, computer technicians, arborists, planners, public health nurses, case workers and park workers.
Two years ago, real estate assessments jumped by 11 percent, jolting taxpayers. Supervisors asked Griffin to arrange meetings with department heads to see where they could suggest savings. But the meetings -- attended by staff but no agency heads, board members said -- disappointed some supervisors.
In the end, Griffin trimmed about $50 million from the budget over two years, spreading reductions across agencies.
In the past few years, Fairfax committed to meeting new needs: revitalizing blighted neighborhoods, replacing sidewalks and street lights, reaching out to new immigrants and building a satellite county government center on Route 1.
Spending on new technology to allow residents to report lost pets, pay taxes and do other business with the county from their home computers jumped to $21 million this year, from $16.7 million two years ago, an investment officials say will ultimately save money. Seniors on the Go, a subsidized taxi service, expanded countywide this year at a cost of $500,000. Any resident at least 65 years old who earns $65,000 or less can present a cab driver with a voucher that gets them anywhere in the county -- the doctor's office or a department store. Riders pay one-third of the fare.
A merit pay system linking the salaries of county workers to their performance has swelled the payroll because managers have been reluctant to impose tough grades and have rated virtually every worker as outstanding.
Where other counties provide after-school care in converted cafeterias staffed by teachers' aides and charge fees, Fairfax hires certified teachers who look after children in special annexes. Charges are on a sliding scale to reach the greatest number of children. This year's subsidy comes to $6.1 million.
Fairfax's economic development authority is one of the few in the nation financed entirely by tax dollars, rather than with help from the private sector.
More than 300 police officers have been hired since 1997, as the county strives to meet new homeland security needs and hold down the region's lowest crime rate. The police budget jumped to $129.3 million this year, up from $106.5 million in 2001.
Police administrators describe an expanding mission that reaches beyond fighting violent crime. Most calls to Fairfax police are not to report emergencies.
"The culture is one where I want it and I want it now," said Lt. Col. Susanne Devlin, deputy chief for administration. "If you come home and your shrubs have been vandalized, the public perception is, 'I pay my taxes, I want a response now.' "
Hanley said the police department is not overstaffed. Fairfax has more residents per officer than most U.S. communities, she said.
School spending accounts for half the county budget. Supervisors told school officials months ago that they should expect less new money, a maximum of 5.3 percent more than this year. The idea was to avert a repeat of a showdown last year over how much the county should spend on education. Last week, the Board of Education pared its request to a 6.3 percent increase.
"It was entirely in recognition of the pressure the county is facing," Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said. In past years, the school system has "squabbled with the supervisors and gone after more money, and succeeded," he said. "We firmly believed they had the money to give."
Domenech noted that Fairfax, which spends $9,388 a year to educate a student, is 11th in Virginia and devotes less money in per-pupil spending than many Washington suburbs.
Montgomery County spends slightly more at $9,641 per student, for example, and Arlington, a much smaller district with about a tenth the number of students as Fairfax, spends $12,716.
And yet, critics contend that school leaders have been loath to search for savings.
The school board, which a year ago promised to audit its operations, awarded a $250,000 contract to a Texas consulting firm just last week.
It's the kind of scrutiny Fairfax could get used to in the months ahead.
News researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.