Arlington County Board chair Mary Hynes (Mary H. Hynes)

Why are budgets fascinating? They are a watch-what-we-do moment, when all the rhetoric falls aside. Actions, as your mother told you, speak louder than words.

The budget passed by a 5-0 vote but not until board member Chris Zimmerman, joined by J. Walter Tejada, expressed frustration with the majority’s plan to study the county’s housing and analyze whether there’s a better way to address the needs of those who can’t afford the escalating price of living in Arlington.

Our print story Sunday discussed this fissure in the board’s body politic, and there was a corresponding response on the other side of the dais.

In recent years, the county board has also passed a document that spells out its reasoning for parts of the budget. Board chair Mary Hynes wrote that the housing study was not a delay tactic. She said, in part:

But we cannot afford to stand still until this important work is completed. Moving forward, we want the community and the Manager to know that the total investments we’ve achieved in this budget for [Arlington’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund] and maintenance capital are the starting place for next year’s budget.  And, as both AHIF and capital maintenance are appropriate uses of one-time money, we will consider this fall whether any undesignated balances at close out should be directed to these two areas. 

Now that was too much for board member Jay Fisette and Libby Garvey, who thought it unfairly limited the board’s options in the future.

Fisette tried to edit the document on the fly, as we say in the writing trade, deleting everything in that paragraph after the first sentence. That effort failed, with only Fisette and Garvey voting for it.

Arlington County Board members Chris Zimmerman, left, and Walter Tejada, center, greet community activist Mike Murtha at the board’s 2011 New Year’s Day meeting. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The board also raised salaries, on average 2.8 percent for most county employees. The ones who are at the top of their pay scale will get another salary step, which is worth about 2.3 percent. That’s what the board gave themselves, as well.

School employees will also likely get a 2 percent pay raise, but their situation is complicated by a last-minute decision in the Virginia Assembly. School workers have to pay 5 percent of their salary into the Virginia Retirement System, but legislators this year essentially also required counties to provide a 5 percent pay raise to cover that, Arlington officials said.

The school district figures this will cost Arlington $4.7 million more. School officials told the County Board they could handle most of the surprise expense, but needed an extra $1.9 million to cover it all. That meant the County Board, which had intended to raise the tax rate by one cent per $1,000 of assessed value, had to go up another three-tenths of a cent. The money will be put in a reserve fund until further analysis is complete.

We in the press usually focus on the cost of taxes to homeowners (and don’t forget, renters, the costs are passed on to you, too) but owners of commercial property also shell out for the services provided by local government. When the value of a property goes up, so does its taxes, even if there is no tax rate increase.

Scott McCaffrey in the local Sun-Gazette rightly points out that the 1.3 cent tax increase may hit businesses the hardest since their assessed values rose 13.5 percent, and they also pay a transportation surcharge.

All this may be more than the ordinary Arlingtonian cares to know about the budget (but there’s plenty more on the county Web site). But for those who watch closely, or depend on services, or like politics, or pay the bills, the spring ritual of budgeting can provide many hours of fascination.