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Fairfax County supervisors discuss meals tax, roads, other issues at retreat

Should Fairfax County ask the Virginia General Assembly for the authority to impose a meals tax to fund transportation needs? Should the county take control of its roads from the state? Is Fairfax’s pension system ripe for an overhaul?

And how can the regulatory scheme that has guided development of the county for decades be adapted to the 21st century and a population exceeding 1 million?

For two days last week, members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took up these and other questions at the group’s first retreat since the November election.

The mood was casual, with members sharing homemade bread and cookies around a pot of Brunswick stew. But their discussions were often intense, as board members sketched challenges ahead.

The leaders acknowledged that fat times for local government, if not over for good, are probably not returning anytime soon. Financial advisers offered a gloomy forecast: current rates of growth and taxation will leave the county with only $100 million a year to maintain its existing level of services and address board initiatives.

In what amounted as a dress rehearsal for a valedictory address, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin told the supervisors that although they have been a model of stable, moderate leadership, they will have to be more disciplined in the future.

“The board has not been very good at telling me what I shouldn’t be doing or what we shouldn’t be doing,” said Griffin, who plans to retire in April.

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who played host to the retreat at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, urged the board to find $30 million for flood protection in Huntington, following devastating storm damage there in the fall. He argued that the county should impose a meals tax.

It would raise $80 million — the rough equivalent of 4 cents of the tax rate on residential property — and come largely from visitors who contribute to revenues but require fewer services, Hyland said.

Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) was open to the idea, suggesting that the idea might gain public support if the proceeds were to be used solely for transportation. Griffin said the board might also consider a sunset provision that would cause the tax to expire after those needs were met.

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said that his party, which controls the General Assembly and the governor’s office, probably won’t go along with any new tax.

The board last considered a meals tax in 2009. But its authority to impose such a tax is limited because Virginia operates under the Dillon rule, which allows localities only those powers expressly granted by the state legislature. To enact a meals tax, the board must either adopt a measure that would go before voters in a referendum or persuade the General Assembly to grant the board new powers.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said Fairfax should assume control of its roads from the state, arguing that the commonwealth already seemed on such a path. But Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) and others said the state would probably give Fairfax responsibility for the roads without providing it more money.

County officials outlined the need to rewrite the rules that govern land-use decisions, an effort backed by Bulova. She said that the current process, which allows for intense deliberation and wide public involvement, was better suited to the days when much of the county was farmland.

Today, Bulova said, Fairfax is a more urban and densely populated suburb and requires a more flexible approach that encourages redevelopment, particularly in areas targeted for intense growth, but preserves public engagement.

Fredrick Kunkle runs the Tripping blog, writing about the experience of travel. Freddy's also covered politics, courts, police, and local government. Before coming to The Washington Post, he worked for the Star-Ledger and The Bergen Record.

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