For 23 years, wealthy Fairfax County has enforced a “grass ordinance” requiring homeowners to keep their grass less than a foot tall.
Now that vigilance — and other budget extras — may fall victim to cost-cutting.
County officials have proposed saving $120,000 by eliminating a team of six part-time “engineering technicians” who investigate about 1,800 complaints of sloppy yards each year. Officials also want to clean bathrooms at two popular parks less often and get rid of the fax machine in the Office to Prevent Homelessness — saving $22,415 and $217, respectively.
The cuts are part of an effort by the county to avoid raising taxes while bridging an $89 million budget shortfall, the result of lower-than-expected commercial tax revenue in a weak regional economy.
“Efficiencies that might be considered ‘small change’ in a $3.8 billion budget can add up to substantial savings,” said Susan Datta, the county’s chief financial officer. “And these savings can be used to provide essential services to taxpayers.”
As part of the 2016 budget proposal unveiled this week by County Executive Edward L. Long Jr., department heads identified about $25 million in trimmable costs and new revenue. The savings include $258,244 from reducing the amount of copying and printing done by the county in today’s digital age.
“To be able to put together a fairly significant dollar number just by being more efficient, I thought that was pretty creative,” Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said.
The proposal to reduce maintenance at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria could result in messier bathrooms and “a decrease in visitor satisfaction,” according to a draft budget document.
But it would cut down on labor costs.
The grass ordinance, approved in 1991, is among several in Northern Virginia meant to keep property values stable by ensuring against unruly yards that could attract rats or snakes.
The law requires lawns to be less than a foot high on tracts that are a half-acre or smaller. If a violator refuses to comply with county enforcement efforts, the county sends a contractor to mow the lawn. The property owner is then billed at least $165.
But Cook and Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said they did not want to eliminate the enforcement strike team — a sentiment shared by Sally K. Horn, president of the McLean Citizens Association.
“If there’s a law on the books, it should be enforced,” Horn said. “And in many places in the county, this is important.”
McKay described the ordinance as “a Washington Monument” issue, referring to the powerful symbolism of the monument being closed to visitors during federal government shutdowns.
Ignoring the grass ordinance “is a little bit like talking out of two sides of our mouths,” McKay said. “This is a fundamental local government responsibility: to enforce its regulations on some people in order to protect all of our homeowners.”
The proposed cuts also raised the ire of Arthur Purves, who heads the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance and opposed a proposed $32 million in raises for Fairfax’s 12,000 county employees.
“They’re giving raises and pensions and health care for employees higher priority than the programs,” Purves said.
But Long did more than find places to save. He also proposed generating new revenue by cracking down on former county jail inmates who owe more than five days’ worth of the $2-a-day room and board at the county jail.
It turns out there are 728 such delinquent ex-convicts in Fairfax. Going after them could add $100,000 to county coffers, officials said.
An additional $250,000 could come from county sheriff’s deputies watching out for cars or family vans with out-of-state license plates, on the chance that they belong to Fairfax residents who have yet to register their vehicles in Virginia after 30 days and are, therefore, cheating the county on personal property taxes.
Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) said she is worried about how a few of the proposed cuts would affect her district. But she conceded that some county services may have become luxuries the county simply can no longer afford.
“There’s a lot we have to look at,” she said. “What is the usage? Is this a declining number?”
Regarding the grass ordinance, Gross said she’s still unsure where she stands.
“There are those who say, ‘I want to live how I want to live, and leave me alone,’ ” she said. “One person’s tall grass is somebody else’s lovely meadow.”