The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This model of wealthy suburban living is starting to fray

A sign alerts trail walkers in Fairfax County’s Roundtree Park to the remains of a bridge that washed out near Holmes Run. With a mounting backlog of deferred maintenance, there are no immediate plans to fix it. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

For decades, Fairfax County has been a national model for suburban living, a place of good governance and elite schools that educate children from some of the country’s richest neighborhoods.

But Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges.

A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services in what is still the nation’s second-wealthiest county, even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream.

Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. They now say that there is no fat left to trim.

Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes, draw new businesses and revitalize worn neighborhoods. Their effort mirrors the struggle of aging suburban communities nationwide, as a turn-of-the century economic boom settles into a sluggish post-recession status quo.

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“You have to ask these questions and start the regeneration process when times are good,” said Gerald Gordon, head of Fairfax’s Economic Development Authority. “You can’t wait for them to collapse.”

From boom to bust

Such worries were unthinkable 20 years ago, when Fairfax was completing its transformation from a sleepy suburb near Washington’s federal jobs to an economic powerhouse that now includes eight Fortune 500 companies.

Since 1980, the county’s population has nearly doubled to 1.1 million residents, with palatial new residences in such areas as Great Falls and Lorton pushing up the median price of a single-family home to $492,000 last year. And household income has climbed from a median of about $54,000 in the mid-1980s to $111,000 today.

With that growth came sparkling new schools, recreational facilities and an expanded park system that boasts 324 miles of pedestrian trails. Fairfax opened its own gift shop (selling county logo-embossed shirts, tote bags and hats), launched an international children's festival and built a 675,000-square-foot government complex overlooking an "ellipse" park modeled after the one near the White House, 21 miles away.

Then came the recession, with unprecedented, multimillion-dollar shortfalls in a budget that had grown to more than $3 billion a year.

Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools and so many educators have left for better-paid positions elsewhere that the system was short 200 teachers last fall.

County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs.

The gift shop closed in 2010. The children’s festival died the next year, as did a $1.2 million college tuition-assistance program for school employees. The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

“There is a tipping point, and I think we’re reaching it,” said Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), a school board member since the early 1990s who chairs the panel’s budget committee. “You don’t collapse overnight. It’s a little cut here, a little here, a little here, and, then, people start to walk away.”

In Fairfax, potholes and worn pavement

On a recent afternoon, 26-year-old Daniel Ortiz and two cousins played basketball at Jefferson District Park, in the Falls Church area. A two-inch-wide crack in the asphalt stretched above the free-throw line. Nearby, a cinder-block practice wall for tennis players was pocked with holes and flaking green paint.

“That’s a tripping hazard,” Ortiz said in Spanish, pointing to the deteriorating court, which park officials say was last resurfaced in 2011. “This is a nice community. They should really fix that.”

Karen Kressin often finds herself with the same thought as she makes her rounds for the Park Authority, using her county-issued iPad to flag needed repairs. In mid-March, she stopped at the remnants of a pedestrian bridge that had washed out in December. There are no immediate plans to fix it.

“Honestly,” said Kressin, a 30-year parks employee. “Don’t you think that in Fairfax County, you wouldn’t expect to see this?

Sharon Bulova, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, argued that Fairfax is still in good health.

“It’s been difficult . . . but I don’t think we’ve sacrificed quality in the wake of the recession,” said Bulova (D). “We’re trying to be creative in ways to try to do that with a slower rate of revenue growth that we’ve experienced.”

Needs that keep growing

When Tammi and William DeVan moved to Magnolia Lane in Baileys Crossroads 15 years ago, they enjoyed sitting on their wide front porch on quiet nights.

But as the neighborhood has drawn an influx of lower-income residents, their children’s schools have grown more crowded. Recently, a local store was robbed. The view from the porch now includes discarded beer bottles from loiterers who gather to drink in their cars after dark.

“A lot of people still think Fairfax County is wealthy, and maybe it is, compared to Oklahoma or someplace,” Tammi DeVan said. “But it’s not what it was.”

Since the recession, the number of people in Fairfax living below the federal poverty level has spiked 55 percent to about 74,200. That translates into a growing need for federal food stamps, Medicaid health benefits and other local subsidies.

In county schools, which have added about 22,000 students since 2008, approximately 53,000 receive federally subsidized lunches. The number of pupils in need of English-language instruction has jumped 41 percent to nearly 32,000 — more than one-sixth of the system’s 187,000 students.

Meanwhile, as is happening across the country, more baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Since 2010, Fairfax’s elderly population has grown by 21 percent to 129,000. That means more people are eligible for disability services, free bus trips and other county programs. And officials attribute a steady increase in 911 calls to having more patients older than 65. They represent 40 percent of calls handled.

Although home values are again on the rise, the commercial real estate market is stumbling. Cuts in federal spending — about $1.5 billion less in Fairfax than in 2010 — have emptied out office buildings, leading to a 16.5 percent vacancy rate that is the highest since the 1991 recession. Since 2013, commercial property taxes have dropped $23.2 million.

The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. It is a quest shared by countless bedroom communities and exurbs trying to remake themselves in an economy still struggling to regain solid footing.

“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.”

This month, the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value. A push for a higher tax increase led to an unusually acrimonious board meeting last month, which exposed the growing tension over residents’ needs and their ability to pay.

Heated argument on normally polite Fairfax board

“This is a hard period of time to manage expectations and to try to strike the balance — that balance that Fairfax has always been able to find,” Bulova said after the meeting.

Fairfax is leading an effort to permanently increase state funding for schools, and it has turned to foundations and businesses to fund education programs, a tree-planting project and employment initiatives. But after several years without a raise for teachers, it is losing educators such as Laurie Wagoner, who last year moved with her family to North Carolina in search of a better quality of life.

“We felt a little bit like gerbils on a wheel,” said Wagoner, who taught English for 11 years at McLean High School. “We couldn’t save to get ahead, and the paycheck was gone by the end of the month.”

Supervisors say they most likely will revisit the idea of a tax on restaurant meals, which was pushed in the past by school advocates and community organizations but resoundingly defeated after fierce lobbying from restaurant owners and anti-tax groups.

Like the rest of the region, Fairfax is also seeking to wean itself from its dependency on the federal government, investing in older areas, such as Tysons, Springfield and Reston, to attract new industries and the young people who work for them.

“Making sure you’re making strategic investments across the board as a community is a very important priority,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a former county board member and chair. “Although property values are growing again, they’re not growing enough to meet the revenue challenge.”

Awaiting better times

Fairfax built state-of-the-art planetariums at eight of its high schools decades ago, an embodiment of the county’s belief that the sky was the limit.

Now the equipment is out of date. Boy Scouts and senior citizens groups no longer visit, not since a $400,000 community program was cut in 2010.

Astronomy teacher Lee Ann Hennig has been promised a new digital projector for the planetarium at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, part of a $90 million renovation project that, among other things, is supposed to bring new labs for neuroscience and oceanography to the elite magnet school.

But there have been repeated delays since the renovations were launched in 2013. And Hennig says that, given the budget struggles that have come to define Fairfax, she doesn’t know when to expect the new projector.

“We’re just trying to tread water and maintain until better times come,” Hennig said during class one recent day. “If and when they ever do.”

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