For years, the head of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has warned that stagnant revenue would require tough choices if Virginia’s largest jurisdiction was going to preserve a high quality of life.
Now, after Tuesday’s elections, the board’s Democratic majority has grown to eight seats on the 10-member board, and Chairman Sharon Bulova has what she considers a mandate from voters to shore up the county’s fiscal health.
In the face of increasing demands from the county’s growing school system and a sluggish economy, what can wealthy professionals, federal government employees and new immigrants in Fairfax expect?
The answer may include higher taxes or getting rid of some of the comforts that have made the county of 1.1 million people a national model for suburban living — possibly including school bus service for older students.
“Obviously, we’re facing challenges,” Bulova, who easily won reelection to a third term as board chairman, said Wednesday. “We know that we have growing needs within the school system. We also know that our revenues have not been rebounding as they might have during other recessions in the past.”
With homeowners increasingly frustrated with the cost of living in Fairfax, Bulova and several other board members last year resisted raising property taxes. And, so far, they have only flirted with the idea of asking voters to approve a controversial new tax on restaurant meals.
In hopes of avoiding those options again, the board plans in January to begin a lengthy review of the county’s nearly $4 billion budget, with the intent of cutting fat out of county services. That will probably mean consolidating some programs and eliminating other services altogether, Bulova said.
For example, the county may cancel school bus services in some areas, relying instead on the county’s Connector buses that serve those neighborhoods.
“That could be an outcome, especially for middle school and high school kids,” Bulova said, adding that such decisions would depend on input from county school officials.
“I don’t know that it’s something we can develop in Fairfax County, but it’s certainly something we should explore,” she said.
With the demands from county schools increasing and an effort underway to implement potentially expensive restructuring in the county police department, spending cuts will not be enough. Pursuing a meals tax, which would require voter approval, is also possible.
“I’m supportive of putting the question of a meals tax to the voters, so long as we’re able to craft a reasonable package for how the revenues would be spent,” Bulova said, adding that the board will also be looking at other ways to raise revenue.
None of the choices ahead will be easy for the County Board, which includes two new Democrats — Kathy L. Smith (Sully) and Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon).
Bulova said community input will be crucial in the years ahead.
“It will not be an easy process,” Bulova said. “But it will be a valuable process.”