Officials in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction on Tuesday projected another round of large budget shortfalls for county services and schools in the 2018 fiscal year — preliminary estimates that were not-so-subtle pleas for Fairfax County voters to approve a new meals tax in November.
During a joint meeting between the county board of supervisors and the school board, Schools Superintendent Karen Garza estimated her office will be about $134 million short in funding when the next fiscal year begins in July. County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. projected a $79 million shortfall.
Both officials said those estimates depend on whether county voters approve a tax on ready-to-eat meals inside restaurants, convenience stores and grocery markets on Nov. 8 that would bring in about $100 million in additional revenue.
“With the meals tax, there’s a lot of flux there with regard to how much we’ll have available to us,” Garza said during a presentation that highlighted a growing student population in the nation’s 10th-largest school system and a desire to pay teachers more to remain competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.
Long added, “Whether it passes or doesn’t pass, that will have a major impact on how we put the budget together.”
The meals tax referendum has generated controversy among county residents who worry that the quality of life in the nation’s second-wealthiest county is slipping and that taxes are getting too high to live comfortably there.
County officials said that they would dedicate $70 million of the revenue generated by a meals tax toward the school system. Most of that amount would go toward raising teacher salaries in hopes of stemming an exodus in recent years of veteran teachers to higher-paying districts, school officials said.
The remaining $30 million would be dedicated to public safety, libraries, parks and other services that have suffered through budget cuts in recent years, officials said.
But after the county board of supervisors raised property taxes earlier this year by an average of $304 per household, many residents have nonetheless balked at the idea of another tax, while restaurants complain that it would unfairly harm their workers.
The frustration on both sides underscored a joint committee budget meeting that was meant to get a head start on dealing with the stubbornly tepid local economy and declining state tax dollars entering into Fairfax before the next county budget is approved in the spring.
Garza, who recently announced that she’s leaving her post later this year to lead an Ohio-based educational nonprofit group, said that teachers are leaving the district and that textbooks are outdated.
“Our German textbooks still have the Berlin Wall in them,” she said.
Toward the end of the meeting, members on both boards argued over a joint statement about the meals tax that was ultimately drafted to lay out how the money would be spent if the referendum passes.
“I thought we weren’t going to be promoting one side over the other and that we weren’t going to be using county resources,” Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield,) who opposes a meals tax, said before the statement was finalized.
“This is not something that we’re going to be voting on,” replied Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D), the board chairman, adding that the statement wouldn’t cost anything. “This is a statement that we’re going to be using that provides some clarity.”
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said that, given the way the money would be allocated, the meals tax referendum would ultimately be a vote on whether to raise teachers’ salaries by what school officials estimate would be about $44 million per year through 2020.
“If it passes, you get it and if it doesn’t, you don’t,” Cook told Garza, who nodded her head in agreement.