Fairfax County is facing a dire budget year in 2017 in the face of a weak local economy that is not generating tax revenue fast enough to keep up with growing demands for schools, parks and other services.
During a joint meeting Tuesday between Fairfax County school officials and the Board of Supervisors, County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. projected a budget shortfall of as much as $83 million in the next fiscal year, a gap some officials blamed on the failed referendum earlier this month for a new county meals tax.
“This is probably going to be one of the most somber budgets that I’ve had to deal with in my 40-plus years with the county,” Long said before launching into a presentation that showed how the region’s lukewarm real estate market and lower-than-expected state funds from Richmond will make it harder to raise teacher salaries, implement police overhauls and accomplish other objectives without raising property taxes for the county’s 1.1 million residents.
“There are so many unknowns with this budget that we are going to have to deal with,” Long said, referring to the potential impact of a scheduled round of federal sequestration cuts and pledges by President-elect Donald Trump to reduce the size of the federal workforce and repeal large portions of the Affordable Care Act.
Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, has in recent years struggled to keep up with the needs of a changing population that includes more immigrant families and seniors living on fixed incomes or below the federal poverty level.
A slowing rate of growth in county tax revenue has led to reduced library hours and deferred maintenance at park facilities. School officials say teachers have been leaving for higher-paying districts after going several years without significant salary increases.
Almost sheepishly, Long admitted that the $39.17 million in new school funding that he is proposing for the next fiscal year is “simply not adequate.”
“There are many promises we’ve made that are going to have to slow down in our spending as we go forward,” Long said.
He suggested putting off about $7.5 million in planned police overhauls and about $3 million in funding for students with special needs. Additionally, the scheduled opening of a new police station in the southern portion of the county may have to be put off for a year, Long said.
Outgoing schools Superintendent Karen Garza said the county’s pledge to give teachers raises is also in jeopardy, because Long’s spending projections will not even cover the increasing student enrollment and rising retirement and health insurance costs, Garza said.
“And that’s without any compensation increases for our employees at all,” she said.
County and school leaders had hoped that a 4 percent tax on restaurant meals and other prepared foods would help generate new revenue for the 187,000-student system. Of the $96 million that was projected by that meals tax, 70 percent was to be set aside for schools. But voters rejected the meals tax.
With that option gone, county officials discussed seeking more state funding, a strategy that could be challenging given Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent projection of a $1.5 billion shortfall next year.
Some Fairfax officials reluctantly mentioned again raising property taxes for homeowners, a path that would probably generate political controversy after the county increased taxes by an average of $304 per household last year.
“This budget just makes everybody sad,” school board member Pat Hynes said, prompting somber nods around the room.