Fairfax County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. on Tuesday proposed a 2018 budget that would give county schools $61 million less than they are seeking, one of several hard choices he said the wealthy suburb must make as it struggles with tepid revenue and a public rejection of tax hikes.
Long’s proposed $4.1 billion budget reflects a local economy still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession and 2013 federal sequestration cuts and a county bracing for the possibility of further reductions in government spending by the Trump administration.
County revenue — generated mostly by real estate taxes — increased by $88.2 million last year, not enough to cover rising pension costs, a growing public school student population and more elderly and low-income residents seeking government aid in a county of 1.1 million residents.
“Slow economic growth is, I think, here to stay,” Long told the county’s Board of Supervisors during a bleak presentation that also fell $13 million short of what agencies requested for disability services, public safety, maintenance of county trails and raises for nonschool county employees.
To find the $112 million in new funding that the schools system was seeking as part of a $2.8 billion budget request, Long said, the county would have to increase residential property tax rates by 21/2 cents — a move supervisors are reluctant to make after boosting the rate 4 cents last year, to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.
The other option is less money for teacher raises — a perpetual worry for school officials who say they have seen a steady exodus of experienced teachers from the system of 186,000 students to higher-paying jurisdictions elsewhere.
Long’s budget also leaves about $21.7 million in planned police department improvements unfunded, including $5.3 million for a “Diversion First” program that steers people with mental illnesses to counseling instead of jail.
It does not cover about $6.7 million in services for people with disabilities, and defers maintenance of county sidewalks and trails.
Long predicted that the county also will have a hard time meeting funding obligations in 2019 for maintaining the region’s long-troubled Metro system.
“I think you can describe this as a no-growth budget,” said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D), chair of the county board. “Unfortunately, some of the things that we consider priorities we’re not going to be able to address with the funding that’s available.”
Several supervisors expressed frustration over the funding mechanism for local governments in Virginia, which prohibits collecting a local income tax and leaves municipalities relying heavily on real estate taxes.
In Fairfax, real estate taxes represent 65 percent of the county’s revenue stream. Last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to expand that pool of funds by adding a tax on restaurant meals and other prepared foods.
That defeat, plus the potential for more federal spending cuts and the uncertain economic fallout of a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, has left Fairfax in a financial bind, some officials said.
“The ability we have as a county to control our own destiny is very slim,” Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said.
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) argued that the still-wealthy county may need to rethink some of its priorities.
He cited a free middle school aftercare program that is open to all, regardless of income.
“So we have millionaires who get free after-school care, paid for by the taxpayers,” Cook said. “We have to look at those things, because we’re starting to cut back on services for people with disabilities.”
Tuesday’s budget session was tense at times, but also seemed familiar in a jurisdiction that since 2009 has trimmed various spending initiatives by $344 million.
County unions protested outside the meeting room, and school officials vowed to keep fighting for teacher salary increases.
“It is unconscionable that the county executive’s budget proposal would balance the budget on the backs of working people,” David Broder, president of a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, told a cheering group of about 50 demonstrators.
They were rallying against Long’s proposal to defer market-rate-adjustment raises for county employees.
Sandy Evans, who chairs the Fairfax County School Board, said she and other school officials plan to lobby county leaders for more funding for teacher salary increases.
The school board is already considering increasing classroom size and making other changes to free up money for $56 million in expenses anticipated next year, Evans said.
Fairfax supervisors “keep saying that schools are the top priority of our county,” Evans said. “If it’s our top priority, then we need to fund it.”