Local Commentary

A Penny For Your Thoughts: The News of Greater Falls Church

Fairfax County has adopted its budget! Following two months of quiet deliberation and discussion, the Board of Supervisors voted on Monday and approved, unanimously, a county budget for Fiscal Year 2008, which begins on July 1, 2007. The real estate tax rate of 89 cents per $100 of assessed value is maintained. Braddock District Supervisor Sharon Bulova, who also serves as the Board’s Budget Chairman, observed that the FY 2008 budget was the “quietest, least contentious” in her 20 years in office, despite the fact that the county is experiencing the largest drop in real estate values since the early 1990s. In similar years, she reminded the Board, speakers at the public hearings about the budget numbered in the hundreds. In 1992, there were 495 speakers; in 1997, my first budget, there were 637 speakers in marathon sessions that included hearings on Saturday.

This year, in comparison, there were just 129 speakers at the public hearings, and the district town meetings about the budget were sparsely attended.

Why the difference? In the 1990s, Fairfax County was faced with a perfect storm: a nationwide recession, depressed real estate values, and a structural imbalance in the budget overall. The Board adopted a number of structural changes and budget guidelines that restored fiscal equilibrium. These measures, as Supervisor Bulova observed, have served us well and positioned the Board of better prepare for and deal with the current revenue downturn. Check the Fairfax County Web site, www.fairfaxcounty.gov, to read the extensive guidelines and the budget documents.

The FY 2008 budget transfers $1.586 billion to operate the Fairfax County public school system. School funding equals 52.3 percent of the county’s General Fund, and includes $8 million for the Schools Initiative for Excellence. The adopted budget also includes funding for stormwater management and affordable housing. This is the third year that the Board of Supervisors has designated the equivalent of one penny on the tax rate, or more than $22 million, to fund these two programs.

The new neighborhood zoning enforcement effort, also known as a “strike force” and scheduled to be implemented by early June, will be supported within existing resources in the short term. An effective, unified, and vigorous response to enforcement issues raised by the community might require a more permanent and sustained solution, and the County Executive was tasked to return to the Board in the fall with a longer term plan, including enhanced community empowerment and engagement.

Revenue forecasts for the FY 2009 budget are severely constrained. The County Executive must be very careful not to build next year’s base budget beyond a level that can be sustained in a steadily declining market. As Supervisor Bulova noted, “restraint today is prudent and will result in dividends in future budget years.”