Connolly Touts Firm Belt Tightening Moves to Brace for Housing Decline

Fairfax Co. Gears For Hiring Freeze, Budget Cutbacks

“We haven’t exactly sent out any press releases about this. It’s known within the county government, but not necessarily to the general public,” Fairfax County Board Chair Gerry Connolly told the News-Press in an exclusive interview yesterday. “But we’ve already implemented some tough belt-tightening measures to cope with the downturn in the residential real estate market.”

Connolly said that projections are for a 4% decline in average residential real estate assessments when the annual calculation is done in January. “That will lead to an average $200 per household decrease in taxes,” he said. But with 60% of the county’s operating budget funded by those taxes, it means there will be a lot less for the county to spend.

He said that, only 25% through the current fiscal year, County Executive Anthony Griffin has already mandated a 2% cut in expenditures by all county agencies and that he’s imposed an “effective” hiring freeze expected to extend into the next fiscal year, as well.

Griffin has advised the heads of the county’s agencies to plan budgets for the next fiscal year, to begin July 1, 2008, to reflect an additional 2% across-the-board cut.

Connolly said during a campaign debate Tuesday night that the austerity measures include zero growth for the county’s school system.

“Our challenge is to figure out how to do all this without jeopardizing essential services,” he said, outlining the “belt tightening measures” while debating his Republican challenger for the county chair job in next month’s election. Connolly, a Democrat, and Gary Baise squared off at the Jewish Community Center in Annandale. The third candidate on the ballot, Gail Parker, failed to appear as the debate got underway.

Connolly touted his leadership skills during eight years as the Providence District representative to the county board and this, his first term as county chair. He cited a total of 25 years involvement with the community. He pointed to the county being named the “best managed in the U.S.,” to the county’s AAA bond rating, low crime rate, high level of educational achievement and an award this week as the “best managed budget in the U.S.”

Baise, a McLean-area resident making his first run for elective office, argued that the county “is awash with money” but its taxpayers aren’t getting the return they deserve. He called for the formation of a “blue ribbon panel” to audit and evaluate how and where the county is spending its money. An environmental advocate and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first chief of staff, he also owns corn and soybean farms in the Midwest and said his experience in the private sector qualifies him.

Connolly said that because of his effectiveness in working “across the aisle,” almost every significant vote on the county board in the last four years has been unanimous. He also said that every entity that is in the business of making endorsements has endorsed his re-election in the current campaign.

The two candidates were affable on the stage Tuesday, responding to written questions from an audience of about 50. At one point, Connolly said, “You know, there’s that saying about statistics and lies, and…” Baise stepped in and said, “The saying goes like this: there are lies, big lies and statistics.” They both got a good laugh out of that one.