The subject line on County Executive Ed Long’s email to Fairfax County employees earlier this month was titled “Difficult News.” And it sure was. In his email, Mr. Long noted that local economic indicators point to much slower growth than we hoped, and he projected budget shortfalls for the next two fiscal years, FY 2014 and FY 2015. His email also notified agency directors to “find new and creative ways to cut their budgets by 5 percent during each of the next two budgets.”
This is disappointing, but realistic, news. Economic conditions in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia, while still much better than in many other regions of the country, have not rebounded as we had hoped from the so-called Great Recession. What had been anticipated as a gradual climb up from fiscal decline, instead has local jurisdictions bumping along the bottom, a pretty rough bottom at that, for a very long period. In fact, a 2009 report prepared for A.J. Dwoskin and Associates, a local business entity, noted that “Northern Virginia jurisdictions, with the possible exception of Arlington County, are facing a situation which makes the 1980 and 1990 downturns look like a drizzle. We are in a downpour, especially in the further-out jurisdictions.” In 2008, you may recall, the residential real estate market was in free fall, sales tax revenues slowed, and consumer credit and bank lending pulled way back.
I clearly remember the evening early in 2009 when the Dwoskin report was presented to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. All the pundits were predicting that the recovery would be complete in FY 2012 or, at the very latest, 2013. Dwoskin, to our horror, predicted that recovery wouldn’t happen until FY 2014 or 2015, so we’d better get used to bumping along the bottom for quite a while. We all thought he was crazy! It couldn’t possibly take that long.
Turns out he was right, and maybe even a little more positive than the reality that is today. Mr. Long’s email message points out that the federal budget deficit and proposed severe cuts in federal funding are bound to have a deleterious effect on the county budget. Employee health insurance costs and claims are rising, and we know that demands on our human services safety net will rise, requiring more county resources to meet an ever-growing need. To help address the difficult times ahead, Mr. Long announced plans for a multi-year budget planning process to provide the Board of Supervisors with a broader perspective of issues and options for future budgets. By law, the county’s budget must be balanced each year; we cannot run a deficit. But the law also requires adoption of an annual budget, not a two-year cycle. By giving a heads-up in August, instead of surprising us this winter, Mr. Long is giving everyone in county government plenty of time to evaluate, review, and prepare ideas, solutions, and yes, belt-tightening, that will keep Fairfax County on an even keel, maintain our Triple-A bond rating, and, in his words “adjust to changing conditions and continue to manage well in lean times.” While the news is difficult, I appreciate the “no surprises” approach taken by our new County Executive.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]