Fairfax County’s budget “season” is nearly year-round now, a change from the traditional mid-February to end of April sessions. While those dates still will focus on the County Executive’s presentation of a proposed fiscal year budget and recommendations, the lead-in to the budget begins many months prior, and the Board meets as the budget committee more frequently now, often inviting the School Board to participate. That was the scene last week, as County Executive Ed Long and School Superintendent Karen Garza provided their budget forecasts for FY 2017.
Cuts in federal procurement continue to be felt in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia. While there is potential improvement in the total number of jobs regained in the local market, the jobs lost (professional and business services) are being replaced by jobs that have lower overall wages (retail, hospitality, construction). Home prices are rising very modestly, about 1.5 percent for the first 10 months of 2015, and homes are taking slightly longer to sell. On the commercial side, real estate values are improving after declining for two consecutive years. As anticipated, Metrorail’s Silver Line is spurring new construction in that corridor, but the overall increase in real estate values county-wide is forecast to be less than 3 percent, or “anemic growth” on the revenue side, according to Mr. Long.
Competing for disbursements are schools, which are scheduled for a 3 percent increase in the Operating Transfer each year, along with Capital Support for infrastructure of $13.1 million, and debt service requirements. On the county side, funding compensation and retirement plans for county employees, and increasing the county’s reserves to comply with recommendations of the bond rating agencies, are major items in the FY 2017 budget. Not included, Mr. Long pointed out, is potential funding for the Ad Hoc Police Commission recommendations. A five-year phase-in of more than 100 positions and $30 million would result in a $6 million annual cost. The Board of Supervisors will be reviewing the commission’s 142 recommendations during the next few months.
Although student growth has slowed, Superintendent Garza said the school system is facing a projected shortfall of $60.6 million. The school board’s request for the school transfer will most likely be 5.7 percent. Similar to the county side, employee compensation, retirement benefits, and health insurance costs are major drivers in the school budget. Dr. Garza noted that no School Board action has been taken; the figures she presented are preliminary, and are subject to change.
The Board of Supervisors will begin an extensive review of the county’s Lines of Business (LOBs) in mid-January. Tuesdays and Fridays will be LOBs days, as the Board examines every department and agency, an in-depth task that is scheduled about every five years. The exercise will determine what still works and what might need to be changed, and will help inform budget decisions for FY 2017 and beyond. Chairman Sharon Bulova also suggested looking at putting some pay schedules for school and county employees together once again (they were separated in the 1980s as far as anyone can remember). That will probably require a lengthy task force effort between the two entities, but may be worthy of more discussion. Stay tuned.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]