Budget: Part II – Last week’s release of Fairfax County’s proposed FY 2017 budget set the stage for community discussions about county priorities, how to fund them, and by how much. County Executive Ed Long was very direct when he cautioned that the short-term outlook for funding schools and county services is affected by only modest economic growth and the shortfall in state funding for K-12 education. Schools are not the only service underfunded by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Adequate funding for mental health services, court clerks, magistrates, and public defenders – all positions supported by the state – is woefully short. While reductions on the county side have been made since FY 2009, more than $300 million has been cut, and more than 700 positions eliminated. In addition, facility maintenance and equipment replacement was unfunded or delayed, and employee compensation remained flat.
During this same time, the Board of Supervisors made a number of strategic decisions that ensure a firmer footing for future budget development – doubling of reserve policies, eliminating the use of one-time funding for recurring expenses, strengthening the county’s pension systems, and adopting, last year, the county’s Economic Success Strategic Plan. As a result, the county’s Triple-A bond rating has been reaffirmed by the three rating houses in New York. Additionally, the Board is conducting a Lines of Business (LOBs) review of county activities, a lengthy exercise that will help inform decisions about the FY 2018 budget development.
Although the County Executive is responsible for putting the proposed budget together, which the Board of Supervisors then amends and adjusts before final adoption in late April, the budget is not prepared in a vacuum. During the past year, the Board has made recommendations to staff about the next budget. Last year’s adoption of a compensation plan for county staff aided Mr. Long with budget preparation, because the plan is tied to the cost of living. Last year’s cost of living was pegged at 1.68 percent, but the adopted budget included only half of that amount, plus longevity raises for some longtime employees. This year, the cost of living is 1.33 percent, lower than last year, but Mr. Long’s budget adheres to the compensation plan as developed and agreed to by the Board of Supervisors and employee groups.
The Board also directed Mr. Long to include a three percent increase in the operating transfer to schools, plus funding for the public safety staffing plan, the Ad Hoc Police Commission recommendations, and the Diversion First program. To meet these, and other, recommendations and requirements, Mr. Long proposed a four cent tax rate increase for FY 2017. The value of one cent this year equals $23.3 million in revenue. By state law the county’s budget must be balanced; we cannot run a deficit. The Board also is required, by state law, to advertise a proposed tax rate for consideration. The eventual tax rate adopted in late April may be lower, but cannot be higher, than the rate that will be advertised on March 1, following a public hearing.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]