“Raise my taxes. Lower my taxes. Spend more on schools. Schools spend too much. Cut wasteful programs. Privatize everything. People on fixed incomes can’t afford to live here. Have police issue more tickets and the revenue problem will be fixed.” Such comments are part and parcel of the annual budget dialogue in Fairfax County. The challenge for the Board of Supervisors, whose members must adopt a budget every spring, is to find the balance between available revenues and increasing demands for service.
There are few easy answers when it comes to local budgets. In Virginia, 80 percent of county revenue sources – primarily the real estate tax and the car tax – are controlled or capped by the General Assembly in Richmond. Assessments for residential properties increased a mere .68 percent this year. That includes Fairfax County’s more than 342,000 single family detached homes, townhouses, and condominiums. Apartments, which are assessed as commercial, not residential, properties, had more robust increases of 3.37 percent. Interestingly, equalization for retail properties reports a healthy 7.39 percent valuation increase, rebounding from only 1.6 percent in FY17. The county’s goal for nonresidential real estate as a percentage of the total real estate assessment base is 25 percent; this year that number is 19.12 percent, higher than the past two fiscal years, but a long way from the desired goal.
School funding is a priority for every General Fund budget. The recommendation this year is for an additional $50.95 million in the transfer to schools, for a total county transfer of $2.17 billion, or 52.8 percent. That number does not include $83.4 million in additional support from the county for Head Start, Behavioral Health Services, School Health Nurses, School Resource Officers, crossing guards, after-school programming, field maintenance, and recreation programs. The increase in property values for FY18 equates to $88.2 million in additional revenue at the current tax rate of $1.13 per $100 valuation, far less than the School Board request for an additional $112.54 million. To fully fund the School Board’s request would require an additional 2.5 cents on the real estate tax rate.
The Virginia Code requires the county to advertise public hearings about the budget, including the tax rate, within a specified time prior to holding public hearings about the proposed budget. Advertising a rate does not prevent the Board from lowering the rate, but the Board cannot adopt a rate higher than is advertised. While the actual real estate tax rate usually draws most attention, the advertisement also includes the Stormwater Service District Levy (up .25 cents); leaf collection (down two cents); and Tysons Service District (up one cent). No increase is recommended for the current EMS transport fees.
At Tuesday’s meeting, following an hour-long debate, the Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 1 to advertise the current tax rate of $1.13 to support the FY18 county budget as proposed by County Executive Ed Long. It’s a tight, no-frills approach, one that provides basic needed services to the community, but does not include county employee raises or any new programs.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.