Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Every year, County Supervisors from across Virginia gather in Richmond for VACo /VML Legislative Day. The Virginia Association of Counties (VACo) and the Virginia Municipal League (VML) sponsor the day-long event; last week, more than 500 local elected officials joined in the advocacy day, calling on state senators and delegates to support, or oppose, legislation making its way through the General Assembly process. Given the pace of the legislative process at this point in the session, a bill can be killed in committee before the advocates get a chance to speak. Nonetheless, explaining the effect of a bill on a locality often proves eye-opening to General Assembly members.

A case in point is the teacher compensation increase in the introduced state budget. As proposed, the Commonwealth would raise teacher salaries by five percent in each year of the biennium. The proposal also requires school divisions (i.e., local taxpayers) to provide at least an average 2.5 percent increase (a local match) in order to access the state share. This is standard practice when the state announces teacher salary increases. What is not understood, even by General Assembly members, is that a salary increase with the local match costs localities millions more dollars from local funds. When the Commonwealth raised teacher salaries last year, the Fairfax County match was in excess of $100 million; the state’s share was only $22 million. Budget amendments by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Vivian Watts would remove the match requirement.

In Virginia, land use decisions are prime responsibilities of the locality, but there are bills introduced every year that would remove local authority. One such bill would amend the standards for credentialing of a “certified recovery residence.” Certainly, providing extended treatment for substance addiction is a good thing, but the bill also provides that such residences shall constitute residential occupancy by a single family for zoning purposes, regardless of the number of persons residing in the certified recovery residence. That provision would limit severely the ability of counties to address the associated land use impacts of an unlimited number of residents in a proposed facility, and VACo is working to remove it from the bill.

A surprise bill would mandate that any rooftop or ground-mounted solar installations that serve just the energy needs of the property to which they are located (residential roof-top, e.g.) shall be a separate class of property and entirely exempt from local real estate taxes. Local governments already can determine what kinds of real estate tax exemptions are granted, and that flexibility should continue.

A lot of discussion for localities is the proposal to eliminate the grocery tax. The introduced state budget provides for the elimination of the 1.5 percent state portion of the tax on groceries. Currently, food and essential hygiene products are taxed at 2.5 percent; the other one percent is the local option sales tax. From the state’s 1.5 percent portion, one percent is distributed to localities for school funding needs, and 0.5 percent is deposited to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund. Elimination of the tax would reduce allocations by nearly $600 million across the Commonwealth, and the introduced bills do not provide for revenue replacement. In Fairfax County alone, the grocery tax accounts for about $150 million in annual revenue, or more than five cents on the real estate tax. The average weekly grocery tax reduction for a family would be about the same as a Starbucks latte, with or without foam and syrup! Most local governments have not taken a position on elimination of the grocery tax, only that localities must be made whole for the lost revenue.

One bill that appears dead is Delegate Vivian Watts’ bill to address the noise from vehicles, an issue that has been plaguing portions of Fairfax County, especially in the Skyline area, since the General Assembly removed loud mufflers from being ticketable offenses. Delegate Watts worked on a remedy for the “mistake” made by the General Assembly last year but, at last report, the bill was laid on the table and not reported out by the House subcommittee.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.