Commentary, Local Commentary

A Penny For Your Thoughts

More than 60 people attended last week’s Mason District Budget Town Meeting, a far cry from last year’s attendance of fewer than a dozen.  In both meetings, however, residents came to complain about the burden that the real estate tax places on them, especially in the continuing “hot” housing market.  Although it appears that the market may be cooling as home mortgage interest rates are almost twice what they were in 2021, the 2023 assessments include the market sales for neighborhood comparables in 2022.  If you bought a house in Fairfax County in 2022, your purchase price essentially becomes the market value for assessment purposes.  The Virginia Constitution requires that properties be assessed every year, and those assessments must be at fair market value.

About half of residential properties in Mason District had an assessment increase of up to 10 percent; in some neighborhoods, including properties on larger lots and waterfront properties in Lake Barcroft, increased up to 15 percent.  The increases were helped by home sales that exceeded both the assessment (which usually lags market value by five to 15 percent) and the asking price.  The mean residential assessment change for Mason District was 6.34 percent, the smallest change of all nine magisterial districts.  Mason District accounts for 8.49 percent of the total taxable base in Fairfax County; Dranesville (which includes Great Falls) accounts for 16.34 percent of the total taxable base.  

Some of the criticisms expressed at the budget town meeting are not unfounded.  The hot housing market has affected the assessments for 90 percent of the residential properties in Fairfax County and, since the real property tax is the primary source of county revenues allowed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the burden rests squarely on property owners.  Repeated attempts to diversify the tax base for counties largely have been unsuccessful.  In a county with a population of 1.2 million, needed services are extensive; meeting those needs with available revenues is the challenge faced by county leaders.  The Board of Supervisors has flexibility to reduce County Executive Hill’s recommendation of a $1.11 tax rate, and I anticipate that most Board members will support a reduction in the rate.  Residents who wish to file an administrative appeal to their assessment must do so by April 3, 2023.  Find more information about how to appeal an assessment at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/taxes. 

Reactions to a proposal to increase the salary of Board members have been intense, as they are each time a salary increase is broached.  Decades ago, the Virginia General Assembly established the public process that county boards must use to determine their own salaries, and it is set up to create a lot of angst among the voters.  Boards may only increase salaries for the next board, not the current one, and only in an election year, in a narrow window between January 1 and April 15, after conducting a public hearing.  Although considered a part-time position, Board members can spend an average of 40 to 60 hours a week, including evenings and weekends,  fulfilling their responsibilities to the 120,000 or so constituents in each district.  In the past 32 years, the Board’s salary has been increased only five times, essentially establishing eight-year pay freezes that no other county employee has experienced.  Addressing Board salaries by the same market rate adjustment used for county employees each year would remove any political shenanigans and address the issue in a more professional manner.  The public hearing about the proposed salary increase is scheduled for Tuesday, March 21, 2023 at 4:30 p.m. at the Board Auditorium, 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax.  

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