5-cent property tax hike possible in Arlington

Andrew Mollenbeck, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Real estate taxes for the average homeowner in Arlington County could increase hundreds of dollars each year as regional development and uncertainty about sequestration force the Arlington County Board to adjust to new realities.

Members voted 4-0 to consider a 5-cent real property tax rate increase on Saturday. The vote didn’t establish the rate as official but advertises the maximum increase before a final budget vote in April.

By law, the board can adopt a rate lower than the 5-cent hike advertised, but cannot adopt a higher one.

“It is entirely legal, and entirely possible, that the Board, after hearing from the community, may opt for no tax rate increase whatsoever,” Mary Curtius, a spokeswoman for the county government, tells WTOP.

Should the increase become part of the fiscal year 2014 budget, the tax bill for the average Arlington homeowner would increase by about $350 annually.

Inaction by Congress on the automatic spending cuts has only complicated the budget planning in one of the nation’s richest counties.

As a result, board members are juggling the tax rate increase and service cuts.

“This is probably one of the harder budgets I’ve ever had to put together in the many years that I have been with the county,” says Barbara Donnellan, county manager.

She had recommended a 3.2-cent real property tax rate increase the week before the board voted.

“There’s a lot of uncertainties out there,” she says.

In particular, she has highlighted the effect of the Base Realignment and Closure process. That has pushed office vacancy rates in Arlington to the highest level in years, according to a news release.

“We have seen [BRAC] impact our commercial base,” Donnellan told the board.

She also highlighted competition for commercial tenants coming from the District and other suburbs.

The biggest uncertainty involves the automatic spending cuts, now just days away.

“We don’t know what’s going on with the federal sequestration,” she says, noting cuts will have have both a direct and indirect impact on the county.

The community will have a chance to speak up at two hearings in late March.

The first opportunity is March 26 at a 7 p.m. budget hearing.

The second, dealing with the tax proposal, will be March 28.

While the upcoming budget has to resolve some complicated questions, Donnellan isn’t complaining.

“When you look across the country and at a lot of jurisdictions, we’re far better off than many of them.”

This story has been modified to clarify that the board voted to “advertise” the property tax hike and that it is possible the increase may not take effect.

Follow @MollenbeckWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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