Fairfax Co. budget, tax rate proposal signals new normal

FAIRFAX, Va. — A few months after Fairfax County voters rejected a meals tax to support local schools, county officials have proposed a budget that would provide a small increase in school funding but would not pay for some of the county’s top priorities.

County Executive Ed Long, the county’s appointed manager of day-to-day operations, presented a budget proposal Tuesday that would keep the tax rate flat, provide a $51.69 million increase for schools and add 50 county positions.

“County needs are much greater than what the resources are that we have available,” Long said.

The proposed budget would increase average property taxes by $40.69 across the county based on new assessment data.

“There are significant unfunded priorities that we’re not being able to address in 2018,” Long said.

Programs not currently slated to receive funding include the county’s efforts to provide mental health treatment as an alternative to jail.

Public safety staffing and other changes recommended by the county’s police reform commission formed in the wake of the shooting death of John Geer don’t receive funding.

Additional support for residents with disabilities, an increase in the base salaries for many county workers and funding for basic sidewalk, trail, parks and other facility upgrades and maintenance also wouldn’t be funded in the coming year’s budget.

“A lot of the public safety things are not funded here,” Supervisor John Cook said. “The staffing plan, the ad hoc commission, span of control, body cameras. I mean these are all things that we know there’s a benefit to doing.”

The board can adjust the plan based on feedback from the public at upcoming meetings and later formal public hearings.

The funding boost for schools in the proposed budget is less than half the increase the school system requested. The schools had said much of that would be used for teacher raises in the school system’s $2.8 billion budget. The majority of the county budget goes to the school system.

Supervisor Kathy Smith suggested that residents who want more programs funded would need to make their voices heard over the next two weeks as the board of supervisors decides whether to advertise a higher tax rate.

Supervisor Jeff McKay called the proposal sobering, but not surprising.

Several other supervisors were happy the budget proposal kept the tax rate flat after a 4-cent increase last year. The board can adopt a tax rate below the advertised rate, but not above it.

Long does not believe there will be any significant change in funding for the county from Richmond this year, where legislators are finalizing budget amendments to send back to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The board of supervisors has long complained that they are limited by the state in what taxes or fees they can impose to move the tax burden away from the county’s heavy reliance on property taxes.

Long cited county residents’ vote against a meals tax this fall as a signal that voters did not want the property tax rate increased this year either.

“You can’t increase tax rates every year to make up for what the needs are, so it’s going to be a real challenge in going forward,” Long said.

Money is only expected to get tighter in the face of sharply increasing costs for Metro, pension costs that still need to be addressed and an apparently stagnant regional economy that could be dragged down further by federal spending cuts or upcoming sequestration cuts.

“There is great uncertainty out there in terms of the effect of the new administration,” Long said.

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