Coronavirus pandemic drives Fairfax County budget cuts

We don’t know what’s next. It’s the guiding principle behind major changes to the Fairfax County, Virginia, budget proposal that are set to be released next week.

The original budget proposed a 3-cent property tax increase, which may or may not significantly change depending on the projected impact on future years’ budgets. The original proposal also included a new 4% tax on tickets to things such as movies, theaters and concerts.

“The world has changed since that budget presentation, and so will our budget,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said.

The revised budget proposal will project significantly less revenue with drops in sales tax collections, hotel stays, car tax collections, business taxes and other areas, and is expected to put off some or all of the new programs that were proposed, including additional school funding, police body cameras and additional funding for affordable housing.

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Hotel occupancies are down from the 70% to 80% range to the 10% to 30% range, the closure of School Age Child Care programs is cutting millions of dollars in revenues, and interest rate cuts have reduced county cash flows.

“There’s going to be pain in this budget, and it needs to be shared pain. It can’t fall all on one thing. It can’t fall all on our employees, it can’t fall all on our schools,” McKay said.

Those bigger ticket line items facing cuts compared to the budget proposal introduced just over a month ago are in addition to other more immediate changes, such as a general county hiring freeze and a hold on noncritical spending.

With so much unknown, supervisors expect far more significant changes than usual even after the budget is approved, with more wide-ranging regular reviews every three months.

“All of these challenges we’re facing are the same ones everyone else in the region is grappling with,” McKay said.

Other local governments expect to address their own budget changes in coming weeks for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Prince William County is evaluating what projects can be stopped or paused, and other ways to conserve cash, with details likely in coming weeks.

The state government is expected to scale back its budget when the legislature reconvenes April 22.

Gov. Ralph Northam has another week and a half to finalize the budget amendments he will send back to lawmakers for consideration.

Virginia Senate Republicans sent a letter Tuesday, asking Northam to significantly slash spending, and to veto a number of bills they had opposed during the session that could lay out new regulations.

Supervisor Dan Storck, who represents the Mount Vernon District, sees state spending and the time and type of federal aid as key to how everyone moves forward.

“At the state level, I think we should also expect more than we have in the past. In the past, we have gotten the shaft. You can’t say it any other way,” Storck said, referring to cuts to education funding a decade ago.

The state and local governments generally have to balance their budgets.

County Executive Bryan Hill promised the April 7 budget proposal would meet that guideline, as best as can be projected right now.

“We are working our rear ends off to ensure that we take care of everybody, but I’m not sure how we’re going to take care of everybody at this juncture,” Hill said.

Public input on the budget is scheduled to include public hearings April 14, 15 and 16, with the hope that most or all people will take advantage of digital options.

Fairfax County will allow residents to submit video testimony, online comments with attachments, call in on the phone, or, if there is no way to do any of those, comment in person as usual.

Prince William County is also looking into ways to expand electronic public input but does not have the same systems already in place that Fairfax County does.

Fairfax Co. small business, charity assistance

Fairfax County also plans additional support for small businesses through an expanded microloan program that would be in addition to or separate from federal Small Business Administration programs, and is considering shifting funding for nonprofits to focus on the biggest issues during this crisis.

The microloan program is expected to be formally approved April 14, including final details about eligibility for county businesses with no more than 50 employees.

Some nonprofit groups providing assistance may also qualify for federal grants or other funding.

The county has seen a significant increase in calls for assistance over the last few weeks, including about 20% of calls from people who have not called the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services before.

Charities who already get county funding also are getting flexibility to shift from their original contracts, which might not work right now, such as an after-school program, to instead provide more direct help to those facing COVID-19 challenges.

“We clearly are at the front of this wave, and it’s going to get bigger, not smaller, but I don’t believe that we’re ready. I don’t feel that we’re ready, and at least from my perspective and what I hear in the community, we’re not ready,” Storck said.

County to keep buses running

Fairfax County supervisors formally accepted $1.85 million in emergency state funding Tuesday for transit operations to keep Fairfax Connector running. The local bus system was seeing about 40% of typical ridership last week.

The state funding is being distributed based on size to all local transit systems in Virginia other than Metro, and Fairfax County expects to be able to use its share to bridge a potential operating funding gap from lost fares until late May.

Fairfax County and other jurisdictions are also in talks with Metro about potential reductions in contributions to the regional transit system due to the major service cuts now in place indefinitely, but no final agreements have been reached.

Metro has cut rail and bus service frequency until further notice, and has closed 19 rail stations indefinitely.

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