Manassas adopts budget; tax rate reduced 3.1 cents, but homeowners will pay more

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The Manassas City Council adopted its fiscal year 2022 budget Monday night, providing for a raise to city employees and increased school funding while cutting the real estate tax rate to $1.429 per $100 in assessed value, 3.1 cents below the current $1.46 rate.

Democrats on the council touted the new benefits of the $271 million operating budget. The city’s fire and rescue department will receive funding for three additional positions it has requested for years. The city’s social services department will be able to fund 3.5 full-time positions, and all city staff will see an average pay increase of 3%.

The budget also increases the city’s allocation to Manassas City Public Schools – allowing for a step increase for all schools staff and an unfunded 5% raise mandated by the state for certain staff.

The budget also includes $6 million to be set aside in a reserve fund and grown by 2% annually to finance the construction of a new Jennie Dean Elementary School in 2026. Estimated to cost about $62 million, the new school would replace the oldest building in the school division before needed repairs become overly expensive.

“There were many hours that we met, going over this to try to make sure that this budget covered essential needs of our community, that there was nothing excessive in this budget. It’s meeting basic and essential needs,” Democratic Vice Mayor Pam Sebesky said Monday night.

Despite the falling tax rate, though, taxes will increase for homeowners by an average of roughly $190 due to significant increases in residential real estate values across the city. Councilperson Theresa Coates Ellis, the council’s only Republican, was the sole vote against the proposed $1.429 rate, calling instead for a rate that would have kept real estate tax bills flat.

She also suggested that incoming money from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan could be used to make up the difference. The city is expected to receive roughly $45 million from the stimulus package, but Democrats said that the money would come with tight controls on how it can be spent that are yet unknown and would be only one-time funds.

“It’s still going to increase our tax bill with the assessments that went up. … I just feel that this tax bill increase is going to add a burden on our residents and they’re already enduring a pandemic,” Ellis said. “This is going to be a bigger hit to the most vulnerable right now. I can’t support this rate, I feel like we have too much money dangling that could help out.”

Mark Wolfe, a Democratic councilmember, said the staffing additions and school funding was too important to do away with in a budget with no new real estate revenues. He also pointed out that the average increase in real estate tax bills would be smaller than those in surrounding counties such as Fauquier and Prince William.

“I don’t know of anyone that’s going around saying, ‘Gee whiz, teachers shouldn’t get more pay, … the police officers shouldn’t get more pay,’” Wolfe said. “A vote against this budget is essentially telling our people in this community that work for this city, ‘We don’t care. Go to work for Loudoun or go to work for Prince William County.’”

The council also passed the city’s latest five-year capital improvement plan, with nearly $38 million committed to capital projects in the coming fiscal year. That money will go to a number of ongoing projects, including Dean Park renovations, the Route 28/Nokesville Road widening, the Grant Avenue streetscape project, and shared-use paths on Gateway Boulevard and Godwin Drive. It will also be used for a series of sewer, stormwater and utility projects.

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