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County Board OKs $628 Million Budget

Tax rate cut, but rising assessments still mean higher bills.

Arlington taxpayers will get a break, but only a small one, from rising property taxes in the county.

County Board members acted Saturday to adopt a county budget based on a lower tax rate, cutting three cents from the rate in place for the last three years.

But that rate cut was more than offset by the rise in assessments across the county this year, and will be obliterated by projected increases next year.

Board members approved a nearly $628 million budget for Arlington government and schools, incorporating full funding for the school board’s proposed budget, as well as increase in public safety spending on county fire trucks and emergency medical units.

The board’s vote set in place a budget that represented an overall increase from the budget proposed on Feb. 9 by County Manager Ron Carlee, a budget of $610 million for the next year.

The adopted budget was based on a lower real estate tax rate for the coming year, a rate of $0.993 per $100 of a home’s assessed value – down 3 percent from the proposed rate of $1.023. It was the first time real estate tax rates had been cut in the county in more than a decade

But Arlington Republicans and anti-tax activists called the rate cut inconsequential in light of rising real estate assessments across the county. The average single family home increased in price by an average of 21.1 percent from last year, but many homeowners say they have seen increases of 50 percent or more.

Factoring in rising assessments and the lower tax rate, the average Arlington tax bill will still increase by $380 over last year – which is $81 smaller than the increase the average homeowner would have paid under the budget initially proposed by Carlee.

<b>THOSE NUMBERS DIDN’T</b> make sense, Wayne Kubicki told the board Saturday. Kubicki, a member of the county’s financial affairs advisory committee, said that an overall increase in taxes made no sense this year.

"Your votes today will result in the real estate tax bill of the average Arlington homeowner going up $766, or over 40 percent, over the last three years," he said. "In a period of low inflation. In a period of minimal growth."

Elise Kenderian, chair of Arlington’s Republican Committee, criticized the board’s vote as nothing more than "token" cuts in the tax rate, a sop to taxpayers. The board "ignored spending and tax advice from its own citizens advisory group," she said, " and rejected proposals for real tax relief from a wide range of civic organizations."

Proposed tax rates came from groups across the political spectrum, and around the county. Two different petitions competed for support among Arlingtonians, one calling for a two-cent tax cut that the board had contemplated, the other calling for a six-cent cut.

Board Chair Chris Zimmerman said that the signatures on those petitions had been among the 1,432 citizens that the board had heard from during the budget process, with input coming at public hearings, over the Internet and via the mail.

<b>INCLUDED IN</b> the county budget are three key elements, retained from proposals submitted in February.

With the full transfer to Arlington Public Schools, the county will allow the school system to put in place a system-wide increase in teacher salaries, and an augmentation in the raises teachers receive from year to year.

County funds will offset lower state funds to make that possible, Susan Robinson said. Robinson, Arlington Schools’ assistant superintendent for Budget and Finance, was just starting to finalize the schools’ budget for next year.

"We had reductions in state funding, but that doesn’t affect the county portion. This lets us keep what we wanted to do" for next year, she said. Arlington’s school board and County Board members finalized an agreement earlier this year that automatically provided 48.6 percent of county tax revenues to the schools.

The budget also includes immediate funding for making two EMS units full-time and add an extra firefighter to four understaffed county fire trucks. In addition, the board approved a 2.75 percent cost of living adjustment for all county employees.

<b>HOW DID</b> the board manage to fully fund the schools, and add to the public safety budget, while instituting a cut in the tax rate? The answer is simple, county finance officers say: assessments went up enough to make all of it possible.

The revenue-sharing agreement between the county and the schools would have cut into school funding if taxes were cut. But assessments and tax revenues were high enough, Robinson said, to accommodate the fluctuations from a tax cut.

"We were able to do it because of increased assessment growth in January 2003," said Chuck Gubisch, Budget Director for the county. Current estimates show Arlington’s property values going up at the beginning of next year, he said, at the midpoint of the county’s budget year.

Both Gubisch and Kubicki said that assessments could increase by as much as 8 percent, meaning that he value of the average single-family home in Arlington could hit $291,000 by next January.

In addition, projections for business licenses, personal property taxes and meal taxes were updated and increased during the budget process. "That happens to be pretty close to offsetting the rate cut," Gubisch said.

While the budget is passed, the budget director’s work isn’t done. Gubisch and his staff will spend the next three months applying recommendations in the approved budget to the budgets of individual county departments.

"We now spread that across various departments, salaries and fringe benefits, and will produce a new budget document for July 1, reflecting the decisions the board made," he said.

By July 1, the beginning of the new budget year, a full accounting of the county board’s approved budget will stream across Intra- and Internet, he said, available for perusal by all of Arlington’s employees and taxpayers.