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Votes

Local Officials Meet to Discuss Money

Fiscal Outlook Not Good

For three hours last Thursday, June 27, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and School Board members, in a joint work session, discussed the county's fiscal forecast while a handful of state elected officials sat and listened.

The agenda for the work session was ambitious, including topics such as an overview of Fairfax County revenues; an overview of school budget for FY 2004; an audit of educational effectiveness; an update on state budget issues and state revenue outlook; review of key state studies; update on 2001 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) recommendations on Standards of Quality funding; and update on federal mandates and budget implications.

The General Assembly members did not even get to participate until the last 45 minutes and no real solutions to the expected budget crunch were reached.

If the purpose of the meeting was to drive home how important it is for the General Assembly to send more money Fairfax County's way, the point was received; however, the occasional jabs aimed at the state body left at least one senator a bit put off.

"We sat here for the better part of an afternoon listening to what you need. … We're quite cognizant of your needs and yet we have heard comments continually made about what we do to you," said Sen. Leslie Byrne (D-34). "The people at this table work very hard for education. … We have to make tough decisions like you do."

She went on to say the local officials should be "a little more circumspect" to those who support them.

COUNTY STAFF, while not presenting specific budget figures for FY 2004, did say locally the estimated yield on investments is low, the consumer confidence index is down, the office vacancy rate is at its highest level since 1996 and consumer spending is down.

"The economy is growing, but not at a rate it was in the past," said Ed Long, of the county's Department of Management and Budget. "Our dependency on real estate continues."

Long said the state continues to control 90 percent of the county's revenue base, excluding the real estate tax.

"I think that what you'll see with the FY 2004 budget is if cuts need to be made, we'll have to cut services and programs. And unfortunately, there are no good cuts," he said.

Susan Datta, also with the county's budget office, said the projected state revenue shortfall of at least $150 million to $200 million will mean a reduction in the $650 million the county received from the state, $200 million of which was reimbursement from the car tax.

On the federal side, the county is trying to get a piece of the $29.4 billion set aside in the Emergency Supplemental Bill which was passed in the wake of the September terrorist attacks. $326.7 million of that is designated for first responders. In all, the county's FY 2003 budget included $138 million in anticipated federal funds.

The schools outlook projects a budget shortfall of $66.7 million for FY 2004 and increase of 2,300 general education students. Last year, between Sept. 10 and 28, the school system had an additional 1,136 students. The number of English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and special education students is also expected to rise.

In addition, the school system has to set aside $3 million for the No Child Left Behind Act and $2.2 million to outfit Head Start buses with new seat restraints. Both are required by federal law, but no federal money is forthcoming to fund them.

"If the state funded JLARC we would receive $88 million. If the federal government funded IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]," said Charles Woodruff, the schools chief financial officer.

THE DISCUSSION INVOLVING the state officials centered around taxing options and discussions within General Assembly subcommittees to revise or completely restructure parts of the tax code including the car tax, income tax, telecommunication taxes, BPOL (business, professional and occupational license) tax and sales and use tax.

Susan Mittereder, of the county's Office of the County Executive, said changes to the tax code as currently suggested would mean less money for Fairfax County.

The supervisors said a key to helping the county's financial outlook would be changing the taxing authority provisions to allow counties to have as much authority as cities.

"It's not just about the revenues. It's the balance," said Supervisors chairman Katherine "Kate" Hanley (D).

"One of the things my Republican colleagues had discussed is that if the sales taxes are going to the county, it's the county that has to vote on it. If the county wants more authority, that's much easier for us to deliver," said Del. David Albo (R-42). "If you want us to raise taxes, then the county needs to take a vote. If the board is going to spend the money, then the board needs to take a vote and be accountable to the people."

Del. Robert Hull (D-38) said it is the General Assembly that "takes a hit" for not providing localities with the funding they need, but it is also the General Assembly that does not allow the localities to raise the funding on their own.

Byrne said it would send a strong message to the General Assembly if the referendum to raise the sales tax by half cent for transportation needs passed. It would also free up the elected officials to turn all their attention to education needs.