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Double-Digit Taxes Rile Residents

When Fairfax County sent out tax-assessment notices last week, it didn't raise the assessment on Duane Heisinger's house in Centreville's Bull Run Estates community. Instead, it zapped him with a 75-percent increase in the assessed value of his five acres of land.

Altogether, his home and property received a 28-percent hike in its tax assessment. It means his land value increased from some $20,000 an acre to about $35,000 an acre — and he'll have to pay a property-tax bill of more than $1,200.

"It may be a legitimate increase, but I don't like the way they did it," said Heisinger. "This one, coming as it does, blows us out of the water. Why didn't they do it incrementally, over the years? What I object to is getting whammed so hard in one, fell swoop."

And he's not alone. Homeowners all over the local area shook their heads in amazement and disbelief, last week, when they learned how much the county values their property.

Real-estate assessments for county homeowners jumped an average of 16.3 percent. But assessments in Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton were all well above the norm.

Centreville led the pack with 19.91 percent — the highest average increase in assessed value in the whole county. Next came Chantilly at 18.35 percent, followed by Herndon (which includes Franklin Farm, Franklin Glen and Oak Hill addresses) at 18.32 percent and Clifton at 18.08 percent.

Fairfax County's tax rate is $1.23 per $100 of assessed value, and property assessments are based on fair market value as of Jan. 1. Real estate appraisers determined fair market value by comparing like properties — those of similar size and style — in a neighborhood and the prices they fetched when recently sold.

County Executive Tony Griffin explained that the county's continued dependence on residential property taxes to fund its budget was the catalyst fueling the property-assessment hikes. But it's still hard for area residents to swallow.

Heisinger's house and land together are now valued at $314,000, but he fears the county's not yet through with him and, next year, might increase his home's tax assessment, too. As it is, this year's rise in his property tax will wipe out the increase he got in his Navy retirement pay.

Furthermore, he said, people living on land zoned residential conservation (R-C) "should be assessed at a lower rate because of the limitations on what you can do on R-C land. For example, you can't subdivide below five acres, and we're all on wells and septic fields."

Heisinger and his wife Judy have lived there 10 years, but it's only the past two years that his tax assessment has skyrocketed. And he doesn't buy the county's excuse: "They say they need the money from the residents because of the county budget increases, but a lot of us are convinced they don't need to increase the budget."

Virginia Run's Ray Gustave took a 15-17 percent hit this year. He lives on more than 1/4 acre and, over the past three years, his property-tax assessments jumped a total of 48 percent. This year's increase was spread between his home and property. Last year's was mainly on his house.

Calling his latest tax-assessment hike "substantial," he said, "With that type of increase, I can't believe they're still talking about a sales-tax increase." And he noted that his property's augmented value does him no good unless he sells it.

"I'm still living there — it's not as if I'm getting that increase in my pocket," said Gustave. "I understand there's a lot of expenses. But when I look at the school budget, about $1.3 billion — about half the county's general revenues — and there's little review and oversight of those expenditures, how can they tell me they need more?"

He wants someone instead to show him that the school system's programs are effective and are achieving their goals. He also wants to know why the school system needs all its "layers of bureaucracy." Facing a tax bill that'll be $400-$500 more this year than last, it seems to Gustave that "a reduction of the real-estate tax rate is in order. Let's get a little tax relief out here."

He said the assessment increase surprised him. "I'd like to know what house sales my house was compared against — it should be a comparable house," said Gustave. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

Carol Hawn of Centreville's Old Mill community also had double-digit property-assessment hikes in the last two years. This time, it rose 23-24 percent over last year. "I knew it was going up, but I thought it would be more in line with the county average of 15-16 percent — not 7 percent higher," she said. But she understands why Centreville's assessments were the county's highest.

"Condominiums went up [on average, countywide] 21.19 percent, townhouses went up 18.56 percent and single-family homes, 16.14 percent," she explained. "We have a higher percentage of townhouses and condos here, and they went up at a higher rate than single-family homes."

Hawn said she and her husband will pay $500-$600 more in property tax, as a result. But she realizes that housing in Fairfax County is difficult to find, and affordable housing is even tougher. "As it becomes scarcer, it becomes more valuable — but it's to be expected," she said. "The only way the Board could compensate homeowners would be for the tax rate to go down, but we have to pay for county services somehow."

Knowing these are "lean economic times" — even in Fairfax County — Hawn, who's on several citizens associations, says she's involved enough with the county to know that "the county executive is not asking for frivolous things to be funded in the budget."

She said local residents will see direct benefits from things the budget includes, such as money to open and staff the new Sully District Police Station and an additional $1 million proposed toward the new recreation center's construction costs. Besides, she said, after hearing a presentation about the county's homeless, Monday, at the Government Center, she counts her blessings.

"At least we don't have to pack up all our belongings each night and wonder where we're going to sleep tomorrow," said Hawn. "We pay a lot, but we do get a lot. It's part of being a homeowner."

Meanwhile, the assessment notices brought fairly good news to Russ Wanek of Centreville's Heritage Forest community. His assessment didn't rise last year and, this time, it only went up about 12 percent. "I think it's because it's a middle-of-the-road townhouse community," he said. And he noted that real-estate values in his neighborhood are rising.

"A home across the street recently sold for $205,000, which was considerably more than we paid five years ago for ours," he said. "We paid less than $150,000; it's now assessed at $181,000."

Wanek must now pay $216 more in property taxes. And he said the tax hike "sorta sticks in my craw" since, over the past 20 years, "I haven't been inspired that the elected leaders would use this money in the best interests of the citizens they're taking it from. I blame it on Gov. Gilmore."

He said Gilmore had no plan to decrease spending or account for real-life fluctuations in the area's economy, just the "no car tax mantra." And the voters — "Mindless sheep that they are," said Wanek — fell for his words. The problem, he said, is that "no politician is going to give up that large a chunk of revenue without recouping it somewhere else."

Also a townhouse owner, Centreville's Bill Liedtke has lived in The Meadows community for 23 years. And was he ever surprised to discover his home stung with a 25.8-percent tax-assessment increase.

"Some years, it's been minimal — only 3 or 4 percent," he said. "But it went way up this year. Maybe they're catching up — who knows?" His land remained the same in value, but his townhouse's worth rose from $58,000 to $73,000.

"A couple years ago, they were selling for only $95,000 in my neighborhood," said Liedtke. "But I think real-estate prices have gone up. In the last six months or so, we've had some homes selling here for $120,000 to $125,000.

Still, he said, he understands the reason for his tax hike. After all, what else can he do? But like Heisinger, he'd have preferred the county to have "spaced it out," instead of flinging the whole thing at home, all at once.

"When I first opened [the tax notice], I thought, 'Who do I appeal this to?'" said Liedtke. "But after reading newspaper articles about it, I realize that we're getting less money from Richmond, so they've got to make it up somewhere."