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At Tax Hearings, Public Opinion Divided

Feedback on budget split on spending, tax cuts.

Tax cut proponents had a slight edge Thursday night.

At the Arlington board’s March 21 hearing on a proposed tax rate, the speakers split almost 60-40 in favor of cutting the tax rate levied on Arlington homeowners.

Twenty-five of the 44 speakers asked County Board members to lower Arlington’s real estate tax rate, in light of property assessments that averaged a 21 percent increase across the county.

Currently, homeowners in Arlington pay $1.023 property tax for every $100 of their homes’ assessed value. That means that houses worth $269,500, the average single-family home cost in the county, would cost its owner $2,757 in taxes next year, an increase of 21 percent from last year.

The number of tax protesters paled in comparison to the number of people at a hearing last Tuesday, most asking the County to keep providing the services they enjoyed.

Causes were varied – from dog parks to aid for small businesses, from teacher pay to refugees settling in Arlington – but they all shared a common goal. They all asked board members not to cut county money for those programs.

The conflicting sides of the issue were boiled down Thursday night, so that speakers ended up advocating two issues: meet a public need by cutting taxes, or maintain the county services that make Arlington a good place to live.

<b>TUESDAY’S HEARING TOOK PLACE</b> in the auditorium of Thomas Jefferson Middle School, where board members took their seats under theater lights as they ran through the list of speakers.

The theater was only a third full, at best, but speakers came and went throughout their night, taking their turn at a microphone and then heading out into a rainy night.

Most requests for continued county spending came from delegations, four or five representatives of each organization making their case for local need, and testifying to each program’s special need.

Zenia Sirage started speaking for ECDC, a local organization offering programs that help African refugees settle in America, teaching them English, job skills, and helping them find employment and homes.

She was followed by six others, ECDC employees and refugees now living and working in the Washington area.

Other speakers also sought funds for programs filling special niches in the community, programs that receive county support – whether a Head Start program, a computer training course for adults or support for small business owners from the county’s Small Business Development Center.

Heads of unions for Arlington police, firefighters and paramedics petitioned the board to change the retirement system for Arlington’s public safety employees – an option proposed by County Manager Ron Carlee, but not necessarily included in his proposal for next year’s county budget.

While Cecilia Cassidy, executive director of Rosslyn Renaissance, spoke to the board she was flanked by the heads of two other community organizations, all asking the board to maintain funding for such events as Clarendon Day, and forums on changes in Rosslyn and on Columbia Pike.

Arlington teachers showed up to ask the board to maintain tax revenues, in order to fund a move in the adopted School budget to increase teacher pay, and yearly pay raises, across all salary steps.

<b>ARLINGTON ANTI-TAX ACTIVISTS</b> were not unsympathetic. But at the Tuesday hearing they urged County Board members to cut the tax rate on county homes, and kept up those calls Thursday night.

Some expressed anger at the board, and the list of speakers at some points read like a who’s who list of the Arlington Republican party. But others told the board this year represented a special bind.

"I’m a 22-year citizen of Arlington. I voted for most of you, and I would like to again," Michael Ortmeier said. But between the tax rate and an increased assessment, he said, his tax bill this year was "just not reasonable."

"I … appeal to you for a sensible tax rate," he said, "or else I will have to make a different choice in the future, either who to vote for or to move somewhere else."

Lagging slightly in numbers, opponents of a cut in the tax rate still represented 40 percent of Thursday’s speakers. Some sounded refrains familiar from two nights before, calling for increased teacher pay or more affordable housing.

Others said they simply wanted to register their contentment with living in Arlington. "I was afraid you’d only hear one point of view tonight," Terry Savela said. "I ask that you not take any action that will endanger our fiscal health, or important county services."

<b>IT’S POSSIBLE TO </b>cut taxes without cutting services, Wayne Kubicki said a few minutes later.

Kubicki, a member of the board’s fiscal advisory committee, told board members that they needed to count all of the county’s revenues, realistically.

"Even though there’s plenty not to like in the manager’s proposed budget – you can cut the rate substantially, without touching a penny of spending," he said.

A mid-financial year review of the county’s finances, released earlier this month, showed an extra $12.6 million, he said.

"Let’s review the manager’s other revenue projections," Kubicki said. "You’ll find that they are understated. By a lot."

Personal property tax projections in the budget, covering cars, boats and businesses equipment, show no increase from revised estimates for this year, he said. Projections for other taxes are also artificially low, and the budget underestimates growth in property assessments for nest year.

Altogether, correcting for those under-estimations adds $23.7 million to the budget, or enough to allow for a six cent cut in the county’s tax rate, ending at 96.3 cents for every $100 of a home’s assessed value. "And I didn’t cut a penny of spending," Kubicki said.

One of the problems in the budget’s estimations, he said, was an assumption that the effects of Sept. 11 and the nationwide recession would continue to effect Arlington’s economy.

"The recession is over, the 9/11 effect was in [2001 and 2002]," Kubicki said.

<b>OTHER SPEAKERS THURSDAY</b> night echoed that sentiment, some pointing to statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on March 7 that the recession was over.

"I’m not sure the state of Virginia knows the recession is over," county spokesman Richard Bridges said last week. "And to say that 9/11 was all last year, to say it’s over, that’s not very far-sighted."

The county was still recovering, he said. While the effect on local businesses is starting to shrink, the county is still in the process of preparing to cope with the possibility of other attacks.

As to the possibility of extra money, County Manager Ron Carlee told the board at their March 23 meeting that he would be ill-advised to include too much in the proposed budget.

"If we use extra revenues [from this year] for tax cuts, or spend it on public safety, we build an unsustainable expenditure base" for the future, Carlee said.

Each year, county budget planners look at the previous year’s budget to plan for the next. If tax cuts or spending were built into the budget from a previous year’s revenues, that would create a precedent that might not be sustainable as years went on – if no mid-year surpluses became available, or if tax cuts brought in lower revenues.

Still Bridges said, Kubicki’s suggestions, and those of other speakers, were the point of the hearings.

"There’s no monopoly on good ideas," he said. "They do genuinely seek out input. The budget is the seminal document the county produces every year."