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Residents Debate Tax Cut Merits

Speakers tell board members not to lower property tax rates.

At a public hearing on tax rates last Thursday, many expected to hear strong sentiments. Russell Garth fulfilled those expectations ? he just didn?t express the sentiments many expected to hear.

?We feel undertaxed rather than overtaxed,? Garth said, and he wasn?t the only one urging board members not to drop the real estate tax rate

At the March 27 hearing, the 22 speakers were almost evenly divided between those asking for lower rates and those, like Garth, who said that county-run programs can?t afford a cut from the current property tax rate, 99.3 cents on every $100 of a home?s assessed value.

Even in Arlington, which tends to be more liberal than the rest of the Commonwealth, it?s rare to see many people show up to oppose tax breaks, said Chris Zimmerman, a County Board member since 1996.

Thursday?s hearing was part of a debate that will continue until Saturday, April 26, when the Board will approve its final budget and tax rates for fiscal 2004, beginning July 1, 2003.

With state contributions to Arlington dropping by an estimated $2.1 million next year, some residents are worried a local tax cut could spell trouble.

Tax cuts are impossible right now, said Susan Prokop, a 20-year Arlington resident, because of the ?fiscal irresponsibility? of the General Assembly, and Congress.

?There are simply too many unmet needs,? said Jim Schroeder, a retired Arlington teacher.

Real estate assessments on single-family homes rose an average of 17.3 percent this year, which could translate to a $462 tax increase for homeowners if board members keep the current tax rate. County officials estimate that for every penny the tax rate is cut, county funds will shrink by $3.2 million.

TAX CUT ADVOCATES also showed up Thursday. Some agreed with Schroeder: government services aren?t performing up to par.

But if board members decide not to cut property taxes, county could increase spending by 6.2 percent over the current fiscal year. The burden of funding that increase would fall disproportionately on homeowners whose assessments rose dramatically this year.

Nancy Hunt is a local homeowner whose assessment rose 38 percent this year. If county services already don?t work, she said, she doesn?t want to foot the bill for more spending. ?Are we really getting a 20 percent increase in the services you?re providing??

But county services must be viewed in context, said County Manager Ron Carlee; Fairfax City is the only local jurisdiction with lower taxes than Arlington.

Some tax cut proponents said officials are throwing out a red herring when they talk about neighboring jurisdictions. ?I?m not sure I agree with the idea that being the best of a bad lot casts us in a good light,? said Dorothy Swansen.

TAX RATES INDIRECTLY affect education, and several speakers on Thursday night urged the board not to do anything that would hurt Arlington?s schools.

Under a revenue-sharing agreement, schools automatically get 48.6 percent of county revenues, and 46 percent of county revenues come from real estate taxes. So for every penny drop in the real estate tax rate, schools would lose over $1.5 million.

Schools face extra requirements due to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, so now is not the time to play around with school funding.

?The proposed tax rate seems very fair,? said Jane Shepard, president of the County Council of PTAs.

PROTECTING EDUCATION and other government services shouldn?t come at the expense of people on fixed incomes, like the elderly and persons with disabilities, other speakers said.

Arlington offers tax breaks for seniors and people with disabilities, and participation in those programs has almost quadrupled over the last year, Carlee said.

However, not enough fixed-income Arlingtonians qualify for the program, said Mary Rouleau, and they could be hurt by rising taxes as property values continue to go up.

State law prohibits additional tax relief programs, but Carlee suggested the possibility of housing grants to homeowners who don?t currently qualify but are still overwhelmed by rising taxes.

For Zimmerman, the variety of opinions expressed at the hearing showed a cross-section of the local population. ?I think that reflects the balanced view that most Arlingtonians have,? he said.