Dranesville District’s Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn on Monday voted ‘no’ on the last of eight budgets he will face as a Fairfax County Supervisor.
Only once in his two terms on the board, Mendelsohn said, has Fairfax County evaluated its “lines of business” by reviewing each and every program for effectiveness. That was in 1996, for FY 1997, when there was a precipitous drop in revenue.
For FY 2004, while the board reduced the real estate tax rate by five cents to $1.16 per hundred dollars of assessed value, the “effective tax rate” will still go up. That’s the tax bill that results when the tax rate of $1.16 is multiplied by the number of times $100 goes into the assessed value.
Asked what he doesn’t like about the FY 2004 budget, Mendelsohn said:
“Starting with it was still an 11 percent tax increase, which equals a 52 percent tax increase over the last four years,” he said, “I don’t think the board went far enough in being sensitive to the taxpayers. In this day and age, giving people five, six, or seven percent increases is out of line, [for] the schools in particular,” said Mendelsohn, who served on Fairfax County’s appointed School Board before he ran for supervisor.
Mostly, to describe the FY ‘04 budget, Mendelsohn lapsed into two and three-word sentences.
Asked if he had asked for amendments to the budget that was tweaked by Budget Chair Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) and her committee, Mendelsohn’s response was curt.
“That was futile. The deal was already done. The majority of the board had come to a decision about what they were going to do,” he said.
Despite an increase in the total amount of county revenue driven by the fourth consecutive double-digit rise in residential real estate tax assessments, Mendelsohn’s district will lose its trash “parkouts” at the end of June.
“It’s gone. But we knew that all along,” Mendelsohn said. “There was no way to save it financially. It is losing 15 percent of its users every year.”
Mendelsohn said his constituents don’t seem aware of what they have lost. “I have heard from some, but not from a large number,” he said.
“Realistically, most people are not paying attention. The average citizen isn’t following the detail of the budget. We won’t hear an outcry until June, when we say it is over,” he said.
By comparison, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, with a $6.7 million budget fully funded by the supervisors, lost nothing.
Even the “cut” to the real estate tax, which actually only reduced the amount of increase, was mitigated by a $3 tax on monthly cell phone accounts, Mendelsohn said, speaking on a cell phone at the time.
The tax affects one monthly bill per customer, charging 10 percent of the total due by adding with a maximum charge of $3, said Fairfax County Public Affairs Director Merni Fitzgerald.
“That’s just another tax. most people have at least one cell phone,” he said. “I don’t think the board worked very hard at trying to reduce spending.”
“You make decisions like the marine patrol, that we are the only entity doing it. We don’t have to do everything for everybody, even if it helps other jurisdictions,” he said, also citing Fairfax County as the only entity to provide a rate regulator for utilities.
And the 25 percent reduction in the maximum pay raise for county employees, from seven percent to 5.25 percent, didn’t go far enough, he said.
“It was a 25 percent reduction only in part of it. It hit Pay for Performance (P4P), but not the uniformed” employees, Mendelsohn said.
P4P, which does not include school, police, or fire employees, for three years has allowed the county’s non-uniform employees to get yearly pay raises up to seven percent based on an annual job evaluation. The raises have averaged 5.1 percent.
“I think seven percent was too high,” Mendelsohn said. “[The board] needs to look at the whole system. It is broken,” he said.
OVERALL, MENDELSOHN said, “This was a lackluster budget with not a lot of people screaming, which says to me we didn’t do a lot of hard decisions.
“It is easy to blame Richmond, but I think the board needs to take a hard look and say, ‘it is nice to do, but we aren’t going to do it’” for many programs, he said.
“We could do a better job. Only twice in my eight years has the board taken a serious look at program by program cuts.”
Are the taxpayers satisfied?
“We’ll find out in November,” Mendelsohn said.
“If the people are as upset as I think they are over taxes, that will be the political incentive, and the voters will say that in November. But if the incumbents get re-elected and the taxpayers are happy with the way things are going, Mendelsohn said, “Then fine. They will keep going that way.”
During his two terms, Mendelsohn has not been able to convince his colleagues of the value of zero-based budgeting.
“I think both the schools and the county need to do that every year,” he said. "We’ve had double digit increases for four straight years. If that is not incentive to cause people to look at the budget, what is?”