County staff and board members breathed a sigh of relief this week as they wrapped up the budget process. Board members will vote Saturday to approve a series of motions enacting a $666 million budget for fiscal 2004, including a real estate tax rate cut of 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

?I?d say last night was one of the first good moods I?ve been in, in a while,? said board chair Paul Ferguson after the board?s final budget work session Tuesday, April 22.

Board members have been juggling budget numbers since County Manager Ron Carlee proposed a $662 million budget Saturday, Feb. 8.

The tax rate cut still means an increase in property taxes for Arlington homeowners. The average single family home in Arlington is worth $316,000 this year, an increase of 17.3 percent from last year. Under the new tax rate of 97.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, the average homeowner will pay $3,090 in property taxes, up $414 from an average payment of $2,676 last year.

The largest change to the manager?s proposal came from adoption of an initiative allocating funds from the Virginia Department of Social Services. The money will go to the Local Public Assistance Cost Allocation Plan, providing about $3.4 million to the county?s Department of Human Services for programs targeting people with mental and developmental disabilities, the elderly and Arlington?s non-English speaking population.

Changes to the manager?s proposal also include additional funding for transit programs, including an initiative to provide cab vouchers for senior citizens. Board members also decided to fund a living wage ordinance that would guarantee all county employees, home health care workers and contractors a living wage set at $10.98 per hour.

Zimmerman said that figure basically represents the real minimum salary needed for subsistence in the current economy, including health care expenses.

As of press time, county staff?s latest budget draft listed living wage funding at $160,000 and combined funding for two senior transportation initiatives at $198,200. County staff will continue fine-tuning figures this week before the official budget adoption Saturday.

Board members had said throughout the budget process that they would try to cut real estate taxes only after they were sure vital programs like schools and public safety were fully funded. Last year, a similar strategy resulted in a three-cent tax cut. But this year board members decided programs couldn?t afford that big a loss.

County staff estimate the 1.5 cent reduction will eliminate almost $2.5 from county coffers and over $2.3 million from public schools.

That?s not the main issue for some. The total budget represents a six percent increase over last year?s, which is significantly more than the current rate of inflation. The county?s population remained almost constant during the last 12 months.

?There?s enough money in the budget for necessary spending, like fire, police, public health, education, and there?s enough to care for the needy,? said Tim Wise, President of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association. ?But there?s more than enough money for people who are healthy and traditionally have not needed any special favors.?

But Ferguson says the final budget succeeds in balancing tax relief with funding for schools, transit, neighborhood conservation, pedestrian safety and other important services.

The 1.5-cent tax cut is smaller than cuts in some neighboring jurisdictions?Fairfax County, for instance, approved slashing their rate by five cents. But board members pointed out that Arlington?s overall tax burden remains lower than that of any major jurisdictions in the region. Even after the five-cent cut, Fairfax residents will be hit with a $1.16 rate per $100 of assessed value, as opposed to Arlington?s 97.8 cent rate.

But that?s no reason not to lower it even further, Wise said. ?One-and-a-half cents is not even a cut. It?s more like a thin slice,? he said.