Over $50 million will be cut from county programs next year in order to finance a 5 cent reduction in the real estate tax rate.
The Board of Supervisors decided to reduce the tax rate at Monday's budget mark-up session after citizens complained that double digit assessment increases were pricing them out of the county. At the same time, the board sliced out almost $28 million in additional cuts on top of the $22.5 million identified in February by County Executive Anthony Griffin.
Supervisors also eliminated 87 positions, imposed new fees — including a tax on cell phones — and reduced employee pay raises in order to balance the budget.
Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), who chairs the board's budget committee said this year's budget is "responsive and responsible."
"I think the package before us is responsive to the needs and concerns of our constituents and reflects a responsible approach toward reducing the real estate tax rate," she said.
But two Republicans voted against the budget saying tax cuts should have been deeper.
"I don't think that 7 cents over the last two years is enough," said Michael Frey (R-Sully).
"We ought to ask the county executive to look at how we can restructure government," said Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville).
HUMAN SERVICE programs were among the hardest hit by the cuts as they face over $10 million in county reductions. But the board reinstated some funding for the Adult Health and Dental Partnership, alcohol and drug service programs and programs for people who are deaf that had been on the chopping block.
"We did restore some of those and we directed the county executive to see if he can maximize the federal funds for the Child Care Assistance and Referral Program," said Board Chairman Katherine Hanley (D).
Even though the cuts are going to hurt, advocates praised the board's efforts to restore funding.
"The board understands how important human service delivery programs are in this community," said Kevin Bell, chairman of the Human Services Council.
In other cuts, the county's public libraries will face reductions of $1.7 million and Land Development Services will have to abolish 18 positions which will make it harder for businesses to receive permits. The board also voted to cap pay raises for employees at 5.25 percent down from 7 percent last year.
In response to comments from athletic leagues, the board decided not to charge a fee to use the county's athletic fields but instead cut $3 million from field maintenance funds.
"There will be a bit of a degradation in field maintenance," warned Bulova, at Friday's budget committee meeting.
Public schools will get about $1.36 billion from this budget, an increase of 6 percent over last year. At the same time, nonschool spending went down almost one percent, a disparity that Mendelsohn said puts the county "down a path that it's tough to recover from."
What particularly rankled, Mendelsohn said, was that the School Board refused to reduce teacher raises at a time when other county employee raises had been capped.
School Board Member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) said the pay increase was justified.
"A significant part of our pay package for teachers is the addition of two days to their contracts," for new training, she said. "Our business is different than what the county provides and our Board of Supervisors recognizes that."
BULOVA SAID keeping tax bills from skyrocketing will be easier next year because real estate assessments are not expected to increase as much as this year.
"It appears that the real estate market is starting to cool," she said.
Ed Long, the county's chief financial officer, said current predictions had assessments going up 7.5 percent next year but warned that that was a preliminary estimate.
But Frey said the board should plan on cutting the tax rate next year as well: "Maybe the market has cooled in Mrs. Bulova's district but it hasn't in mine."
After this year's 5 cent cut, the real estate tax will slide to $1.16 per $100 of assessed value, down from $1.21 this year. But the cut in the tax rate will not offset tax increases for the average county household which will see its real estate tax bill jump almost $330 next year.
That increase has anti-tax advocates up in arms.
"I would say that the folks who have been consistently voting for the tax increases are in trouble," said James Parmelee, an antitax activist who has called on the board to reduce the tax rate to 76 cents.
Board members say a tax rate of 76 cents would cost the county more than $500 million, which would have the effect of doubling class sizes and cutting other essential services.
Parmelee said demanding a 76 cent tax rate "makes the point about how outrageous [the tax rate] is."
"If they cut it at 5 cents they're scared. They're scared of us, they're scared of the taxpayers."