This isn’t an economy that lets Russell Garth rest easy. State and federal spending cuts, a slumping national economy and a state budget shortfall reaching into the billions don’t make it easy for people like Garth, a human services advocate in Arlington, to ask government to spend more money.
But after county board members approved a balanced $665.7 million fiscal 2004 budget, including almost $86 million for the county's Department of Human Services, Garth said Arlington is poised to improve vocational support and provide affordable housing for the county's neediest residents.
“I thought that within a pretty tight budget year, the board was doing pretty well to support people with developmental disabilities,” he said.
Board members concluded the budget process on Saturday, April 26. The $665.7 million budget, effective as of July 1, represents a 6-percent increase over last year’s, and includes a reduction in the real estate tax rate from 99.3 cents to 97.8 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Human services will stay the largest department in the county, with over 700 full-time employees in the coming year’s budget – more than 20 percent of the county’s nearly 3,400 employees. Police and parks departments follow, with 472 and 409 positions, respectively. Funding for human services jumped 10 percent, from just over $78 million last year to nearly $86 million for 2004.
That shows real commitment from board members, Garth said. “Generally I feel like they were working hard to create the right balance.” Garth serves on two advocacy groups for people with developmental disabilities, the Arc of Northern Virginia and Concerned Parents for Arlington Adult Services.
His 21-year-old son Ryan has “fragile X syndrome,” a genetic condition believed to be one of the leading causes of mental retardation. Garth says Ryan will depend on county services in the future, and funding increases approved by county officials make that future more secure.
NOT EVERYONE WAS as pleased with the budget. The real estate tax cut of 1.5 cents was significantly less than many residents were hoping for, and the board’s own Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission recommended a cut of 4.2 cents that would have meant a 1-percent cut in the budgets of all county departments.
“One-and-a-half cents is not even a cut,” said Tim Wise, a member of FAAC and Arlington County Taxpayers Association president. “It’s more like a thin slice.”
Wise advocated an 89-cent tax rate, nearly nine cents lower than what the board enacted. “I definitely think it’s going to be too little relief,” he said.
Since county officials mailed out real estate assessments in February, many homeowners expressed concerns about their taxes. The average assessment on a single-family home in Arlington rose by over 17 percent this year. That means despite the rate cut, the average homeowner will pay $3,090 in property taxes, up $414 from an average payment of $2,676 last year.
Earlier this year, county Budget Director Chuck Gubisch predicted that rising assessments would be the “savior” of the budget. Real estate tax revenues do account for over $314 million of county funds in the budget, a 12.4 percent increase over the $278 million the county expected to take in during 2003. That’s more than 60 percent of all county tax revenue and 48 percent of the county’s total revenue.
Wayne Kubicki, FAAC member, said that puts an unfair burden on homeowners to support services they usually don’t use. “Never in Arlington history have so few spent so much so quickly,” he said.
COUNTY BOARD MEMBERS defended the budget as a good balance between tax relief and support for services. While some neighboring jurisdictions cut taxes more than Arlington— 5 cents in Fairfax County—Arlington retains the lowest rate of any major jurisdiction in the region. Fairfax City is the only other locality with a real estate tax rate below a dollar.
Chris Zimmerman, a member of the county board, said large rate cuts in other jurisdictions may prove to be nothing more than a political tactic to appeal to voters in an election year. Fairfax County could be forced to raise taxes for 2005 to offset revenue lost to cuts this year, he said, while Arlington will not.
County officials continued to place much of the blame for rising tax bills on fiscal mismanagement in Richmond. Board chair Paul Ferguson said cuts in state funding for police and fire departments are a particularly egregious example. “Their commitment to public safety is the last thing they should be reneging on,” he said.
STATE CONTRIBUTIONS to county funds totaled $55 million in 2003 but will drop to $53.6 in 2004, a cut of 2.5 percent. Board members said most of those cuts were offset by increased county revenue.
Board members discussed increasing revenue through parking meter increases but decided to leave meter fees alone for 2004. Increasing rates by 25 cents per hour would have raised an estimated $900,000 next year.
Ultimately, the increase just wasn't necessary, Zimmerman said.
"We're also watching very closely what the District does," added board member Barbara Favola. She doesn't want rates in Arlington to exceed those of neighboring jurisdictions. County parking meter rates have not been increased since 1989.
Federal funds increased by 35.2 percent, from $17 million in 2003 to $22.9 million for 2004. That includes a $3.4 million grant from the Local Public Assistance Cost Allocation Plan. The federal funding is distributed through the Virginia Department of Social Services and goes only to jurisdictions recognized for providing well-managed human services. Arlington and Fairfax counties are the only two jurisdictions in the state to receive such a grant this year.
Arlington’s Department of Human Services will use the money for programs targeting people with mental and developmental disabilities, the elderly and non-English speaking residents.