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Griffin Presents $2.6 Billion Budget

Human services hurt, EDA sparred

Residential taxpayers will not find much relief in the $2.58 billion budget County Executive Anthony Griffin presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Monday. Tax bills will go up, agencies — particularly those that serve the poor, elderly and disabled — will be cut, and user fees and fines will increase under the Fiscal Year 2004 budget plan.

"There will be an impact felt by the community in that services will be reduced," said Griffin.

Even though Griffin's budget includes a 2-cent reduction to the real estate tax rate, the average homeowner will pay $3,755 in real estate taxes next year, $424 more than this year. The two-cent tax rate reduction will lower the rate to $1.19 per $100 of assessed value and save the average homeowner $63.44 next year in taxes. To finance the tax reduction, the budget calls for about $22.5 million in cuts and the elimination of 114 positions as well as higher fees for such things as ballparks and library fines.

Griffin called the high real estate tax bills "a continuing concern to the board and to me." But because of the sluggish economy, he said, "we had no choice but to allocate our costs to the real estate tax base." Over 59 percent of the county's revenue comes from the real estate tax. Almost 53 percent of expenditures, or $1.36 billion, goes to public schools.

AMONG THE HARDEST hit were human service programs that provide services to the disabled. Griffin's budget calls for a $1.9 million cut in the county's funding of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which would entail the loss of 15 social service positions. Inmates in the county jail who suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems will receive fewer services from the CSB as a result. A work placement program that helps special education graduates would also have to put clients on waiting lists.

The county cuts come on top of state cuts which will cost the agency seven CSB jobs forcing it to shut down a shelter that provides alcohol and drug services for women.

The county is also considering reducing the number of meals served to indigent elderly citizens, cutting more than $650,000 from a program to help youth in the Court system and more than $330,000 in HIV prevention programs. Also, about 3,000 homeless families who receive health care thanks to a county-sponsored program will either have to put off or pay more for health care.

Before they discussed the budget, supervisors declared March developmental disabilities month in the county and welcomed members of social service agencies and disabled citizens to the boardroom.

ALL BUT FOUR agencies will receive less money this year to free up funds for the 2-cent tax rate reduction. Three of those agencies — the Finance and Programs Auditor, the Planning Commission and the Civil Service Commission — are already too small to cut, said Griffin. The fourth agency to be spared any cuts is the Economic Development Authority, a group that tries to entice businesses to move to Fairfax County. Griffin said the authority's work justified its $6.7 million allocation now that office vacancy stands at 16.5 percent in the county.

"They are the agency that's out there trying to promote the filling of all the office space that we have," he said. Reducing the EDA's funding would be "penny-wise and pound foolish," he added. But Griffin did not increase the EDA's funding by $400,000 as the agency had asked.

GRIFFIN SAID he tried to spare cuts to public safety agencies as much as possible in light of recent security concerns. But the police, fire and sheriff's office will suffer more than $2.5 million in cuts next year. The budget calls for eliminating the county's police marine patrol which monitors the Occoquan River as well as several school programs run by the police.

The cuts "created some pain for us and we're going to have to certainly do some reorganizing and prioritizing of our work load," said Police Chief Col. Tom Manger. "I'm sorry that we're going to have to cut out some of the programs that have been very popular."

The Sheriff's Office will have to abandon its community relations branch which will eliminate some of the department's outreach efforts and the Fire and Rescue Department will have to keep some vacancies open. But when compared to other county services, public safety agencies did not fare badly, said Griffin.

EVEN THOUGH the budget calls for reducing the real estate tax rate, supervisors vowed to find ways to ease the burden on residential taxpayers who have been stung with three straight years of double digit increases in their assessments.

Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said that part of the blame belongs to the General Assembly, which this year denied Fairfax County the authority to raise cigarette and other taxes. "We need the tools to do government another way," he said.

Anti-tax activists urged the board to reduce the real estate tax rate by another 9 cents to ensure that tax bills don't go up next year.

"This $1.19 is a 9 cent increase in real estate taxes and what do you get in return? Crowded roads and crowded schools," said Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance.

WHAT THE FINAL version of the 2004 budget will look like is far from certain. The board will have the opportunity to make changes to the budget plan before it is formally adopted on April 28. Supervisors might also have to make adjustments to reflect lower than expected revenues. Griffin warned that a war with Iraq could alter his revenue projections.

"We're waiting quite frankly to see what happens with a possible war with Iraq," he said. "There is just a lot of uncertainty out there."