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State Underfunds County, Hudgins Says

At Reston hearing, focus is on services, not taxes.

Unless the General Assembly grants county governments the power to levy taxes on cigarettes and meals, Fairfax County residents can expect property taxes to continue rising, said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) at a meeting last week in Reston.

County government is increasingly relying on real estate taxes. Residential and non-residential real estate taxes constitute 60.7 percent of the general fund revenue, which is up from 50.7 percent in fiscal year 2001.

“If you’re relying on one huge source of revenue, you’re going to be vulnerable if you find one day that it’s no longer all there,” Hudgins said at Wednesday night's meeting at the Reston Community Center at Hunters Woods to inform the public about the challenges of the county budget.

County governments are unable to levy additional taxes under the Dillon Rule, which restricts the power of Virginia’s local governments. Bills in both the House and Senate to equalize taxing authority have already been killed during this General Assembly session. Also, a bill to allow Fairfax County to specifically levy a meals tax was killed in the House Finance Committee.

Towns, such as nearby Vienna, have the authority to levy taxes on meals and cigarettes. If Fairfax County had the same taxing powers as Vienna, the county would raise $65 million in revenue and could lower the real estate tax by 4.5 cents, Hudgins said.

“To me, it sounds simple,” she said. “We wouldn’t take any more money from the state and it would give us more flexibility.”

A one penny reduction in the real estate tax would equate to $36 in annual savings for the average Fairfax County homeowner and also would constitute a $14.5 million reduction in annual revenue for the county.

If the current real estate tax rate is maintained at $1.16, a typical Fairfax County household will pay an addition $421 because residential real estate assessments are up 11.29 percent.

Hudgins said the cigarette tax in particular would be good for the county because it would serve the dual purpose of raising additional revenue while also discouraging young people from acquiring the habit.

Hudgins blamed the General Assembly for most of the difficulties facing the Board of Supervisors during this year's budget process because the state legislature has nixed the initiatives to grant the county more flexibility.

“I even hate to use the term ‘General Assembly’ at this stage,” Hudgins said.

RESTON RESIDENTS who attended the budget meeting said they were less concerned with rising property taxes and more worried about the potential cuts of Fairfax County services.

The Board of Supervisors is considering a variety of options to reduce funding, but human services for mental health, mental retardation and drug treatment were of primary concern to residents at the meeting.

Mary Nell Clark, a Reston mother whose 8-year-old daughter is autistic, said cutting funding for mental retardation services will stymie her daughter’s ability to become a functioning part of society.

“I hope she’ll be a part of the community and that she won’t be a burden,” Clark said.

Clark’s daughter, Beth, is a student at Terraset Elementary school and is active in their church and on the local swim team. Because she is currently enrolled in public school, she has access to the social services Fairfax County Public Schools is required to provide. Once she is out of the school system, however, she will probably need assistance from the government — the same assistance the county is considering rolling back.

Another Reston resident, Vade Bolton, said it is unseemly for the government to weigh reducing social services for mental health, mental retardation and drug addiction.

“When these budget cuts are implemented, it drives a huge wedge into our ability to help these people become more self-sufficient,” said Bolton, who volunteers at the Embry Rucker Shelter in Reston and serves on the Reston Interfaith board.

Reston Interfaith, which runs the local food bank, the shelter, the Laurel Learning Center and countless other social service programs, receives between 60 to 70 percent of its funding from the county, Bolton said. If social service funding is reduced, low-income residents and disadvantaged citizens of the area will most certainly suffer, he said.

DAVE EDWARDS, a Reston resident, said at the meeting that the time has come for citizens to stop griping about higher taxes and to pay for the good of the whole community. If that happened, he said, talk of cutting social service programs would be unnecessary.

“Maybe we're part of the problem,” he said.

While Hudgins stopped short of agreeing that citizens should start paying higher taxes, she said that unless something is done in the near future, the quality of life in Fairfax County will start to plummet.

Most Fairfax County residents agree that the county is a great place to live, Hudgins said, but because greatness is not quantifiable, it would be easy for that greatness to slip away as the budget is being slashed.

“You might find that you’ve lost it without realizing it,” she said. “Then there’s nothing you can do about it.”