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Caught in the Middle

Hudgins and citizens grapple with budgets on the county and state level.

If it comes down to it, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) might just do it. She might ask her fellow supervisors to put on the November ballot a voter referendum on whether to approve a meals tax for Fairfax County. Like other Northern Virginian politicians, she is caught between citizens who want relief from rising real estate taxes, and a state government that is having difficulty passing a budget.

"I think the challenge is, how do we provide services that are needed, and how do we not overburden the community with the real estate tax?" Hudgins said.

Both Hudgins and a small, but just as exasperated, audience shared their thoughts about the county's and the state's budgets at an outreach meeting sponsored by Hudgins on Wednesday, March 24. They all grappled with how to maintain county services, relieve real estate taxes and diversify county revenue while money is tight or locked up in a budget feud in the Virginia General Assembly.

"I think it's very important that we know at what point cuts can preserve a community and at what point it changes a community," Hudgins said. "My concern is, how can we maintain a quality community while shifting the burden from the homeowner?"

ACCORDING TO HUDGINS, raising the meals tax and cigarette tax to the same level as the Town of Vienna would give Fairfax County $65 million in revenue, or a lowering of the real estate tax by 4.5 cents.

One cent in the county's real estate tax is $14.5 million, or $36 per homeowner.

But in order for the county to diversify its revenue source for $2.7 billion in proposed budget disbursements, legislation would first have to pass through the General Assembly.

"We're in a Dillon-rule state. It means, Mother, may I?" said Hudgins, replying to a constituent who had asked why the county couldn't look at other revenue sources besides real estate taxes.

Under the Dillon rule, a locality has only the authority that the state government has granted it. In other words, the Town of Vienna or Fairfax County can only raise a new tax if the state has given it the power to do so.

Hudgins said the county has had to make its cuts carefully by looking at how services are intertwined. One example that Hudgins cited where the county made a poor choice was in reducing the number of fire marshals. As a result, businesses and developers have had to wait from three to five weeks before they could open.

"It wasn't a wise cut. We thought we could be efficient, but it just didn't happen that way," said Hudgins, who added that the county has revised that appropriation since then.

While the evening meeting didn't reach any conclusions, many citizens left feeling not only frustrated about their real estate tax assessments, but disappointed that the county was limited in finding methods to raise revenue.

"I wish there was some way we could increase revenue to reduce taxes," said Virginia Cosey of Vienna.

TO FURTHER illustrate budget woes, Libby Jenkins of the county's Mental Health Services briefed citizens on the budget for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. About 20,000 residents use its mental health, mental retardation or alcohol and drug services.

"It's a smaller number of people, but these are the most vulnerable people in our community," Jenkins said. She added that the Community Services Board's priority has been to help people with chronic mental illness through areas such as job training. "Medications are getting better and better. But they're also getting more expensive."

Jenkins said proposed cuts of $2.2 million to the Community Services Board could, among other ramifications, reduce infant and early children services at several Fairfax County preschools and reduce youth and family outpatient capacity approximately 30 percent.

Those cuts wouldn't benefit David Hoggan of Vienna, who came Hudgins' meeting to support funding for an autism program that would help train teachers. He has a 7-year-old with autism.

"We want to save this autism program," Hoggan said, adding that other advocates planned to speak during the County Board of Supervisors' public hearings this week. "We are hopeful. ... I still think we're going to get an improved system."