Arlington’s $758.9 million budget includes the lowest real estate tax rate in 15 years along with targeted tax relief programs for the elderly and disabled.
Yet before the County Board approved it Saturday, Arlington residents in the front rows of the room held up signs protesting its overall tax increase and the mounting tax burden on homeowners.
“This is a constrained budget that continues our high-quality services yet maintains the lowest tax rate in the region,” said Jay Fisette, County Board chairman.
Despite the tax rate reduction from 95.8 cents to 87.8 cents of assessed real estate value, the new budget raises taxes on the average residential property by 13.6 percent.
“In the last year, property taxes in Arlington have more than doubled,” former Republican County Board candidate Richard Kelsey said to the board. “You said tax relief was a priority. Frankly, you lied. The board promised budget restraint. You call this restraint? Don’t tell us about tax relief. We can’t afford it anymore.”
Protesters said county property taxes have the average homeowner strapped for cash.
“Our taxes keep going up and up, and the County Board seems oblivious to the concerns of homeowners,” said Dan Berthoud, member of the Arlington County Taxpayer’s Association. “Look at everyone’s tax bill. It’s Orwellian to say that they’re trying to cut taxes.”
Dale Robinson, who paid $25,000 for his house 25 years ago, said the climbing value of his property value means taxes that are a tough financial strain. In the past year alone, the average real estate assessment has risen by 24 percent, bringing the average tax bill to $6,500.
“My taxes are more than my mortgage,” Robinson said.
According to Fisette, compared to other jurisdictions, Arlington’s tax rate remains the lowest in Northern Virginia.
“Arlington has one of the lowest tax rates of any jurisdiction around,” he said.
The budget’s approval also brings the creation of two grant programs for homeowners. One offers up to $500 to any household in Arlington with an income of $72,000 per year or less, a demographic that, according to the county statistics, includes some 8,100 homeowners.
“This is the first time we’ve tried to do something like this,” Fisette said. “We are very excited about being able to bring tax relief to those most in need.”
The program is modeled on one similar to it now under way in the city of Alexandria. A second provides real estate tax exemptions of 100 percent, 50 percent or 25 percent for elderly or disabled homeowners earning under $72,000. The disparity between the tax rate on commercial properties, eight percent, and that on residential property, 24 percent, Fisette said, means tax pressure on homeowners.
The General Assembly’s most recent session in Richmond saw the proposal of a homestead exemption amendment to the state’s constitution, giving local governments the authority to balance the two tax rates. That bill passed the House but died in the Senate. County board member Chris Zimmerman voiced support for the proposal.
“That’s what has to happen for us to address the balance between taxes for commercial and residential property owners,” he said.
Because the tax rate reduction applies to both commercial and residential property owners, some in the local business community will see a reduction in their taxes.
“THIS IS ONE source of angst for the County Board,” said Fisette. “By state law, we cannot apply a different rate. That is a dilemma for us. Had we dropped the tax rate further, the commercial side would have gotten even more of a break.”
Grants aimed at creating more affordable housing in Arlington, as climbing real estate values price many out of the county, make up an additional $4.5 million of the total budget.
Arlington resident Eugene Iwanciw said residents in his neighborhood will end up paying 18 percent more in taxes this year even after the lowered rate.
“The reality is, we can no longer afford to live that way,” said Iwanciw.
Instead of spending funds to create more affordable housing, Iwanciw said, “let’s get real, and let’s talk about the citizens who are already living here.”
Arlington’s new budget is a balanced one, but to meet the county’s financial needs taxes are going up on more than just real estate. Local businesses will see a 30 percent rise in utility taxes on natural gas and electricity, a measure the county expects will raise $2 million in revenues. Sewer taxes are also going up from $2.47 per thousand gallons of water to $3.02, an increase that, according to county finance director Barbara Donellan, is due to the need for upgrades to Arlington’s water treatment plant.
The budget goes into effect on July 1.