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Reaching Out over Assessments

County outreach meeting outlines where taxpayers' money is going.

Howard Svigals of Vienna cut right to the heart of the budget issue. After hearing the statistic that county homeowners will pay on average about $500 more this year than last year in property taxes, he wanted to know why. "What is causing each taxpayer to pay $500 more?" he asked.

Svigals was one of about 20 people, some of whom were county staff, who attended the March 9 public meeting sponsored by Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) at the Vienna Community Center. The meeting was designed to address the concerns that some county taxpayers like Svigals may have about the proposed county budget and real estate assessments.

Some of the growth, Hudgins explained, was due to an increase in county population and regulations from the federal and state level. Hudgins added that since the county provides so many services, as the population grows, so does the demand for those services. "What services do we cut?" she asked.

Also attending the meeting was Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large). He said that the largest increases have been in school and in public safety. In school spending, he pointed to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law and teacher salaries as driving the increases.

On the public safety side, he noted the anthrax attacks, the attack on CIA headquarters and pointed out that at one time, 13 of the 19 9/11 hijackers lived in Fairfax County.

Connolly also noted that the county has been acquiring large amounts of open space, in particular, the site of the former Lorton prison. "The [Board of Supervisors], in the last five years, has gone on a buying spree," he said.

Home assessments have gone up over 20 percent in the past year, marking the fifth consecutive year of double-digit increases. As part of his budget, County Executive Anthony Griffin has proposed cutting the property tax rate by 10 cents to $1.03. "Roughly, the county executive says, of all the revenue growth, spend half and give back half," Connolly said.

Connolly added that the board may cut that rate further. "We’re going to be looking at other opportunities in the budget," he said.

Gary Gillum pointed to the new developments as one of the causes of increased spending. These new residents, Gillum pointed out, are part of what is driving the population growth, and could pay for the services through higher housing prices which would result form charging developers more. "Make developers pay for the growth," Gillum said.

Virginia, Hudgins pointed out, has a very strong state government, and localities can only do what the state permits them to do. "The ability for a public facilities ordinance has never been granted to us," Hudgins said.

Under the current system, Hudgins said, developers do make contributions to parks, affordable housing and schools.

PAY PARITY between the county’s sheriffs and police department — an issue that has been raised at at least one other budget outreach meeting — came up as well. Currently, the county’s police make more than the county’s sheriffs. Marijke Hannam of the county’s Department of Management and Budget explained that the discrepancy is due to regional parity issues.

The county’s police and firefighters were making less than police and firefighters in nearby localities. Sheriffs, however, were making more than other sheriffs, so they did not receive an adjustment.

Michael Pense of Vienna said that parity should exist between the departments as well. "If we don’t get parity, we lose deputies to the police department," Pense said.

School Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) explained that payroll is one of the largest expenses for the school system, as well. "Eighty-six percent of our budget is in salaries and benefits," Gibson said.

Loudoun County’s proposed budget calls for paying its teachers $40,000 per year, and Fairfax must try to keep up or risk losing teachers, Gibson said. "One of the things that is immutable in our school budget is the law of supply and demand," Gibson said.

Both Svigals and Pense said they were satisfied with the explanations they heard. Pense noted that while his parents are on a fixed income, and that will make the tax bill difficult for them, he plans to report back to them that there are good reasons for the increase.

Svigals concurred. "It’s about what you’re getting for your money," he said.