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Votes

After Two Deferrals, Budget Approved

Fiscal Year 2006 Budget includes 3 cent real estate tax decrease.

After hearing from representatives from the restaurant and hospitality industry and members of the community, the Herndon Town Council approved, 5 to 2 , an amended version of the proposed fiscal year 2006 budget.

But, before its approval, council denied two substitute motions to reduce the real estate tax from its proposed 27 cents per $100 of assessed value to 20 and 23 cents respectively.

Ultimately the council approved the FY 2006 real estate tax rate to be 25 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In the weeks leading up to the May 10 approval, council members suggested multiple ways to alleviate some of the tax burden from Herndon residents due to the increase in real estate assessments.

One suggestion from Councilman Dennis Husch was dubbed the "8-4-20" plan.

This plan suggested increasing the transient occupancy tax from its current 6 percent to 8 percent and increasing the meals tax by 4 percent from its current 1.5 percent.

The result of this would be a 20 cent per $100 of assessed value tax rate.

After this suggestion, Mayor Michael O'Reilly came forward with another plan that suggested leaving the meals and transient occupancy taxes alone and increasing the town's cigarette tax.

He said by further evaluating and potentially reducing unnecessary expenditures, the real estate rate could be decreased.

At it's May 6 work session, Councilmen Steven Mitchell, Husch and O'Reilly said they would like to hear further public testimony on the proposals to solidify their decision.

REPRESENTING LOCAL restaurants, Chuck Curcio, co-owner of the Tortilla Factory, testified about ways in which an increase in the meals tax would hurt the town's restaurants.

Admitting he has been against a meals tax since it was first introduced eight years ago, Curcio pointed out that because of events such as 9/11, hurricanes and floods, the restaurant industry has been hurting.

By increasing the meals tax, Curcio said his restaurant would be hurt even more.

"We recently saw our first negative year," he said about revenues. "That has lead to my staff making sacrifices. I have not increased salaries for the last three years."

In addition, Curcio said he has not been able to give back as much as he would like to the community through food donations because of the decrease in revenue.

"I am asking you to not make a decision to take this to an amount that will be detrimental to Herndon restaurants," he said.

Ultimately, after hearing similar comments from a restaurant association representative and Ben Jaratt, Elden Street Burger King owner, council ultimately denied increasing the current meals tax.

But, O'Reilly said this increase will be further investigated in the upcoming year, and depending on the impact on Herndon's 80 restaurants, could be implemented in the future.

Further public comment by hotel industry representatives, Connie Hutchinson, president Herndon's Visitor's Center and Betty Hattfield, active member of the Promote Herndon committee, discussed possible occupancy tax increases.

Through discussion, testimony reflected a concern that increases would drive away weekend tourists, group travelers and others who, if they went into Fairfax County, could save some money.

"Hotels in Herndon have reached their threshold," said Hattfield.

AFTER HEARING TESTIMONY the council then went through O'Reilly and Husch's suggestions to cut or reduce selected expenditures from the budget.

Although numerous Herndon Police Department items were up for removal, after discussion, the council voted to include most expenditures.

O'Reilly reiterated for the audience that although rumors have circulated about removing the police force, council has no plan to combine Herndon's police with Fairfax County.

By the end of the budget review, Husch and Councilwoman Ann Null voted against the proposed budget.

"This budget reflects what I feel, and what I hope the rest of council feels," said Mitchell, "is a continuation of a level of service provided to the community."

Mitchell, who throughout the budget process advocated for a shift of the tax burden, said he planned to hold council's "feet to the fire" about pursuing potential shifts for next year's budget.

Husch, who voted in opposition most of the time to his colleagues strongly disagreed.

"This budget, and what it represents," he said, "is in my mind, a sad day in our community."

The approved budget will take effect July 1, 2005.

BEFORE ADDRESSING the proposed budget, council held the floor open for public comment, unrelated to issues on the agenda.

Charlie Waddell, Herndon resident, spoke to the council about leadership and accountability, citing information he gathered from the town on zoning violations against Null and her husband, Daniel.

"When I see that one of our leaders has chosen not to subscribe to the set of standards that must apply to all, I am disappointed," he said. "At best I see an error in judgment. I also see the possibility of an absence of integrity. I definitely see a breach of public trust and a lapse of dedication to principle."

In defense, Betty Valley, Herndon resident, said she felt the town was going after Null and that the "whole inspection thing is getting way out of hand."

Speaking to the same topic, Hattfield took a more direct approach, saying she questioned Null's values, asking for her resignation as a Town Council member.

"Please help us understand how you can advocate for and approve ordinances that you have violations for," she said to Null. "It is your duty as a council member to understand what you are voting on."