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Read My Lips …

Arlington residents call on County Board members during public hearing to lower real estate tax rate.

Alexander Lee and his wife exhausted every penny of their savings to purchase a home in the Williamsburg neighborhood three years ago.

Since they moved into the house their real estate assessment has escalated by 57 percent. With three children below the age of 6, the couple struggles to afford both day care expenses and their rapidly rising real estate tax bill.

"WE'RE JUST barely making it," Lee said. "It's definitely a challenge."

Lee was one of more than three dozen Arlington residents who lobbied the five County Board members on March 30 to lower the real estate tax rate and provide a measure of relief to homeowners, who have seen their bills increase by more than 100 percent over the past six years.

"The County Board has to be reasonable and understand people like myself," said Lee, who has seen a multitude of single-story homes in his neighborhood bulldozed to make way for million-dollar McMansions. "For young families to be able to stay in Arlington, something has to be done."

The County Board faces a delicate balancing act as it works to form a budget for fiscal year 2007 and sets the real estate tax rate. For every cent it reduces residents' tax bill by, there is $5.22 million less available for the board to allocate to integral county services and programs.

"During this process we need to [weigh] a range of competing interests, including mitigating the impact of [lowering] taxes with the impact of potential service limitations on the community," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said during a public budget hearing earlier in the week.

County Manager Ron Carlee has set aside funds for a five-cent cut in the tax rate as part of his $807 million proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Last year the County Board cut the tax rate by eight cents.

THE BOARD members have previously stated that they are in favor of decreasing the tax rate again this year, but have yet to give any indication of how much they may slash it by during their April 22 meeting. As is custom, board members did not speak during the March 30 public hearing.

No matter how much the board does cut the real estate tax rate, Arlington residents are assured of paying more due to the spike in home and condominium assessments.

The average single-family dwelling increased in value by 18.25 percent this year, to $541,800. The average home was worth $224,000 in 2001, and the real estate tax payment has risen by at least 17 percent over the past five years.

This year the average condominiums jumped by 19 percent, to $367,000. Commercial property, including hotels, retail and office buildings, experienced its largest growth in 16 years, at 14.8 percent.

Virginia mandates a single tax rate for commercial and residential properties, so the strong residential real estate markets has led to greater financial burdens on homeowners.

If the five-cent tax cut is approved by the board, residents would see an average increase of roughly 11.5 percent in their real estate taxes, or $463. If the tax rate does not change, families would pay an average of $734 more in 2006.

Even if the rate is cut by five cents, real estate taxes on Arlingtonians will have been hiked by 116.3 percent over the past six years, said Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association.

Many of those in attendance at the public hearing cautioned the board that moderate income families, like the Lees, may be forced to move out of the county if their taxes are not reduced.

"You are pricing people out of their homes and are systematically eliminating the middle class in our community," John Depauw told the board. "You are telling people on fixed incomes that you are no longer welcomed in our neighborhood."

Fernando Burbano, who has owned property in the county since 1980, said at the hearing that he is planning on moving out of Arlington because of the seemingly never-ending rise in property taxes.

"SMOKE AND mirror reductions doesn't do anything if assessments are up to 20 to 25 percent," he said.

Those sentiments were also shared by Madelon Bloom, a Waycroft-Woodlawn resident who had to take a second job in order to continue living in Arlington. The county "will be an enclave for the very wealthy if something isn't done."

Wayne Kubicki, a member of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, said a combination of new construction, lower debt service and a doubling of income from interest means the County Board can reduce the tax rate by 8.8 cents.

Burt Bostwick, Chair of the Civic Federation's Revenues and Expenditures Committee, called for a nine-cent cut.

Yet any reduction beyond the five cents set aside by Carlee would curtail some of the services the county provides, such as funding for affordable housing, mental health initiatives and pay raises for public safety officers.

Ed Rea, director of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, said he represented the "silent majority" in the county who were willing to pay higher property taxes in order to save funding for nonprofit organizations.

Ellen Bartlett, a member of the Arlington Interfaith Council, urged the board to pass a more limited tax cut and dedicate the extra funding to preserving the county's stock of affordable housing, which board members have repeatedly named as their top priority.