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Board Approves 9.2 Percent Budget Increase

Funding will pay for raises for public safety officers, human services and infrastructure improvements.

The $828.9 million fiscal year 2007 budget the County Board passed on April 22 represents an increase of 9.2 percent over the previous budget — the largest year-to-year growth since 1990 — and includes additional funding for human services, infrastructure improvements and large-scale raises for public safety officials.

AS PART of the budget, the board cut the real estate tax rate by 6 cents to 81.8 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value, and expanded the personal property tax. Last month County Manager Ron Carlee proposed a budget with only 6.3 percent growth.

Though many residents called on the board to provide greater tax relief to homeowners, who have seen their bills spike by more than 100 percent over the past six years, the five board members made clear that their priority for the upcoming year was to bolster vital county services and programs.

"The budget does a very good job of balancing a number of community concerns," said County Board member Barbara Favola. "There was enormous pressure to cut the tax rate in a way that would have been [not compassionate], and we didn’t do that."

The budget provides a 7.4 percent increase in the amount of money Arlington public schools will receive in 2007, as part of the county’s revenue sharing agreement with the schools. The school system's budget will be fully funded and no additional cuts will need to be made by the superintendent or School Board.

The County Board also approved a 2 percent raise for all county employees, enhanced the homeowner’s grant program and added funds to mitigate federal and state cuts to mental health, substance abuse and homeless services.

These are "critical areas we need to deal with and we are addressing those needs," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman. "The alternative is to cut back the level of services people enjoy here, and I don’t think that’s what people want."

The trade-off is that Arlington residents will see their real estate tax bills increase by an average of 10 percent, or $409, to a total of more than $4,400.

The average single-family dwelling grew in value by 18.5 percent this year, to $541,800, and the average condominium jumped by 19 percent to $367,000.

FOR MORE than 20 years Arlington has possessed the lowest tax rate among the major jurisdictions in the region. But this year the city of Alexandria and Prince William County both have slightly smaller rates.

Several speakers at the April 22 meeting chastised the board members for not further curtailing the tax rate and mitigating the burden on homeowners.

"There’s only so much that the average taxpayer can bear," said Timothy Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayer’s Association. "At some point the additional taxes imposed by Arlington will break the back of the taxpayer."

In the fall, the board members instructed the county manager to draft an austere budget that contained no new programs. Wayne Kubicki, a member of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, asked how the board could adopt a budget that was 40 percent above its own guidelines.

"Unlike Barry Bonds, Arlington’s residential taxes still seem to be on steroids," Kubicki added.

The board decided that in order to retain and recruit quality public safety personnel, a sizable raise was necessary. Uniformed fire, police and sheriff employees will receive between a 5 and 20 percent boost in pay, depending on rank.

"This will enable us to continue the quality we have come to depend on, and will help us better compete in what will be a high number of recruitments" in the coming years, Carlee said.

The most significant change to the county manager’s proposed budget was the addition of $8.2 million to the pay-as-you-go capital fund, which provides for improvements to Arlington’s aging infrastructure.

County Board member Paul Ferguson defended the decision to add to the PayGo fund rather than cut the real estate tax rate by an additional two cents, saying that the move "will pay dividends" in future years.

To counteract a $1.4 million decrease in federal funding for human service programs, the board is providing funding to aid the most vulnerable county residents.

More than $1.2 million is allocated to help nonprofit partners keep pace with rising salaries and operational costs. The budget also includes funding for transitional and supportive services, emergency shelters and mental health and mental retardation residential services.

ZIMMERMAN SAID he had been swayed by the public testimony of individuals who battle mental illness, and their families, who appealed for more case workers and housing assistance.

"When people don’t have the proper services they can end up in jail or emergency room" and it costs the county more in the long-run, Zimmerman said.

The budget supplies an expansion of the Homeowner Grant Program that was begun last year, with qualifying residents now receiving $600 instead of $500. The board also raised the income and asset limits for the tax relief program for the elderly and persons with disabilities.

To help offset the higher expenditures, the county expanded the personal property tax for the first time in 30 years. It will now be $5 per hundred dollars of assessed value, up from $4.40.

"This is a prudent move given the pressing spending needs we will face in the future," Favola said. "This enables us to spread the tax burden a little more evenly and not burden homeowners as much."

Unlike neighboring jurisdictions, Arlington calculates the tax based on a car’s loan value rather than trade-in value. This results in a lower effective tax rate than Alexandria or Fairfax County charges.