Stability is Paul Ferguson’s new favorite word.
The chairman of the Arlington County Board used it multiple times to describe the current financial situation of the county government.
While most other Northern Virginia localities will have to make difficult decisions about whether to cut programs or raise real estate tax rates, Arlington, in its $888,531,478 budget for fiscal year 2008, is doing neither.
Ferguson (D) attributed this to the county’s balanced mix of commercial and residential properties. Because the county’s tax base is not as reliant on residential real estate as nearby areas, it can withstand a slumping housing market, without having to raise taxes.
"We are very proud of our budget when compared to other jurisdictions," Ferguson said. "We are priding ourselves on our stability."
With this constancy, the county was able to maintain most of its programs and add a few new ones without changing the real estate tax rate, which will remain at 81.8 cents per $100 of assessed value.
"We’ve had kind of a crazy real estate market the last few years," Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D) said. "But we kept saying that it can’t stay that way indefinitely."
He added that "Most of us want our home values to go up but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing."
BUT, EVEN THOUGH Arlington residents won’t be paying any new taxes on their homes, they will, for the first time, be paying taxes on their utility bills.
The County Board is set to pass a new utility tax next month at its May meeting that will affect county residents’ gas and electric bills.
Arlington County Finance Director Mark Schwartz was quick to point out that, while this is a new tax that is being enacted, "Half of… gas and electricity [users] will pay no utility tax." This is because the first 400 kilowatt hours of electricity and the first 2000 cubic feet of gas per month will be exempt from the tax. There will also be a $6 cap on how much a user is required pay per month in gas and electric taxes.
Richard Stephenson, who works in the county’s energy department, said that the average Arlington resident uses less than 550 kilowatt hours per month of electricity.
The county will also be actively working with residents to help them lower their power usage.
"For those that are watching every dollar," Ferguson said, "This is an incentive for conservation."
"One or two degrees on the thermostat or two or three [low-energy] light bulbs will save [residents] money," County Manager Ron Carlee added.
The $1.5 million in revenue generated by the tax will go towards encouraging those in the public and private sectors to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gasses.
This outreach program is in addition to the Board’s much-touted environmental initiative, spearheaded by Ferguson, which seeks to reduce Arlington’s greenhouse gas emissions by ten percent over the next five years.
The Board also used the county’s other taxes to address its environmental concerns.
Owners of fuel-efficient hybrid cars will be exempt from paying taxes on the first $20,000 of their car’s value. Ferguson said that the Board enacted this exemption to encourage the buying of hybrid vehicles and to reward those who already own them.
Board Member Barbara Favola (D) said that, with this year’s budget, there could be no mistaking that the environment is high on the list of the county’s concerns.
"Of all the budgets I’ve worked on, this one makes the most discernable statement," she said. "It is a well-articulated vision."
THE BUDGET ALSO FEATURES funding for Human Services programs that many feared would be lost due to the loss of a federal funding package.
The Board was able to allocate $1.46 million in funding increases for housing and human services, including $358,000 for a new adult day care program at Walter Reed Community Center and $130,000 for the opening of the Arlington Assisted Living Residence.
"Human Services was the big winner for this budget," Ferguson said.
County employees were another winner. They received a 1.5 percent pay increase as well as increases in the retiree health care fund.
The budget also included $331,301,158 for schools, a more than six percent increase over last year. This brings Arlington’s per pupil spending to $18,500, the highest in Northern Virginia.
Ferguson said, "Some may criticize the Board for giving the schools everything they want." But he said that he is proud of Arlington’s high levels of school funding.
The Board also included $16.6 million for so-called pay-as-you-go capital improvement projects such as street paving and gutter improvements.
"There’s never a cheering section for pay-as-you-go capital projects," Zimmerman said. "But people will be complaining if you don’t do it."
Ferguson noted that the Board could have lowered the real estate tax rate had these funds not been allocated but said that he "didn’t want to leave these projects for another Board."
Not all were pleased with the Board's budget though.
Wayne Kubicki, a former member of the county's fiscal advisory committee and a longtime local Republican activist, decried the Board's financial decisions.
"[Seven percent] growth is just too much," he said. "It's not sustainable and it's not warranted."
But Kubicki said that the county doesn't need to drastically cut spending.
Instead, he said, "[The Board] needs to reprioritize spending."
He said that the Board should have fully funded Carlee's requests for improvements to the storm water system instead of only allocating the bare minimum necessary to avoid federal sanctions.
Kubicki also said that the utility tax was unnecessary because the environmental initiatives could have been funded with existing revenues.
"There was no need for that with all the money that was laying on the table," he said. "This is the third straight year where there's been a new tax or an increase in an existing tax… There's nothing frugal about this at all."