Budget, Budget, Toil and Trouble

Budget, Budget, Toil and Trouble

Fairfax County funding is less than desired.

Joe Lahait discusses the finer points of the FY2013 budget.

Joe Lahait discusses the finer points of the FY2013 budget.

— To the average person, $6.7 billion seems like lots of money. But for Fairfax County — home to more than 1 million people — it’s still not enough to fund everything its residents want. But county representatives say they’re doing the best they can in a difficult economy.

“It’s looking a little better, but we’re going to face the most difficult couple years we’ve ever seen,” said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), at a town hall meeting Thursday, March 22, in Chantilly. “When cutbacks occur in the private sector, we have more demands for county services — housing assistance, libraries, parks, etc.”

“On top of that, we know there are big-time federal [funding] cuts coming, and they’re going to dump that on the states — which will do the same thing to the counties,” he continued. “But we can’t pick up every program cut by the state or federal government because we don’t have the tax base.”

Instead, said Frey, the county’s looking at ways to “leverage resources” and partner with the community, wherever possible. So, he told the audience, “We want to hear what you think is important and what we should be focusing on.”

Also speaking was Sully District School Board representative Kathy Smith. “We are a successful school system in a community with high expectations,” she said. “[But] we are growing by thousands of students every year and that affects everything we do.”

Then Katie Horstman and Joe Lahait, with the county’s Department of Management and Budget, discussed some highlights of the county executive’s proposed FY 2013 budget. The Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings April 10-12 and have several work sessions before adopting a final budget on May 1.

The current property-tax rate is $1.07/per $100 assessed valuation, but Frey said the supervisors will advertise a $1.08 rate, because of an increase in the stormwater-utility fee. But with decreased home-assessment values, the impact on the average taxpayer would be minimal.

Horstman said the general fund is projected to grow by 3.4 percent — an increase of $112 million over the last fiscal year. “Most of our general-fund revenue comes from real-estate taxes,” she said. “We’re expecting an increase in our real-estate tax base by 3.27 percent.”

Frey said commercial/industrial property owners are paying “significantly higher” taxes. And that’s good for the county because, said Horstman, “Single-family homes are almost 73 percent of our base, but they’re only growing in value by .7 percent.” However, commercial /industrial property now comprises 20.8 percent of the county’s real-estate assessment base — an increase over the past two fiscal years.

Frey noted that “most businesses tell us they locate here for the schools, quality of life and proximity to Dulles Airport — which is clearly, by far, the economic engine for Northern Virginia.” And Horstman said there’s a renewed interest in nonresidential, speculative building — projects being constructed before tenants are lined up.

The proposed General Fund disbursements total is $3.5 billion — up $143 million over last year’s figure. The majority, 52.5 percent or $1.85 billion, is earmarked for the school system. The allotment for public safety — police, fire, sheriff and E-911 — is just 12.2 percent or roughly $428.5 million.

Cost of county operations is recommended to be increased by $64.6 million, including a 2.18 percent cost-of-living pay increase, effective July 1, for all county employees. Said Lahait: “With over 10,000 employees, our largest cost is county salaries.”

The proposed budget also includes a total of $3.35 million to the Lorton Arts Foundation, representing $2.6 million extra, on top of the $.75 million the county already contributes to it annually. “It’s run into some economic and fund-raising challenges,” said Lahait.

However, this line item incensed several people in the room. Mark McConn, of Centreville’s Bull Run Estates community, wanted to know if there’s “a sunset time for this annual, $750,000 contribution from the county.”

Frey said the supervisors are “asking this question, too.” And Robin Jenks Vanderlip of Centreville’s Confederate Ridge community said that money could be used for food for the WFCM food pantry or for children who get food at school through UFO (U Feed Others), via Centreville United Methodist Church.

Police Lt. Jaysyn Carson said the police “haven’t had a pay increase in four years, and School Board and general county employees get so much more in salary.”

So, said Police Lt. Christopher Cochrane, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police Union, Local 5000, “It’s hard for us to swallow when the county is funding private organizations ahead of county employees. Four years without this money is tough — especially when our last three years of employment determine our pension.”

He said public-safety personnel aren’t asking for a raise, but simply the reinstatement of their already-earned merit and longevity pay, which would cost $8.7 million total. Having their current pay-scale steps frozen for a fourth year, said Cochrane, is “unacceptable.”

He also noted that public-safety personnel contribute 10 percent to their retirement — the highest amount for all county employees — after reportedly being promised it would be reduced to 8 percent.

Besides that, said Officer Lincoln Kiefer, “A lot of officers haven’t gotten a merit increase since 2004.”

Cochrane urged the county to “not ignore the pay for public safety, simply because the citizens never see a reduction in service — because they won’t. The officers are the best in the region, if not the country, so they will always work. Its time to compensate fairly and return the benefits they were promised.”

Carson emphasized that the police are “already about 40 officers down, so we have to pay more money in overtime. So we’re doing more with less. People want to work in Fairfax County, but these officers will seek employment in other places; $8.7 million isn’t very much to keep Public Safety going.”

“We know we’ve asked our employees for a lot,” replied Frey. “But it would be difficult to unfreeze Public Safety and not other areas.”

“Shouldn’t we therefore tell some of these foundations, like Lorton, to go find their funding elsewhere?” asked McConn. Or, asked a woman in the audience, “Could we reduce [the amount contributed]?”

Answered Frey: “We’ve cut an awful lot, but that’s what the budget process is about.”

Hal Strickland, Sully District Park Authority representative, also has a problem with the proposed budget. “In these tough economic times, a lot of citizens turn to public facilities for entertainment,” he said. “We’ve experienced a significant increase in park use over the past several years.”

“We had 18 million visits to the parks in 2011, and over 50 percent of all families in Fairfax County have used our rec centers — and both are increases,” he said. People come to the parks, said Stickland, because of the ball fields, golf courses, trails, open space, and natural and cultural stewardship programs.

“With that increase, the impact on them has been severe,” he said. “In this FY 2013 budget, we’re scheduled in November for a $38 million Capital Improvement Bond for Parks and Recreation. But it’s not enough — some of our rec centers and other facilities are wearing out. So we want this increased to $75 million, and I understand the county debt ceiling would allow that.”

Strickland thanked Frey and Smith for their support of the park system and asked residents at the meeting to support an increased park bond. “Parks and Recreation is .6 percent of the total budget — not even 1 percent [of the General Fund disbursements],” said Strickland. “And with the service we give the citizens, that’s a pretty good deal. I’m talking $22 million out of $3.5 billion.”