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Votes

Between a Rock And a Hard Place

Plain talk about proposed county, FCPS budgets.

— In the presentation of the Fairfax County Executive’s proposed FY 2014 budget, there’s a slide titled, “Turned over Every Rock” – and that about sums up the county’s current financial picture. After cutting back as much as it can and looking everywhere possible for extra funding, it still doesn’t have enough money to do everything on everyone’s wish list.

With less federal and state funds coming in and the full impact of sequestration still unknown, the county continues to operate in a tough economy. But its residents have needs, nonetheless, and supporting them all is becoming increasingly difficult.

“I’ve been on the Board [of Supervisors] 22 years,” said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). “And the next couple years promise to be as challenging as any we’ve had.”

He was speaking at a town hall meeting on the county and FCPS proposed budgets, last Wednesday, March 13, at Rocky Run Middle School. Also there were county and school-system budget experts, plus Sully District School Board representative Kathy Smith.

While the county doesn’t get much federal money directly, said Frey, “The biggest impact of sequestration will be on the private-sector employers. And the uncertainty about what’ll happen puts restrictions on their ability to grow.”

He said businesses cut back because they have less business, but that doesn’t happen to the county. “In down times like these, people still have needs for service,” said Frey. “And, often, they have more needs. They go to the parks instead of the movies, use the libraries because they can’t afford Internet, and need social services and help after they’ve lost their jobs.”

In addition, he said, “The schools are 52.6 percent of the county’s budget. Sully is demographically the youngest district — and with the largest number of children in the school system. But we’ll get through it and will have a balanced budget.”

Smith said FCPS receives 71 percent of its funding from the county. “The state is funding education at the same level as in 2007,” she said. “But FCPS is growing by thousands of students a year.”

Susan Data, head of the county’s Office of Management and Budget, said sequestration could result in cuts in services for local residents. “Programs are in jeopardy,” she said. “A large portion of our economy is based on federal employment and government contracting. When people are furloughed and lose a day of pay, they buy less and the county receives less tax revenue.”

“We’ve made a lot of adjustments and turned over all the rocks,” said Data. “And people’s anticipation of what’s going to happen because of sequestration has led to flat growth in the economic sector. [But] people live here and businesses locate in Fairfax County because of who we are and [what we offer], so we have to protect it.”

The county’s proposed FY 2014 budget is $7 billion. Real-estate taxes comprise 62.4 percent of the county’s revenue; and in 2014, the county expects a 3.5 percent revenue increase, based on a recommended 2-cent real-estate tax increase.

“But commercial properties — which grew 8.2 percent the year before — are anticipated to only grow by .14 percent,” said Data. “Businesses are reluctant to make major moves and investments. And we’re seeing much lower rates of leasing until businesses know what the effects of sequestration will be. Spec buildings are being built, so that’s a good sign, but we’d like to see even more of them.”

She said the county’s nearly $1.9 billion transfer to the school system is for school operations and debt service (on past school bonds). But, she added, “The county also pays another $70 million for things not in the school budget, such as clinic aides and SROS.”

Public safety and human services get the next largest slices of the county budget pie, and no pay increases are foreseen for county employees.

FCPS CFO Susan Quinn spoke next, detailing the school system’s needs. The county proposes giving the schools $41.3 million more than it gave them in FY 13. This figure equates to the entire amount the 2-percent real estate tax rate increase would yield.

But the School Board is requesting an additional $95.4 million over last year’s transfer — or $54.1 million more than the county has in mind. And even though FCPS has updated its beginning revenue projections, said Quinn, “We’re still left with a gap of $44.7 million.”

“Over 85 percent of our funds go toward instruction,” she said. “Then come transportation, building maintenance and central-office support. By the end of 2014, the schools will have added 15,000 more students over the past five years, costing more than $170 million.”

Along with the enrollment hike, said Quinn, more children will need free and reduced-price lunches and there’ll be more ESOL and special-education students. Furthermore, she said, “More kids are coming into the schools at the lower grades than are graduating, so we’re adding 300 positions to accommodate the growth.”

Further complicating things is a Virginia Retirement System (VRS) cost shift from employer to employee. “In the past, the school system picked up the employee portion of retirement,” said Quinn. “But if the employees pay for it, we have to increase their salaries. So we gave them a 2-percent increase in the past — meaning we have to pay benefits at a higher cost, which is $16.6 million total.”

Basically, she said, “It’s a perfect storm. We’re going to have significant challenges, moving forward; our revenue is decreasing and costs and student population are going up. And 2015 looks just as bleak — everything’s coming at us, all at once.”

The supervisors will hold public hearings on the proposed budget, April 9-11, followed by an April 23 mark-up session and budget adoption on April 30. Public hearings on the School Board’s budget will be May 14 (and May 15, if necessary), followed by a May 16 work session and May 23 budget adoption.

“We’re in this together, so go to the public hearings and tell the supervisors what you want in the school system and what programs you care about,” Smith told the meeting attendees.” But, she reminded them, “The county has services it has to pay for, too.”