Fairfax County I was elected chairman in 2009, just as the Great Recession settled over this country like a stubborn storm cloud. The market value of property in Fairfax County plummeted, resulting in historic reductions in both residential and commercial tax revenues. At the same time, more people than ever turned to the county for assistance. Former County Executive Tony Griffin’s prediction, in the throes of the Recession years, that “this will be our new normal” has proven prescient.
Recovery from the recession has been sluggish, exacerbated by the effects of sequestration and cutbacks in our commercial sector’s bread and butter, federal contracting. To maintain fiscal equilibrium; real estate tax rates were raised, hundreds of millions of dollars were eliminated from the budget, salaries were frozen and reductions-in-force require our workforce to do more with less. County cost-cutting measures that were accepted as necessary when the Recession first materialized eventually have caused some “fraying around the edges,” per The Washington Post, (April 2, 2016). I am providing this backdrop to lend some context to our board’s decision to put the question of a meals tax to the voters.
In Virginia, towns and cities are allowed a greater array of revenue tools, including the right to adopt a meals tax. Most cities and towns within and around us have a meals tax: Alexandria, Arlington, Herndon, Vienna, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Leesburg, and Manassas. Counties on the other hand must rely primarily (almost 80 percent of our budget) on real estate and property taxes to provide local services. Other revenues are capped or controlled by the state.
Counties in Virginia (which were rural farmland when early tax authorities were allocated) are only able to implement a meals tax following a successful voter referendum. This question will be put to Fairfax County voters on Nov. 8.
If the referendum is successful, and a 4 percent tax on restaurant meals and prepared foods is adopted, it would raise almost $100 million, equivalent to over 4 cents on the Real Estate tax rate. The language on the ballot question becomes law and revenue from the meals tax must be used per the ballot language.
If authorized by the voters, the Board of Supervisors would hold a public hearing to adopt an ordinance defining specifics of the tax. Already we have made the legally binding commitment that 70 percent would go to the Fairfax County Public Schools. The School Board has committed that its share, estimated to be about $70 million in new funding, would be used primarily to address teachers’ salaries, which have lagged behind those in neighboring jurisdictions. Fairfax County today is spending $800 less per pupil than in 2008.
The remaining 30 percent would go toward other county needs, including public safety, parks, libraries, and mental health. The meals tax is intended to diversify and enhance county revenue — to supplement and not supplant — support for school and county services.
While our county continues to work hard to identify efficiencies and to stimulate our commercial tax base, we are also hoping to diversify the local revenue available to provide the quality services our residents value and rely upon — top notch schools, safe communities, and compassionate human services.
I am proud to lead Fairfax County, one of the best-managed, safest and well-educated jurisdictions in the country. Residents love Fairfax because of our great schools and because we are a safe and welcoming community. Maintaining that quality is a top priority for the Board of Supervisors and our partners on the School Board. It isn’t, however, a simple or easy job given constraints under state law.
I hope you will vote “yes” on the meals tax referendum on Nov. 8.