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Friday, March 16, 2012

Taxes and spending concerns dominate Mason District budget meeting

Outgoing County Executive Anthony Griffin and Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross addressed local residents’ concerns about taxes and spending at a Mason District Town Hall Meeting on the Fairfax County budget March 14.

Griffin, who’s retiring in April after serving as the county’s CEO since 2000, presented an overview of the advertised budget for FY 2013.

Griffin had proposed maintaining the real estate tax rate at the current level of $1.07 per $100 of assessed value. The Board of Supervisors last week approved an advertised rate of $1.08, but Gross said she thinks the board will keep it at $1.07. 

Because the value of real estate is rising, Griffin said, the $1.07 rate would result in a $33.85 increase in property taxes for the typical household.

Sewer fees would increase 10 cents for a total of 25 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value. The budget would also raise fees in several other areas, including a 10 percent increase for Rec-PAC, a summer program for children; a 5 percent increase in the School-Age Child Care program; and a 7 fare percent increase for buses.

The single biggest category of county expenditures is the funding transferred to the Fairfax County Public Schools. The 2013 advertised budget calls for $1.85 billion for school operations and debt service (52.5 percent of the budget) to be transferred to Fairfax County Public Schools, a 4.16 percent increase over the amount in the budget adopted for FY 2012.

Griffin said the advertised FCPS budget proposed by Superintendent Jack Dale, which calls for an 8.4 percent increase in county funds is not feasible.

The second largest category is public safety, including police and fire (12.2 percent of the advertised budget), followed by health and welfare (11.2 percent). Griffin said he is not proposing any increases in the size of the police force but suggested the 2014 budget might include two new police stations—in Tysons Corner and the south county area.

County employees would receive a 2.18 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Noting that the budget doesn’t include pay for performance or normal step increases for county employees, Griffin said, “that’s a major concern to me.”

Revenues from all sources in the FY 2013 budget total $6.729 billion, a 6.1 percent increase from the budget adopted for FY 2012. Expenditures total $6.528 billion, a 7 percent increase.

The vast majority of county revenue, 61 percent, comes from real estate taxes, and 16 percent comes from personal property taxes, Griffin said. “The residential market has stabilized,” he said, noting that the overall value of houses has increased. The number of houses sold is way down, though. Only about 12,000 houses sold last year, compared to nearly 14,000 last year and over 25,500 in 2004. 

Griffin cited several budgetary challenges faced by the county, including growing enrollment and increased diversity in public schools, the need to maintain a safety net for the needy, the costs associated with increased urbanization, and the lack of state funding for transportation.

In response to a complaint by Earl Sutter, a resident of Lake Barcroft, about the sewer fees increasing every year, Griffin said the higher fees are driven by federal mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If Fairfax County fails to comply with Environmental Protection Agency rules on clean water, he said. “we’ll get sued, and the fee increases will be more dramatic.”

Another resident complained about increased taxes at a time when household income has dropped and spending on schools and government services is outpacing inflation. “Long-term sustainability is a concern,” Griffin said, adding that schools are constrained by state law that limits class sizes.

He defended the county budget by noting, “We provide a broad array of services that contribute to the quality of life. . . . When you have a balanced community with good parks, good libraries, and good schools, your crime rate tends to go down.”

Gross expressed some concerns about parks and libraries, which have been subject to major cutbacks in recent years. “Parks and libraries are well used and well loved by our constituents,” she said.

While taxes had gone up substantially in the 1990s, Griffin said, the average household’s tax bill is $45.36 less than it was in 2007.

“You’re nickeling and diming us to death,” countered Tom Pasco, a resident of the Broyhill Crest neighborhood, in reference to fee increases that he said are “to finance the infrastructure at Tysons to make it more walkable, which it will never be.”

He suggested the county default on Phase II of the Tysons rail project, put in a road bed and run rapid transit buses to Dulles for a few years until the money is there for Metro. “We looked at that and it wouldn’t work,” Griffin said. It wouldn’t save any money because the buses would have to stop running during the construction of mass transit.

Another resident asked why the county is spending so much for the ongoing transformation of Tysons Corner when those costs should be covered by the businesses located there.

Griffin said about $400 million in tax revenue is coming from Tysons businesses that will benefit from the redevelopment, and new commercial enterprises will be asked to pay proffers for roads and other improvements. The Tysons-related spending proposed in the budget would go for road improvements, which will benefit everyone who travels to and around the area, he said.

Helen Winter, a resident of Hillwood-Tall Oaks, questioned why so many school buses are nearly empty and suggested the school transportation system could be more efficient. That led to a lengthy discussion on the need to change school start times, encourage more students to walk to school, and the logistics involved in adjusting bus schedules. Gross noted that many buses are full, and all buses appear empty at some periods along their routes.

Pasco also expressed concerns about Griffin and Dale receiving high salaries and “golden parachutes” when they retire. Griffin noted that the county’s top executives earn “considerably less” than comparable CEOs in the private sector. Gross added that the city of Alexandria’s new CEO is paid a lot more than Griffin, who has been Fairfax County’s top administrative leader for 12 years. “We want quality folks and we want them to stay,” she said.

A bicycle advocate proposed a dedicated funding stream for trail improvements and other projects to encourage more people to ride bikes, which would relieve traffic congestion. Griffin agreed the county should do more to connect trails but said the funding isn’t there.

Alexa Krezel, a resident of Evergreen Heights, bemoaned the closing of Bloom and asked Gross what the county is doing to attract a better commercial base to Mason District.

“The loss of Bloom was a big disappointment,” Gross acknowledged, as was the recent closing of the Room Store. Those were corporate decisions that had nothing to do with the location, she said, and indicated more redevelopment will come to Annandale when the real estate market picks up.


  1. More real estate development? Yeah, like a papusa truck and a palm reader.

  2. Why not have all the illegal immigrants pay a school fee for their children using up our tax funds?