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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

School funding, taxes dominate Mason Budget Town Hall

Fairfax County Executive Edward Long and Mason Supervisor Penny Gross.
Would the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agree to raise the property tax rate to provide more money for the budget-strapped school system? That’s one of the key questions for the board to decide over the next few weeks.

That issue was brought up by local residents at a Budget Town Hall hosted by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross at Annandale High School March 18, where County Executive Edward Long presented an overview of the fiscal year 2015 advertised budget.

The advertised budget endorsed by the BoS last month calls for increasing the amount of funds transferred to Fairfax County Public Schools by just 2 percent, while FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza had requested a 5.7 percent increase. At a meeting on the school budget last week, school board member Sandy Evans said the larger transfer amount is needed to offset increased enrollment and uncontrollable cost increases.

Property tax increase

 On March 4, the BoS voted to advertise a two-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, which is currently $1.085 per $100 of assessed value. School advocates are hoping a tax increase could generate additional revenue for the schools.
A 2 percent tax increase would generate $44 million a year. But even if the BoS approves a tax rate increase, there is no guarantee that any of the extra dollars would go to the schools. The BoS could allocate half of the increase to FCPS—or none of it. Most taxpayers saw their assessments go up this year, which might make the public, and supervisors, less inclined to support a rate increase.

“I don’t believe the majority on the board is against increasing the tax rate,” Gross told constituents last night. She said Board Chair Sharon Bulova is not necessarily in favor of a 2 percent increase—the maximum allowed by the advertised budget—but is interested in seeing whether there is public support for a tax increase at all. Gross suggested the board might be more likely to support a 1 percent or 1.5 percent increase.

Several PTA leaders in the audience called for the BoS to increase the amount of funds transferred to the schools. Even with the 5.7 percent increase proposed by Garza, the advertised FCPS budget includes major cuts in staffing, which would result in larger class sizes, as well as increased fees and program cuts.

The county’s advertised  budget meanwhile increases spending in many areas and doesn’t cut any programs other than 45 staff positions in the school-age childcare program. Gross said those SACC positions are no longer needed due to the expansion of full-day kindergarten.

Suzie Phipps, a PTA officer at Bailey’s Elementary School, said FCPS needs more funds to upgrade teacher salaries, because “we are losing teachers at an astonishing rate,” as they transfer to better-paying jobs in other school systems. Gross said the same thing is happening with police officers and other county employees, who also need raises.  

New revenue sources
Several people at the town hall indicated they would support higher property taxes if needed to maintain good schools. And if the BoS doesn’t raise the tax rate, people asked what other revenue sources are available and why not impose a tax on restaurant meals? Most other nearby jurisdictions already have a meals tax.

Long noted that, because of the Dillon rule, the county would have to have to get approval from the General Assembly to change the tax structure—which isn’t likely to happen. 

A 4 percent meals tax would generate $88 million a year, he said, with some of that money coming from people who don’t live in the county.

However, getting a meals tax approved in Fairfax County would require a public referendum. The last time residents were asked to vote on a meals tax, in 1992, it failed with 58 percent of voters opposing it. If a meals tax fails again, it likely won’t resurface for another 20 years, Long said.

Gross said that if a meals tax is proposed, supporters would have to form a coalition and campaign heavily for it, because restaurant owners will go to bat against it.

A member of the audience asked whether the county’s proposal to increase funding for prekindergarten should be reconsidered when there are such huge needs for K-12 funding. Evans said prekindergarten programs are important to ensure kids are ready for school, and investing in preK pays off later in reduced needs for remedial education.

Code violators
A question from the audience raised the possibility of generating more money if the county becomes more aggressive about fining people who operate an illegal business in their home, cram in too many tenants, or otherwise violate zoning codes.   

Gross responded that the county doesn’t have the authority to fine violators. Code violations are imposed by the courts, she said, and the county is taking more of these cases to the courts.

When someone else complained about a neighbor operating an illegal boarding house, Gross said, “give me the address. I’ll have it investigated.” Gross said the budget includes funds for an additional code compliance officer, which should be helpful.

Another question dealt with the large number of cars kept in Mason District that are registered in Maryland. Can’t the county try to collect taxes on those cars? Gross urged people to report out-of-state cars to her office, nothing the county has a program called Project Target that tracks down the owners of those cars and tries to get them to pay property taxes.

Someone else questioned why the county is proposing spending more on social services while the unemployment rate is decreasing. Long said more people might have jobs, but there are more people working at low-wage jobs in the service and construction sectors who qualify for public assistance.

Fairfax County’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent as of December 2013, which is down from  4 percent in December 2012 and is well below the national rate.

Joan Daly, president of the Falls Church High School PTSA, asked about the possibility of getting some money to renovate the school, which is over 50 years old and has never been renovated.

Gross agreed that Falls Church High School “definitely needs some work” and said she hopes “we’ll have a plan for that school very soon.” Evans added, “that’s a high priority for me” and said she asked the FCPS staff to come up with ways to get that done faster, as the school is currently ranked low on the school system’s “renovation queue.”

The bottom line, though, is it’s not likely to happen for years. Money for renovating Falls Church is not included in the proposed list of projects for the next school bond, to go before voters in 2017, and there won’t be another school bond on the ballot before 2019. A renovation takes about five years to complete after a bond is passed.

Budget highlights

The Fairfax County economic situation is better than it was last year when the county was facing deficits, Long told the audience. “We’re seeing modest revenue growth,” but there are some concerns, he said, including the slowdown in federal spending. And while the real estate market has picked up, home values are still not back to where they were in 2008-09 when the market peaked, and the commercial office market is still sluggish.

Here are some highlights from Long’s presentation on the $6.9 billion county budget for 2015:
  • Fifty-eight new staff positions are proposed, including 20 in community development, 13 in human services, and eight in public safety.
  • The budget projects just over 63 percent of revenue will come from real estate taxes, up from 60 percent this year. In 2013, the average price of homes sold rose 7.9 percent, and the number of serious mortgage delinquencies is continuing to decline.
  • Office vacancy rates were at 14.9 percent at the end of 2013, the highest level since 1991, but speculative building is continuing.
  • The county is proposing to increase charges for EMS transport, including an increase from $400 to $500 for basic life support transport and $675 to $800 for the highest level of advance life support.
  • Animal adoption fees would increase and would cover the costs of spaying and neutering. The new rates would vary from $50 to $175, depending on the animal’s age. Current adoption rates are $40 for dogs and $30 for cats.
  • The budget proposes $1.5 million, to be matched by schools, to provide turf fields at eight high schools, including Annandale.
  • About $133.7 million would support debt service payments for the new Merrifield Human Services Center, which replaces the Woodburn Mental Health Center in Annandale, the new Providence Community Center, and for rehabilitating the Lincolnia Senior Center and Residence.
  • Just over $14 million is proposed for raises of 1.29 percent for county employees.
  • In the public safety sector, the budget requests $14.23 million to update the 911 technology infrastructure for emergency calls, $1 million for new fire and rescue vehicles, and three new positions in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to handle an increased workload.
  • $4.44 million is requested for various projects to upgrade the county’s information technology operations.
  • Additional funding in the human services area includes three new positions to handle increased public assistance caseloads, three new positions to provide behavioral health services for youths, three new preschool positions to serve at-risk children, and one new position to handle increased caseloads in the domestic and sexual violence program.
  • The budget proposes spending $1.75 million to prepare for the World Police and Fire Games, hosted by the county in summer 2015. The games are expected to attract 12,000 to 15,000 athletes and generate $75 million to $100 million in revenue.
The Board of Supervisors is holding public hearings on the budget April 8-10 and is scheduled to adopt a budget on April 29.


  1. We have 700 FCPS employees losing their jobs because of budget cuts but we are adding 3 new positions for Head Start. I pay for my preschool and it is not full time or 5 days a week. Their have been studies that Head Start does not move the kids ahead but by 3rd grade they are at the same place as other kids. Many parents stay home with their kids, send their children to babysitters because of the financial situation so why are we putting out money where it does not belong? Why are we elimating positions for kids K-12 but adding positions for Head Start? Head Start is where the cuts should begin.

  2. How the meeting became a comedy act:
    "When someone else complained about a neighbor operating an illegal boarding house, Gross said, “give me the address. I’ll have it investigated.”

  3. The above is the same old song from the same OLD gang that runs this County! For years they have been hiding the REAL reason why they will not go with a meals tax.
    Chairman Bulova's February Newsletter presented several questions related to the budget. Here is “Q&A: #3. Why hasn't the Board of Supervisors enacted a meals tax to generate additional revenue for Fairfax County Public Schools?” Your answer does not respond to the question but rather suggests that the process is too difficult to pursue. The discussion does refer to the 21 year old referendum in 1992 that did not receive enough votes to pass. The County has changed significantly in the last 21 years and now many other metro jurisdictions have a successful meals tax. The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce has taken the expected position of being against a meals tax even though there is no basis in fact to justify being against this tax. The County Department of Management and Budget report “Meals Tax in Fairfax County” provides an excellent detailed overview of the meals tax. It makes a very strong case FOR the tax with no reasons not to implement it. This report is the best discussion for the meals tax that I have found.