Board Retreat Covers Significant Ground
The first Board of Supervisors’ retreat in five years covered significant ground on the County budget, affordable housing policy and transportation, among other issues. I was pleased to participate in these important discussions.
We received a first peek at the Fiscal Year 2011 budget (which begins one year from now). The outlook is grim. Residential real estate values are expected to continue to fall, and commercial real estate values are plummeting. County tax revenues will therefore decline as well. The recession is projected to continue to cause reduced consumer spending, resulting in reduced sales tax and recordation fee revenues. As revenues decrease, however, our human service needs are increasing. Right now, if the residential real property tax rate remains at $1.04, school spending is kept even, no county employees receive pay raises for the second straight year and no county program is increased, next year we will still face a shortfall of over $315 million.
Even if we raise the tax rate to $1.15, as some have discussed, which would keep the average tax payment the same as the current year, we would still need to cut about $100 million in spending. For comparison sake, in the current budget, which we passed in April, we ended up cutting about $92 million in spending. Grim indeed.
The bad news doesn’t end there. In the FY 2012 budget (which begins in two years) revenues are expected to decline yet again. That will make three straight years of declining revenue and will require even more cuts. I do not believe we can meet this series of continued budget gaps with clips and shaves. We need major surgery. We should not decimate core programs. Instead, we should prioritize. The County Executive advises that many programs will need to be eliminated. Some government departments may need to be eliminated or consolidated. I have asked my budget advisory committee to dive into the difficult work of determining where the cuts should fall. I would welcome your input as well. You can email me at email@example.com. Please write “budget guidance” in the subject line. Or, you can write a letter or call the office with your thoughts.
The Board asked county staff to prepare recommendations for changing the county affordable housing program in ways I support. We will stop, temporarily, the policy of using tax dollars to buy buildings and turn them into public housing. Instead, the county will develop programs to help the homeless and disabled find housing and to assist non-profit agencies in helping those most in need.
Given our poor economy, this new focus on those most in need, especially those who cannot care for themselves, is an appropriate shift in county policy.
Perhaps the biggest news came in transportation. We learned that the state government, which is responsible for all of our roads in the county, has completely eliminated secondary road construction funds for the future. Not just next year, but forever. The HOT lanes and rail to Dulles will continue, as will a couple projects this year using federal stimulus funds. After that, however, there will be nothing unless the Governor and the General Assembly come up with a plan. That means not only no new roads, but no intersection improvements or new traffic signals. Maintenance funds will drop as well. We have been told that many potholes and other road hazards will not be fixed, and we all know that the mowing program is insufficient.
The state government’s failure to provide for transportation is unacceptable. Therefore, the Board will explore taking over transportation from the state. This can be done, although funding and transition would need to be negotiated, and it could mean that more county funds would need to be spent. Another option is for Fairfax County to become a city, which under state law would entitle it to a greater percentage of state road funds, as well as giving it extra taxing authority. More information will be coming later in the year as these proposals are developed more fully.
Although we are facing some incredible challenges, all in all, it was a good retreat. I got to know my fellow Board members better on a personal level. I enjoyed the robust discussion of the issues. I believe I made a positive contribution to the dialogue. Most importantly, our county moved forward in constructive ways.