Given a major proposed spending bump in a time of high inflation, this year’s Fairfax County budget hearings are shaping up as the usual contest between those who would benefit from the added largesse and those who would have to pay for it.
County supervisors on April 12 held the first of three budget public hearings and the initial comments split starkly down two lines.
Proponents of higher spending praised County Executive Bryan Hill’s $9.5 billion proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, which would give most employees pay hikes of nearly 6.2 percent (and almost 7.9 percent for uniformed personnel) and hold the real-estate-tax rate steady at $1.14 per $100 assessed valuation.
Because of significantly higher property assessments, homeowners on average would be stuck paying $666 more if supervisors did not lower the tax rate – something they have committed to doing, but not specifying by how much.
School Board Chairman Stella Pekarsky (Sully District) applauded the budget’s fully funding the nearly $2.3 billion budget request from the school system, which has seen a steady return of students following the pandemic.
“However, the impact of COVID cannot be overstated,” Pekarsky said. “We continue to deal with learning loss and the negative impacts to the socio-emotional well-being of our students.”
The school system’s fiscal 2023 budget is $78.5 million, or 2.3 percent, lower than the fiscal 2022 approved budget, courtesy of some additional funds received, she said. Eighty-six percent of the proposed $3.3 billion fiscal 2023 school budget will be allocated toward instruction, Pekarsky said.
“The budget prioritizes investments in students’ success, ensuring all students receive the rigorous instruction and comprehensive support they require to thrive,” she said.
A 4-percent market-rate adjustment in salary for all school employees, plus a step increase, will help attract and retain high-quality teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers during a nationwide shortage, Pekarsky said.
But Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, challenged supervisors to swing their fiscal axe and lower the real-estate-tax rate by 10 cents to $1.04 per $100 assessed valuation to offset higher property assessments.
Purves criticized the county’s affordable-housing program, saying its waiting list was so long that county officials keep it secret. Meanwhile, property taxes for people not in that program have risen three times faster than household income over the past two decades, he said.
The county is seeking $250 million more to finance employee pay increases, citing the need to recruit and retain employees, but has not – with the exception of the understaffed police department – provided data showing that a staffing crisis exists, Purves said.
Local resident Bill Peabody said the Prince William County government was proposing a tax hike of less than 4.9 percent.
“You have over 60 fees and taxes. Why beat up on homeowners?” Peabody asked. “During a recession, private-sector workers often lose a year of profits or wages. Government workers do not . . . A big tax hike may be the straw that breaks the housing market’s back.”
Rob Whitfield, a board member of Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, wanted to see a change in transportation priorities.
“The board has been excessively emphasizing bike trails instead of highway improvements to serve the employment needs in particular of Reston and Tysons,” he said.
William Bouie, chairman of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board, pressed for parks funding, saying the Park Authority’s revenue-funding model perpetuates inequities as to who can afford access to public services.
Park attendance jumped 60 percent during the pandemic and has not abated subsequently, he said.
“Parks are strategic to our social fabric and our community,” Bouie said. “Parks foster social connectedness and cohesion and often act as community hubs, especially during times of disaster.”
Maggie Godbold, vice chairman of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board, echoed Bouie’s comments.
“Recreation doesn’t just happen in recreation centers,” she said. “Parks, playgrounds and trails are often the free gym of our residents.”
Karen Sheffield, chairman of the Fairfax County Employee Advisory Council, said the group applauded the proposed employee-compensation hikes, but asked supervisors to raise workers’ 4-percent market-rate increase to match the federal government’s 5.9-percent cost-of-living adjustment.
“We fear that these compensation reinstatements do not go far enough,” she said. “Fairfax County government employees have fallen behind in employee compensation.”
Joe Meyer, executive director and CEO of Shelter House Inc. and a member of the Fairfax County Council to End Domestic Violence, asked for sufficient social-services funding.
“Without the adequately funded programs to address these complex challenges, survivors feel trapped and unsafe in their relationships,” he said, adding that financial strain and social isolation during the pandemic had led to a surge in domestic violence.
“We project that this is only going to increase, because now that abusers are going back to work, victims are going to be coming forward because they feel safe to get out of relationships,” Meyer said.
GOP activist James Parmelee worried about inflation.
“It leads people to have to make choices and decide what they need, as opposed to what they want, and to slim down the budget,” said Parmelee, adding that county officials should adopt a similar mindset when hammering out the budget. “It really is becoming hard to live in Fairfax County,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors also scheduled budget public hearings on April 13 and 14. Supervisors will approve the fiscal 2023 budget May 10 and it will take effect July 1.