Our word for the day is “insatiable” – as in “it looks like the Fairfax County government’s insatiable need for additional revenue, year after year, will continue unabated.”
County leaders have begun looking into the crystal ball and started making assumptions about where things will stand next spring, when the Board of Supervisors must adopt a budget for the fiscal 2024 year that begins July 1, 2023.
What are they seeing? It’s a cloudy picture, largely due to the state of both the residential and commercial real-estate markets. The former has tumbled since the last time assessments were released earlier this year; the latter, at least in terms of office buildings, may be on a permanent decline owing the changes in the workplace wrought by our ol’ companion COVID.
Given that real-estate taxes bring in two-thirds of the Fairfax County government’s revenue, the normal response to an economic downturn should be, and in the past often has been, tightening the governmental belt and riding out the bad times until the good ones return.
Next year being an election year, you’d think members of the Board of Supervisors would be even less inclined to raise taxes on the populace. But the day where most supervisors fear the electorate in November is long gone; virtually all the county is now so comfortably Democratic that the only elections that matter are primary races, where special-interest groups – called “gimme-groups” by one wag in a neighboring county – hold sway. So there will be incentive for supervisors, at least those facing primary challenges, to keep the spending flowing rather than emphasize fiscal restraint.
The result: Taxpayers will feel another pinch in order to pay for ample pay raises for county staff and, no matter how it is spun to the public, an increase in the breadth of local government. Cutting back – real, actual cuts – is just not something that can be found in the government’s toolbox.
Homeowners will pay more, except for those on the very lowest end of the economic scale (who can get tax relief if they take the time to learn how to play the system). And of course the wealthy really aren’t going to be impacted by another $1,000 or $2,000 on their tax bills.
The problem is in the wide swath of the middle class, which already is seeing itself taxed out of Arlington and Alexandria – two jurisdictions whose leaders even more than Fairfax see taxpayers as an unlimited ATM.
Far worse than the annual drip, drip, drip of higher tax bills is the very real concern that Fairfax’s commercial tax base – carefully developed over the decades by county leaders (for which they deserve applause) – has now been knocked out of whack owing to the impact of the pandemic.
All that empty office space will need to be filled; without the revenue those buildings provide, county residents will see their own tax bills head into the stratosphere. Sooner rather than later.