The budget bill signed by Governor Jim Gilmore on April 14, 1998 presents a good news/bad news situation for Virginia taxpayers. The good news is that Virginians will get some measure of the car tax relief they demanded in last year's elections. The bad news is that the Herculean efforts exerted by some legislators to derail car tax relief resulted in a final budget that contains watered down tax relief offset by unnecessary new spending.
First, the good news: The car tax relief plan eliminates the tax on vehicles valued at less than $1000 immediately and for 90% of all vehicles by the year 2002. The plan pays $447.2 million in car tax reimbursement to taxpayers over the next two tax years. Taxpayers will receive reimbursement for car tax paid on the first 12.5% of their car's value below $20,000 in 1998, 27.5% in 1999, 47.5% in 2000, 70% in 2001, and 100% in 2002 and beyond.
And now for the bad news: The limited relief detailed above did not come easily, and it did not come without a price to taxpayers. As noted by Gordon Lubold in the March 19, 1998, Fairfax Journal, Democrats in the General Assembly made every attempt to torpedo car tax relief. Their tactic was to "bluff, stall, talk, and finally have their way in the end."
One novel idea was to propose abolishing the sales tax on selected food items. For a party that has controlled the General Assembly for decades, why did Democrats wait until now to offer Virginians some measure of tax relief? The answer is simple. The sales tax proposal was floated solely to undermine the more substantial car tax relief demanded by the voters last November. Fortunately for taxpayers, the sales tax "red herring" did not carry the day.
A plan to make Virginia taxpayers responsible for local school construction could not be stopped, however, as Democrats insisted on increased spending for this traditionally local function in exchange for their votes to support car tax relief of any kind. Instead of forcing local school districts to exercise fiscal responsibility in meeting their own construction needs (as advocated by FCTA President Arthur Purves in an April 2, 1998, article in the Fairfax Journal), Democrats insisted on this new spending.
Fairfax County taxpayers have several local legislators to "thank" for this increased spending and diminished tax relief, including Del. James M. Scott, D-Merrifield and Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D-Reston. In particular, Mr. Scott, a member of the House Finance Committee, voted repeatedly against car tax relief until it was coupled with increased spending of Virginians' tax dollars.
Because the car tax relief for Virginians must be included in each new two-year state budget, this process will no doubt be repeated in the year 2000 budget process. Taxpayers must remain ever vigilant to fight efforts to diminish car tax relief through increased government spending and alternative taxes. The FCTA will continue to publicize events in Fairfax County and Richmond that threaten the limited successes achieved by taxpayers in 1998.
By Mark Collins - FCTA 2nd Vice President
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has made a substantial investment in computers. This year, the school system is spending $18 million on technology. Next year, the schools want to up the budget to $22 million. This $22 million budget request is $2 million more than was planned only one year ago.
How has education improved in FCPS due to all this technology? No one knows. There have been no evaluations of academic achievement as a result of technology being used in the classroom. In addition, administrative efficiency has not been looked at. The School Board's Integrated Technology Plan addresses many issues in generalities, but does not address specific costs per student for the specific programs and provides little assessment of any technology currently used.
Fairfax County is not alone in this way of spending on technology for education. Buying computers and software for schools without proper examination of the costs and benefits occurs nationwide. Many people throughout the US have now been studying the effects, or lack of effects, of computers used in schools. Their findings are simple, but significant:
1. Teachers are inadequately trained in the use of computers and software. In Fairfax County, it is not generally known how much training has been provided or if it is adequate. The new FCPS Superintendent, Dr. Daniel Domenech, has suggested that up to half of the funds for technology should be used for training. Nationally, most experts suggest that about one-third of the funds be used for training. For this year's school budget, the amount should be at least $6 million (one-third of $18 million, the budgeted amount less the proposed increase). But the FCPS technology plan does not address this.
2. Inappropriate hardware and software. Technology should be dictated by the curriculum. Teachers should not have to figure out how to fit computers into their lessons. Teacher input is rarely involved with software selection. Instead, a few centrally located people choose the software. The FCPS technology plan does not address this. Effective use of all the computers and programs has not been studied.
3. Teachers don't have time to plan their lessons to include computers. Teachers have little time to prepare for the next day's schoolwork. The FCPS technology plan does not address how teachers will get more time to incorporate computers in their lessons.
4. Insufficient technology support. The cost effectiveness of supporting various computers and software has not been addressed. Obsolete computers and lack of technicians have become critical issues. Planning and setting priorities appear to have been inadequate.
Fairfax County Public Schools has put the cart before the horse. Changes in education have been pushed ineffectively because the right questions weren't asked first: questions like "How will computers improve academic achievement?", "How will the Internet improve academic achievement?", "What computer skills should high school seniors be proficient in?", and "What computer skills (if any) should first-graders be proficient in?". Like a broken record, the FCPS technology plan does not address this.
Not all technology funds are for classroom computers. Last year's technology budget included $2.7 million for a student database, which is now having problems just being set up. This year's budget includes $4.3 million to continue the project.
Schools have spent a lot tax dollars on computers, with no gain in academic achievement. Do you think it's worthwhile upping the budget another $4 million for computers? If not, contact your County Supervisor, and tell them to hold the line on the school budget.
By Doug Barylski - FCTA board member
The average Fairfax County household pays just over $3000 per year in taxes. This includes real estate, property, sales, and utility taxes. If the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors had not allowed County spending to increase twice as fast as inflation and population during the 1980s, the average household would be paying $1000 per year in taxes, or $2000 less than the current rate.
In fact, as the accompanying chart shows, the average household would have been paying $2000 a year less every year since 1988. Thus, higher taxes have cost the average house-hold $20,000 over the last ten years. (Amounts are in inflation-adjusted 1998 dollars.)
County spending increases were documented in the Summer 1997 issue of this newsletter. It was reported that since 1975, while inflation increased 200%, Fairfax County per-capita spending increased 390% and per-student spending in the Fairfax County Public Schools increased 475%. It was also reported that tax and spending increases doubled the size of the County budget. The County's budget is $1.8 billion per year. If spending had not increased faster than population and inflation since 1975, the County's budget would have been $900 million this year. (See "How Are Tax Increases Spent". also in this newsletter.)
The accompanying chart also shows that if County spending had not increased faster than population and inflation since 1975, average household taxes (adjusted for inflation) should have decreased from $2600 per year in 1975 to $1000 per year today.
There are two major reasons why household taxes should have decreased: a substantial decrease in the number of school-age children as a percent of County population and a substantial increase in commercial taxes.
In 1975, the number of children attending public schools was 25% of the County's population; today that number is only 16% of the population. Public schools are the largest single item in the County budget. This decrease should have reduced household taxes. Instead, the schools almost doubled the amount spent per student (adjusted for inflation). (See "Test Results That The School System Does Not Publish" also in this newsletter.)
Also since 1975, the number of businesses in Fairfax County increased 4 times faster than population and the commercial square footage (on which commercial real estate taxes are based) increased 2.5 times faster than population. If the Supervisors had not increased spending faster than population and inflation then residential taxes could have decreased as shown in the accompanying chart.
-By Arthur Purves -President FCTA
The Question the Supervisors Haven't Answered..
A Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance analysis offers an answer to a question that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has yet to answer: How does the Board spend the extra $300 million it gets each year as a result of tax increases that occurred during the 80s?
In the FY1998 budget, approximately $334 million in tax increases were spent on the following County programs:
?$159 million: ?Health and Welfare
?$84 million: ?Public Safety
?$42 million: ?County Debt Service
?$23 million: ?Administration
?$13 million: ?Public Works
?$9 million: ?Community Development
?$4 million: ?Parks and Recreation
This is in addition to the $597 million of tax increases that is spent on the Fairfax County Public Schools. As the accompanying charts show, school spending increases dwarf County spending increases.
Last summer, the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance wrote the School Board and the Board of Supervisors to ask how they are spending $900 million of tax increases arising from the County's tax and spending hikes of the 80s.
School Board Chairman Kristen J. Amundson provided an itemized list of school programs that had increased faster than enrollment and inflation since 1975 (see the FCTA's Fall 1997 newsletter).
However, Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley responded with only a partial list of programs whose funding had increased faster than County population and inflation. She also failed to provide the cost of the programs she did mention.
Hence, the FCTA undertook its own analysis to get an answer. Here are the FCTA's findings.
Employee benefits account for over $50 million of the $334 million. The benefits cost per employee increased 70% since 1975, from $5800 per year to $10,000 per year (in inflation adjusted 1998 dollars). This was not mentioned in Chairman Hanley's letter.
Also not mentioned in Chairman Hanley's letter are: $43 million of increases for the Social Services and Health Departments; a $48 million increase in transfers to the Community Services Board; and a $9 million increase for the Facilities Management Division.
The Office for Children accounts for $26 million. Chairman Hanley did state that the County now runs 118 child care centers, compared to only eight in 1975.
The sheriff's office accounts for $22 million. Chairman Hanley's letter does state that the number of prisoner days in County detention centers increased over 550% between 1975 and 1998. She also notes that in 1975 the County had no Juvenile Detention Center.
Computer spending, which was not reported as a separate item in 1975 now costs about $27 million. About $10 million of this is offset by reductions in other County administrative functions, such as the Office of Research and Statistics, the Mapping Division, and Office of Manpower, which appear to have been eliminated. Other offsetting reductions occurred in the Office of Finance, Personnel, Public Affairs, and the Electoral Board. The Department of Tax Administration received a $4 million increase. Overall, computer spending appears to have increased net administrative costs by $17 million.
Fire and rescue accounts for $20 million and police accounts for $14 million. Chairman Hanley stated that these increase in proportion to the number of businesses and households, which increased faster than population. While this may be true for fire and rescue, there is the possibility that police would increase to cope with higher crime rates. Chairman Hanley's letter states that between 1975 and 1998 police calls increased 232% compared to a 98% increase in the number of households.
Spending on transportation appears to account for only $20 million of the increase.
Because of these spending increases, the County has collected $3 billion more in taxes since 1975 than was required to keep up with population growth and inflation. This November, the supervisors are asking voters to approve a $187 million bond referendum. It should concern taxpayers that the supervisors have collected $3 billion in tax increases, have not told taxpayers where the $3 billion was spent, and now seek $187 million in new bonds.
By Arthur Purves - FCTA President
Both the Washington Post and the Connection Newspapers recently reported that next year, which is an election year, the Democrats on the Board of Supervisors may cut taxes.
This is ironic, given that Democrat (and two Republican) supervisors defeated a recent motion by Supervisors Bob Dix (R-Hunter Mill) and Michael Frey (R-Sully) to cut the real estate tax by one cent, from $1.23 to $1.22 per $100 of assessed property value. Recall that just after the last supervisors' election, the Democrat supervisors (Katherine Hanley - At Large; Sharon Bulova - Braddock; Dana Kauffman - Lee; Penelope Gross - Mason; Gerald Hyland - Mt. Vernon; and Gerald Connolly - Providence) increased the tax rate by 7 cents to $1.23 from $1.16.
A one cent reduction would save the average homeowner $20 in taxes and would reduce county revenue by $7 million. This is considerably less than the extra $2000 in taxes the average household pays and the extra $900 million the County collects due to the County's tax and spending increases during the 80s.
The supervisors should propose a multi-year plan to reverse the tax and spending increases of the 80s. The plan should specify substantial spending cuts.
The County spends $70 million per year on interest for bonds. The supervisors should stop selling bonds and use this $70 million for tax cuts. It will take twenty years for the County to pay off its $1.3 billion of indebtedness.
Finally, the supervisors must specifically promise not to raise taxes after the next election, as is the normal pattern.
Every August the Fairfax County Public Schools publishes a press release announcing the average SAT scores for the preceding school year. However, this press release only announces the results of the SAT verbal and math aptitude tests (now called SAT I tests); it does not announce the results of the SAT achievement tests (now referred to as SAT II tests). The following chart shows the missing results, i.e., the Fairfax County Public Schools' 1997 average scores on the SAT II achievement tests for English Writing, Math (Levels I, II, and IIC), American History, Chemistry, And Biology. The percentile results were obtained by comparing scores provided by the school system with percentile tables on the Educational Testing Service's website.
The number of students taking the achievement tests is: English Writing-3,143; Math Level IIC-1,346; Math Level IC-1,338; American History-944; Math Level I-466; Chemistry-420; and Biology-420. The school system also does not publish the SAT I percentiles, which in 1997 were 60th for verbal and 62nd for math.
Since 1975, the school system has received $6 billion more than was required to keep up with enrollment increases and inflation. Even with this extra funding and even though Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States and has one of the best educated work forces, Fairfax County Public Schools average SAT scores are below the 65th percentile.