Testimony before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Regarding the FY2005 Advertised Budget
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Board:
In the Chairman's recent State of the County speech (3/22/04), I read that the county government has been so frugal that over the past three years $104 million has been cut from the county's budget. I read that this year's budget is one percent less than last year's budget and that the county has over the past two years enacted the largest tax rate cut in the county's history.
So I checked the budget. What I found was that over the past three years the county budget had increased $286 million rather than decrease by $104 million. I found that between this year and last year the budget increased by four percent rather than decreasing by one percent. In fact I found that county spending is at a record high, and, despite, the record-breaking decrease in the tax rate, that household taxes, even when adjusted for inflation, are at a record high.
Nevertheless, the State of the County speech reported that Governing Magazine ranked Fairfax County as the "Best Managed County in the Country."
Perhaps no one told Governing Magazine that last year Fairfax County illegally buried in the legal section of the Washington Times the announcement of the "Notice of Proposed Real Property Tax Increase." Virginia Code §58.1-3321, which requires the notice, states, " The notice shall not be placed in that portion, if any, of the newspaper reserved for legal notices and classified advertisements."
The County printed the notice illegally again this year. Then when one of our members challenged the County about this, the County finally printed the notice in the Business Section of the paper.
In the notice, the County states that the real estate tax rate that offsets this year's assessment increase is $1.06. It then states that the Supervisors are planning a ten-cent rate increase to $1.16.
The best managed county in the nation, however, neglected to announce this rate increase in its 1500-page budget. The ten-cent increase was also omitted from the county's budget press release.
If, as expected, the Supervisors set the tax rate at $1.14 instead of $1.16, they will probably announce it as another record-breaking rate reduction instead of an eight-cent tax hike, which the law says it is.
Last month, at the County Executive's budget press conference I asked if the County Executive agreed that the lowered tax rate that offsets this year's assessment increase was, indeed, $1.06. I got the answer that County had not yet done the analysis to determine the lowered rate.
The analysis is trivial. The rate that offsets this year's assessment increase is equal to last year's rate divided by one plus the percent increase in assessments.
At the press conference I also listened as county leaders misled a newspaper reporter who asked how much county non-school spending was increasing between this year's budget and the proposed budget. Thirty million dollars was the answer she was given. In fact the actual increase is $84 million, almost three times what the reporter was told.
Last fall, as a candidate for the School Board, I hand-delivered a letter to the Superintendent of Schools, asking him to announce before the election if he was going to threaten to increase class size if there were no tax hike this spring. I received no response.
I also hand delivered before the election a similar letter to the County Executive's office, asking for an estimate of how much real estate tax bills would increase next year. This time I received three responses, but none addressed my question.
Then, one month after the election, the Board of Supervisors announced a ten-percent increase in real estate taxes. Before he left office, the Superintendent of Schools announced that class size would have to be increased if the schools did not get their nine-percent budget increase.
On another subject, for a year I have asked the County's Office of Management and Budget for information about trends in county salaries. While the County has been responsive to many of my requests, in this case my phone calls and emails have gone unanswered.
May I recall, a year ago, how the best managed county in the nation dealt with a challenge to cut its spending?
Before the 1999 supervisors' elections, both the previous and current chairmen of the Board of Supervisors told reporters that they would not raise taxes after the election. Within four years, they had, by using the procedures just described, increased homeowners' real estate taxes fifty percent. To have kept their promise the supervisors would have had to set the real estate tax rate at 76 cents, the lowered rate that would have offset four years of higher assessments. Instead, the supervisors broke their word and set the rate 40 cents higher, at the current rate of $1.16.
To justify their four-year 40-cent rate increase, the Supervisors stated that keeping their word would reduce County revenues by $560 million. They published a list enumerating the consequences of such a cut - a forty percent increase in class size, laying off hundreds of firemen and police officers, and the closing of several police and fire stations, etc.
The County ignored, however, an analysis of $400 million in wasteful spending that the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance had presented at the Board's FY2002 budget hearing and to which we referred at last year's budget hearing. This analysis had also been posted (and still is posted) on the home page of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance website.
Many times we have been asked where we would cut. However, when the Taxpayers Alliance made the effort to recommend specific cuts and to suggest alternative solutions, our efforts were ignored. Perhaps it was because our cuts did not increase class size, did not lay off hundreds of firemen and policemen, and did not close any fire or police stations.
Perhaps it was because the County could not respond to our recommendations to reduce school administration, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, and to reduce the demand for expensive remedial programs by instituting phonics-based reading instruction.
This year, 76 cents is the rate tax rate that would offset all assessment increases in excess of inflation since the 1999 Supervisors' election. We admit that it is impossible to responsibly reduce the rate 40 cents in one year. What we do ask though is that the Supervisors set the rate to the $1.06 value that offsets this year's assessment increase, which would involve trimming $140 million from the $2.7 billion budget. We also ask that you start cutting wasteful, harmful, and non-essential programs and over the next several years not raise real estate taxes until inflation since 1999 catches up to the rate.
Unlike most tax watchdog organizations, we have tried, despite spotty information to identify waste and to identify justifiable programs. At this point it seems to us that the work activities for mentally disabled high school graduates is a program you should expand. Our impression is that the families of these persons work hard to shoulder their responsibilities and they need help.
However, we question the wisdom of budget increases for a school system that does not teach reading properly. We question the size of administration, counseling, and caution you against the schools' overinvestment in computers.
The Economic Development Authority we regard as an organization to allow the Supervisors to bypass referenda in floating new bond issues.
We believe that welfare is the principal cause in the surge of out-of-wedlock-births in this country. The children of these single-parent homes are at high risk for academic failure, poor health, poverty, crime, and government dependency.
We caution against building the Dulles rail line through the suburbs when no one can meet the urgently needed subsidies to maintain the underutilized existing rail system.
And finally, we observe that the Housing Authority has never solved the low-income housing problem, that the solution is to build more housing, which the Supervisors have prevented by declaring the thousand acres at Lorton as parkland. We should be able to arrive at a better mix of parks and housing.
Finally, we caution that out-of-control school and welfare budgets are driving up taxes and siphoning off money that should be used for transportation. Inadequate transportation prevents construction of housing, which then drives up housing costs.
The first step to controlling taxes is to re-examine the policies driving your current spending programs.
Thank you.Chairman Connolly's 2004 State of the County speech may be found at http://fairfaxcounty.gov/gov/bos/chair/state_of_county_2004.htm
Updated April 5, 2004
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