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Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Price of Civilization in Fairfax County

It comes to three cents. That's how much property taxes will rise this year. According to Amy Gardner, in today's Washington Post, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is proposing the modest tax hike to preserve its public schools and social programs.

It’s a bold move given that tax increases are never popular in Virginia – or anyplace else for that matter. Given the anti-tax rhetoric you frequently hear from Republicans, it took political courage to not simply reach for the budget ax. The problem, though, is that it’s always easier to talk about cuts in the abstract than to specify which programs to chop.

So at this past week’s Fairfax County budget hearings, termed by Ms. Gardner, a “marathon” that stretched over three nights and was attended by 300 residents, the Board of Supervisors made the politically courageous decision to raise the property tax in order to avoid cuts to its programs.
"You can't just ignore the community when it speaks," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock). "There is reason to have some increase in the tax rate in order to fund our highest priorities and to make sure that we're protecting the quality of life that people value."

Bulova and others added that the size of increase and how it will be divided up must still be decided by board members over the next two weeks. But one likely scenario, she and others said, is to dedicate 2of the 3 cents, or about $45 million of the $68 million total, to the school system with the rest going to various county programs. The board is scheduled to adopt a final budget April 21.

Because of an average decline in property values of 3 percent this year, most tax bills would remain the same or decline slightly with a 3-cent rate increase, to 92 cents for each $100 of assessed value. Such an increase would produce a tax bill of $4,600 for a property worth $500,000.
The problem for Fairfax, like so many local counties, is that its major source of revenue comes from property taxes. Property values have taken a dive due to the housing and credit crises. And since property assessments are down, less revenue is coming in.

By raising the property tax by 3 cents, all the county would be doing is keeping its revenue stream at the same level as last year to avoid cutting important programs. At the same time, the taxes that residents pay will not go up in real dollars. In other words, their actual tax bills will be the same as last year or even slightly lower.

I was at one of the budget hearings and my husband attended two of them. I was struck by how many truly valuable services that Fairfax provides to its citizens. Besides an excellent school system with after-school services, the county funds top quality libraries, suicide prevention programs, homeless shelters, and mental health services. There are parks throughout the county. In short, in numerous ways, large and small, Fairfax provides a quality of life that its residents have come to expect and appreciate.

Indeed, over 300 residents showed their concern for preserving these services by attending these budget hearings, which began early and ended late and stretched over three nights.
"What was striking in the hearings was clear consensus from the school community, human services, business leaders and public safety," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), board chairman. "A3-cent tax increase still reduces in real dollars the average tax bill. It is a modest refinement of a low tax rate, especially when you look at what our neighbors are doing."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once said, ‘taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” One could add that the price should be neither too high nor taken for granted. But Fairfax County has shown good stewardship of its resources and has delivered high quality services that benefit its citizens. A 3 cent increase in property taxes – especially one that will not be felt in real dollar value – is not too high a price for maintaining a civilized lifestyle.

1 comment:

Hugo Estrada said...

I am so glad to hear this!

This is such a sensible decision. I have been pretty hurt by the real estate tax sudden rise that occurred in the last few years.

Yet I feel that this kind of a tax raise to keep schools and other great services running is a sound and sensible decision.