This week’s county budget hearings reinforced the challenge that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is facing in balancing the books this year.
Speaker after speaker depicted county agencies near a breaking point after years of budget cuts, while homeowners expressed concern that further increases in county taxes would be too much for some to bear.
“After nearly a decade of austere and reduced budgets, the low-hanging fruit is gone and there are no easy choices left,” said Bruce McCloud, who was speaking about county park needs as vice chairman of the Fairfax County Park Foundation board, but reflected a common refrain of representatives across all sectors of county services.
Fighting to maintain their funding in the face of requests for increased funding for the public school system, advocates for social services agencies, nonprofits and libraries emphasized the interconnectedness of county services that support children and families.
The interconnectedness between the public sector and nonprofits is what has made Fairfax County so successful at efficiently delivering services, said Amanda Andere, speaking on behalf of Nonprofit Northern Virginia.
“Not one nonprofit or service that we provide is more important that the other. We recognize the interconnectedness,” she said.
County employee union representatives fiercely advocated for a higher pay increase. After years of receiving no pay increase or only a portion of the normally scheduled salary increases, they said, county employee salaries have reached a low at which they are affecting recruitment and retention.
County Executive Ed Long included a 1.29 percent cost-of-living increase in his proposed fiscal 2015 budget. Some supervisors have expressed support for a 2 percent increase instead.
“1.29 percent is not a raise,” said Randy Creller, chairman of the Employee Advisory Council, a nonunion group formed to advocate for county employees. “It is actually an embarrassment and is not taken lightly by your workforce.”
Because of the years of low or no pay increases, Creller said, it is now virtually impossible for some employees to ever reach the top of the pay scale for their position before retirement, no matter how good they are at their jobs.
Fairfax County salaries also are not keeping pace with those in neighboring jurisdictions, said Creller and others. The EAC is asking for a 3 percent raise, comparable to what many area jurisdictions are offering this year.
There already are some signs that people interested in public safety careers are making other choices. A recent police recruit class seated 25 people in what was expected to be a class of 54, said Patrick Smaldore, a member of the Police Chief’s Advisory Council.
The advisory council also is concerned about losing trained officers with three or four years of experience to jurisdictions offering better pay, and about the county’s ability to recruit officers from diverse backgrounds.
“We are losing diversity hiring opportunities to our regional competitors who offer superior compensation packages,” Smaldore said.
However, raising employee pay and other initiatives supported by the hundreds of advocates addressing the Board of Supervisors this week will require additional funding, either through cuts in other areas of the budget or an increase in tax revenues.
While some speakers advocated an increase in the county’s real estate tax rate to fund myriad priorities, others said a tax hike will be unaffordable for many Fairfax County homeowners.
“The approval of the proposed budget is going to cause extreme hardship for many homeowners,” said John Carlson, a Mount Vernon resident describing himself as an “overburdened taxpayer.”
Even though Long’s budget does not propose a tax rate increase, increasing property values will mean an average increase of $330, or about 6.5 percent, for homeowners under the current rate. The Board of Supervisors also can raise the real estate tax rate by up to 2 cents, which could amount to more than $100 in additional taxes, on average.
The board will hold its final work session on the budget April 18 and vote on budget amendments April 22.