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Arlington Cunty Government 1.5 Cents; Taxpayers 0.5 Cents

On February 25, we growled when the Arlington County Board "voted 3-2 to advertise a property tax rate for Calendar Year (CY) 2017 of $0.998 per $100 assessed value, not including the $0.013 stormwater rate. The advertised rate is two cents higher than the current property tax rate."

At their final budget work session today, the so-called mark-up session, County Board members settled on a 1.5 cent increase in the real estate tax rate, according to Scott McCaffrey of the Arlington Sun Gazette this afternoon.

In his reporting, McCaffrey wrote:

"County Board members on Thursday signaled they planned to increase the real-estate tax rate from 99.1 cents per $100 assessed value to $1.006 per $100, a move that will allow the government to fully fund the school system’s budget request, provide healthy employee raises and support initiatives ranging from land acquisition to services for immigrants faced with deportation.

"The package set for final approval over the weekend represents “as much of a consensus budget as we can [get],” said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, who is wrapping his 20th and final budget season since being elected in 1997.

"The spending plan, Fisette said, is “a budget that accomplishes many of the goals we have.”

"Board members spent part of Thursday huddled with staff, working through last-minute issues, including back-and-forth over whether a specific pot of funding should be devoted to schools or to affordable housing.

"Having worked through issues in dispute as best they could, “nothing is intended to change between today and Saturday,” Fisette said.

For Arlington homeowners, there will be a double whammy of the higher tax rate and higher average assessments. For the owner of a property assessed last year at $700,000 whose assessment rose the countywide average of 2.9 percent, 2017’s real-estate tax bill of $7,246 will be up from $6,937 a year ago.

"But it could have gone higher: Earlier in the budget season, County Board members had advertised a two-cent increase in the tax rate. That set the maximum increase the board could impose, although board members could – and apparently will – vote for a rate lower than that cap.

"While lower than the advertised rate, the increase rebuffs the recommendation of the Arlington County Civic Federation, whose members in a lopsided vote during budget season called for no change to the existing rate. Civic Federation delegates said the county government would be able to fund all of the requests of Schwartz by using funds left over from previous years."

Read the remainder of McCaffrey's report here.

It's disappointing that the Board finds it easier to add to the taxpayers' burden instead of doing the hard work of making local government more efficient, effective and economical. Rather, they seem to find it easier to raise taxes to fund ever larger government. Or worse, benefiting from the windfalls that result from increases in real estate assessments. But doing the right thing would mean setting priorities, setting performance standards, identifying inefficiencies, and holding the Board and the Manager accountable.

For example, a search of Fairfax County's employee handbook identified an employee suggestion program. Unfortunately, a similar search at Arlington County's website found no such program that would enable county employees to suggest more efficient and economical ways of working.

Furthermore, Arlington County taxpayers, as well as taxpayers of other Northern Virginia jurisdiction, need a tool that compares costs and other performance measures of Northern Virginia jurisdictions. This tool would be similar to the Guide produced by the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE). Or, something like the Arlington Public Schools' "APS Dashboard," which makes performance and business operations data transparent.

Nevertheless, Board member John Vihstadt deserves kudos for pushing to have the Manager provide a list of budget reduction options equivalent to a one-cent tax rate increase. It was also his recommendation that the Manager complete a reserves analysis when the Board adopted the FY 2017 budget a year ago. The analysis was originally due October 1, 2016, but unfortunately, the deadline was continually slipped until the Manager presented the analysis during the Board's April 18 budget work session. If the analysis had been completed timely, it's entirely possible the Board could have identified the funds that would have allowed the Board to settle on a much lower tax hike than 1.5 cents. But credit is also due to the entire Board since it took various combinations to pass some of those budget reduction options.

Kudos, too, to the Arlington County Civic Federation's Revenues & Expenditures Committee for their help in pushing the Board to look to using its reserves to pay for some or all of needed additional tax revenues. We'll  growl about the April 18 budget work session in a future post.

UPDATE (4/22/17). Scott McCaffrey updated his Arlington Sun Gazette story from Thursday with "additional comments  from community leaders," and is kind enough to include comments from Thursday's Growls.

UPDATE (4/22/17). In his Editor's Blog on Friday, McCaffrey reminds readers of lines from the Beattles' George Harrison, writing:

"Among the lyrics: “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street/ If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat/ If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat/ If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”

"The Arlington County Board yesterday itself reached a little deeper into the pockets of county property owners, deciding to boost the tax rate 1.5 cents from the current 99.1 cents per $100.

"As for where all that extra cash will be going, the late Mr. Harrison put it best in discussing government spending: “Don’t ask me what I want it for/ If you don’t want to pay some more.”

Makes you wonder which Arlington County Board members have "Tax Man" on their mobile device's Playlist.

UPDATE (4/22/17): Patricia Sullivan posted a report Thursday evening for the Washington Post about the decisions the Arlington County Board made at its budget work session Thursday. In her lede, Sullivan wrote, "Facing rising costs from Metro and higher school enrollment, the Arlington County Board is poised to pass a 1.5 cent increase in the property tax rate, one-half cent less than what the county manager proposed and the board advertised earlier this year."


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