By Bob Carney
For those of us who have lived in Fairfax County for more than a decade or two, we cannot believe how our once-great place to live has been decimated by a decade of Democrat rule. The traffic congestion is probably to a large extent unavoidable, and taxes and spending — in absolute terms — will inevitably increase as the population expands. But that does not mean the rate of taxes and spending must rise disproportionately relative to population growth. As Ronald Reagan said, “it’s not that we tax too little, it’s that we spend too much.”
So how well has Fairfax County been managed under Democrat rule? Answer: Very well — if you like ever-increasing taxes with nothing to show for it. The 2020 budget proposal called for an increase of 3.95% over 2019. Really? Did inflation climb nearly 4% (of course not, actually about half of that) and did most Fairfax County taxpayers get cost-of-living increases of 4% (doubtful)? As the details below will demonstrate, the Democrat-controlled Board of Supervisors, led by its Chairman Jeff McKay, has behaved like a teenager who stole his parents’ credit card and went shopping at Tysons Corner Center. McKay and his controlling Democrats are opposed by a single voice of reason, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who is easily outvoted by the spendthrifts. Little thought is given as to whether something is needed, just whether it would be nice to have.
The Board is aided and abetted by the “County Executive.” Who (or what) is the County Executive? The County Executive sets budget and spending goals and the Board of Supervisors generally approves them. Bryan Hill became County Executive effective January 2, 2018. His salary according to the Washington Post is $268,000, although the official County announcement stated it would be $250,000 when he started. Although the County announcement said that a professional search firm was used and many resumes were reviewed, Mr. Hill was selected – although his experience was as County Executive for James City County with a population (in 2018) of only 76,000 compared to Fairfax County’s population of 1,150,000. Coming to Fairfax County must have been a dream come true for a lifelong government administrator from a relatively small place (a quick Google search showed that he, like Chairman McKay, has no business experience). Fairfax County taxpayers are like a pot of gold for these modern-day Robin Hoods to extract as much as needed to spend on anything they think is worthwhile. Of course, the Board of Supervisors must approve his budgets and tax increases — truly putting the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse. As noted above, only Supervisor Herrity attempts to keep taxes and spending within reason.
For 2020, Mr. Hill proposed that the Board vote to raise real estate taxes from $1.15 to $1.18 per $100, or about 2.6%. That, of course, is in addition to the increased assessments averaging 2.8%, for a whopping 5.4% increase! The “average” does not even tell the whole story: Mason District single-family homes fared the worst, with average valuation increases of 3.57%, resulting in a total tax increase of about 6.2%; and, condo valuations rose by 4.36%, resulting in a total tax increase of almost 7%. It’s really sad for those of us who remember the Fairfax County tradition of reducing real estate tax rates when the values were escalating, in order to keep the total tax increases within reason. For example, rates dropped from $1.16/$100 in 2004 to $1.00/$100 in 2006, and then to $0.89/$100 in 2007. Not any more – now the Board will subject homeowners to an increase in tax based on a valuation increase and then hit them again with a higher rate as well. Thus, tax rates have skyrocketed from $0.92/$100 in 2009 to $1.15 in 2019 – or 20% in 10 years, in addition to the significant tax increases attributable to appreciation in real estate valuations. Hill said that his latest proposed tax hike would be “only” $346 for the “average” taxpayer – but, even if true, that misses the point of whether an increase of more than 5% is justified in an economy where inflation is under 2%.
Only the coronavirus plague forced the Board to stop squeezing taxpayers until they bled – and the additional rate increase proposal was dropped. Republican Supervisor Pat Herrity, Springfield, was again the lone voice of reason who argued and voted against a tax increase. But we will still suffer the 2.6% increase (or 4.36% for condo owners) attributable to valuation – which the Fairfax County government considers its “entitlement” which it must either spend or lose forever. What is missed in the analysis is that real estate values add to the net worth of our residents but not to their disposable income. As a result, the hard-working people of Fairfax County have to continue to dig deeper into their wages to support the ever-increasing spending.
Remarkably, these large real estate tax increases were not enough for Mr. Hill and the Board. McKay and the Board (except for Supervisor Herrity) supported Hill’s proposal for the County’s first-ever admissions tax – 4% on movie, theater, and concert tickets and the Board was willing to comply. Fairfax County is one of the counties permitted to charge an admissions tax up to 10%. I suspect that the Board was only warming up for more increases to come – but again, the County dropped this new tax only because of the coronavirus (and movie theaters may be virtually empty anyway for a while).
Mr. Hill stated that he “needs” the additional taxes to spend more on employee compensation, affordable housing, and education. Who can be opposed to any of those worthy goals? However, the question is, do you first determine how much more do you need (allowing for inflation), or do you simply spend whatever feels good for an arguably “noble” cause and then just send the bill for the difference to the taxpayers? Apparently, the “Board of Democrats” (as it should be called) will continue to support Mr. Hill on the latter course with blank-check approvals. Fairfax County taxpayers are in for a rough ride, unless the voters take charge.
Bob Carney is a tax attorney who resides in McLean.