Herrity Report: FY 2020 Budget Concerns

By Pat Herrity, Springfield District Supervisor

Election year budgets tend to be lean and this one is no exception. We need to be wary of the election year promises being made for the FY2021 budget that already has a projected $75M shortfall. The County Executive’s budget was proposed balanced with a flat real estate tax rate of $1.15 per $100 of assessed value. However due to increases in home values the average tax bill will increase by about $150 or 2.6%. This continues a long unsustainable trend of tax increases in our county, as taxes have increased by 25% in the last 5 years.

Concerns with the FY 2020 Budget – While my biggest concern is with the promises being made in this year’s budget guidance for next year’s budget, I have a number of concerns with the current budget proposal. County staff is working on the answers to my questions on several of these concerns. They include:

  • A review of public safety overtime that I have requested the past two years — see my previous newsletter on this issue. I have asked for the same information I requested in FY2018 that showed a firefighter making $250,000 annually, including $150,000 of overtime pay. While much of public safety overtime is necessary, I have concerns with the ability of someone working that much overtime to perform at the level we expect from our firefighters.
  • This budget converts 53 health department grant positions to full time merit positions as the grants are expiring.
  • I fully support investment in our Diversion First efforts that focus on getting people mental health services instead of putting them in jail for nonviolent offenses. However, the program comes with promises of reduced jail expenses. To date we have not seen reductions in the jail budgets but did see an across the board salary increase of 3% funded in part with staff reductions.
  • As Chairman of the 50+ Committee, I am concerned that we have not increased our maximum tax relief asset eligibility limits for seniors and people with disabilities since 2006. I’ve asked that we consider an increase in those limits and fund it with some of the state budget savings.
  • In our schools, we need to put resources back into the classroom instead of on administrative costs, which is why I’ve asked for a comparison of actual administrator pay raises to actual teacher pay raises over the last year.
  • I also requested information on who performs the duties of the Chief Academic Officer now that the position no longer exists in our school system. The school system needs to return to a focus on academics.
  • Working with our breweries and the results of the study on our efforts to increase small manufacturers in the county, I am looking for ways to address our Machinery and Tools Tax that is three times as high as some of our surrounding jurisdictions and is hurting our ability to grow jobs in these industries. The numbers are small, but I believe the long-term impact is large.
  • When I joined the Board in 2007, employees could retire at age 50 with a full pension greater than our surrounding jurisdictions along with an unheard-of benefit — county paid social security from age 50 until they get federal social security payments. I led two successful rounds of pension reform and although the changes made are not quite at the level I had hoped, we have eliminated the county paid social security and raised the retirement age to 55. This year I asked several questions concerning the administrative cost of our pension systems which seem high compared to other comparable plans.
  • Fairfax County’s competitive jurisdictions have been addressing and making adjustments to their police pay due to the difficulty in attracting and retaining quality police officers in the current environment. Alexandria and most recently Prince William County have made changes to address these concerns. We are having issues recruiting candidates that can make it through our academy based on the high standards to which we appropriately hold our officers. I have asked for the status of the police pay study the Board requested last year. We need to continue to be able to say we are the safest jurisdiction of our size in the country and we will only do so if we attract high-caliber police officers.

County Executive Impact – I have been saying for years that we need to take a hard look at overtime expenditures, streamlining our zoning and permitting process to attract new businesses, competitive sourcing, addressing our high commercial vacancy rate, eliminating duplicative agencies, reducing our leased space footprint, privatizing, and prioritizing the many programs we offer to our residents. Despite having been with the County for a just over a year, our County Executive Bryan Hill has made great strides in many of these areas including consolidating agencies, reviewing county lease agreements, and streamlining the regulatory process. I think this year’s flat rate budget is due in part to his leadership in these areas.

Perhaps his biggest contribution has been his efforts to focus the Board on setting strategy and priorities and reminding the Board we cannot fund everything. He has begun a county-wide strategic planning exercise. The budget comes down to this: The County is doing a lot of great things, but we need to choose which great things to do because at the end of the day the burden falls on taxpayers — which brings me to my real concern.

Built in Tax Increase for FY2021 – With this year’s budget we will also approve budget guidance for next year’s (FY2021) budget. It appears that this guidance will include many of the promises that have been made in budget committee meetings over the last several months without balancing them against the impacts to next year’s budget. My biggest concerns are:

  • The published two-year budget includes a $75M shortfall before many of the items that are being discussed including the two below.
  • The Board is committing to another penny (also known as $23 million in expenditures) for the Penny for Affordable Housing fund. This was the fund that was used to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the county to buy condos and apartments for people making up to $120K per year before it was finally cut back.. While I support helping people that cannot help themselves — especially the elderly and disabled — rent controlled housing has proven not to provide long term answers to housing issues.
  • The county is working on its own version of the new green deal. Most of the proposals have been presented without mention of even the simplest fiscal impacts or pay back calculations, or the costs associated with additional staff needed to manage the initiatives, and a new joint School Board/BOS committee — the Joint Environmental Team (JET).  While I support efforts to save energy, I believe they need to be balanced with fiscal reality and our other priorities. They must also be prioritized so those that actually save money can be implemented first.

My real concern here is these commitments are being made now for next year without addressing the fiscal impact both to our taxpayers and to our other priorities like academics, public safety, parks, libraries, and teacher and employee compensation. I will be asking that the fiscal impact of the budget guidance be calculated and included in the estimated second year budget so the impact is transparent.

The foregoing was first published in the April 4, 2019 Herrity Report

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