When Fairfax County Executive Edward L. Long, Jr., presented his first Advertised Budget Plan for Fiscal Year 2014, there was little doubt that optimism about a relatively strong recovery from the “Great Recession” had plummeted since adoption of last year’s budget. The FY13 budget had assumed that federal tax cut issues and debt ceiling issues would be resolved, and the nation would not go over the fiscal cliff. Sequestration would be avoided, and a federal budget would be adopted. That was last spring.
What a difference a year makes. None of the expectations that Congressional leaders could, or would, act to devise a rational resolution to the budget and sequestration impasse came to fruition, and not just Fairfax County, but the entire nation, is reeling from the announced cuts for everything from national security to national parks. The region and the Commonwealth of Virginia especially are hard hit. Nearly everyone in the region knows someone who will be furloughed as either a federal employee or a government contractor. The many military installations across Virginia will have cuts to programs and facilities, especially the port of Norfolk where many of the Navy’s largest ships were scheduled for maintenance that now will be curtailed.
While the full effects of sequestration may not be felt on local budgets for several months, the reductions in workforce will have a deleterious effect on what people buy, or invest in, or spend discretionary income. Local revenues rely heavily (92 percent) on taxes – real estate, personal property, sales – so when those collections or values are down, delivery of needed programs and services are affected. Mr. Long’s proposed budget plan recommends a school transfer of nearly $1.9 billion, or 52.6 percent of the budget. The School Board has requested an additional $61.7 million, which would require three cents more on the real estate tax rate, in addition to the two-cent overall increase recommended by Mr. Long.
Only two new programs are included in the proposed budget plan. Mr. Long rolled out a two-year framework for adoption of future budgets, which will enable the Board of Supervisors to receive forecasts more frequently and provide guidance for staff to develop the next budget plan, along with a menu of options to address any shortfalls. In Virginia, localities are required to adopt a balanced budget (we cannot run a deficit by law) by May 1 of each year. A multi-year budget also enables better community engagement into the process.
The other new program is the STRIVE (Sustainable Training, Resources and Incentives for Valued Employees) initiative. While Mr. Long’s proposed budget does not include compensation increases for county employees, it does provide for employee development and succession planning. The compensation portion of STRIVE will have further discussion by the Board after budget adoption in late April.
The county’s annual budget reflects the philosophy and priorities of Fairfax County – good schools, safe streets; a clean, sustainable environment; livable, caring, and affordable communities; efficient transportation network; recreational opportunities; taxes that are affordable. The challenge is to balance priorities with revenues, and maintain the kind of community we all want to call “home.”