When Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill released his proposed FY 2021 county budget on Feb. 25, it seemed like any other budget year. The proposed budget addressed some Board priorities — affordable housing, environmental initiatives, body-worn cameras for police, expanded library hours, and compensation increases for county employees. Mr. Hill recommended a real estate tax rate increase of three cents to fund expanded programs, and balance the budget, as required by state law. Budget town meetings were scheduled in each district, and it still seemed like most other budget years, with pros and cons of budget spending voiced by taxpayers.
Then life changed. Just 16 days after Mr. Hill’s televised presentation, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an Executive Order declaring a statewide emergency because of the coronavirus, now known as Covid-19. Coincidentally, that day, March 12, also was the date of the Mason District Budget Town Meeting. Chairs were placed farther apart in the meeting room, as the concept of social distancing began to be understood and observed. On March 17, in a special emergency meeting, the Board of Supervisors followed the Governor’s lead and formally declared a countywide state of emergency. Many county employees could telework from their homes and, eventually, county buildings were closed to the public. Vital county services continued in this strange new world situation.
But what about the budget? Despite Covid-19, the Board of Supervisors must approve a budget this spring, well before the July 1 beginning of the 2021 Fiscal Year. It took months to put the proposed budget together; now it would have to be revised, amended, and rewritten in days, not weeks or months.
Late on Tuesday, Mr. Hill released his amended proposed budget, including projected revenue losses of well over $100 million from decreased sales and business taxes, interest on investments, and fee losses because of virus-related closures. Gone is the recommendation for a three-cent real estate tax increase. All proposed tax rate and fee increases have been eliminated to alleviate pressure on the county’s taxpayers. Gone are employee compensation increases. Gone are expanded library hours. Gone are affordable housing initiatives. Gone is the expansion of body-worn cameras for police officers. Gone are most of the new positions recommended earlier, from 177 to 20, and 19 of the 20 are designated for the Health Department. Gone also is the proposed increase for county refuse collection customers; the rate will remain at FY 2020 levels. Sewer rate changes also are deferred. The proposed annual increase in the transfer for school operations has been reduced drastically from $85.7 million to $7.5 million; the total transfer remains at 52.7 of General Fund disbursements.
The pain of the proposed budget reductions is shared across all agencies of Fairfax County, and uncertainties remain as to what the lasting effects of the pandemic emergency might be on both local and state revenues. Although life, as we know it, has been altered significantly, Fairfax County’s basic services are maintained in the amended budget. Items not gone are the strong foundation already built across the years, and the commitment of our community to weather the storm together.
The budget schedule also is changed. Public hearings about the budget have been moved from the original April 14, 15 and 16 dates, to April 28, 29 and 30. In order to protect residents and staff, in-person participation will not be permitted, but on-line, phone, and video testimony is being arranged. Approval of the county’s Strategic Plan, originally planned to coincide with budget adoption, will be delayed, as the pandemic emergency makes it impossible to have the planned community meetings for additional input into the plan. Mark-up of the proposed budget will happen on May 5, which was the original date for adoption of the budget. Adoption now will be on May 12. Approval of the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), usually done in tandem with the budget approval, will be moved to sometime in June. One date has not changed: Fiscal Year 2021 still begins on July 1, 2020.
The updated proposed budget, with information about how you can register to testify, can be reviewed on-line at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/budget.