Balancing low taxes against growing needs daunts county policy-makers

Taxpayers beware.

Your government is growing out of control.

Prince William County real estate taxes are up 12 percent this year and possibly going up 9 percent next year.

State spending is up 40 percent in six years.

Your only hope is to vote for candidates who sign a pledge against tax increases.

This has been the battle cry of the Prince William County Taxpayers Alliance, a conservative group formed in1998 that has become a fixture in county politics with every local candidate who does not sign its pledges held to the fire of taxpayers’ ire.

It may be an effective political strategy, but such a message doesn’t take into account where the money goes, observers say, resulting in a one-sided stance that sets up unrealistic policymaking.

“Voters want it both ways. They want lots of services and they wants lots of tax cuts. And the politician who doesn’t promise both of these incompatible things is somehow seen as suspect,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. “It’s very hard for a candidate to be arguing fiscal responsibility right now.”

What is the other half of the story?

The county real estate tax rate of $1.23 per $100 of assessment is proposed to go down to $1.16, which against higher assessed home values gives an average tax increase of 9 percent.

Zero budget growth would occur at $1.07.

The Alliance wants the real estate tax cut to $1.10 this year.

To achieve that low rate, the county budget would need to be cut by $16,312,702, split by a revenue-sharing agreement, $9.2 million from the $555 million schools budget and $7.1 million from the $319 million general government budget, according to county executive Craig Gerhart.

So where to start?

Copies of the budget are free to the public. One penny on the rate is roughly $2.7 million.

Alliance Chairman Rick Hendrix on proposing cuts: “It’s really not our job. We’d be happy to look into that if somebody really wants us to, but — all we’re saying is government should be able to run within its means,” he said. “If someone asked us to look at the budget and said we’ll do whatever you suggest, then maybe we would take that on.”

Hendrix suggested looking at whether staff salaries should go up to the degree they are this year or look at ways to run the government more efficiently.

The county budget includes a 3 percent across-the-board raise for county employees costing $5.8 million to catch up with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions’ pay.

If those raises were cut, it would shave 2 cents off the real estate tax rate.

But that could undercut one goal of county planners: improving employee retention.

Higher turnover would send up costs of hiring and training. Police would not achieve parity with other jurisdictions.

Prince William Fire and Rescue would be affected. This department had 10 percent turnover in 2001 but has cut that to 2.9 percent this year with phased-in 24-hour shifts that cost money.

County schools have seen 30 percent teacher turnover over a three-year period, according to last year’s budget. To reduce that, money has gone into a teacher mentor program and this year 40 percent of new school spending is for compensation.

The county has the lowest number of employees per capita it has had since 1992: 9.42 per 1,000 people.

On efficiency, a citizens budget task force raised questions of why the county outsources the maintenance and help desk function for its computer network.

Can the county save money by bringing it in house?

No, was the short answer from Information Technology Director Masood Noorbakhsh last week. He told the county board the $1.5 million contract with Dell saves the county seven full-time positions that the county could not fill and provides weekend support to police and fire.

To service its computers itself, the county would have to spend thousands of dollars for automated equipment, lease space and train employees who would be responsible for questions and maintenance of 2,900 computers and laptops.

On computer purchases, Supervisor Mary K. Hill, R-Coles, asked Noorbakhsh whether the county is getting good deals — the county listed her a $1,800 printer and she found a comparable one for $300.

That is not a valid comparison, Noorbakhsh said, because Hill was quoted a network printer and she bought a stand-alone printer. County computers are not home computers, but instead are more rugged and dependable for office usage where equipment failure holds up customers or work, he said. You cannot compare prices with retail sales, he said.

Gerhart said it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the money the county saves when so many new services are being provided to citizens.

For example, hits on the county Web site have grown from 150,000 to 2.4 million visits, the county has processed more than 23,000 tax payments electronically, and upgraded records systems have eliminated duplicate data entry for agencies.

“We’ve not yet found the technology that will respond from the back of the fire truck,” Gerhart said.

Where else to cut?

Supervisors said going below the $1.16 rate will dip into debt service for capital improvements — which is like saying if the budget were for a household cutting into the mortgage payment.

One penny on the rate supports roughly $27 million to $30 million in debt.

Prince William is building two high schools, widening roads like Minnieville Road, finishing Valley View Park with its $2.4 million cost overrun, building fire and police stations, and soon will expand the overcrowded county government center that has never been labeled a Taj Mahal.

Voters approved the $87 million road bond referendum last year — that keeps 3 1/2 cents on the rate going to debt service for roads steady.

County schools expect more than 17,000 new students over the next 10 years and have half a billion dollars in capital projects to accommodate them: 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, three high schools, three additions, and 35 major school renewals. Cuts now would delay projects down the line.

Going below $1.16 could drain the county’s $500,000 homeland security contingency fund for emergencies — a reserve that bond agencies like, Gerhart said — and a $338,000 drug court pilot program that has been proven to rescue youths before they become lost in the cycle of drug abuse and incarceration.

Any more suggestions?

Farnsworth said such an exercise on the state level is not resulting in more efficient government but a system where civil servants just limp along.

“No one is having the discussion on size of government. The question now is balancing a budget as it comes through,” he said.

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