Spendthrift budget proposal greets election year

Drink an extra cup of coffee! It’s budget time, and be forewarned: the sheer volume of numbers in this column should leave your eyes feeling like peeled onions.

March brings Prince William County property owners their own little game of taxpayer “Jeopardy!” as property assessments are mailed and the county budget process goes into full swing.

The answer? “Higher taxes and spending!” The question? “How will a nominally GOP-majority board respond to the slow economy?”

Of course, the answer provided above is merely the most general among many possible answers. Other correct answers, if one examines the proposed budgets for the county schools, general county government, and expected revenues from the property tax rate proposed, are “expanding government,” “a real tax increase far outpacing inflation and population growth,” “exorbitant pay increases for county bureaucrats,” and “runaway increases in per-pupil expenditures.” Feel free to write in with your own answer, since this list almost certainly is not exhaustive.

If the answers seem counter-intuitive, given your general knowledge of the expressed general principles of the two major political parties (or those inferred from the rhetoric of their candidates), Gentle Reader, well, then you get it. It is difficult to imagine what it is about the county budget that commends it as a document produced for a Republican-majority Board of County Supervisors. It causes one to wonder whether the political parties are providing us with the choice between Tweedle Dum, and Tweedle Dumber.

To be sure, there are many out there are who delight in the declining tax rate. Everybody, in fact, except the most hardcore crypto-socialists in the Democrat Party. Even most Democrats will at least pay lip service to delight over declining tax rates. It being Virginia, some even believe it. And to be sure, as far as rates are concerned, county taxpayers are in a position far superior to that of just a few years ago, when Prince William County imposed the highest property tax rate in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

But lest you believe that the decreasing tax rates have produced smaller tax bills and smaller county government, guess again. As reported in Saturday’s edition of this journal, tax assessments increased by an average of over 16 percent this year (the public record shows that the Youngs’ increased by 20 percent). The county fiscal plan that proposes a measly four-cent decrease in the county property tax rate, to $1.19 per $100 of assessed value, a 3.3 percent tax-rate decrease. However, the rate which would produce stability in county revenues would be nearer to $1.07 per $100 of assessed value, or a 13 percent tax-rate reduction. So virtually everyone’s property tax bill is going up. A lot.

The upshot is that, at current rates, the average county property owner could expect an increase of $367.97 in their FY 2004 tax bill. The measly tax rate decrease which is proposed will result in a tax increase of “only” $280.03.

Just as the man sentenced to 40 lashes is grateful when only 30 are administered, perhaps we should be thankful for small favors. The county proposes to collect “only” 10 percent more in property taxes from us.

Of course, incumbent supervisors or their newly-announced challengers might propose something really bold, like the notion that county property tax bills are high enough. Or that enough is enough, and that the county, like most of the rest of us, should meet economic hard times with a leaner, pared-down waistline. Or that, like the rest of us, county employees should only get 2-3 percent raises.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

The Fiscal Plan produced by County Executive Craig Gerhart and his staff for FY 2004 proposes a whopping 22.15 percent increase in total county spending, increasing from $1.06 billion to nearly $1.3 billion. Such an increase is hardly surprising, since county revenues have increased by more than 50 percent in four years, from just under $400 million in FY 2000 to just over $600 million in FY 2004 (projected).

The largest part of the county budget is, as usual, transfers to the public schools, 54.1 percent of county spending. A four-page document sent home with county schoolchildren just a few days ago reflects that county School Superintendent Ed Kelly proposes to increase per pupil expenditures in the county by nearly $500 in FY 2004, after increasing them for FY 2003 by over $500. In just two years in Prince William County, per pupil expenditures increased by $1,108, an increase of more than 15 percent over FY 2002 expenditures of $7,104 per pupil. A slight majority ($4,120) of the total amount is paid by local taxes.

Interestingly, there appears to be some conflict in Ed Kelly’s report, as one graph, prepared in accordance with state mandates, reflects FY 2003 per pupil expenditures to be $7,633, while another table on the next page, citing as its source the “FY 2003 Metropolitan Boards of Education,” shows FY 2003 per pupil expenditures for Prince William to be $7,551. Curious.

Both budgets propose averages raises for county and school employees of 6.7 percent, as compared to the average raise for private sector employees (you know, those of us who vote and pay most of the bills) of no more than 2-3 percent.

With these facts in mind, it will be interesting to see, in this election year, whether county voters will demand a real change, and a Board of County Supervisors that stops the spending spree. It’s not as though we haven’t seen this pattern before: the boom of the late ’90s produced an orgy of spending in Richmond, with a 40 percent increase in state spending over four years. Virginia’s Boyish Governor, Mark Warner, arrived just as the bubble burst, and has spent most of his first year in office whining about not having more toys with which to play.

County politicians should eschew the spending spree now, and give county taxpayers real relief. Merely making do with what they’re already getting would be a good start.

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair, and pays waaaay too much in property taxes.

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