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Fairfax Proposes Property Tax Cut

By Lisa Rein

Fairfax County homeowners would see a 10-cent cut in their property tax rate but still pay $500 more on average in real estate taxes under a spending plan proposed yesterday by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) immediately predicted that the board would approve a lower tax rate as officials announced a 23 percent jump in residential real estate values in Washington's largest suburb. This year's assessments are more than double last year's 11 percent jump, mirroring spirals in Alexandria and Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

"One of the things we're trying to do is balance the cost to the taxpayers with the quality of services," Griffin said as he presented his $3 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Under his proposal, the tax rate would dip to $1.03 per $100 of assessed value from the current rate of $1.13, the lowest level since the 1970s, officials said.

"I believe this is a very good start," Connolly said, "but I believe we can do better." The owner of a home assessed at $444,766, the county mean, would pay $4,581 in property taxes under Griffin's proposal.

The blueprint offers few initiatives beyond expanding public safety services and a first-time, dedicated stream of money -- about $18 million -- to battle erosion and pollution caused by storm runoff into streams and rivers. Griffin also suggested that supervisors could sacrifice some tax relief to siphon off another $18 million for a fund to preserve affordable housing.

"Most of what's in the budget is really oriented to maintaining the standards and quality the county has enjoyed over the years," he said.

For the first time in four years, Northern Virginia's strong economy and job growth will allow Fairfax to offset steep assessment increases with tax relief and minimal spending cuts. That's because other revenue, from business to sales taxes, is climbing after several flat years, officials said. A more diverse tax base is a boon for county leaders, who have been under pressure to reduce property taxes without cutting deeply into the county's well-regarded services.

Still, Griffin and the supervisors said they would try to resist the temptation to drop the tax rate too steeply. The real estate market crashed in the mid-1990s after dramatic increases in values, and the board was forced to raise the tax rate shortly after cutting it.

"Finally, this year we see a different dynamic from the last five years," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chief of the board's budget committee. "But we need to be conservative and not get carried away. We could see the floor fall out from under us."

Most of the plan's 6.9 percent spending increase would go to schools in a move that could resolve several weeks of tensions between the county board and school officials over the first budget presented by new superintendent Jack D. Dale. Dale's proposed 9.7 percent increase, pared slightly by the school board, far exceeded what the county said it would give the schools next year. But Griffin's proposed school spending increase of 8.2 percent brought the two sides far closer.

Yesterday, Dale seemed pleased by the compromise. "We've been working together, and we're really close in terms of the final budget," he said after attending Griffin's presentation.

Other new spending would cover 166 additional positions, mostly to staff an expanded county jail and another firehouse. There would also be more fire and rescue personnel, as well as more police officers for patrols and gang investigations. The budget includes raises of 3 percent for public safety officers, including members of the sheriff's department, and an additional 4 percent for police and firefighters, whose salaries Griffin said lag behind those of regional counterparts.

Other county workers would receive, on average, raises of 4.5 percent.

The proposed budget includes some higher fees: Emergency/911 service would cost $3 per telephone line monthly, up from $2.50; new sewer hookups would rise to $5,874, from $5,621; and county trash collection for 40,000 customers would cost $270 a year, up from $240.

Condominiums saw the biggest jump in assessments this year -- 33.5 percent -- followed by townhouses, which rose 26 percent. Lorton, the area flanking Route 1 in the county's southeastern corner, had the biggest increases in overall assessments, rising 29.7 percent.

The once-industrial area near the former prison has been transformed in recent years by an infusion of subdivisions.

The county's commercial real estate is also rebounding after a three-year slump, gaining 12.7 percent in value, compared with 3.7 percent the year before.