Board Ap­proves Bud­get, In­creas­ing Spend­ing by 7 Per­cent

$888.5 Mil­lion Plan Boosts Pay for Em­ploy­ees and Funds for Schools, Re­stores Cut So­cial Ser­vices

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Kirstin Downey

The Ar­ling­ton County Board unan­i­mously adopted an $ 888.5 mil­lion bud­get yes­ter­day for fis­cal 2008, up 7.2 per­cent from the bud­get ap­proved for 2007, al­low­ing it to boost school spend­ing, re­store hu­man ser­vices that had been cut, broaden its en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives and give em­ploy­ees a raise.

County of­fi­cials also raised fees and are adding a util­ity tax, but they stressed that they have avoided real es­tate tax- rate in­creases this year, un­like some neigh­bor­ing ju­ris­dic­tions.

Ar­ling­ton’s prop­erty tax rate will stay at 81.8 cents for each $ 100 of as­sessed value. Alexan- dria, Falls Church, Fair­fax City, and Loudoun and Prince William coun­ties have raised taxes or are pre­par­ing to do so to help bal­ance res­i­den­tial real es­tate as­sess­ments in a slump­ing hous­ing mar­ket against in­tense de­mand from res­i­dents for good gov­ern­ment ser­vices.

Ar­ling­ton of­fi­cials cred­ited the county’s di­ver­si­fied tax base, which is less de­pen­dent on res­i­den­tial real es­tate as­sess­ments.

Al­though those as­sess­ments were flat in the past year, com­mer­cial real es­tate as­sess­ments, which in­clude apart­ments and re­tail prop­er­ties, rose 13.9 per­cent.

Un­der the new bud­get, the county will re­duce car taxes for buy­ers of low- emis­sion ve­hi­cles. It will re­store about 10 so­cial- ser­vice po­si­tions of the 30 it lost last year be­cause of a le­gal dis­pute with state and fed­eral of­fi­cials and spend $ 25,000 to be­gin de­sign­ing a year- round home­less shel­ter.

The county will raise ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing to $ 331.3 mil­lion, up 6.4 per­cent from last year; that means it will spend about $ 18,500 per pupil.

“ We spend more per pupil than any school in the re­gion,” said Board Chair­man Paul Fer­gu­son ( D), adding that al­though “ some may crit­i­cize that,” he thinks Ar­ling­ton res­i­dents are proud of their school sys­tem and see it as an in­vest­ment.

The county is also giv­ing its em­ploy­ees a 1.5 per­cent cost- ofliv­ing adjustment on top of the “ step” ad­just­ments most work­ers get, giv­ing them an av­er­age raise of 4 per­cent. County of­fi­cials said it is nec­es­sary to re­ward good work­ers to keep them.

Some Ar­ling­to­ni­ans think the county is not do­ing enough to rein in spend­ing when gains in com­mer­cial real es­tate as­sess­ments might not be sus­tain­able and when some economists have pre­dicted a long down­turn in the hous­ing mar­ket.

“ There isn’t any fru­gal­ity in this bud­get,” said Wayne Ku­bicki, a for­mer mem­ber of the county’s fis­cal af­fairs ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee. “ This kind of bud­get growth can’t be main­tained, nor is it war­ranted.”

Ku­bicki also crit­i­cized some of the new fees and taxes. They in- clude an in­crease in some park­ing me­ter rates from 75 cents an hour to $ 1 an hour and the cre­ation of the util­ity tax, which will cost en­ergy- con­serv­ing res­i­dents lit­tle but could hit $ 72 a year for those who use a lot of power.

The county also is in­creas­ing many park and re­cre­ation fees. The cost of a half- day na­ture camp for chil­dren, for ex­am­ple, will rise to $ 102 weekly, up from $ 80; res­i­dents will have to pay $ 145 a year for a fit­ness cen­ter mem­ber­ship, up from $ 115. The cost for a non­res­i­dent to use the skate park, now $ 6, will be $ 8.

Dur­ing the pub­lic hear­ing at which they ap­proved the bud­get, of­fi­cials re­it­er­ated sup­port for hu­man ser­vices pro­grams and en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives.

“ This bud­get screams en­vi­ron­men­tal things, which I think is great,” said board mem­ber Bar­bara A. Favola ( D). “ It’s a fair bud­get that re­flects our val­ues,” said Wal­ter Te­jada ( D), vice chair­man of the board.

The board also au­tho­rized the Meri­dien Group to shift the per­mit­ted uses in the Po­tomac Yard megade­vel­op­ment to al­low it to build more hous­ing and shops. Meri­dien is giv­ing the city land for a park, pro­vid­ing money for the county’s af­ford­able hous­ing fund, cre­at­ing pub­lic art on the site and pledg­ing to give sev­eral roads to the county to main­tain them as part of the pub­lic street grid.

Sev­eral Ar­ling­ton res­i­dents who spoke at the hear­ing said the county should have re­quired the de­vel­oper to build hous­ing for peo­ple of vary­ing eco­nomic lev­els.

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