- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Fairfax County, Va., officials yesterday presented a $2.3 billion budget for fiscal 2002 with the prospect of receiving less state money for reducing class size, hiring more police officers and providing services for the poor.

Chief Financial Officer Edward L. Long Jr. said the county could be squeezed financially, noting the General Assembly's failure to revise the biennial budget and Gov. James S. Gilmore III's need to trim $420 million to balance the books, should the legislature not pass a budget during its special session in late March.

"I can't remember a time when we had this many unknowns," Mr. Long said after a morning meeting with the Board of Supervisors, adding that he and County Executive Anthony H. Griffin are counting on $88.6 million in state assistance as part of next year's budget.

"It could hit us, if we have to make cuts that mean programs will have to get cuts," Mr. Long said.

Virginia provides most of the funds for the county's health and family service programs, Mr. Long said, adding that cuts to those agencies would affect the county's neediest residents.

County officials' plans also could be undercut in law enforcement and education by state budget shortfalls and Mr. Gilmore's cuts.

Mr. Long said the county is expecting $15.8 million from the state to hire more police officers and buy equipment, but the county might not get the full amount because of the budget debacle in Richmond.

"Even though they owe you something doesn't mean you get it," he said.

Mr. Griffin has proposed $1.06 billion for the county's schools $33.1 million less than the school board had asked for. A loss of state funds means the gap probably will not be closed, leaving school officials to decide how to make up the shortfall, including not hiring new teachers.

"We really don't know what the level of support for education is going to be from the state," Mr. Griffin told the county supervisors.

The county school budget is supplemented by $328.6 million from the state's education funds, which include reimbursements of the property tax.

County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross, Mason District, said Virginia probably will not provide extra money for education for a county whose student population grows by thousands each year. She suggested selling up to $140 million in school bonds $40 million more than Mr. Griffin had suggested to make up the shortfall.

Board Chairman Kate K. Hanley seemed frustrated that the state's fiscal problems could have such an impact on the county's budget.

"We could find ourselves with a budget adoption before the governor signs it," Mrs. Hanley said, referring to the schedule for passing the budget before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

If lawmakers cobble together a budget during a special session, Mr. Gilmore will have 30 days to approve or veto amendments to it, which could come after the April 30 date for Fairfax County supervisors to adopt a budget.

County Supervisor Gerald Connolly, Providence District, noted that regardless of when the state gets its financial house in order, the county should expect a "zero-percent growth in revenue."

A slowing economy adds to the state's and county's budget woes.

"All of our other sources of revenue are in trouble, except real estate [taxes]," Mr. Griffin said during a news conference after presenting his budget.

More than 90 percent of county homeowners are getting real estate assessments this week showing a change in their homes' value, with 94 percent of those receiving the statements seeing an average increase of 11.26 percent. Many taxpayers will see their bills will increase an average of $288.25.

Mr. Griffin said the county is relying too much on the real estate tax, which accounts for just over 53 percent of the county's revenue. Overall revenue is increasing by 7.45 percent.

The average levy for the personal property tax is down 5.6 percent from last year, sales tax receipts are half of what was expected, and the county is not getting as much of a return on its investments because the Federal Reserve continues to lower interest rates.

Mr. Griffin and Mr. Long said the county is in a "Catch-22" situation, since the state controls how, when and if the county can raise extra funds. "I really don't have a lot of flexibility," Mr. Griffin said.

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