It didn’t come without a healthy dose of wrangling over parliamentary procedure, but the Arlington County Civic Federation on April 7 backed County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s $1.15 billion budget proposal, and called on County Board members not to raise the real estate tax rate to pay for projects not included in the manager’s spending plan.
The 22-15 vote was a victory of the federation’s conservative revenues and expenditures committee, which had unanimously recommended keeping the tax rate at 99.6 cents per $100 assessed valuation. That’s lower than the $1.011-per-$100 rate advertised earlier in the budget season by County Board members.
The committee recommendation, adopted by the full body, asks County Board members to lower the tax rate if possible, but gives no guidance on how to go about doing it.
The County Board is set to vote on the government’s fiscal 2016 budget, and set tax rates, on April 18.
Committee members said the county government had accumulated plentiful surpluses and had hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, so it didn’t need more money from strapped homeowners.
Burt Bostick, acting chairman of the committee, said that when County Board members in 2014 ignored a Civic Federation resolution calling for lowering the tax rate, the county government ended up with a “huge” surplus borne on the backs of residents who are still facing lingering effects of the recession.
The request to lower the tax rate appears to be a non-starter. Even if the County Board accepts the recommendation for no change in the tax rate – which is far from a sure bet – Arlington homeowners will be reaching deeper into their pockets this year. Because of rising home assessments, the average tax bill on residential property would rise $270, the highest jump in nine years, to $5,775. If the $1.011 rate is adopted, the average tax bill will rise $333 to $5,838.
(The figure for the average bill includes all types of residential properties, including attached homes and condominiums. Owners of single-family homes usually pay more due to higher assessments.)
Not everyone was supportive of keeping the tax rate where it is. Several delegates pressed to raise it.
Among them was Gerry Collins, head of the Arlington Education Association, who said it wasn’t absolutely necessary to take the rate as high as the County Board advertised.
“A half-cent increase in the tax rate would go a long way” to providing adequate funding to Arlington’s schools, Collins said.
“Not all the way, but a long way,” he said.
Civic Federation delegate Bill Braswell pointed to a gap in school funding and public-safety needs in his support for raising the tax rate.
“The electorate will support the things we want,” he said. “That’s the kind of county we are.”
Kathryn Scruggs, who represents the Alliance for Housing Solutions, also argued for a higher tax rate, raising a litany of items that had been sought by interest groups but were not included in Donnellan’s budget.
“I see a lot of unmet needs,” she said.
“Every year, there are a number of unmet needs,” Bostwick shot back. Many of them end up getting funded from the government’s accumulated surplus funds, he said.
When it comes to school funding, Bostwick said there’s nothing preventing the county government to shift funds around to provide more for education. “Let the county manager and the School Board work that out,” he said.
What would a Civic Federation meeting be without battles over Robert’s Rules of Order? After an amendment to strip out specific wording in the resolution failed on an 18-18 tie vote via a show of hands, a delegate demanded a “division” – which required delegates to stand to cast their votes.
(“And I thought it was going to be an easy night,” deadpanned Civic Federation president Michael McMenamin.)
Apparently several delegates were not amused by the procedural maneuver: The second time around, with delegates standing rather than raising hands, more people voted against the amendment than had the first time.
Then a second amendment, along similar lines as the first, went down in flames on a 29-2 vote before the resolution from the revenues and expenditures committee was adopted in its original form.
While there are serious rifts among delegates about the appropriate level of municipal spending, Civic Federation delegates usually have sided with those urging restraint in both the total dollars spent and the impact on homeowners.
Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association and a member of the revenues and expenditures committee, said the county government needs to dig deep and evaluate why it spends what it does.
A top-to-bottom review could benefit both the government and taxpayers, he said.
“Arlington County by and large – not every case, but by and large – is a high-cost provider of services,” Wise said. “Only when you get down in the weeds . . . will you find the information you’re looking for.”
Since 2005, the average residential real estate tax bill has grown from $4,023 to $5,505 – an increase of 36.8 percent. Only one of those years has the average tax bill gone down (declining $35 in 2007); all other years it has risen, in amounts ranging from $50 to $409.
While the county government operates on a July-to-June fiscal budget, real estate taxes are paid on a calendar-year basis. The tax rate adopted April 18 will be retroactive to Jan. 1, with tax bills being payable in equal installments in June and October.