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Think back to last spring, at the height of the initial pandemic pandemonium, when nobody could really be sure if the floor was going to fall out of the local economy.
Anybody remember the reaction of Arlington County Board members? They decided, upon adoption of the fiscal 2021 budget lo those months back, to maintain the real-estate tax rate where it was ($1.026 per $100 assessed value) rather than lower it in an effort to mitigate higher home-value assessments.
(The 2020 board chair, Libby Garvey, intoned back then that the reason the county government felt justified in taking more in taxes was because it would be a better steward of the moolah than the property owners themselves. We paraphrase heavily, but that’s the gist. Any wonder she didn’t get the Sun Gazette endorsement last November?)
The calendar has turned, 2021 has arrived, and given the strength of the local homes market, residential assessments are up even higher in 2021 than they were in 2020. The average is an increase of 5.6 percent, but we know people whose assessments rose 8, 9, 10 percent.
We’re not being critical of the assessment process, as it’s supposed to reflect reality. It usually does.
Rather, we’re sounding the alarm that homeowners are likely to get hosed, to use an inelegant phrase, in the upcoming budget season.
Because the commercial side of the ledger has seen declines in total assessed value, largely due to the freefall in hotel valuations, county-government officials either will have to restrain their spending or, alternately, raise tax rates. As we pointed out in news coverage last week, rising assessments coupled with a higher tax rate will lead to a double-whammy hitting homeowners.
Because we’re benevolent despots, we gave new-for-2021 County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti the opportunity to rule out, in advance, a 2021 tax-rate hike. He declined; perhaps board members are awaiting their marching orders from government staff before staking out a position. But never say we didn’t try.
And independent voices largely have fallen silent in recent years. The government’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission effectively has been gelded; the Arlington County Civic Federation is trying to keep up but is not the budget-watching powerhouse it once was; the Arlington County Taxpayers Association effectively died with its leader, Tim Wise; and serious budget discussions almost never even come up within the intra-Democratic nomination contests that determine who will hold elected office.
And so, we’re doubtful County Board members these days put the needs of the home-owning residents of Arlington anywhere near the top of their list of concerns. Instead, Arlington’s increasing urbanization-cum-densification is leading to a raft of ancillary costs, with few plans in place to address (or even attempt to tally) them, and the increasing tax burden threatens to turn Arlington into an enclave of the wealthy with those who effectively hit the lottery and garner some subsidized affordable housing.
Who gets the shaft? Largely it’s those in the middle class, some working and some retired, who tenaciously have tried to hold on despite being increasingly priced out of Arlington due to the profligacy of local government.