Last spring, the Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga noted that some of America's most prosperous counties were in financial distress, largely due to unsustainable pension and health benefits lavished on employees. Even New York's Nassau County, one of the richest in the nation, was a "financial wreck ... thanks to staggering employee bills," he wrote, warning about a "new era of paying more for local government and getting less, in which even prosperity feels like austerity."
That new era has already begun in Fairfax County, which is projecting a massive $274.3 million budget shortfall over the next two years. True to form, taxpayers will once again be asked to make up the difference.
At a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board last November, Fairfax officials admitted the county is experiencing a "slow recovery" and that possible federal sequestration cuts pose a major risk to its bottom line. Yet the proposed budget increases spending 5.3 percent in fiscal 2014 and 4.6 percent in fiscal 2015. That includes a 5 percent increase in the $2.3 billion school budget both years ($84.2 million and $88.4 million), which all by itself is more than the total increase in revenue projected for the entire county ($82.2 million and $71.2 million, respectively).
In October 2011, when she was running for re-election, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova wrote to the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance: "I am confident that we will maintain our stellar record of closing shortfalls, keeping tax bills steady, and meeting rising demand for services for many years to come." Fifteen months later, the FCTA accuses Bulova of "trying to raise annual taxes by $300 million to cover a $3 billion shortfall in the county's $8.1 billion 10-year transportation plan."
The FCTA calculates that the typical Fairfax County homeowner who paid $2,407 in annual property taxes in 2000 would now be paying $3,482 instead of the current $4,913 if tax hikes had been limited to the rate of inflation.
What have taxpayers gotten in return for $120 extra per month? Housing subsidies for people making up to $120,000 per year. Children still being taught in nearly 900 "temporary" trailers. Increased traffic congestion. More parking restrictions. Reductions in programs to help the mentally ill and homeless. Higher commercial vacancy rates, now up to 17 percent in Tysons Corner.
In other words, a new era of paying more and getting less.