A committee trying to figure out how to address Fairfax County’s construction and maintenance backlog for schools and other public facilities is considering new taxes to help meet the county’s needs.
Because the county has limited taxing authority granted by the state, there are few options for bringing in additional revenue, county finance staff told the Infrastructure Financing Committee Wednesday.
“If this were easy, someone would have done it a long time ago,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), co-chair of the committee.
The committee is considering the merits of a meals tax — a tax on prepared foods and drinks at commercial establishments, according to the Fairfax County website — which would generate $22 million to $88 million per year depending on the rate, but would have to be enacted by voter referendum.
Fairfax County last had a voter referendum on a meals tax in April 1992, and the measure was defeated with 58 percent of voters rejecting the option.
More recently, some localities in Virginia have successfully passed meals taxes at the ballot box, said Martha Reed of the county’s Department of Management and Budget.
This November, voters in Henrico and Middlesex counties approved meals tax referenda while voters in Chesterfield County rejected the proposal there.
County supervisors say they are reluctant to push ahead with a meals tax unless they are confident that the measure will be supported by the business community. They have begun discussing the subject with business leaders participating in the county’s Economic Advisory Council.
Another possible way of funding some infrastructure needs is through a dedicated portion of the real estate tax. Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) suggested that the county could create a service district, like it recently did to raise funds for water quality projects, to dedicate money to repairing school buildings.
The idea is that if the schools had a different source of revenue for major maintenance like replacing roofs, it could free up some additional bond money for new construction. One penny on the real estate tax rate equates to about $20 million per year, although that amount varies from year to year as home assessments change.
While raising taxes is never popular, Foust said it should at least be put forward to the public and the Board of Supervisors as an option.
“I don’t think you could sit through these meetings and think that there is a way to solve this without more money for infrastructure,” Foust said. “I think it should be put in front of our boards as an option.”
The Infrastructure Financing Committee, which has been meeting since April, has identified about $150 to $200 million per year in county needed maintenance and construction of county buildings and more than $300 million per year in needs for the school system in order to begin catching up on delayed projects.
The committee is also considering a slate of other strategies for addressing the backlog, like setting up a fund to set aside some of the money left over at the end of each fiscal year for future maintenance and construction needs and even trying to recruit private donors to help fund construction or renovation projects.
The committee is proposing a series of public meetings next year to educate the community about the needs and to get input about solutions that might be acceptable to county residents.