|The Washington Post
Property Owners' Burden Rising
Area Home Taxes Foot Bigger Share of Government Costs
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A01
Like many homeowners around Washington, Harry Lowcock is angry. Over the last four years, the tax bill on his Reston area home has jumped nearly $500 annually.
"What is all the money going for?" the 60-year-old translator wondered last week. "I'm not seeing it in better services. Homeowners are becoming cash cows."
He is not alone.
The spectacular boom in Washington area real estate prices over the last five years has been accompanied by staggering increases in home tax bills as many local governments have spurned significant tax cuts in favor of reaping billions more from homeowners.
Elected leaders, in announcing their annual budgets in recent weeks, often have boasted of slashing home tax rates. But a review of five years of local budgets shows that those tax-rate cuts have been far too small to offset the climb in home values, and, as a result, average tax bills in much of the region have gone up as much as 70 percent in just five years.
Those taxes are being channeled into rapidly expanding budgets for schools, police and other services, but they are not just boosting spending. They are shifting a larger share of the burden of government costs onto homeowners.
Five years ago in much of Northern Virginia, for example, home taxes paid for roughly one-third of local government spending. The rest came mostly from businesses and other sources.
This year, the share of the cost of local government borne by homeowners has grown to nearly a half.
For the average homeowner in the District and Northern Virginia, where the tax increases have been steepest, the tax bill will have jumped 60 percent or more over five years under this year's budget proposals, leaving the typical owner to pay as much as $2,000 more in annual taxes than five years ago.
In Loudoun and Arlington counties, the average tax bills have risen fastest, often more than doubling over five years, based on new rates.
In several Maryland counties, home tax assessments are capped, and the increases have generally been smaller. But in Montgomery County, the average home tax bill will have risen 37 percent over five years.
Many politicians argue that the money is well-spent. But not everyone is satisfied.
"In their gut, more and more people are wondering, 'Where is all this money going?' " said James T. Parmelee, president of a tax relief group in Fairfax County. "I think everyone has a suspicion that their money is being at least partially wasted. If tax bills have gone up 70 percent, you have to ask whether services have improved by 70 percent or whether homeowners' satisfaction has gone up 70 percent. I think the answer is, 'No way.' "
The biggest single reason for the tax increases is school spending, which is not surprising, since education has long dwarfed other items in local budgets.
The cost of educating a student has been climbing rapidly. For example, five years ago, the per-pupil cost in Loudoun County was $6,890 annually; it has jumped 49 percent, to $10,266, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education.
Likewise, Fairfax County per-pupil costs have risen 34 percent to $11,022; Montgomery County per-pupil costs have risen 42 percent to $12,108.
What is more complicated is exactly why. Part of the increase comes from rising teacher salaries, which constitute a large portion of education costs. Average salaries in that time have risen 32 percent in Loudoun, 18 percent in Fairfax and 23 percent in Montgomery. But those increases explain only part of the rising price tag per student.
Among the other reasons education officials cite are a larger proportion of students who do not speak English or who have special needs, and the demands of the "No Child Left Behind" law.
For example, over the last two years, the number of children entering Montgomery County kindergarten classes without being able to speak English has risen from 1,200 to 1,900, said Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), president of the Board of Education.
"Many more of our children live in poverty and don't speak English," O'Neill said. "You need to be able to give them more individualized attention within the classroom."
Other government expenditures are soaring as well. Budgets for public safety and parks have risen rapidly, a survey of area budgets shows. In five years, public safety budgets have risen by one-third or more across the region.
In Loudoun, for example, where rapid growth has required expensive new schools and other facilities, the public safety budget has more than doubled in five years, and the parks and recreation budget has risen 59 percent.
Loudoun, the fastest-growing county in the United States, is also facing some of the largest increases in home tax bills, which on average have more than doubled, from $1,985 five years ago to $4,196 under the new budget.
"The fact is that when you have to build school after school after school, the debt service continues to pile up," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I).
The growth in Loudoun has had other effects as well. It has been accompanied by greater prosperity, and the state has shrunk the proportion of tax dollars it gives back to the county, putting more of a burden on homeowners. The growth has also been accompanied by demands for better schools.
"What we have tried to do is have a school system that is higher quality than it has been in the past," York said.
Given the tax increases across Northern Virginia, some observers are surprised by the absence of a tax revolt.
"There is no sign of anyone storming the barricades," said David Brunori, an expert in state and local taxes who lives in Fairfax County. "I think there is a recognition that the stuff we get from the government costs money."
Moreover, many local officials argue that the increases in home taxes have been reasonable because they are making up for the lean years of the mid-'90s.
"People talk a lot about how much their bills have gone up," said George Bauer, a representative of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations in Fairfax County, who spoke in favor of the recently proposed budget. "But they forget how many years that it didn't."
The increases in recent years, however, are more than making up for lost time. Even taking into account the last 10 years of taxes and taking out the effects of inflation, average home tax bills in Fairfax County have risen about 70 percent.
"Nobody likes paying these taxes," Bauer said, "but we see it as a necessity."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company