Guest Post by Tom Whitmore
The State of the County a Factual Review of Prince William County
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors paints a rosy picture of the state of PWC. Let’s take the tinted glasses off and look from a factual perspective. Over the past decade our county has drifted into a very serious decline by most meaningful measures. Whether it is higher taxes, lower wages, lack of quality jobs, low VA DOE composite scores, out of balance commercial to residential development, high classroom populations, low SOL and SAT scores or traffic congestion to name a few, the PWBOCS has failed it’s citizenry miserably.
The Board claims our Real Estate taxes are 30% lower than the rest of NOVA. True, if you are comparing a PWC median value house of $319,000.00 against a Fairfax median value house at $500,300 or one of Arlington’s at $627,200. In reality the PWC tax rate including fire and rescue is higher at $1.22 per hundred of valuation, Fairfax is at $1.09, Arlington is at $0.996 and Loudoun and Alexandria are at $1.135 and $1.043 respectively. This claim gives a false sense of security while the county picks the citizens pockets. Additionally, this high tax rate poses a very real impediment to attracting large employers to PWC.
Most people buy as much house as they can comfortably afford in the location that is right for them and suits their requirements and priorities. A $319K home in PWC with a $3663 tax bill would be taxed $3270 in Fairfax and only $2988 in Arlington, with Loudoun and Alexandria incurring lower tax bills also. The truth is our tax rates are among the highest in the entire commonwealth.
The Board is proud of the high median household income in PWC, currently at about $95,000.00. Looking closer we find it is not a result of their efforts but rather a lack thereof, resulting in the necessity for 146,000+ of the 200,000+ workforce to commute outside of the county each day for jobs and be able to earn those higher paychecks. PWC has just over 116,000 jobs mostly service related and lower paying. Of these approx. 60, 000 are filled by commuters from other jurisdictions. The average wage in PWC is about $840 per week while the average for Virginia is at $939 per week. The other jurisdictions in NOVA are substantially higher with Fairfax at $1580, Arlington at $1669, Loudoun at $1244 and Alexandria at $1368 in weekly wages.
One may think that the Cost of Living in PWC might be lower since home prices are less, but there is only a slight difference. With the U.S. average COL index at 100.00, Arlington comes in at 137.7, Fairfax at 135.4, Loudoun at 133.6, Alexandria at 136.7 and PWC has a 132.5 COL index. This high cost of living forces many households to have two or more wage earners just to get by, which of course also helps to boost the high median household income.
A December 2014 George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis study notes that for a jurisdiction to maintain a healthy economy and be able to provide necessary core services without over burdening the residential taxpayer it must have a substantial part of its tax base in commercial properties. They state that commercial property is revenue positive as it only uses $0.35 to $0.40 in services per revenue dollar, while residential properties are revenue negative since they consume $1.20 to $1.60 in services per revenue dollar. In Arlington the commercial/residential ratio is 49.5/50.5, in Fairfax it is 21.1/78.9, in Alexandria its’ at 42.5/47.5, Loudoun is at 25.4/74.6 and PWC has a 17/83 ratio.
GMU notes that these residential numbers do not include multi-family and apartment units as most jurisdictions report them on the commercial side. To get an accurate picture of revenue positive/negative mix and demand for services they should be included with the residential properties. PWC has 95,700 single family houses, town houses and condos along with 35,000 apartment and multi-family units which represent 28% of the total housing units. This high percentage of multi-family and apartments effectively reduces PWC’s actual ratio to 14/86.
Many experts assert that a commercial to residential ratio of 30/70 or better is ideal, making it easier to fund the schools and core services. Obviously PWC falls far short of this which has resulted in higher tax rates and road congestion as citizens look outside the county for jobs.
The Board often mentions the 56.75/43.25 % revenue share arrangement with the school district as being a positive, but actually it has a negative impact on funding other core services like fire & rescue, police and public welfare. The NOVA jurisdictions with a higher percentage of commercial property are the ones with lowest revenue share percentage with the schools and the highest per pupil dollar allocations which result in lower student classroom populations and higher test scores. Arlington shares 45.9 % of revenue with the school district which equates to $17,041 per student annually, Fairfax has a 52.7 % revenue share at $ 13,519 per student, Loudoun shares 46.00 % at $ 12,195.00 per student while PWC’s 56.75 % share only yields $10, 365 per student.
No wonder PWC has the highest classroom populations, having gone from approximately 20 students to 31 students on average per class over the last decade and the lowest ACT, SOL & SAT scores in the NOVA region.
The Virginia Department of Education “ability to pay” composite score affirms the unhealthy state of PWC’s economy. Arlington has a score of .80, Fairfax is at .68, Loudoun is at .56, Alexandria comes in at .80 and PWC follows the pack with a .38 score.
The Board often speaks of the myriad road projects it has financed, yet traffic still backs up, as so many of the projects opened up new areas for more residential development which just added more traffic and additional burden on schools and services. Quite often this additional traffic has made it necessary to do improvements on existing roads to handle the increased traffic at even more expense and inconvenience to the taxpayers.
The Board is especially proud of having the only road building department in Virginia aside from VDOT. Paying for both PWC and VDOT to build roads is a very expensive proposition and not very wise. Suspending the PWC road building program and allowing VDOT to build the roads, then using the saved revenue for the schools to catch up on their building program, thereby reducing class sizes and hopefully improving test scores is the more responsible thing to do.
Building more developer friendly roads and increasing the tax base with residences while hoping to relieve school overcrowding and road congestion is akin to trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
The Citizens of Prince William County are faced with some serious decisions this election year, do they vote for more of the same failed leadership or take their chances and vote for some new and hopefully more responsible leaders? Do they vote for more roads leading to higher taxes and more congestion and school overcrowding or do they vote for more jobs and smaller classroom sizes so their kids have a chance for a bright future?