Fairfax County mulls city status benefits

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Fairfax officials say the county doesn’t get enough respect or transportation dollars.  So the board of supervisors now is investigating the idea of transforming the state’s largest county into a city.

“We’re already doing everything else that a city does,” says Sharon Bulova, the board’s chairman. She points to the county’s population of 1 million-plus residents, its large business base and the fact that Fairfax is rezoning some commercial areas for mixed-use, transit-oriented developments. “We’re much more in line with an urban area than a rural, agrarian area, which is what being a county connotes,” Bulova says.

County status means that Fairfax County gets short shrift from Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) funding, which relies on state taxes to pay for road programs. Under Virginia law, cities and towns receive a higher percentage of the VDOT budget than counties do.

Bulova says that for every dollar Fairfax County sends to Richmond, it only gets 19 cents back in transportation benefits. The result, she says, is inadequate road building, maintenance and mowing, and a general deterioration of the county’s transportation infrastructure. “If you look at the medians, some roads in Fairfax County look like cow pastures,” Bulova states. “We’re very unhappy.”

City status would give Fairfax officials more leeway in raising revenues by adding a meals tax and increasing taxes on cigarettes and lodging. The move also could boost Fairfax’s stature. “Right now, before potential businesses learn about Fairfax County, they immediately assume that we are a rural area,” Bulova explains. “We’ve obviously been able to bring a lot of businesses here, but first we have to get over the hurdle of defining who we are and explaining what we are.”

Going from county to city will not be an easy journey. The county will have to petition a circuit court for permission, create a new charter and put it to a vote in a county-wide referendum. If voters approve the referendum, the county must get the General Assembly to change its status. “They could approve the charter, reject it or change it,” says Bulova. “So there is some risk.”

If the General Assembly approved a charter turning Fairfax County into a city, the next major hurdle would be funding. Because city status would make Fairfax eligible for a larger share of the transportation pie, the General Assembly would face the challenge of reallocating money. That could mean taking transportation dollars from other areas of the state, getting the money from another area of the budget or raising taxes.

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