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Local Leviathan

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 1.35.47 PM

In the on-line caption to your report on the alleged ‘fraying’ of Fairfax County, you assert that that “years of budget cuts are taking their toll” (“Fairfax, a model of wealthy suburban living, is starting to fray,” April 3).

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  Here’s a sample of real per-capita Fairfax County government spending over the past few decades:

1975: $2,367
1986: $2,597
2001: $4,865
2008: $6,232
2010: $5,847
2016: $6,333*

Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity.

While it might be true, as you report, that the budgets of some specific programs have been cut, it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/demogrph/fxprofile/profile_1987.pdf (page x-17)

* http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/archives/fy_2001/budget_facts.pdf

* http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/adopted/fy2008/fy08_adopted_budget_facts.htm

* http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/advertised/fy2010/fy10_advertised_budget_facts.htm

* http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/fy2016/adopted/overview/07_budget_summary.pdf

For county population up to 2010, I used:


For county population in 2016, I used: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/fy2016/adopted/overview/07_budget_summary.pdf

I adjusted for inflation using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics online CPI adjustor: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl


Keep in mind, as you ponder the above budget figures, that much government spending is for public goods the costs of which rise more slowly than does the increase in population.  For example, Parks & Recreation budgets do not have to rise by 10 percent when the population rises by 10 percent in order to maintain the same level and quality of service.



I spent far too much time searching on line for reliable Fairfax County budget figures for the 1990s.  (The unhelpful Fairfax County government archives goes back only to 2001!)  What few expenditure figures I found for the 1990s struck me as being too low – figures that likely excluded (unlike the figures I report above) expenditures funded from revenues the County government received from Uncle Sam.  But I could not verify my suspicion.  More generally, I’m shocked at how difficult it is to find on line reliable budget figures for Fairfax county for the fiscal years 1987 through 2000.  I’m sure they’re available somewhere on line, but I so far have been unable to find them.  (All this said, I’d be shocked if there is even a single year during the 1988-2000 span that belies either the general point of my letter or any specific point made within it.)