When Loudoun County Treasurer H. Roger Zurn warns members of the Board of Supervisors they could be facing historic economic declines as a results of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is speaking from decades of experience.
The county government’s longest-serving elected official, Zurn first stepped up to elected office in 1990, winning a special election to take the Sterling District seat on the Board of Supervisors, then winning re-election in the general election the next year. He was the chairman on the board’s finance committee as county worked to recover from the savings and loan collapse that sent Loudoun land values plummeting.
In that crisis, Loudoun County government had to lay off significant numbers of staff members—a far cry from the county government of today, which adds dozens of positions every year.
During his time as county treasurer, Zurn also has helped steer through the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the Great Recession, along with a couple of other economic dips along the way.
During tough economic times, Zurn and his staff on are the front lines. When people are worried about their tax bill, they can call the treasurer’s office to figure out their options. This year, his office is fielding hundreds of calls a day.
And this time, he said, he’s hearing something different in the voices of the people on the other end of the line.
“Besides the obvious, that businesses are closed, the potential for quite a few may not even being able to return, the unemployment situation—that unto itself should lead one to believe that we could be facing a difficult situation,” Zurn said. “But then, it’s talking to the business people and the individuals, and for the last four weeks we’ve really been getting a lot of calls, and I’ve been talking to a lot of people.
“I’ve never heard the fear that I’m hearing in people’s voices,” he said.
In fact, Zurn said, where in past recessions he’s heard anger from people who have seen their incomes, savings and businesses threatened, this time he’s hearing a combination of anger and fear, “and when you start hearing that, and you’re hearing it multiple times, that lends itself to being added on to the economic data that I get, and that obviously most people would read about, and so I just feel very strongly that we’ve got the potential for having a very, very difficult time.”
Zurn has repeatedly urged current county supervisors to pinch every penny that they can. They have already taken some action, such as freezing all new spending and hiring in the budget, and setting aside a $100 million reserve against the pandemic’s effects on county revenues. He said until the county government has a better idea what the impacts of the pandemic are—and they probably won’t have the total picture until 2021—the Board of Supervisors has to have the mindset that “if it’s not absolutely essential, we can’t afford to do anything right now.”
“I don’t quite see that in several of the members,” Zurn said. “They’ve been flush with cash for many years, and there’s still this mindset of, ‘if we want it, we can do it,’ and that is not the way to be doing things at this particular time. We owe it to taxpayers to conserve cash and not spend until we know where we’re at exactly.”
While people and businesses are already feeling the effects of the pandemic and accompanying business shutdowns and limitations, the county government won’t feel the effects in its revenues until the next tax collection on June 5. Zurn said that will be when there will be a sense of how many people are able to pay.
Some of that ability to pay may be exacerbated by the way assessments are conducted. Before the pandemic, real estate property values were continuing to boom in Loudoun. Month after month, the price of a house in the county grew, in a seller’s market where houses were sold with record-setting speed once listed, and with sellers getting almost every bit of the list price. The Dulles Area Association of Realtors reported that in January, Loudoun sellers were getting more than 98 percent of the list price, with houses staying on the market on average just 17 days.
Meanwhile, real estate tax bills for commercial properties are based, in part, on their income and expenses, so a busy commercial center or hotel will get a higher tax bill.
And all those assessments are as of Jan. 1—before the pandemic sent the U.S. into lockdown. That means that people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic are getting tax bills this year based on the boom times.
“We’ve heard from quite a few commercial property owners concerned about what’s happening with values,” said Commissioner of the Revenue Robert S. Wertz Jr. “The outlet mall shut down, Top Golf shut down, movie theaters are shut down, and all we can do is let them know about the Board of Equalization appeal process, and let them know that we are going to consider what happens this calendar year for 2021.”
The Board of Equalization hears appeals from property owners who feel that their property has not been fairly assessed, and has some authority within state law to increase or decrease assessments; Wertz said he is not sure whether the board will take into account the COVID-19 pandemic in appeals this year.
Zurn said the county government will get a signal of how bad things are with the personal property and real estate tax collections on June 5, already an extended deadline. So far, he said, his office has already set up 41 payment plans.
He urged people who are worried they may not be able to make that payment to contact his office. Find contact and other information about the treasurer at loudoun.gov/treasurer.