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Casino bill appears to help state more than Fairfax County, supervisors say

The Board of Supervisors legislative committee discusses the proposed Fairfax County casino bill at a meeting on Jan. 26 (via Fairfax County)

Updated at 10:40 a.m. on 2/1/2024The bill to make Fairfax County eligible for a casino has been assigned to the Virginia Senate Finance and Appropriations’ resources subcommittee, which is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. today (Thursday).

Earlier: Local opposition to the prospect of a casino in Fairfax County continues to escalate.

Though they stopped short of officially denouncing it, county supervisors expressed skepticism of the bill being debated in the Virginia State Senate and aired frustrations about not being consulted about the potential development at a legislative committee meeting on Friday (Jan. 26).

In a letter generally supported by his fellow board members, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay noted that the county, on principle, doesn’t usually oppose legislation that supports local authority, but this is one authority it didn’t request — unlike the cities currently eligible for a casino.

“I think what our focus needs to be on at this point in time is reminding folks we didn’t ask for this. This concept was derived in a vacuum,” McKay said at the committee meeting. “I saw the bill only after the General Assembly began their session, and we need to protect ourselves in the event this bill is approved by making sure that we put out there what our concerns are on this.”

Sent to House of Delegates Speaker Del. Don Scott and the Senate and House majority and minority leaders, the letter highlights a lack of engagement with county officials and the community by “stakeholders and the patron of this legislation.” Senate Bill 675 was filed by state Sen. Dave Marsden, who has confirmed that the developer Comstock proposed the casino, first in Reston and now in Tysons.

It also questions whether a casino would actually boost local commercial tax revenues as Marsden and other proponents have suggested.

Virginia taxes casino operators at a rate of 18 to 30%, depending on how much they make. That money goes into a Gaming Proceeds Fund run by the state treasury, which gives the equivalent of a 6-8% tax to each host locality. That means over 70% of the gaming tax revenue would go to the state, not Fairfax County, according to McKay.

“It’s a really bad financial deal,” McKay said, likening the revenue split to a school funding formula that county leaders argue shortchanges localities. “…We get hosed, we are the state’s ATM, and the financial model here at a minimum would have to improve dramatically before I would consider any referendum as a result of this bill.”

The four Virginia localities that have approved casinos — Portsmouth, Danville, Bristol and Norfolk — “were literally bankrupt” and in need of new revenue and an economic revitalization, McKay said. Petersburg, which might replace Richmond as a host city after the voters in the state capital rejected a casino referendum twice, has similarly struggled.

In contrast, Tysons continues “to thrive,” McKay’s letter says, despite the impact of the pandemic and remote work on offices. The area even has an emerging “entertainment district” in Capital One Center with a concert venue and hotel — facilities reportedly included in the casino development.

Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn shared a map of where a casino could be located in Tysons based on criteria in Senate Bill 675 (courtesy Hunter Mill District Office)

While more arts and convention space “is very much needed” in Tysons, the county’s lack of involvement in the casino talks and the revenue-sharing arrangement are concerns, said Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik, who represents most of Tysons.

Stressing that her office hasn’t seen any development plan, she praised the “balanced approach” of McKay’s letter, which doesn’t take a stance on Marsden’s bill but notes that “in its current form [it’s] likely to result in strong community opposition to a future referendum.”

“I think it’s especially become clear that senators are willing to go to Richmond and pass legislation without our input, so I want to be cautious about how we react,” Palchik said. “…I think it’s prudent for us, rather than be reactionary, to get our questions answered and be part of the process and at the table.”

Supervisors Kathy Smith (Sully), Walter Alcorn (Hunter Mill), Rodney Lusk (Franconia) and Jimmy Bierman (Dranesville) indicated that they oppose a casino in Fairfax County, since they can’t imagine one being needed or welcomed in their districts.

Though Marsden has identified a former Aston Martin and Bentley dealership near the Spring Hill Metro station as Comstock’s target site, Alcorn shared a map showing that “dozens of locations” in Tysons, including parts of his district, would be eligible under the criteria in the proposed bill.

Since publicly stating that a Silver Line casino doesn’t seem like a good idea in a newsletter on Thursday (Jan. 25), Bierman said he received 66 emails in opposition and one pro-casino text message from a constituent who admitted he represents Comstock.

“I’m hearing uniform opposition to the bill from my constituents,” Bierman said.

Resident and civic groups that have officially opposed a casino — in some cases before Marsden even filed his bill — include Reston Association, the McLean Citizens Association, the Great Falls Citizens Association, and a joint land use committee of the Sully District Council of Citizens Associations and the West Fairfax County Citizens Association.

The concept has also gotten a thumbs down from the Vienna Town Council and the state senators who reprsent Reston and Tysons, respectively, Jennifer Boysko (D-38) and Saddam Azlan Salim (D-37).

While open to the county getting the authority to allow a casino in the future, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck called the existing legislation and process “flawed” and “a total distraction” from the top issues facing Virginia, particularly its under-funding of public schools, per last year’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report.

According to county staff, Fairfax County Public Schools would receive “substantially less” funding under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed state budget, which expands sales taxes to mitigate the recent end of the state grocery tax. A Roanoke senator has suggested eliminating the local grocery tax as well.

“The state has a $2 billion surplus, and they’re not spending it on education,” Storck said. “They’re spending it on other ways to get more money out of Fairfax County and area residents.”

The casino bill was referred last week to the senate’s finance committee. It was expected to be heard by an Economic Development & Natural Resources Subcommittee chaired by Marsden, but the bill wasn’t on the upcoming docket for this afternoon (Monday).

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