The state budget, education and transportation were the hot topics Monday night during Supervisor Michael R. Frey's (R-Sully) annual "State of the Sully District" address.
He spoke during the quarterly meeting of the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) and, besides the panel and local residents, also present were Sully District Planning Commissioner Ron Koch and Sully District Transportation Commissioner Dick Frank.
"The main issues can be summed up in three words — 'money, money, money,'" said Frey. "At this point, everything is focused on Richmond. Right now, the [state] budget is about $1 billion short, this fiscal year, which means a $2 billion shortfall [for next fiscal year] because you've only got six months to fill the hole."
He said shortfall estimates range from $2 billion over the next two years to $6 billion over the next four years. Said Frey: "One thing is clear — cuts will have to be made."
As a result, he said, schools could lose as much as $36 million in state funding in the next fiscal year. "So that'll put a lot of pressure on the [county] supervisors to keep them whole," he said. "The superintendent [Daniel A. Domenech] asked for a 13-percent increase."
The good news, said Frey, is that, unlike most jurisdictions within the state, Fairfax County's revenues are actually going up because they're based on property taxes. "But the bad news is that it's on the backs of the homeowners," he said. "So they can anticipate another double-digit property-assessment increase. It'll be the third time [in recent years] for some, and the fourth time for others."
He said the county School Board should adopt its proposed budget in February, and then the county executive will release his proposed budget. Several work sessions will follow; then, the first week in April, public hearings on the budget will be held. The budget is scheduled for adoption, the third week in April.
Another major issue to be tackled by the General Assembly, said Frey, is a possible sales-tax increase. He said legislators will have to determine whether there'll be a vote to allow a referendum to increase the state sales tax to raise money for transportation alone or for both transportation and education.
"If it's for education, the issue will be, is it for capital-improvement only, or can it also be used for operating funds?" he explained. "The FEA [Fairfax Education Association] is supportive of that approach." And even sales-tax money won't solve local education problems, he warned: "We will still see school-bond referendums every two years."
If the money goes toward transportation, said Frey, that issue, too, raises many questions: Does a transportation referendum have to pass by a simple majority of people voting overall, or by a majority in each locality? And where does the money then go?
"If it goes to the Regional Transportation Authority [that Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-37th) wanted to create], who are they?" asked Frey. "It doesn't [yet] exist; it'll require engineers and planners."
The options, he said, include sending the money raised to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and making sure it comes back to Northern Virginia and to the jurisdictions in which it was raised. Another possibility is for Fairfax County to "get back into the road-building business," said Frey. "[But] if we do, we've got to staff-up, too."
He said a sales-tax increase could be divvied-up various ways: A half-cent increase statewide for education; a half-cent for Northern Virginia transportation only; or a half-cent local option, statewide, for either education or transportation.
"And does it go back to the jurisdiction that raised the money, or is it based on population?" asked Frey. As it is, he said, Fairfax County already lost some money when the Virginia Association of School Boards voted to spread "cost-of-competition" money equally across the state. Funds from this pot provide supplemental dollars for state employees and are added to the school budget for teachers' salaries.
He also noted that "disparity" lawsuits have already been filed, challenging Virginia's allocation of state dollars to school systems. Some contend that, since Northern Virginia is more affluent, it can devote more of its tax money to its local schools. Said Frey: "The suits say that [the current, state school-funding formula] creates a disparity in education in other [poorer] areas which [deserve] more state dollars."
Noting that Gov. Mark Warner said he'll sign a tax-referendum bill, Frey said it "certainly promises to be an interesting [legislative] session. In the past, he said, growth-management was a big priority in many areas. But it isn't such an issue now, he said, "when unemployment is going up and there are less people on the roads."
In other matters, Frey said the Area Plan Review process is now underway and the Planning Commission will begin holding public hearings next month on local land parcels proposed for some sort of change, such as a rezoning.
"Now that Centreville Farms has been resolved, a lot of it [deals with] individual parcels," said Frey. "We've had a busy couple decades of growth — a slowdown certainly wouldn't hurt, this year, and would be good for the stabilization of the school population."
He also touched on two major transportation issues — I-66 and the Route 28 Corridor. He said public meetings start this week on the I-66 Environmental Impact Study and the process will take about three years. The prior Major Investment Study regarding I-66 recommended four continuous lanes from the Beltway to Gainesville, barrier-separated HOV lanes and rail from Vienna to Centreville.
As for Route 28, Frey said Shirley/Clark has been negotiating a contract since September with VDOT for the public/private partnership for the improvement of Route 28. The project will result in four lanes in each direction of Route 28, plus the construction of 10 interchanges.
But some issues remain to be ironed out. One is the language of the contract, since it must be signed with the Boards of Supervisors in both Fairfax and Loudoun counties. The other has to do with air quality.
"The entire region is at risk for not being in conformity with [federal] air-quality standards," said Frey. "If we don't meet compliance by 2004-05, there'll be a freeze on all road-construction projects. Right now, we have the go-ahead for the first six interchanges — three in each county, but not the additional lane in each direction."
The first three interchanges to be built will be at Westfields Boulevard, McLearen Road and Barnesfield Road — which will lead to the National Air and Space Museum Annex which will open in Chantilly in December 2003. Frey noted that both the museum and the Sully District rec center are both on schedule. He said rec-center construction should start in late 2002-early 2003, with the facility opening in June 2004.
He also noted that the Sully District Police Station should be completed before Christmas. It will also contain a new office for the Sully supervisor, plus space for the Area Agency on Aging and community recreation services for local youth.
During questions from the community, Frey heard complaints about Cox Cable and its service, as well as its continued lack of cable service, at all, to several areas of western Fairfax County — especially Bull Run Estates. Resident Judy Heisinger asked Frey if cable TV could be available at the new police station, and he said it was a good idea and he'd check into it. Said Heisinger: "If we can't get it at home, we should at least be able to get it somewhere."