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A New England Town Meeting In G.W.'s Backyard

Supervisor Hyland takes citizens on virtual bus tour of district

Jackie Gleason, aka Ralph Kramden, the hapless bus driver of The Honeymooners?

No. It was Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland loading his "bus" for a virtual tour of those areas of Fairfax County along the Richmond Highway corridor and nearby environs that are experiencing or are most subject to new development and change.

After exchanging his formal suit jacket for a black windbreaker and matching cap, Hyland verbally gathered up his audience packed into Mount Vernon High School's Little Theater and treated them to his version of a New England Town Meeting.

"Pulling out" at 9:15 a.m., the tour, with Hyland narrating the sights, opened his 15th Annual Town Meeting on Jan. 26. Prior to "boarding," Hyland recognized previous participants who had died in the last year, placing particular emphasis on those from his Mount Vernon District who were victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.

In explaining the impetus for the citizen gathering, Hyland noted that as a child in New England he attended such meetings where all governing decisions were made by the citizenry. When he was elected supervisor he determined this was a good way to encourage citizen participation even though they can not have a direct vote on issues before the Board.

He noted that the Mount Vernon District has grown significantly due to recent redistricting and that a satellite office will open in the Lorton area. He then "drove" the audience through a series of district topical areas as he explained the status, changes and plans associated with each.

As a warm-up to the Town Meeting, citizens had an hour to visit with more than 50 exhibitors, representing Fairfax County agencies, non-profit organizations, public utilities and transportation initiatives, public safety and a host of others involved with organizations that impact their daily lives.

Some of Hyland's virtual tour highlights were:

* The announced KMart bankruptcy reorganization presents an opportunity to acquire some very desirable sites for planned use development. The most visible being King's Crossing, a mixed-use project to serve as the focal point for a new Community Business Center.

* The recent sale of Thieves Market antique mall. All vendors must vacate by spring. Future use is unknown at this time.

* The possible conversion of the IMP building to a hotel and conference center.

* The transfer of 2,300 acres of the former Lorton Prison to Fairfax County by the end of June. "We will then decide how to use it, but it will not be developed," Hyland assured. He noted this will increase the county's parkland to approximately 23,000 acres.

* The conversion of Meadowood Farm to open space under the control of the U.S.Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, as of October 2001. The management plan for the site is to be completed by late summer.

* The need to raise nearly $90 million to fund the new U.S. Army Museum scheduled to be located at Fort Belvoir. Hyland has been named to the board of that project to aid in those fund raising efforts.

* The addition of a new visitor's center at Mount Vernon Estate and the making of a new movie portraying the history and development of the estate by Steve Spielberg. He also emphasized that "there will be no bypass around the estate."

* The restored Grist Mill, near the intersection of Route 235 and Route 1, will operate again with a distillery.

* A comprehensive transportation study is underway for Richmond Highway corridor, both to expand the number of lanes and to consider improved mass transportation possibilities. But, Hyland noted, this has been severely impacted by the state's budget crunch.

ROUGH FISCAL YEAR AHEAD

At the conclusion of the "tour," Hyland turned the podium over to Kate Hanley, Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who reviewed county activities throughout 2001. She warned that 2002 "will be a tough budget year for Fairfax County."

She attributed this to the fact that, "Local government does not access income, it is highly dependent on personal property taxes such as real estate and the car tax." Hanley noted that, "While Fairfax County has only 20 percent of the state's population it contributes 40 percent of the state income tax revenue."

But she pointed out that, "The increase in spending for defense and homeland security will benefit the area." In line with homeland security, Hanley explained that the county is expanding its chemical detection capabilities.

Following Hanley to the microphone was Anthony Griffin, county executive, who began his presentation by announcing that, "The status of county revenues is minus $12.9 million."

The primary causes of this, according to Griffin, are a negative change in the Transit Occupancy Tax from a plus eight percent to a minus one percent and a drop in Sales Tax revenue from $146 million to $130 million, a negative change of 6.5 percent.

On the plus side, Griffin noted the personal property tax income is up $19.3 million. He attributed this to the increase in automobile sales at the end of the year triggered by the "no interest" sales incentives of the manufacturers.

He also noted that the county's income from interest on investments was the lowest in the last 39 years. "It was estimated to come in at 2.5 percent but only reached 1.6 percent," he said.

In order to tighten county government's belt, Griffin said,"All county agencies have been advised to cut expenditures by five percent." The only exceptions are those dealing with public safety, health and human services.

"We do not expect any significant impact on county services or any layoffs," he assured. "But we will have an ongoing review of the budget."

NO RECESSION — JUST SLOWER GROWTH

Griffin then deferred to Edward L. Long, Jr., the county's chief financial officer, who presented an indepth budget overview of fiscal 2002-2003. He immediately assured the citizens, "Fairfax County is not in a recession."

But he did concede, "Fairfax is slowing, but not going negative. Things are down but we're still growing." He predicted, "Revenue in 2003 will be up by approximately 6.5 percent."

Long based this on a study showing countywide jobs to increase by nearly 79,000 due to the ripple effect from Sept. 11. The new budget is scheduled to be released on Feb. 25 with adoption set for April 29.

As the county's CFO, Long viewed the ever increasing escalation of the county's dependence on real estate tax revenue as "not good." He noted that real estate valuation assessments have risen 11.8 percent while all other revenue sources have increased only 0.6 percent. At the same time, he explained, "New residential permits are down 1.4 percent."

Hyland next introduced Col. Kurt Weaver, Garrison Commander, Fort Belvoir. His presentation drew the most audience questions, triggered by the closing of Woodlawn and Beulah roads as a result of increased base security stemming from Sept. 11.

Col. Weaver began his presentation by thanking the community at large for "their support during and after Sept. 11." He noted that on that date, "Fort Belvoir was actually in the midst of a training exercise pertaining to terrorism and potential attacks."

NO OPTIONS OFF THE TABLE

As for the closing of the two roadways, Col. Weaver said, "My first obligation is to the safety of the base and its people. We do not see much change in our force protection posture in the near future."

But, in answer to a question posed by Hyland, noting that the state has an easement for Woodland Road, and asking if other options were possible, Weaver said, "There are no options that are off the table.

"I took the action to close the road after Sept. 11. We have to assess how to open it. But opening it to unrestricted access is incompatible with our security concerns."

In a latter presentation by Captains Shawn Barrett and Jim Morris, Commanders Mount Vernon and Franconia Police Stations, it was explained that "accidents have increased since Sept. 11, due to the change in traffic patterns." This was tragically emphasized less than 24 hours later with two fatal accidents, claiming five lives on Route 1 near Fort Belvoir.

Morris explained that, "If an accident occurs near Fort Belvoir during peak traffic hours, I have no way to reroute traffic south" due to the road closures.

Additional traffic problems, particularly those pertaining to the Richmond Highway corridor, were the subject of Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman's presentation. "Transit is vital for Richmond Highway development, but the first priority must be service to the citizens," he emphasized.

The aftermath of Sept. 11 was further spotlighted by Barrett and Morris when they directed the audience's attention to the fact that the entire area has, "an increased police presence designed to deter terrorist planning."

MANPOWER IS THE PROBLEM

A primary challenge, according to the police representatives, is manpower. "Fairfax County ranked fourteenth nationally in population according to the last census, but has one half the number of police officers per population compared with many other similar jurisdictions," they noted.

Since Sept. 11, the workload has increased significantly, according to Barrett and Morris. As an example they cited the fact that there were 916 anthrax alerts but zero cases reported.

Closing out the two hour forum were comments by Dr. Daniel Domenech, Superintendent of Fairfax County Schools, and Isis Castro, School Board member. They both emphasized the greatest challenge to the schools was money.

BEING SHORT CHANGED BY THE STATE

"Our biggest challenge is getting the funds we need from the state," Isis said. This was buttressed by Domenech when he noted, "By the time we're done with budgeting this year we will face an $80 million deficit. We have a $40 million loss of income from the state."

He also cited the fact that, "Over the past three years we have poured over $20 million into the resources of the Mount Vernon School District. And we intend to do more."

Domenech went on to explain, "There are nine Project Excels operating in the Mount Vernon District. This is full day kindergarten and we know from experience it pays off. We are putting between $300,000 and $400,000 additional resources per year into the secondary level.

"Some of the schools showing the highest growth in the county are located in the Mount Vernon District." In order to meet that demand, Domenech cited a hoped for experiment which partners business and schools.

Known as satellite learning centers, the proposal calls for businesses to supply facilities while schools supply the staff. "Kids would learn where their parents work," Domenech explained.

When he was asked if the schools had given any thought to charging for extra curricular activities not tied to basic educational aims, he answered that they already do that in many cases. But he also warned that there was a bill recently introduced in the State Legislature to prevent schools from making any extra charges.

"If this passes, the fiscal crisis will be dramatically increased," he insisted, urging those present to lobby for its defeat. He also backed the need for a referendum to increase the sales tax to help fund education.

With all the emphasis on budgetary matters, and particularly as that applied to the education and transportation needs of the county and district, Hyland's remarks about the benefits of tourism took on added impact by the conclusion of the meeting.

In his explanation relative to the proposed Army Museum, Hyland had noted, "Tourism is the best business for Fairfax County. People come, they stay, they spend their money, they go home. And we don't have to educate their kids."