A contingent of nine volunteer firefighters showed up at Vienna Town Hall Monday night for a public hearing on the town’s annual budget. The firefighters asked the Town Council to make a $600,000 donation, broken into three annual payments of $200,000, toward the renovation of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department.
At the end of the night, though, council members decided to donate the same amount of money originally proposed in the draft town budget: $10,000.
Firefighters said the interior of the firehouse is aging and renovations will cost around $2.5 million. Volunteer fire department staff are negotiating with the Fairfax County government to secure a $1.5 million bond toward the renovation.
But Town Council members voted 5 to 2 to keep the real estate tax at 28.5 cents per every $100 of assessed property value, as proposed in their draft budget. To generate the first $200,000 installment, as requested by the Fire Department, the council would have needed to raise the real estate tax rate by a full cent, up to 29.5 cents. Robert McCormick was the only council member in favor of the 29.5 cent tax rate, but others endorsed a half-cent increase, up to 29 cents, which would generate $100,000 toward the fire department. Council member Maud Robinson pointed out that increasing the tax rate by a half cent would cost the average Vienna household just $14.50 over the next year.
"I honestly think that if you went house to house in Vienna, and explained the issues, no one would have a problem donating $14.50," Robinson said.
ULTIMATELY, THOUGH, Robinson voted to keep the tax rate at 28.5 cents because she did not feel comfortable changing the rate after it had already been publicized in local papers. Town Manager John Schoeberlein originally set the tax rate at 29 cents, but the Town Council pushed the rate down the 28.5 cents after removing a special trash pickup program, which would have cost just over $100,000. Changing the tax rate by one half cent would either add or subtract $102,394 from town revenues.
"This is painful to me," Robinson said, after the vote. "But I feel if we published the [real estate tax rate] at 28.5 cents, we can’t go back."
McCormick and Vienna Mayor Jane Seeman cast the only two votes against the 28.5 cent rate.
Council member Steven Briglia said the discussion over the Fire Department donation was coming at the "11th hour." He considered the fire station renovation a capital improvement project, similar to projects at town facilities like the Town Hall or the Community Center, both of which have come up for renovation in recent years.
"We planned those projects in advance," Briglia said, referring to both the Town Hall and Community Center. "One of the reasons we haven’t had fiscal problems is that we plan things out."
Briglia also pointed out that the fire department has still not secured the $1.5 million bond from the county. Fire department volunteers are currently working with the county to include the renovation money on a bond referendum, coming up in six to eight months. Assuming the bond passes, it is not certain when the actual money would be delivered, Briglia said. He said there are some Fairfax County bonds, granted in 1999, that are still outstanding. Fire department officials said they would like to solicit bids for the renovation next spring, but Briglia said that plan may be overly optimistic.
"I have no problem figuring out a way to give the fire department money," Briglia said. "But I don’t think this is the way to do it."
FIRE DEPARTMENT president Howard Springsteen was disappointed by the council's decision. Built in 1953, the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department is the oldest fire department in Fairfax County. There have been two renovations to the building, but the last one came between 15 and 20 years ago. Springsteen said there is no private office space at the station, where supervisors can deal with employees. There is no training room at the station, and no weight room.
"The bunk rooms are very small," Springsteen said. "People are packed in there. There is no sense of privacy. And the women's bunk room is substandard. They're still living how they lived in 1950."
Paid Fairfax County firefighters work out of the station while volunteers provide support services, and handle fundraising for the station. Springsteen, and other volunteers, have asked the council for additional donations multiple times over the last few years. But the town has not raised its donation any higher than $10,000, the same annual donation that has been in place for at least 15 years, according to Springsteen.
"We see this as a partnership between [the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department], the county and the town," Springsteen said. "The town wants to give us lip service, but their deeds speak for them."