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Restonians Decry Social Service Cuts

Residents split over raising taxes to pay for services.

The state's record of mental health funding has emerged as one of the chief concerns of citizens who have testified in recent weeks before Northern Virginia members of the General Assembly. That pattern did not change Saturday as about 50 people attended a public hearing at the Reston Community Center before state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Del. Ken Plum (D-36).

MANY OF THE SPEAKERS said they were worried about a plan put forward by Gov. Mark Warner (D) that would shift nearly $22 million from state institutions to community service boards (CSBs). They said state mental health hospitals and state facilities for alcohol and drug rehabilitation needed more money not less.

"Please safeguard in perpetuity the ability for people who have mental illness to be in a hospital," said Ruth Tyler Cross of the Northwest Mental Health Advisory Board. "This system, where so many things go wrong, it works in some places."

Pam Lackland, whose son attended a state alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility, said money for such residential programs is necessary.

"Please don't cut programs like this," she said. "We need more of these, not less."

Norma McCaig, of the Northwest Center Health Advisory Board, called the governor's plan "feel-good maneuvering."

"I strongly urge you to reject this allocation because there's also no guarantee of support in subsequent budgets," she said.

Advocates of the governor's plan say that treating people through community organizations will be cheaper and more effective than treating them in state-run residential facilities.

"Funding for CSBs is essential to the support of people with disabilities," said Tom Burns, who sits on the board of Service Source, a not-for-profit that helps people with disabilities find jobs in their communities.

"Enabling people who work has to be a win for society," he added. "I ask your support in ensuring basic community services."

SOME SPEAKERS urged legislators to increase taxes, particularly taxes on cigarettes to pay for better services.

"I want more services," said Jane Anthony. "Tax me. Tax me a lot. Fix the system."

Mike Freeman, a senior citizen who benefits from a reduction in state taxes, said that he is fully employed and does not need the tax cut.

"There is absolutely no reason why I should be getting a $24,000 reduction in my taxes," he said.

Steven Hull also suggested that Virginia impose a special tax on the least fuel-efficient cars.

But Jess Vint, homeowner, disagreed.

"We are taxed too much," he said. "There's always a new program, there's always new taxes. What are we going to tax next?"

"We need to be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and people in the county but at the same time maybe we could review some of the programs that aren't working so well," he added. "I've been taxed out and if you know somebody who wants to buy a very nice home next weekend, mine's going on the market."

HOWELL AND PLUM said they were grateful for the citizens who came out and spoke and vowed to fight for more social services funding in Richmond. Both have sponsored bills calling for cigarette taxes.

"I believe in my soul that we're judged by how we treat the most vulnerable citizens and I think we're shameful in Virginia," said Howell.

Plum said repeatedly that the debate should not be about budgets but about people.

"It's not about keeping a bureaucracy going it's responding to people's needs," he said.

School Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) asked the legislators not to impose any more unfunded mandates.

"Refrain from enacting legislation that imposes additional costs on local school boards without the revenue to accompany that," he said.

Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) asked the legislators to fight for equal taxing authority between counties and cities which would allow counties to raise additional revenue and reduce the real estate tax. She also asked for an adequate public facilities ordinance which would allow local governments to stop growth if roads and schools are not adequate to meet the increased demand.