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MVCCA Discusses Community Issues

Monopoles, the school budget and affordable housing were among the topics debated.

The Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations, an umbrella group representing various local community groups and neighborhood associations, considered six resolutions and passed all of them at its monthly meeting on March 22. Most of the resolutions addressed a specific aspect of the new County budget, with an emphasis on spending the money with foresight.

David Dale, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Committee, presented a resolution meant to curb the increasingly common practice of installing cell phone monopoles on county property (like schools) without getting permission from local homeowner associations. In order to fill coverage niches, cellular companies are attaching smaller and smaller antennas to pre-existing features within the community, such as telephone poles. The light towers at school ballparks are particularly appealing to many companies, and the contracts with these schools are causing much of the concern for neighborhood organizations.

Judy Harbeck spoke next for the education committee. The Fairfax budget called for a 6 percent increase in funding to schools, while the budget created by the County School board would require an $8.81percent increase, leaving a $40 million shortfall. The committee’s resolution found a middle ground, calling for a 7.4 percent increase. Harbeck said many of the county schools’ expenses were beyond their control. "Although the head count population [of students] is evening out," she said, "the number of kids who come from immigrant, poor or disadvantaged families continues to rise in the proportion of the school population and that creates expenses."

The committee’s resolution will allow a 3 percent cost of living raise for teachers. Harbeck said, "When it comes to these staffing initiatives, staying the same is falling behind." Because of changing demographics and because Federal and State test score requirements continue to rise, "You are not going to see a flat school budget any time soon."

Speaking for the Health and Human Services Committee, Louise Cleveland stressed the need to invest in preventive social services and the cost-effectiveness of doing so rather than spending even more money to address a problem such as illness, teenage pregnancy or drug abuse after it has materialized. She said that Fairfax had been doing a good job of this, but funding was slipping. "The county seems to have paid attention … to preventive services," she said. But recently "some of our very fine preventive services we’d developed in this area ended up getting slashed and slashed and slashed."

THE RESOLUTION CALLED for money from the property tax to be dedicated to preventive services. When a member of the audience questioned the desirability of paying more taxes, George Baner spoke up. He said that refusing to spend money on preventive services is not an ultimate net savings. "You end up paying more in the long run. Your taxes will go up much more in the future."

Another aspect of the resolution involved maintaining a stock pile of funds for emergencies. "You have emergencies that arise between the budget cycles. They have to be able to expand when there is a particular crisis, for instance gang activity springing up. Part of the planning process has to be for the county to keep some money in reserve for responding," Cleveland said.

Jerry Ireland, chairman of the Special Committee on Affordable Housing, called for two pennies of the real estate tax to be dedicated to affordable housing, one penny to be used for preservation of affordable homes and another to encourage "new development." (The county currently dedicates one penny.)

He stressed the necessity of working proactively to develop new housing. "If you look at the preservation process, we will never in any of our lifetimes be able to preserve the majority of what’s being lost." Also "with what is preserved there is a timeframe attached to it – 20 or 30 years," that the housing must remain affordable, "when that ends, the money has to be found again."

However, a fierce debate arose over whether the loss of housing was in fact a serious issue for Mount Vernon. Although Ireland cited several mobile home parks the district is losing as well as a general interest in doing away with apartment buildings, some audience members were unsatisfied. Supervisor Gerry Hyland offered an answer to the questioning. "In the Mount Vernon district the answer is probably zero [affordable housing units] that we’ve lost. The problem is in the county. [But with] what we know is happening with the two mobile home parks and Woodlawn Gardens, its clear we have the potential for loss. It is not yet an issue in Mount Vernon, but it will be."

IRELAND HAD THE last word. "If we don’t attack this at the source, with the developer, and bring something to the table that the developer is going to see as a real attribute that can help affordable housing," then the developer will not take seriously the idea of investing in affordable housing, he said.

Frank Cohn, representing the transportation committee, criticized the Virginia Department of Transportation’s road maintenance policies, which have left Mount Vernon roads scheduled for resurfacing lying in wait several years. Each year the maintenance is scheduled and money is budgeted, said Cohn, but each year the scheduled maintenance is left undone, reportedly because contractors’ estimates for the job were too high. "It just didn’t seem like the way to operate," Cohn said. The resolution calls for VDOT to create a three year maintenance schedule. In addition any money not spent on planned maintenance will be rolled over into that community’s roads budget for the next year. "Thereby the horse and the cart will be in the proper order," Cohn explained. If the work isn’t done "we have the ability to go back to our legislators and say ‘this wasn’t done." He suggested opening bids to out-of-state contractors, who would be more likely to submit lower bills in an atmosphere of raised competition.

The budget committee also passed a resolution that generally approved of the county’s new budget but reiterated the call for increased school spending and the "two pennies" affordable housing plan.