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Votes

Child Care in Need of Funding

Restonians hear budget proposal.

Cynthia Gunera is a working mother of two children, with an age difference of 10 years between them. She is one of many local parents in danger of losing child care funding, which allows her to keep a full-time job.

"My older child didn't have the benefit of [growing up] in Fairfax County," said Gunera. Her older child is disadvantaged, she said, because she did not have access to the education, programs and community activities the county offers. Now her younger daughter is in danger of losing those opportunities.

If Gunera loses county's support for child care funding, she will have to quit her job to look after her children. Fairfax County will simply be too expensive of a place to live in if that happens.

"Thanks to the Child Care program we can have full-time jobs and pay rent," said Gunera at last week's public hearing on the advertised Fairfax County budget for Fiscal Year 2008. Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) hosted the hearing at Southgate Community Center.

Last year Fairfax County lost $13 million in child care subsidies, said Judith Rosen, the county's director of the Office for Children, at a workshop held in January. Two thousand children were taken off the Child Care Assistance and Referral Program because of the cuts. This year, according to Rosen, the county is set to lose another $2.7 million and 950 children. In 2005, no children were on the waiting list for the program, but currently there are 3,550 children on the waiting list. She estimated the child care costs at $12,000 per year.

The cuts are the result of stricter regulations for families in the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. The new regulations force people to find employment sooner than they used to in order to receive the assistance, increasing the number of children who need child care. According to Rosen, the government budget office estimated the new regulations would cost $10 billion over 10 years, but the federal government only pledged to give $1 billion over the 10-year period. It also placed a requirement on the states to serve the new population in need, so Virginia is not able to send as much money to the county for child care subsidies.

HUDGINS REFERRED to the child care issue as an unfunded mandate. She said she is not against mandates, because they generally refer to things the community wants to have. She said the funding partners — in this case the state — often do not fund their part of the mandate, leaving the county to pick up the tab.

"We'd hate to say, 'This is a non-funded mandate so we don't care about it,'" said Hudgins. "We will keep you in mind," Hudgins told Gunera.

The advertised budget does not account for the possible loss of child care funding. She said research has shown that spending money on child care means the county would have to spend less money in other areas in the future. "These truly are investments," said Hudgins.

During last Tuesday's hearing, Hudgins reaffirmed the county's priority of maintaining a high quality of life for its residents. A strong investment in education, public safety, affordable housing and transportation improvements were some of the Board of Supervisors' priorities for the budget. Reston resident Marie Huhtala noted that the business community in Reston has grown tremendously in the last 25 years, and asked if it could contribute towards road improvements. "Can they help out," asked Huhtala.

Hudgins explained there was not a tax for new businesses, but that they usually are asked to provide a land use proffer, which primarily deal with transportation improvements.

Susan Datta, director of the Department of Management and Budget at Fairfax County, said the county cannot charge a different tax rate for commercial and residential properties.

Reston resident Mike Foxworth said the county would be well served if it found a way to pay for its own roads. He said the county should ask the General Assembly for such a power, to increase its revenue in order to pay for transportation improvements. "Give us a way to pay for it, and we'll pay for it," he said.

Hudgins agreed that the local population is willing to take on the burden, however, it would be necessary that the county take control over the decision-making on the transportation improvements. "If we do that, we want to make sure we control it," she said.

Reston resident Dave Edwards said the key thing is that the money raised in Northern Virginia remains in Northern Virginia. Hudgins said it is recognized among local governments that any such change in transportation control and policy needs to come from a coalition of governments in Northern Virginia.

THE MAJORITY OF the advertised budget is committed to Fairfax County Public Schools, 52.3 percent of $1.73 billion. Hunter Mill District representative on the School Board, Stu Gibson, said the board has been engaged in examining its goals. "We try to have our budget driven by what our goals are," said Gibson.

Datta explained that a significant slowdown in the real estate market characterized last year's financial situation in the county. The revenue collected from real estate taxes constitute 77 percent of the county's total revenue. "There was a reduction in revenue growth," said Datta. However, she added, the non-residential market managed to balance the budget, allowing the county to not raise the real estate tax rate. Datta said additional police officers and two new libraries — Oakton and Burke — are considered in the budget. "There is no significant increase in the budget, but there are also no decreases," she said.

Only 10 people were present at the budget hearing in Reston. Hudgins held the same meeting in Vienna the following night, and five people attended that meeting. Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly came late to the Vienna meeting and explained that the low numbers were the case in other county districts as well. A budget hearing in Dranesville District attracted seven participants, while 16 people attended a Mason District meeting.

"It's not a lack of interest, it's high content," said Connolly. "The average homeowner will pay less this year," he said, noting that the real estate tax rate of $0.89 per $100 assessed is the lowest rate in county's history. "What saved our bacon this year is the commercial tax rate income," said Connolly.