"Is there a citizen in here," said Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, as he made his way into a Hunter Mill District budget hearing in Vienna. About six people attended Wednesday night's hearing held by Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) at Vienna Community Center.
A night earlier, on Tuesday, Hudgins held a hearing in Reston, attended by about 10 people. Connolly said hearings in other county districts were scarcely attended as well. According to Connolly, there were 16 people at the Mason District budget hearing, and seven in Dranesville.
"There is no doubt in my mind the room should be full," said Vienna resident Jim Riddel.
"[Budget] public hearing is the most exciting part of the year," said Hudgins. "Public input is what we need."
"It's not a lack of interest, it's high content," said Connolly. "The average taxpayer will pay less this year," he said. Connolly added that this year's real estate tax rate of $0.89 per $100 of assessed value is the lowest rate in the county's history. Hudgins said this year's budget was characterized by a loss in revenue due to a decrease in property value assessments. However, the county managed to lower the real estate tax rate.
Despite low participation, those who attended the hearing raised a number of issues for discussion with Hudgins. Vienna resident John Horejsi was interested in the county's plans to tackle the issue of funding the child care subsidy program, which helps provide child care for children of working class families.
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.
IF THE SUBSIDY IS NOT FUNDED, many parents would have to make a choice between going to work or staying at home to take care of their children. "It's really important that this be covered [in the budget]," said Horejsi. "This has tremendous implications people are not aware of."
To not include the child care subsidy program in the budget, said Horejsi, would be more costly, because those who are affected would have to turn to public support. He added that there will be a need to accommodate even more homeless people in Fairfax County and to provide more food stamps.
Other implications of not funding the child care subsidy, said Horejsi, included that some of the existing infrastructure that houses day care centers would be unused, and the staff serving in those centers might lose jobs.
"It was unfortunate first and foremost that last year's budget left it out," said Hudgins. "Child care provides more than just care and safety," she said, adding that it has educational advantages.
However, the county's advertised budget does not account for the child care funding that may be lost. Hudgins referred to the 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.
AMONG OTHER ISSUES DISCUSSED at Wednesday's hearing was starting up the program of red-light enforcement with cameras at traffic lights. Mayor Jane Seeman asked if anybody on the Board of Supervisors would try to find money to start up the program again. She said there would be a push to allow Northern Virginia localities with low populations — such as Vienna — to have more than one operating camera. Currently only one camera is allowed per 10,000 residents in a locality. "Not to make money [from the program], but for it to pay for itself," said Seeman.
Hudgins said there is a startup cost associated with the red light enforcement. "It's a safety issue," she said, adding that it takes a lot of enforcement in an urban setting to keep the public safe.
Hudgins also noted that Fairfax County enjoys a high level of service, especially in terms of public safety. Other than public safety, the Board of Supervisors set into its priorities an investment in education and affordable housing. The largest part of the budget, 52.3 percent or $1.73 billion, will go to the schools.
The countywide public hearings on the advertised budget are scheduled for April 9, 10 and 11 at the Fairfax County Government Center. To sign up to speak call 703-324-3151. For more information on the advertised budget visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb.