reprinted with permission from the Northern Virginia Journal
October 16, 2003
Northern Virginia Journal
Voters want bang for bucks
Journal staff writer
On Jan. 1, 2004, Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors promises to look different than it does today. How different might depend on voters' perceptions of their quality of life, and whether it is worth the taxes they pay to sustain it.
``I've always felt that Fairfax County is home to a very sophisticated electorate and they place a high premium on quality-of-life issues," said board Chairwoman Katherine K. Hanley, D-at large. ``The tie between quality of life and strength of the economy is something a lot of people think about when they need to make investments in local services."
After nearly 20 years on the board, as a district supervisor and chairwoman, Hanley will be missing from the Nov. 4 ballot as she exits to run for Congress. Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn, R-Dranesville, is departing as well. Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly, D-Providence, will either take office in 2004 as the new board chairman or go to work in the private sector.
Democrat Linda Smyth and Republican Jim Hyland are competing to replace Connolly. Republican Joan DuBois and Democrat John Foust are vying for Mendelsohn's seat in the GOP-leaning Dranesville District.
Three incumbent Democrats, supervisors Catherine M. Hudgins in Hunter Mill, Penelope A. Gross in Mason and Gerald W. Hyland - no relation to candidate Jim Hyland - in Mount Vernon, face respective challenges from Republicans Doug Bushee, Buzz Hawley and Purvis Dawson. Independent candidate Young Duek Ahn of Falls Church also is on the ballot in the Mason District. Supervisor Michael R. Frey, R-Sully, is opposed by Democrat Georgette Kohler, president of the Rock Hill Civic Association.
Supervisors Dana Kauffman, D-Lee, Sharon Bulova, D-Braddock, and Elaine McConnell, R-Springfield, are running unopposed.
Each campaign is marked by issues specific to its district. In Mount Vernon, candidates speak of Route 1 revitalization, crime prevention and pedestrian safety. Extending rail to Dulles International Airport and commercial development are of particular interest to Hunter Mill, Dranesville and Providence voters. Revitalization and affordable housing are popular topics in Mason. Land-use issues are prominent in Sully. And alleviating traffic congestion is important everywhere.
But the theme of this election season has been the high costs versus the extensive benefits of living in Fairfax County. What is the value of good schools, well-prepared public safety agencies, well-maintained roads and services for the disabled and elderly? How much and for what are residents really willing, or able, to pay?
Since the last board election in 1999, the economy slumped, the commercial tax base faltered and coffers have run dry. For Democrats, however, preserving services at the level county residents expect remains a top priority - even if it means a higher real estate tax rate than some might like.
``For the most part, what I hear in the community is a concern that property values are increasing at such a rate that they are concerned about the amount of taxes that they pay," said Gross, the two-term Mason District supervisor. ``But then they say, `You know, Fairfax is a great county and I'm willing to pay my share.' People recognize the services that we have are the ones they want, they need and they appreciate."
Said Hudgins: ``We have to make them understand that we're trying to manage the cost of government and that we are not frivolous in what we do."
As Providence supervisor, Smyth would seek to increase the county's stock of affordable housing, extend bus service, emphasize telecommuting options and raise teacher salaries. She speaks frequently of diversifying the revenue base - enhancing revenue while becoming less reliant on the property tax by raising levies on cigarettes, meals or hotels.
The Providence planning commissioner is more likely to promote ``responsible spending" than cuts or caps.
``It's a balancing act," Smyth said. ``Our residents expect services. They expect amenities. And most of them understand you have to pay for them. But we have to be sure we're getting the best value for the money spent."
There is a need to rethink where and how the county spends its money, Hawley said, and such an effort will require a ``thorough analysis." But he would not say what should be cut.
``They've fallen into the trap of making everything a priority," the government relations consultant said of the board. ``When you do that, nothing is a priority."
Easing the burden
As quality of life goes, lowering taxes and alleviating traffic congestion ought to be the county's top priorities, Republicans say, but the board has accomplished little in either regard.
Property taxes have risen 53 percent over four years. Spending has outpaced population growth, inflation and average increases in family income. Meanwhile, GOP candidates claim, traffic grows worse by the day as Fairfax waits for the state to hold up its end of the bargain and fund road improvements - with money it doesn't have.
Expenditures must be capped, prioritized, or just plain cut to ease the burden on homeowners and to free up money for county-initiated road improvements, Republicans argue.
Bushee, Hawley and Jim Hyland signed a nonbinding pledge to limit real estate tax increases to 5 percent a year, or the rate of population growth plus inflation. Several Republicans have called for an independent inspector general to root out waste in county government.
The county must learn to live within its means, they say. Five percent growth is a reasonable target that has been met in eight of the last 14 fiscal years.
``There's a great deal of frustration that residents don't feel they're getting the value for the taxes they're paying for," said Bushee, a board member on the Reston Association, a homeowners group that represents some 50,000 residents. ``We've got to take a look at how we're spending the money first and who's receiving it."
Supervisors ``just aren't working hard enough to find savings," Jim Hyland said, ``and I think the county executive is leading them around by the nose, playing hide and seek with the money." The funding exists to fully support schools, public safety and a road bond to address spot transportation improvements county-wide, he added.
``Beyond that," he said, ``ballroom dancing lessons aren't a priority."
DuBois, the Dranesville District planning commissioner, and Dawson, a 22-year Fairfax Police Department veteran, declined to take the pledge.
``Just because you didn't sign the pledge doesn't mean you don't support controlling spending and reducing taxes," said DuBois, who also believes strongly in revenue diversification. ``People don't mind paying the taxes for the services they get, but you can't continue to increase those taxes for the residences four years in a row at a double-digit level."
Democrats, incumbents and challengers alike, are highly critical of the Republican proposals, particularly the 5 percent cap. Costly hurricanes, snowstorms and snipers happen, they argue, as do severe downturns in the economy.
``I think it's not good government to make a binding pledge before you are elected and before you have to deal with the facts that are presented to you," said Foust, who maintains he could lower costs by implementing a performance-based budgeting system.
The inspector general position, Gerald Hyland said, is a cop-out. Supervisors are elected to make the tough decisions, not to hire an auditor to do the work for them. That's what the board did this year, he said, when it lowered the real estate tax rate by 5 cents while sparing vital services from serious budget cuts.
``I am not prepared to delegate to anyone the responsibility to decide where to cut in our budget," said the four-term incumbent. ``You could have cut police, fire, and education in Fairfax County, or you make the hard decisions to fund it out of the increase in taxes and assessments."
If pressed, voters would likely say taxes are too high, said three-term Sully Supervisor Frey, a Republican who has voted against county budgets in the past because he believed the property tax rate was not sufficiently reduced. But Frey's constituents' No. 1 concern is transportation.
``I don't hear a ground swell of discontent [about taxes]," he said. ``If this were California, I think Gray Davis would be safe."
Grading the supervisors
An incumbent's effort to resolve constituents' problems is vital in any election. A street light or a speed bump could flip the votes of a homeowners' association. Supporting education funding wins support from teachers. Fighting for public safety issues earns the endorsement of police officers and firefighters.
This year is no different, board members say. The campaign might last only a few months, but supervisors have had four years to court voters with their actions in the neighborhoods they represent.
``The only thing you have to run on is your record," Kauffman said. ``What have you done for people both over time and lately. Certainly, you articulate what you would do if given the chance to serve again, but the past is prologue."
Gerald Hyland heralds Route 1 revitalization, the make-over of Laurel Hill, his regular town hall meetings and the struggle to save financially struggling Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. Hudgins promotes increased bus service through the Reston corridor, pedestrian and bicyclist safety efforts, successes in affordable housing and support of new development around transit centers. Gross speaks particularly highly of her constituent service.
``We've made tremendous progress in the Mason District and a lot of that is in constituent service, getting answers for people," she said. ``We're working very hard to make sure people get the attention they need."
Incumbents' opponents often say their representatives have been less than responsive to the needs of their communities. There's a ``lack of trust in the electorate," Bushee said.
Kohler, Frey's opponent, takes such a view with her supervisor. Frey ``had become extremely complacent in his job and how he relates to the residents of the Sully District," she said, explaining why she joined the race. He is slow to answer questions and constituent complaints, does not follow through on commitments and has supported more development than the district can handle, Kohler said.
``The decisions Michael has made have made Centreville into a very difficult place," Kohler said. ``There's no rhyme or reason to them."
Frey is a self-described leader on responsible development and environmental protection. He touts the purchase of 2,000 acres of parkland for open space and ball fields, and the county's involvement in Route 28 improvements, which he urged.
``I can go out in almost any neighborhood ... and I'm going to have somebody say `I called your office and your staff was wonderful,'" he said. ``I can't give everybody a `yes' answer when they call. People ask for some strange things. But everybody gets a return phone call."