On February 28, Fairfax County Executive Edward Long answered online questions regarding the proposed budget plan for the 2014 fiscal year. In total, 19 questions were asked. An excerpt of the Q&A is posted below. To read the full transcript, click here.
Tysons Engineer : Executive Long, What effect will the transportation bill have for 2014 transportation expenditures, and has this been incorporated in your analysis?
Edward Long : The transportation bill recently passed by the General Assembly and awaiting signature by the Governor would have a positive impact on funds available to address transportation projects in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia. Our budget was put together prior to this proposal by the state. Over the next few weeks, staff will review the details and make budget adjustments, if necessary.
Anonymous User : When you spoke with county residents, which services did they seem most and least concerned about cutting?
Edward Long : The common theme has been to protect those most vulnerable in our community and to preserve the high quality of life associated with Fairfax County, including our outstanding school system. In addition to having community engagement sessions and the opportunity to give online input, I also solicited direct feedback from community organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce. These groups affirmed the need to maintain the county’s strengths, and not take a budget axe to our core programs.
Anonymous User : With property values continuing to rise, why is it necessary to increase property tax rates? I am unequivocally opposed to such an increase.
Edward Long : As I mentioned in the budget, I feel that an investment is necessary to maintain the county’s strengths while we go through this difficult period in anticipation of the opportunities that will present themselves in FY 2016 and FY 2017. The bulk of this $.02 increase is necessary to fund the increase in our growing student population.
I’ve also included over $20 million worth of cuts in the budget, eliminated 91 positions, and will not be providing any pay raises to county employees.
I think this $.02 investment is necessary to prudently carry the county through FY 2014 and FY 2015.
At a February 25 community forum, nearby residents of the NVCC Annandale campus met with college officials to discuss parking and traffic concerns along Wakefield Chapel Road.
The forum, hosted by Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), brought out about 30 residents to Wakefield Forrest Elementary School.
“I understand parking of our students on the streets is an issue,” said Barbara Saperstone, provost of the Annandale campus. “We are listening. We are addressing some of those concerns as best we can. We are trying to get them back into the parking lot as best we can.”
Attendees raised both parking and traffic concerns along Wakefield Chapel Road, adjacent to the NOVA campus.
One forum attendee said that the street’s bike lanes, which were put in August 2010, have exacerbated the problem of students parking along the road, instead of parking on-campus.
“I really think you people have missed a lot of what’s going on,” said the resident. “The bike lanes provide a free space for students to park along Wakefield Chapel.”
“Prior to the bike lanes, there was always free available parking along Wakefield Chapel,” Cook said in response. “By narrowing the driving area, that speeds tend to come down.”
Several attendees urged the college to remove parking fees for on-campus parking to reduce incentive to park on Wakefield Chapel Road.
“When we get to the big solution to this problem,” said one attendee, “folks should know that if all the students parked in the lots like they should be able to do, all these problems…wouldn’t exist.”
Other attendees asked if parking costs could be paid for through other funds, or if parking revenue made up a significant amount of the NVCC budget.
“We cannot use the tuition money to pay for parking,” said Saperstone. “It has to be self-sufficient. My understanding is [the parking fees] have to be used for parking.”
In a letter to the college’s administration, presidents of five nearby neighborhood associations urged the administration to take action on the issue.
“In recent years, neighborhoods close to campus have responded to student parking and traffic by setting up residential parking districts,” read the letter. “In our view, this unfairly shifts the burden created by your parking policies to the tax paying residents of Fairfax County. In addition, those RPDs just shifted the problem to other streets, in particular Wakefield Chapel Rd, and has made the safety and traffic problems much worse.”
Janyce Hedetniemi, who was recently appointed as an at-large member of the Fairfax County Planning Commission, signed the letter as president of the Oak Hill Citizen’s Association.
Saperstone said that NVCC was aware of the problem and has been exploring ways to address parking and traffic, including an online carpooling program, increased shuttle service, and stagnated school schedules.
“I’m here to say that I am listening,” Saperstone said.
New story on Connect2Mason:
Representatives from George Mason University Student Government met with the full Fairfax City Council to discuss the relationship between the city and the university.
The special session, held on Feb. 19 in Mason Hall, focused on encouraging more students to spend time in Old Town Fairfax, located less than a mile north of the Fairfax campus.
“We know that you have great interest in our downtown and some of the development and redevelopment issues that have been ongoing,” said Scott Silverthorne, mayor of the City of Fairfax. “Frankly, we thought it would be helpful tonight to have a broad discussion about what you all see as important for our downtown.”
The council and three members from Mason Student Government discussed different ways to attract more students downtown.
Read the rest here.
A bill in the Virginia General Assembly that removes the requirement that localities hold a referendum to enact an income tax has passed the senate.
Senate Bill 1313 would amend § 58.1-540 of the Virginia Code that allows a select number of localities to pass an income tax for transportation purposes. The City of Fairfax, Fairfax County and several other Northern Virginia localities are permitted to levy the tax. Currently, state law requires localities to hold a referendum on the issue. Under the new law, a tax could be levied by a majority vote by either the city council or the board of supervisors.
On Feb. 5, the bill passed the senate with 27 votes in support and 11 against.
“This is a mistake,” Senator Chap Peterson (D-37) wrote in a Feb. 5 blog post. “While income tax can raise a lot of revenue, it also is a tax that is EXCLUSIVELY paid by Virginia tax filers. It is not paid by out-of-state users of our highway, who are 30% of our highway traffic. It is not paid by Virginia residents who file out-of-state returns. It is not paid by ‘cash only’ businesses.”
“If agreed by the House, this bill would place a surcharge on northern Virginians, by requiring them to pay an extra tax for the same state service enjoyed by others for free,” Peterson said.
The bill was first introduced in the senate by Walter Stosch, a Republican representing Henrico County.
Bicycle advocates are pushing for the adoption of a master plan for cycling in the Tysons Corner area. The plan makes several recommendations for encouraging bicycling as a viable alternative form of transportation in the area.
“The Master Plan will be a roadmap for creating better conditions for bicyclists in Fairfax County over the next 10-15 years,” Bruce Wright, chairman of the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, said in an email.
The plan, which was sponsored by Fairfax County, splits its recommendations into five different categories that focus on both infrastructure improvements and ways to encourage new riders.
“Children and adults need to learn how to ride safely through bicycle safety classes in school and other venues, and police need to enforce traffic laws to reduce speeding and dangerous behavior by motorists and bicyclists,” Wright said. “We also need better knowledge of how many people currently ride and whether that number is changing over time, and there need to be concrete goals that are evaluated on a regular basis.”
The plan is meant to provide a roadmap for how best to improve bicycling prior to the opening of the Silver Line Metro stations in December of this year.
“Both Supervisors Hudgins and Smyth recommended that a bike plan be created for Tysons before trying to plan the entire county,” said Wright.
Proposed infrastructure projects include paths directly to Silver Line stations, and available bike facilities, as well as improvements to existing roads.
“I think the most difficult part of the plan was how to fix major roads, often referred to as major arterials, such as Routes 1, 7, 28, 50, and 123,” said Wright. ”There are various possible treatments depending on how the adjacent areas develop in the future. Some advisory committee members wanted more specific recommendations for these roads. They are a major challenge in creating a safe, connected bicycle network.”
In 2006, the county created an initiative to incorporate bicycling into many of its planning objectives and studies.
“The initiative included creation of the bicycle program, including hiring of the bicycle coordinator, production of the bicycle route map, and development of some on-road bike routes,” said Wright. “From looking at the route map it’s clear there are several areas where there were no safe ways to connect safe bike routes. Creating a connected bicycle network is one of the goals of the plan, which would help close those gaps.”
“County staff who developed the plan have been worked long hours and attended many meetings in helping to create the plan,” Wright said. “The plan is in draft form so there has not been much feedback from elected officials yet. There have been two presentations to the Planning Commission and feedback was mostly positive.”
The master plan must be approved by the county planning commission and board of supervisors before it is fully incorporated as county policy.
“FABB is hopeful that the plan will be approved by the Planning Commission early this spring and by the Board of Supervisors this summer,” said Wright.
Both the Tysons Corner plan and the countywide bicycle plan will go before the county planning commission and board of supervisors later this year.
In a recent report, both the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County received high marks for providing easy online access to their respective budgets. The study was conducted by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit that advocates for expanded access to government information on the state and local level.
The City of Fairfax was the only locality to receive an “A+”, the highest ranking possible.
“It took only one click to get to the budget, the word “budget” was used, the budget was available in its entirety, was searchable by keyword, provided context and explanation and was available in the ﬁrst page of search-box results,” read the report. “There were also ﬁve years’ worth of past budgets available. Finally, the city’s site included multiple formats for the budget.”
In a release posted on the city’s website, David Hodkins, assistant city manager and finance director, said “the city is immensely pleased with the resultes of this study.”
“We want people to easily find and use the city’s budget on the city’s website,” said Hodkins. “What we write on the website remains true: the city’s budget is the blueprint for financial and policy decisions implemented by the city. It truly is the single most important document we can give the public.” (Emphasis by City of Fairfax.)
Fairfax County received an “A.”
The report said that some might have assumed the largest and wealthiest localities had the best access to their respective budgets, but that was not the case. None of the cities who received an A or A- were among the state’s largest, and only two of the state’s largest counties received high scores. The report, however, concludes that the largest localities “are in some way victims of their own success.”
“Their websites are typically full of information and often feature slick interfaces,” read the report. “They may thus present their residents with loads of information, but that information may be hard to sort through and navigate.”
In a letter by Meghan Rhyne, executive director of the organization, she explains how VCOG rated each locality.
“We examined whether the budget was available in one comparative document, in sections or both,” read the letter. “We looked at formats and whether it was searchable by keyword. We looked at whether the budget could be found on a home-page search box or a site map.”
Apart from measuring budget availability, the report also examined whether the budget documents were easy to understand or if past budgets were also accesible.
“We wondered if past budgets were available and how many,” read the report. “We searched for context, explanations and summaries. And we took note of helpful information along the way: explanations of the budget process, a budget calendar, citizen input, offers of free budget CDs.”
Across the commonwealth, the average number of clicks it took to reach the budget was three, including both counties and cities. The websites for fifteen localities did not contain any budget information at all.
The report says that without the budget,”there’s nothing else,” and that focusing on budget availability is the “most literal way that government can be held accountable.”
In an ongoing effort to reevaluate and improve the way Fairfax County makes decisions about land use, county staff has proposed two new recommendations that overhaul how planning studies are conducted, and creates a schedule for which areas of the county should be studied in the near future.
The Comprehensive Plan, mandated for review every five years by the Virginia Code, is a set of guidelines for how much development is allowed in various regions of the county, and how they will be developed.
“Fairfax Forward is an effort to find a new means to review the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which we have simplified into the two parts, although there are many more recommendations than two,” Meghan Van Dam, a senior planner at the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, wrote in an email.
Since the late 1970s, the comprehensive plan has been updated using a system called the “area plan review.” Under this process, during a period of time set by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, amendments to current land use guidelines were accepted and reviewed by county staff, brought forward for public comment, and voted on by the Planning Commission then the Board of Supervisors.
“Public comment has generally supported the effort and the need to replace [Area Plan Review],” Van Dam said. “The review of Area Plans has always been a balancing act between the need for review, whether originating from community groups, individual property owners, and staff; Board needs; county resources; and time.”
“We began the project in early 2010, with an Area Plans Review Retrospective to evaluate the APR process to determine what worked well and what needed improvement,” Van Dam said. “At the conclusion of the retrospective (around the end of 2010), we recognized that a more substantial change to the review process was needed and spoke with the PC about extending the timeline for another year, which they supported, and the effort became Fairfax Forward.”
In mid-December, planning staff proposed two recommendations that would change the process for changing the Comprehensive Plan.
The first is to create a work program schedule, where the county would review all aspects of the comprehensive plan, including how they define the characteristics of communities, environmental regulations, and land use and transportation policies. County staff has agreed to work with a set of guidelines for determining which areas and subjects would be studied when and to what depth.
“Comprehensive Plan review will by organized around a Comprehensive Plan amendment work program, which will list studies to occur over the next three years,” Van Dam said. “The remaining portions of the Plan will be reviewed at some point after that, which we have estimated on a longer-term schedule.”
During these area reviews, the county hopes to advance major policy objectives, such as “promoting environmental protection, fostering revitalization of designated areas, supporting economic development, preserving open space, providing affordable housing, or balancing transportation infrastructure and public facilities services with growth and development.”
“By using this approach,” read the Fairfax Forward website, “Plan review could occur according to a schedule that would ensure guidance is up-to-date and relevant based on current and future needs. Study timing will be influenced by the availability of staff and community resources.”
The county recommendation splits up the review process into three categories: Countywide policies, activity centers, and neighborhood planning.
Countywide policy plans that are slated for review first include defining “suburban centers,” community improvement areas, public schools, and building height limits.
In activity areas, county staff recommends areas such as Fairfax Center Area, the Dulles, and Tysons to be reviewed. Over the next two years, staff recommends that Lincolnia and Pohick areas be reviewed, with many more to come in years following.
Apart from the comprehensive plan review schedule, staff also proposed a separate recommendation on how to improve the planning studies that are being proposed over the next several years.
“The second recommendation speaks to how individual studies on the work program will be reviewed,” said Van Dam.
The changes hope to improve “the focus of the scope of the study and public participation,” read a summary from the Fairfax Forward website.
“Once an individual study has been authorized for review on the work program,” read the website, “action would be taken to finalize the scope through a public input process and develop the remaining steps and timeline for review (including public engagement), recommendation, and action.”
“Engaging the public throughout the process would increase awareness of the study, provide an educational component, verify that the scope of work includes community issues, and allow for public input on decisions,” read the website. “Suggestions, such as density or intensity changes, made during the public input process on the scope of work should be included within the study, if they meet the work program criteria.”
“The Planning Commission public hearing is scheduled for March 6th and the Board of Supervisors hearing on March 19th, where there will be an opportunity for further public comment,” said Van Dam. “The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the Board, who will act upon the recommendations.”
The county will take public comment up through Jan. 18.