Choreographed Protest Keeps Dance Hall in Budget
By Lisa Rein, Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, April 21, 2003; Page B01
n a $2.5 billion budget, it doesn't come to much: $45,200 in salary and benefits for an attendant at the Lincolnia Senior Center.
To Fairfax County budget staff searching for tens of millions of dollars in savings in a tight year, the reduction that appeared on Page 670 of the budget plan for fiscal 2004 seemed relatively benign. To thousands of retirees who fox trot, two-step, waltz and hoedown across the linoleum five nights a week and Sunday afternoons to 82-year-old Harry Geserick's tapes, it was heartbreaking.
The money covers Nancy Summers's job running Lincolnia's evening and weekend dances. Without it, no one would close up the community room at the end of the night or attend to emergencies. Summers also juggles which nights the Merry Notes will call squares, the Boomerangs will teach basic steps and the Bachelor and Bachelorettes will throw singles together.
The county was threatening to end a love affair that started 14 years ago when the senior center opened in a converted elementary school west of Alexandria.
"My first thought was, 'Oh my God, they can't do this!' " recalled Shirley Shifflett, 70, a widow who met her boyfriend, Henry Morin, 75, on the Lincolnia dance floor two years ago. They come for ballroom on Tuesdays and square and circle dancing on Thursdays, each paying a $2 admission fee.
Over six weeks, a group bound by their love of dance took on the Board of Supervisors, mobilizing a protest through e-mail, letters and a petition with 327 signatures. The coup de grace came two weeks ago, when a half-dozen dancers in string ties and cowboy boots and skirts with crinoline petticoats took the microphone at two public hearings on the budget.
It worked. The attendant position is slated to be restored today when the board adopts a spending plan for next year.
A budget is a window on a community's priorities, and the saga of the Lincolnia attendant's position shows that few choices to cut come easily. In a year when politicians and activists from all sides agree that some programs have to give to free up money for tax relief, even a small reduction reverberates loudly. Cost-cutting has proven especially hard in Fairfax, a county with high expectations for services and a constituency for almost everything.
"Who knew?" said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose district includes the senior center. "There's always a music or dance event in the big hall. I never really thought too much beyond that." Gross said she and her nine fellow supervisors understood quickly that they had to find another way to save $45,200.
"You get a letter written in a very fragile hand. You can tell it was difficult to write," she said. "People really took the time to say, 'This is important to us.' "
Fifteen thousand dancers twirled on the Lincolnia dance floor last year, county officials say. The number includes multiple visits.
The senior center is home to 10 square-dance clubs, a ballroom group and a community that celebrates marriages, sends cards when people get sick and lets everyone know when someone dies.
Dancers come from as far as Front Royal -- or they walk downstairs from Lincolnia's subsidized apartments. The front parking lot on North Chambliss Street filled up by 7 p.m. Wednesday for a 7:30 call for square-dance instruction.
"This is a class, so they're in grungy clothes," Summers said, seated in a blue metal chair in a corner of the room. "But when they belong to a club, they look really pretty."
The dancers wore red "Hello, My Name Is" tags. As a fan whirred in the doorway, Bob Bash, the evening's caller, sang "On and On" into his mike as 50 dancers linked arms and do-si-doed. Vinyl still rules here, in Bash's silver briefcase of 45s, which he loaded carefully onto his portable phonograph.
At the budget hearings, the dancers made several arguments to save themselves from extinction. Robert Graham, appearing in chaps and cowboy boots, told county supervisors that closing the senior center to evening and weekend activities would be wasting a capital investment, much like buying a house and not using it after 6 p.m.
David Joseph, 70, made the case that dancing is the equivalent of preventive health care preached by cost-conscious insurance companies.
"If people didn't have this social interaction, they would be on the health-care list," he said last week. "People like to think, 'Seniors are kvetches, they want everything.' Well, here's a situation where we're not asking for anything except [to] let us dance!"
Joseph and his wife, Suzanne, 55, are regulars at the Sunday afternoon tea dances, and so are Suzanne's pumpkin and zucchini bars.
"No one's trying to show off," he said, "though we're pretty good at what we do."
Ethel Penland, 75, has congestive heart failure and can manage only a little dip on the dance floor before she's out of breath.
"I just go down and watch them," Penland said. "They're so upset about all this going on with the budget."
The idea to eliminate the Lincolnia attendant came from county housing officials, who were asked to suggest potential budget cuts.
"I said to agencies, 'I'm not interested in Washington Monument kinds of things' " that would generate a huge outcry, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin recalled. The strategy was to avoid cuts to public safety and human services, instead choosing programs "that are nice to do, but truly more recreational in nature," he said.
Supervisors had asked Griffin to include a tax-rate cut of at least 2 cents, the equivalent of about $27 million. The current rate is $1.21 per $100 of assessed value.
"Each cut doesn't seem like much, but you put 10 together and you have a lot of money."
The Lincolnia attendant's position in fact turned out to be its own Washington Monument.
Griffin's staff, working with board members, began crunching numbers to find the $45,200 from somewhere else. Cost-cutting pressure grew as supervisors decided to trim another 3 cents from the tax rate.
Summers's job is not the only unpopular cut the board plans to restore today. A two-man marine police patrol along the Occoquan River and a low-cost dental and health service for the poor also will be saved.
Said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), the board's budget chief: "Public hearings really do mean something."