Fairfax County wrestles with budgetary trade-offs

Lisa Arlt Escoto is not a political activist. But she felt so strongly about a government program that provided therapy for her daughter that she had to speak out.

So, on a day when nearly 70 speakers signed up to address the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Escoto was No. 37.

With daughter Elena, 6, at her side, Escoto asked that the supervisors increase funding for the Infant and Toddler Connection program, a federally created, locally managed program that helps children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I was really shocked to learn that the proposed Fairfax County budget does not include any increased funding for Infant Toddler Connection,” Escoto told the board earlier this month, in a voice that betrayed no hint of the nervousness that she said she felt. Later, she said she just kept hoping that her daughter would not yell.

In the three minutes allotted to speak, she told the board about rushing home from a State Department posting in Shanghai to find immediate intervention for Elena, who has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes seizures and intellectual delays. Escoto noted that the program, which is provided by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, has experienced a 38 percent jump in need over the past two years. The agency helped her with a support group, too, Escoto said.

“I am really convinced that without Infant Toddler Connection, Elena would not be doing as well as she is doing, and she would need far more financial support as she currently has,” said Escoto, 46, of Vienna. Her comments were applauded by others at the meeting.

As in many local jurisdictions, Fairfax’s calculus of human needs and dollars and cents has become unforgiving in recent years. Once again, the Board of Supervisors must make decisions that, fairly or not, pit police officers against book lovers, public parks against social services, and schools against almost everything else.

On Tuesday, the board is expected to make the final changes to the county budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. At a workshop Friday, the Democratic-led board reached an informal consensus on likely changes to the $6.73 billion budget proposed by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin. The modifications include a bigger pay raise for county employees, more money to restore library hours and additional social-services funding for programs such as the Community Services Board.

Griffin’s budget called for boosting spending by about 2 percent, including a 2.18 percent pay adjustment for workers. He also suggested leaving the property tax rate at $1.07 per $100 assessed value. Because of higher home values, that would have translated into a tax increase of about $34 for the typical household. Griffin also suggested raising the stormwater service rate by one cent, to 2.5 cents per $100 assessed value, or about $47 more for the typical homeowner.

On Friday, the supervisors appeared set to shift a half-cent of Griffin’s proposed one-cent increase in the stormwater service rate over to the property tax rate instead.

That would raise the property tax rate a half-cent to 1.075 per $100 of assessed value while increasing the stormwater services rate to 2 cents per $100 from the current 1.5 cents. The shift is necessary because the stormwater services fee goes to a fund that can be used only for expenses related to water treatment.

In addition to online budget forums and town halls in the nine magisterial districts, the board heard two consecutive days of public testimony this month.

“The thing you need to remember is to tell your story. Don’t be intimidated,” said Jeanne Harrison, an artistic director at the Traveling Players Ensemble, counseling a group of young actors moments before they performed a scene from “King Lear.”

Robert Lundegard, a representative of Friends of the Colvin Run Mill, advocated for restoring public library funds. Members of the Arts Council of Fairfax County donned scarlet berets to ask for support for grants in many fields.

Several spoke on behalf of the Community Services Board, which is under particular stress this year. The agency is facing an $8 million deficit, which is projected to deepen to $9.4 million in fiscal 2013.

Supervisors also appeared moved by testimony from Randy Creller, head of the Employee Advisory Council, and other employee representatives about the difficulties county workers faced after three consecutive years of frozen pay.

“I think this is a very good package,” Supervisor Jeffrey McKay (D-Lee) said.

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