Fairfax residents say they want lawmakers to champion education and social services

January 7, 2012

Dozens of Fairfax County residents on Saturday asked their state representatives to fight for public education and social services as the General Assembly wrestles over the budget in Richmond this year.

Some pressed lawmakers to stave off proposed cuts to schools and child-care subsidies. Others spoke about the need for additional investments in emergency food assistance, care for disabled people and children’s mental health counseling.

The pleas came during a nearly four-hour session at the county government center.

The hearing, which is held annually before each legislative session, largely came in response to Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s proposed budget, a two-year, $85 billion plan that prioritizes transportation, pension reform and higher education.

“The needs of the vulnerable are not addressed anywhere in these priorities,” said Sydney Stakley of the county’s Advisory Social Services Board. She said the proposed budget would do little to help Fairfax keep up with rising demand for aid from jobless and impoverished residents.

McDonnell’s budget would be the largest spending plan in Virginia history, but includes hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, including to child-care subsidies for low-income families and to health and parent-education programs for poor pregnant women.

“We can and must do better for our neighbors with the greatest needs,” said Margaret Thaxton of the county’s Community Action Advisory Board.

Bob Stewart, a representative of the faith-based organization Social Action Linking Together, said welfare payments to Virginia families have been stagnant since 1985. The state should consider allowing welfare payments to increase with inflation, he said.

K-12 education is also slated for cuts under McDonnell’s plan. Northern Virginia would lose $65 million meant to offer higher salaries for classroom aides and other support staff in a competitive job market.

“We know that without a strong K-12 system our kids won’t be prepared to enter college, no matter how economical tuition becomes,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the County Board of Supervisors , one of several elected officials to address the state delegation.

State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) led the session. More than 20 delegates and senators attended and most stayed for the duration. Absent was Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who serves on the Senate Finance Committee and in past years was a budget negotiator.

Several of the approximately 60 speakers told personal stories about the impact of programs they called critical.

Carmen Clark said she had finally kicked her substance-abuse problem because of the help she found at Crossroads, a residential treatment facility in Fairfax.

“Your funding is warranted for this center and other alcohol and drug centers that you provide,” she told lawmakers. “Without this, I don’t know where I would be. . . . I would be dead.”

With her daughter using a wheelchair at her side, Carrin Brandt of the ARC of Northern Virginia testified in favor of more state funding for Medicaid waivers.

Brandt said her daughter had been lucky enough to get a waiver, which allows people with disabilities to receive intensive in-home services — such as a full-time aide — that they otherwise could not afford. But thousands of others spend years on a waiting list, Brandt said.

Christine Gallagher, a mother, told lawmakers she hoped the budget picture had improved enough that the state would be willing to invest more in mental-health counseling and crisis response for children.

She told of her 9-year-old daughter’s diagnosed conditions that cause the girl to fly into violent rages, leaving the rest of the family feeling scared and helpless.

“Knives have been pulled, windows have been broken, my daughter has run away,” she said. “Imagine if my daughter was in the middle of one of those rages and I could call a local crisis team to defuse the situation and help us cope.”

Speakers also raised several non-budget-related policy issues that lawmakers are expected to address during the upcoming session, such as whether Fairfax can influence rates charged by water agencies in Vienna, Falls Church and other jurisdictions.

Steven Bruckner, a representative of the Sierra Club, expressed concerns about a push to open the state to uranium mining for the first time in nearly 30 years to make way for a mine in southern Virginia’s Pittsylvania County.

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