In Prince William budget process, focus is on libraries

At Tuesday night’s public hearing on Prince William County’s fiscal 2015 budget, a parade of representatives of various county services, including firefighters, nurses and librarians, lined up to tell county supervisors why they need more money next year.

A second line of residents formed to say that they didn’t want to pay higher taxes.

The back-and-forth discussions have centered most recently on the county’s libraries, after other meetings that focused on schools and public safety.

County residents voted in a referendum in 2006 to approve a bond issue to fund construction of two libraries, in the Gainesville and Montclair areas. The libraries have not been built, and county supervisors are debating this year whether to include them in the budget before the approved bond issue expires.

“Yes, you have a limited amount of money, but you have had eight years to work this into the budget. This is not a line item. There is no excuse,” Bethanne Kim, who led a fundraising campaign for the proposed Gainesville library in 2010 and 2011, said at the hearing, which drew about 50 people to the county’s McCoart Administration Building.

Kim said she was so disappointed in the county’s failure to build the libraries that she would advise newcomers to buy houses elsewhere. “If it was me, I’d go to Loudoun. Honestly, I wouldn’t move to Prince William if I was looking at this level of services today. You’d better think hard before you don’t give us this library, these two libraries,” she told the supervisors.

Several supervisors commented during Tuesday’s two-part hearing, which lasted about six hours, that the libraries were competing against other pressing interests for space in the budget.

Fire Chief Kevin McGee gave a presentation that seemed to alarm some supervisors. As he asked for money to hire more firefighters so that more units could be staffed around the clock, McGee noted that the county fire department falls far short of its goals for arriving at emergencies.

The department strives to have firetrucks and basic life support on the scene of an emergency within four minutes 90 percent of the time, McGee told the group. Last year, firetrucks arrived within four minutes only 40 percent of the time, and life support arrived in that critical period only 46 percent of the time.

Police Chief Stephan Hudson made a similar request for additional staff members, and two representatives of the Community Services Board spoke of the long waiting lists for the county’s mental health services.

One resident who spoke in favor of building the libraries said she was disappointed to hear that they might be cut from the budget because of the need to spend on safety or schools. “Why is it a case of either-or? I sort of find it deplorable when I hear priorities that matter to residents being sort of pitted against each other. That doesn’t sit well with me,” Linda Cheng said. She noted that voters had approved the libraries.

“To not move forward at this point is almost like breaking a contract with the residents of this county.”

Residents also spoke of other priorities, including reducing school class sizes, providing money for local nonprofit organizations and giving raises to county employees. More than 35 people requested funding or urged supervisors to set a high tax rate in order to provide specific services.

At least six spoke in favor of lower taxes.

“It absolutely pains me to be here tonight,” said Bill Petrak, a resident of the Woodbridge area, “because we elect you folks to make hard decisions, and I don’t think that’s being done. And I think you’re losing the confidence of the people in this county. You’re plussing spending, and nothing’s being cut. You just can’t do that.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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