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Connolly Touts 'Progress' In Fairfax but Warns of Gangs

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page B04

Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) last night highlighted progress on his watch, saying he had increased affordable housing and improved mass transit and air quality, but he also warned that gang violence still poses the county's biggest challenge.

Connolly devoted most of his second annual televised State of the County speech to marking the successes of his 13 months in office, including new jobs in a growing economy and the purchase of open space.

Citing increases in affordable housing and jobs, Gerald E. Connolly (D) called gangs a "the one cloud on our public safety horizon" and vowed to fight. (Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

He cited progress toward getting federal funds to extend Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport, calling the long-awaited project a "significant tool in aiding our progress in both traffic mitigation and air quality improvement."

"I am proud to say that tonight is, in a very real sense, a progress report," Connolly said at the County Government Center, where his 22-minute address was broadcast live on Channel 16, the county's cable channel, and Web site.

Connolly stressed that even though his administration has devoted new resources to fighting the region's growing gang threat, violence continues in Fairfax, which has 82 gangs and 1,500 members.

Despite a projected 8.8 percent decrease in the overall crime rate this year, Connolly called gang activity "the one cloud on our public safety horizon. . . . Gangs represent a threat to our safety and lost opportunities for the future of our children."

The chairman cited efforts with school, community and business leaders to fight gang violence with stepped-up police intervention, after-school programs and other measures. The county is hosting a summit on gangs at the center today, which will include discussions about developing and expanding those efforts.

"Our goal is to identify gaps in the things we are already doing in the areas of prevention, intervention and suppression and coordinate our resources and efforts and to attack this problem on all fronts," he said.

The speech was light on new initiatives for the coming year, instead charting service improvements Connolly pledged when he was sworn in and hopes will define his record. Nearly 250 dwellings have been preserved at prices within reach of low- and moderate-income residents, he said. School buses have been retrofitted to reduce emissions, and the county's fleet is being replaced with lower-polluting hybrid vehicles. The school system is increasingly diverse, with a student body that is close to 50 percent minority, he said.

Connolly, who leads a 10-member board dominated seven Democrats, also sounded a familiar theme of his campaign and first year in office, working toward property tax relief while preserving county services. He reiterated his promise for a property tax cut this spring that in recent weeks he has predicted will be "historic."

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who is emerging as the chairman's chief critic, called the speech "self-serving" and said Connolly presented too rosy a picture of county services, given that the county has imposed several new user fees in the past year.

"He didn't talk about taxing kids to play youth sports," Frey said, referring to a new athletic fee for sports teams. He also took issue with an ambulance fee due to take effect April 1 that will shift the cost from the county to a patient's insurance company.

"We're all going to pay for it in higher insurance premiums," Frey said.

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