Day Labor Tops a List of Issues Facing Mayor, Council Rivals

Candidates for Herndon Town Council answer questions from members of the news media at a forum this month.
Candidates for Herndon Town Council answer questions from members of the news media at a forum this month. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

A publicly funded day-labor center remains the lightning-rod issue in Herndon politics, but candidates for mayor and Town Council will face a lengthy agenda of voter concerns if elected May 2.

Overcrowded housing, taxes and government spending, downtown redevelopment and the escalating cost of the long-planned nature center at Runnymede Park are all pressing pieces of business, Herndon residents say. The two mayoral candidates and nine hopefuls for six at-large council seats tried to address those issues at an April 5 forum.

Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, seeking a second term, said he was proud of the record that he and the council have compiled. He cited as signal achievements a new zoning ordinance to protect residential neighborhoods, a reduction in the tax rate and the establishment of a regulated day-labor center to replace a chaotic, makeshift site in a 7-Eleven parking lot.

Yet there was broad agreement that despite toughened ordinances and a beefed-up inspection staff, too many single-family homes are serving as illegal dormitories for immigrant workers who often cannot afford their own housing.

In December, for example, three Herndon property owners were convicted of operating illegal boarding houses, each occupied by at least 10 people. They were fined and sentenced to a year's probation.

"We need a full-court press," said William B. Tirrell, a former five-term council member who wants to return to office. Tirrell, a member of the town Planning Commission, said the inspection staff "is not sized properly."

Incumbent council member Carol A. Bruce said authorities need to confront "unethical Realtors and unethical brokers" who sell to those who intend to turn single-family homes into boarding houses. David A. Kirby, a retired federal government information technology worker making his third run for the council, called for more careful monitoring of closings on single-family homes. "We have to prevent, rather than evict," he said.

Other candidates said taxation and spending have grown unacceptably. The proposed $45 million budget from Town Manager Stephen F. Owen for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is nearly 12 percent larger than the current one. Owen also proposed reducing the town's tax rate by 2 cents, to 23 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"It's time for a reality check," said Connie Haines Hutchinson, another former council member seeking a return to office. Hutchinson, president of the Herndon Dulles Visitors Center, and mayoral challenger Steve J. DeBenedittis said they would be willing to entertain some kind of cap on spending, possibly tied to the rate of inflation.

Council incumbent Steven D. Mitchell rejected that as "too complicated" and questioned whether Herndon residents wanted any serious reduction in services. "There's no magic bullet" for reducing spending, he said.

One particularly contentious spending issue is the long-planned nature center at Runnymede Park. Originally budgeted at $1.25 million, its projected cost is $2.4 million.

Some candidates, including Charlie D. Waddell, president of the Herndon Community Association Coalition, said the project's fiscal impact could be softened by completing it over an extended period. O'Reilly said he hoped to keep the project on track because federal grant funding expires next year.

The next mayor and council are expected to complete a plan for a public-private redevelopment of downtown Herndon that would include a parking garage and an arts center. DeBenedittis, a health club manager and first-time candidate, joined several others in emphasizing that any redevelopment must be done with limited public funding and must protect the town's heritage and character.

Four of the five incumbents running for reelection voted to approve the hotly debated Herndon Official Workers Center: O'Reilly, Bruce, Mitchell and J. Harlon Reece. The fifth, Dennis D. Husch, opposed it.

Five challengers -- DeBenedittis, Hutchinson, Kirby, Tirrell and Waddell -- favor changes in where and how the center operates when its town permit is up for renewal in 2007. They are joined by Husch. A sixth challenger, Jorge Rochac, a Spanish-language instructor for the Herndon police, favors the center.

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