Fairfax Won't Cut Vouchers but Seeks Kaine's Help

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Fairfax County will not drop 1,700 children from subsidized child care, but the county will not make up for state cuts that are jeopardizing the program, supervisors agreed yesterday.

The board reversed an earlier decision to notify low-income families at random that their children would lose their spots this fall, after nearly 30 child-care advocates pleaded with the supervisors to keep the program going.

The supervisors considered making up some of the shortfall in the child-care program by using part of a county budget surplus. But they said they will count on the state to find the money. The board was adamant that the child-care vouchers are essential to keeping working parents off welfare.

"This is not a Fairfax County welfare program," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, in a dig at state lawmakers who said the subsidies should lapse. "This is welfare to work." There are 2,692 children on a waiting list for the vouchers, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said.

Efforts to save the child-care program overshadowed the board's annual ritual of allocating last year's surplus, which came to $50.9 million. The board voted to spend $24 million of that on a range of needs, including an $8 million reimbursement to the county school system for federal No Child Left Behind mandates.

Other programs include $1 million to study remedies for flooding in the Huntington area; $470,000 for four staff positions to oversee developers who default on pledges for public amenities; $750,000 for expanded space to store records in the Judicial Center and $1.5 million for a data center for the county's computer systems.

The board set aside $26.8 million in reserve for next year, reflecting a reality that the flattening housing market and projected drop-off in property tax revenue could pose big challenges for Fairfax and other local governments.

"Every dollar we're appropriating today is probably a dollar that won't be available next spring," Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said, after supervisors rejected a request for $73,000 to update books and other materials in the county's law library.

The child-care money would have supported county vouchers to low-income working parents by compensating Fairfax for a cut in federal funding. The federal money, which is distributed by the state, had gone to Fairfax and a few other local governments for several years, with the localities providing matching funds.

But this year, with tighter requirements for families on public assistance, the state diverted the money for child care to families on welfare. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) asked the General Assembly to appropriate about $6 million, most of it for Fairfax, but the Republican-led House of Delegates blocked the funding.

Fairfax officials, who receive the majority of the money, say they need $10.4 million to keep the program fully funded, filling spots when families drop out. For the moment, the county is not filling those slots.

A Kaine spokesman said the governor is looking for help from a cache of "discretionary" money to make up the cuts.

"We are still looking under every sofa cushion for some funding that could be used to continue this program at the governor's discretion," spokesman Kevin Hall said.

He said it is unclear whether the General Assembly, which is scheduled to convene for a special session Sept. 27, would have to approve the money.

With the program's future uncertain, the county's human services advocates came out in force yesterday.

"This is unprecedented and unconscionable," said Elizabeth Egan of the Main Street Child Development Center in Fairfax.

Elizabeth Page of the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center told the board, "I hope you can find a way to be heroes to our children."

They were preaching to the converted. The supervisors asked several speakers if they had communicated their concerns to state lawmakers. "They don't seem to clearly understand what the child-care assistance program is and how it differs from welfare," Connolly said.

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