Arlington County Budget Cuts Threaten Gulf Branch Nature Center

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

They're planning to evict Mr. Owl.

Back in fall 2006, the young barred owl, still covered in the fuzzy down feathers that showed he was less than a year old, was rescued from beneath his nest. He had an injured wing.

He's been living on the second floor of Arlington County's Gulf Branch Nature Center since, munching on thawed mice and serving as mascot for the county-run environmental education center.

But last month, Mr. Owl's makeshift home appeared on the list of budget cuts proposed by County Manager Ron Carlee.

Arlington is better off than many neighboring communities, but even modest cuts can sting. Carlee proposed millions of dollars in spending cuts and an increase in the real estate tax rate to close the county's budget gap. Total government spending would drop by nearly $12 million, to $929.5 million, under his plan. The County Board is also considering raising the real estate tax rate by 3 cents, to 86.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. More than 100 county staff positions would be cut, including 40 that are filled.

Among the proposed cuts are reductions in sidewalk maintenance, library and community center hours, and parent-education classes. A hazardous materials coordinator at the Pentagon would be eliminated. Programs for seniors and residents who need physical and mental assistance during the day would be consolidated. And families receiving help under the federal Women, Infants and Children program would have to travel farther to receive benefits after outreach locations are shut.

Mr. Owl's home is on the cut list after parks and recreation officials started scouring their budgets. But the move has ruffled some feathers. Some residents have launched Yahoo and Facebook groups and a Web site, http://www.savegulfbranch.com, to lobby against the proposal, which calls for the nature center to be demolished.

"I think it's a very shortsighted form of saving," said Janet Nuzum, who has lived in Arlington for three decades. "This is not just about having a building that is open. It's also about the preservation of an environmental space, green space and educational exhibits and educational programs that help children and adult residents appreciate why preserving nature is so important."

Nuzum is vice president of Friends of the National Arboretum, a nonprofit group, and she has been organizing opposition to closing the nature center. Although she is seeking to keep the center open and fully staffed with county funds, she has also started discussions on forming a private group of supporters.

"We're not just demanding that everything stay status quo," she said, acknowledging that the county faces budget challenges.

"We want to be helpful partners. But this is an important enough asset for the county and the community that we want to find productive ways to give it a viable future," Nuzum said.

Jeff Marin, Arlington's deputy director of parks, recreation and cultural resources, pointed to a list of $2.3 million worth of proposed reductions in his department. Community center hours countywide would drop 17 percent. Restrooms would be cleaned less often. Trash collection would be less frequent. Some summer camp programs would be eliminated. The Planet Arlington World Music Festival would be cut.


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