Prince William County look to reinvigorate capital improvement program

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

The planned new libraries and road projects that have been put on hold in Prince William County may come to fruition next fiscal year as supervisors look to reinvigorate the county's capital improvement program.

During last week's financial retreat, supervisors were briefed about the potential to reinvest in capital projects during fiscal 2012. County officials said financing capital projects is "relatively cheap" right now and construction costs are favorable. They said Prince William can sell bonds at a lower cost because of its dual AAA bond ratings.

It is possible to leverage more money for capital projects in the current economy, officials said. The $2 million in debt service leverages $24 million in capital projects, county officials said, noting that $2 million would leverage closer to $20 million previously.

"I think the county will move forward significantly in the area" of capital projects, Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said. "We may look at some creative ways of refinancing, because now is the best time in the history of the county to sell bonds and revitalize our capital improvement program."

Prince William's CIP has been relatively stagnant the past few years, and several projects approved by voters in 2006 have not been started, county officials said.

Although still early in the budgeting process, supervisors said they would like to see several of the road projects move forward, including widening Route 28 from Linton Hall Road to Route 234. The projects were approved in the $300 million road bond referendum of 2006.

The other projects of interest, supervisors said, are the libraries planned for Gainesville and Montclair.

"I think the debate during the budget process will be how to get some of these projects back in, with the emphasis on roads," Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R- Brentsville) said. "The time is ideal. . . . It just becomes a question of how much revenue is available."

Besides discussing capital projects, the board got a glimpse of the economic situation in the county and upcoming challenges, including the Social Services Department's need for more funding. Because of an influx of applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, the department is not in compliance with the Virginia Department of Social Services. The child-care program is also not in compliance, county officials said.

Janine Sewell, director of Prince William's Social Services Department, said there has been a 54 percent increase in new applications for assistance since fiscal 2007. Sewell said 73 employees each handle about 757 cases annually, although the state's recommended workload is 430 cases per employee. Although no fine has been placed on the department, Sewell said in August that the department had to send a Corrective Action Plan to the state explaining how it would improve service.

As part of next year's budget, Sewell said she needs about $392,000 in additional county funding to hire 13 people. This will help, she said, in meeting the state's caseload standards.

Some supervisors said they are frustrated because state and federal governments continue to cut funding for these programs yet keep mandates in place. Some said several questions need to be addressed before the board considers whether to fund Sewell's request. Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart, however, said he will not support it.

"I will never vote to increase the number of employees to handle food stamps; let the federal government figure it out," Stewart said. "If they want to sue us to try and compel us [to comply], let them do it."

Stewart said the federal government is promoting the dependency on food stamps, something he will not condone. County officials, as well as those involved with area food banks, said the economic climate has forced more people to seek help, many whom had not previously needed it.

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