The public hearing was politely proper until Helen Rebull got her turn at the microphone. Then the library lover and mother of two told the Arlington County Board that trimming the county budget by firing children's librarians would be educational treason.
"It's irresponsible," said Rebull, her voice cracking with nervous emotion. "I hope the next time the subject comes up you hit Vernon Ford with a cold towel."
Ford is the Arlington county manager and author of the proposed $173.5 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The proposal was presented for public comment at Kenmore Junior High School last week. The budget plan, and more particularly a list of potential program cuts included with it, stirred 80 people to public speech while Ford and the five county board members sat on stage, captive to the spring budget ritual.
Except for Joe Hansman, who represented the Arlington County Taxpayers Association and urged the board to make "additional economies," all the speakers came with hands outstretched.
Representatives from the schools, the Fairlington Citizen's Association and the Arlington Firefighter's Association asked that conditions be improved.
Robert Stewart executive director of the Arlington unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, described his members as "sacred, frustrated and angry" over their losing battle between wage increases and inflation.
Mike Foti, who works in the Arlington Planning Office and lives in Prince George's County, said it was "particularly galling" that the county board refused to offer more than a 9.5 percent salary increase for public employes while last month it cut the real estate tax rate from $1.29 to $1.12 per $100 of assessed value.
"It is more than ironic, it is contemptuous," said Foti. "We cannot afford to live here and yet we are asked to subsidize those who do."
Meassured in volume, the Arlington Senior Adult rhythm band made the most important at the hearing. Board members and the audience of approximately 400 were greeted in the auditorium lobby by the 22-piece band playing "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" on kazoos, tambourines and washboards. They were lobbying for a new bus for the four senior citizen centers in the county.
Supporters of the children's library program brought the most speakers and supporters. When Board Chairman Walter Frankland asked how many in the audience were there for that purpose, almost half the audience stood up.
Arlington currently has three children's librarians in the central library and one at each of its six branches. That program, which is funded with $653,500 this year, provides story hours, movies and book discussion clubs. The main purpose, however, is to offer guidance for young readers who anually check our 24 percent of all books circulated by the libraries.
"Children's success in school depends upon their attitude toward books," said speaker Helena Morrison. "Education does not begin in kindergarten."
Morrison was one of two dozen speakers who asked that none of the three alternatives listed for cutting the library program be adopted. The harshest of those alternatives would eliminate the program entirely. The least radical would cut services at just the central branch.
"When I saw that in the budget it made me very worried," said Cynthia Womack, whose children attend Ashlawn Elementary. "It made me, a very mild mannered person, grab my kids and march."
That march, by 125 library supporters, occurred two weeks ago in front of the Glencarlyn branch library. To further make their point, parents collected 1,000 signatures on a petition to present to the board. And the students did their own lobbying.
"In case the speakers are not enough to convince you, I have questionnaries," said 11-year-old Martin Boo before delivering 285 signatures from his schoolmates at Drew Model School.
The library supporters were encouraged before the start of the hearing when Franklin, after some persuasion from fellow board member John Purdy, announced that the board had tentatively decided to adopt the least drastic budget cut in the children's library program. But that decision, which would eliminate one librarian's job at the central library, was not good enough for Rebull.
After suggesting that Vernon Ford be sent on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan, Rebull accused Frankland of convincing the board to make the library cuts.
When Frankland began to explain his position, Rebull tried to shut him off with a shrill, "These are my two minutes." Two more minutes of verbal sniping followed.
"That particular exchange was the most heated I can remember in five years on the board," said Ellen Bozman, the one board member who voted against any cuts in the children's library program. But Bozman said despite the public display of support, the decision to cut at least one librarian's job was probably final.
"I would not expect us to go back to the library."