Fairfax and Arlington counties currently are in the process of preparing budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. This week, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors tentatively approved a $442.1 million budget and is expected to take final action on Monday. Arlington County is considering a much smaller budget proposal, $173.5 million, and is expected to adopt a final budget next Tuesday.
In this issue, staff writers Kerry Dougherty and Denis Collins look at a department in each of the two counties -- the women's shelter in Fairfax and the fire department in Arlington -- to see what effect the two budget plans will have on their services.
The problem is common to every agency that depends upon public financing. Inflation pushes costs one way, while citizen pleas for a tax cut pull revenues in the opposite direction. As a result, the Arlington Fire Department -- like all county agencies -- will not be content with its slice of this year's budget.
Fire officials are grateful for the $200,000 they can spend to replace two of three old fire trucks and a 9.5 percent raise promised to all county employes. Administrators and firefighters, however, say they would have liked the third truck, more operating funds and a larger pay increase.
But fire officials complain that when they make their annual appearance before the County Board, fire hat in hand, they lose a certain portion of their just deserts because of a problem particular to firefighters.
"Since the days of the keystone cop firemen with red suspenders, people think all we do is sit around all day and play pinochle," laments Arlington assistant fire chief John Spink. "It's a hard thing for us to overcome."
While Arlington has grown in the last half century from a sleepy, countrified suburb into an urganized, high-rise county, its fire department has changed from an all volunteer force into a paid department of 238 employes. The horse drawn water tanks have been replaced by $148,000 aerial ladder trucks. And while the basic firefighting strategy has not changed in years, Arlington's techniques are as sophisticated as any in the metropolitan area.
"We're still doing what they did back in Roman days, pouring water on a fire to put it out," says Spink, a 33-year veteran with the Arlington fire department who is sometimes accused by younger colleagues of predating spontaneous combustion. "But it costs a lot more to do that today than it did 10 years ago."
Besides fighting fires, which is proportionally a small part of a fire department's work, employes conduct commercial inspections and educational programs in the community. The department must approve all new building plans. Then there are 10 stations to maintain, equipment to repair and the occasional cat to rescue from a tree. While playing cards have not been banned from any of the county's fire stations, both administrators and firefighters maintain there is not enough free time to ante up a decent game.
"We're not a checker playing outfit anymore," says Arlington Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins. "But I don't think more than about five people in this county really understand what the modern fire department is all about."
Last year, Arlington's fire department spent $6,652,100 while responding to 12,000 fire and rescue alarms. This year, it is expected to answer 13,000 calls on a $7,187,100 budget. Next year, alarms are anticipated to increase another 1,000 while the budget as proposed by County Manager Vernon Ford, will rise by $750,000.
"Fire fighters in Arlington put in a 56-hour work week," says John McPherson, president of the firefighters union. "What we've been looking at for the past several years is a program that would lessen our work hours. We're willing to implement that over a period of time so it wouldn't be so drastic on the budget."
Firefighters currently work four 10-hour days and four 14-hour nights followed by four days off. They have complained to the county that the odd shcedule sometimes places them in emergency situations while they are not physically or mentally alert.
County manager Ford says a 40-hour work week for firefighters would represent a prohibitive cost to Arlington taxpayers.
"To get one more duty station covered we'd need four new people. The pleas of the men for shorter hours have to be set up against what do the taxpayers get for a substantial investment. The taxpayer gets no additional service," says Ford, adding that firefighters on the night shift generally get at least a few hours sleep.
"I'm not trying to be judgmental," continues Ford, "but firefighters aren't working hard all the time. It comes in spurts. It's not like the manual strain that a refuse collector has."
Firefighters say Ford's wording may be different, but the sound is all too familiar.
"I think they (county board members) can do better than they've done," says McPherson. "Right now, we're taking a sit back and watch attitude."
The department will be getting $200,000 to pay for two new "pumpers," which officials say are urgently needed.
"Fire equipment generally lasts 15 to 25 years, so you buy replacements in batches. What we are confronted with now is some of those batches," said Ford. With three of the county's 18 pumper trucks currently ouf of commission, protection is spread thin, according to fire officials. Adding to that problem are a number of fire trucks, purchased 20 years ago, which are suffering serious rust damage. The cost of repair is estimated at $30,000 per truck.
"It's hard to explain $100,000 for a piece of fire equipment, it's an amazing figure," says Spink who has seen the county board shutter collectively during discussions of replacement cost. "It's a hard selling point. Nobody thinks their house is going to burn down."
What Spink and other fire officials fear is that the current or future county boards will trade new equipment money for cuts in other areas.
"We're down to bare bones right now," says Spink. "But I'm not crying about it."
Some of Arlington's firefighters, however, are crying. Last week the Arlington Professional Firefighters' Association released a letter addressed to county citizens which warned it was "impossible to continue the level of efficiency which (Arlington) citizens deserve." The letter blamed the problem on faulty equipment, inadequate manpower and "extraordinary lengthy hours."