When Prince William County voters approved a $44.89 million bond issue last fall to pay for new school construction, some county officials saw it as a watershed -- a signal that residents no longer hold the potent dislike of debt that has led them to defeat nine of the last 12 bond proposals at referendum.
Other people aren't so sure.
"They're living in a fool's paradise," Anne Snyder, a western Prince William civic activist, said of county officials who think the school vote means the days of bitter disputes over bond referendums are over.
Knock-down, drag-out battles over bonds through the years have been among the most durable features of Prince William politics, and more often than not Snyder has led forces working to defeat the debt proposals. Most county elected officials were pleased -- and a good bit surprised -- when Snyder and other fiscal conservatives mounted no organized opposition to last fall's school proposal.
"They won that school bond for one reason -- we didn't fight it," Snyder said. "We all realize that we have to have schools. We realize that they're worth it." Nonetheless, Snyder added, members of the Board of County Supervisors are "woefully deceiving themselves" if they expect voters to be similarly acquiescent to debt proposals for projects such as roads and parks.
Snyder's comments, which echo those of some other Prince William civic activists, take on particular significance because of the increasing certainty that voters will face a bond referendum in the fall election.
County Executive Robert S. Noe Jr., painting a dire picture of a locality starved for adequate funding, said this month he will propose a bond issue to pay for roads and probably other county facilities in his capital improvements plan next month. Most supervisors have said there is little doubt they will support one or more bond referendums on the fall ballot; the only question is how large the debt package will be.
Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) has called for a package of referendums totaling $60 million or more to pay for county facilities. Other supervisors have said that figure is likely too ambitious, but have shied away from specific figures until seeing the details of Noe's plan.
The final size of the fall bond proposal will depend heavily on how much opposition the supervisors perceive, according to county political observers. If the board members believe the easy sailing for the fall school bond was an exception -- reflecting the priority status Prince William residents traditionally have granted the public schools -- caution will reign. On the other hand, the elected officials may be more daring if they perceive that last fall's vote ushered in a new era -- one in which residents, alarmed by the urgent demands imposed by the county's rapid growth, will welcome debt proposals to pay for a variety of public needs, particularly new roads.
Many of Prince William politicians predicted that exactly such an era had arrived in the fall of 1986, when voters faced a $42 million bond proposal that would have paid for roads and park improvements. Instead, the proposal was defeated by a 52-48 percent margin.
Despite this history, Prince William's most ardent advocates of debt financing remain optimistic. "I'm going to be politically naive and say that people are so fed up with the roads that people will approve a bond," said Supervisor Robert L. Cole (D-Gainesville). "As long as it's sane and sensible."
Snyder predicted the fate of the bond will depend greatly on what the supervisors do to the county's tax rate. "It all depends on whether they raise taxes," she said. "It looks like they'll have to because, according to Noe, the till is empty."