It was November 2001, nearly Election Day, and officials in charge of the polling place at Fairfax County's newest public library in Great Falls approached Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) about getting a flag.
Mendelsohn was stunned. "I said, 'What do you mean, there's no flag? It's a county building!' " he recalled. "I looked into it and found out that in fact it was not county policy to put flags in front of all county buildings."
That is changing.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to install flagpoles at all new or renovated county building at a cost of about $2,000 each.
"It's not a lot of money," Mendelsohn said last week."Two thousand dollars when you're spending $10 million or more for a building is nothing."
Federal law requires that a U.S. flag be displayed on or near the main administration building of public institutions and at every polling place on Election Day.
Mendelsohn said he lobbied the board for a change in policy to require a flag at every county building -- not just the main administration building -- to underscore the "importance of pride in community and expressions of patriotism."
In addition to requiring flags at new and renovated buildings, the board directed County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to add an item in the 2004 budget that would refit the county's more than 75 buildings with poles and flags. At a minimum, the plan would cost $187,000 to install single, unlighted flagpoles at those buildings. If the county chose to erect lighted, three-pole structures, the cost could soar to $750,000, according to a report by county staff.
The decision to spend general fund money on flagpoles comes as supervisors say they are closely reviewing county spending and as many homeowners hope for a cut in the tax rate after several years in which their tax bills have risen along with property values.
"This will have to be balanced against other demands," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D). "All we're doing is considering the retrofit," she said, referring to the plan to put flags at all buildings, not just the new or redone ones.
Mendelsohn conceded there could be public opposition to that and has suggested that "friends of" groups or other organizations might well come forward to donate the money needed. "Between the county and the general public, I'm confident we can put up the flagpoles," said Mendelsohn, who pooled campaign funds with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) to donate a flagpole and a flag for the Great Falls Library.
That flag, which was flown over the U.S. Capitol, was dedicated Sept. 30 in memory of the six Great Falls residents who died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, had only praise for the vote to put more flags at county buildings, calling the proposal "a good use of funds." He said he would support cutting back on state-mandated elementary school counselors, for example, to fund it. "I think it's an excellent use of funds to have the American flag to instill some patriotism," Purves said. "That's what government should be spending money on."
The board is scheduled to consider another flag matter March 24. Neighbors who live near the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department on Little River Turnpike are opposed to a plan to place a lighted flagpole atop a new Sprint cellular phone tower. The objection is not to the tower or the flag, but to the light, which neighbors have complained would disrupt their sleep.
The proposal for the light was turned down by the Fairfax County Planning Commission on Feb. 12, and volunteer fire department officials say they may give up the fight and accept the operational burden of raising and lowering the flag each day, a legal requirement for any flag that isn't lighted.
"The issue is that this is a fire department and people are going to be out on call rescuing lives," said Raju Khemani, president the volunteers. "They should not have to worry, 'Oh my God, I forgot to raise the flag' or 'I forgot to lower the flag.' "