Power Politics

In his letter March 2, Derek Karnes wrote that he "got to experience firsthand the misuse of power and abuse of residents by the [Haymarket] government."

I would suggest to Mr. Karnes that what he witnessed was amateur night. To see a real example of arrogance and abuse of power, he should attend a Board of County Supervisors meeting.

Stephen F. Zanzarella

Haymarket

Staying Competitive

A number of questions concerning proposed salary increases for Prince William County employees are being addressed to our Board of County Supervisors. As chair of the Prince William County Employees Advisory Committee (EAC), the county employees group elected by the nearly 3,000 employees of Prince William County, I wish to address the necessity of providing a 3 percent market pay adjustment for our employees.

During the years when private sector saw a great increase in salaries, the public sector dragged its proverbial tail with employee salaries and compensation plans.

In the FY 1999-2003 five-year plan, the Board of County Supervisors set policies and made tough but fair budget decisions that closed the earnings "lag" so that our employees could earn the same starting salaries as employees do with our three main competitors: Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington.

The Prince William County compensation policy states that the county will have "a combination of salaries, benefits, employee development and workplace environment that will attract and retain the most qualified employees." With this initiative in place, the board must address employee salaries and compensation.

The 6.5 percent increase mentioned as the employee pay raise is an adjustment of 3 percent and an average pay-for-performance increase of 3.5 percent. This "extra" 3.5 percent is not a guaranteed pay increase. It is a variable salary adjustment from zero to seven steps within a pay scale that is based on each individual employee's annual performance evaluation. In addition, the many employees who are "topped out" in their pay scale will receive zero pay-for-performance no matter how well they perform during the year.

Many county employees are also homeowners and are faced with rising costs in their personal lives. Their average health insurance premiums will go up about 15 percent.

Employees are requesting that the Board of County Supervisors not roll back the scheduled FY '04 market adjustment to try to drop the tax rate. There is still a strong need to recruit and keep public safety employees.

The EAC supports the proposed compensation plan funding as proposed by the county executive for FY '04.

Meredith Murphree

Haymarket

A Challenging Budget

Prince William County's strategic vision, developed by the Board of County Supervisors, states that "Prince William County will be a premier community where we treasure our past and the promise of our future. We are diverse and dynamic with a thriving economy where citizens and businesses grow and succeed together -- a global technology leader for the 21st century." Achieving this vision is our challenge for the foreseeable future.

Prince William County is one of the fastest-growing jurisdictions in Virginia. Between 1980 and 2000, the county's population grew by 94 percent. More than 57,000 students attend Prince William County schools. We are a well-educated community, 64 percent of our residents having some college education or degree.

This combination of factors poses significant challenges for the citizens, Board of County Supervisors, the School Board and staff working together to provide services to a discerning community; to educate a large population of school-age children; to meet the capital needs of our growing population; and to demonstrate sound financial management to citizens and to bond rating agencies. Through the current budget process, we are engaged in discussion about how to make this all happen.

Over the past several weeks, some have questioned the percentage increase in the annual budget contained in the legal advertisement of the budget. Those percentages can be misleading. For example, the county's capital budget shows an increase of 559 percent, or $150.7 million. The biggest part of this increase is to fully budget for the voter-approved road bond referendum of $87 million. Similar to when we buy our homes and pay off a mortgage over a period of years, the county must obligate itself for this large expenditure up-front but pay off the debt service on the roads over 20 years. So although it looks like the budget has increased by $87 million next year, the actual annual cost to taxpayers is the debt service that grows from $1 to $8 million a year over the course of the five-year budget plan.

We have also heard some citizens suggest that the county's budget should only grow at a percentage equal to population plus inflation. The argument is that we only need to pay for increased services for the additional people moving into the county and the growing costs of services due to inflation. For this to work, we need everyone to agree that we currently have the right amount and mix of services. Three examples of where we don't have the right service levels in place are fire and rescue, police and the adult detention center. While providing new stations to address growth, we also have to provide career fire and rescue personnel at existing stations to supplement volunteers. While adding police officers to match the population growth, we also need to staff the new demands of homeland security. And while adding correctional staff to keep up with the growth in inmate population, we also must address the costs of expanding the jail staff.

During the 1990s, when many of our homes were losing value, the county's budget did not grow at a rate of population plus inflation. At that time, the Board of County Supervisors did not raise the tax rate to make up for the drop in assessed values. If the board had set a tax rate to ensure budget growth at population plus inflation, the tax rate would have gone as high as $1.62. The board's decision not to raise taxes during those tough times meant that infrastructure and operating needs were not met, roads weren't built, trailers were added to schools and public safety staffing lagged. In the past four years, the board has taken significant steps to catch up on public services that citizens have told us they want and need.

Prince William County's annual budget is part of a five-year fiscal plan based on the services the community has told us it wants. The strategic plan, developed with input from thousands of citizens, works in concert with the fiscal plan. Through this plan, residents have told us that education, economic development, human services, public safety and transportation are very important to them. The budget strives to provide those services to the community while addressing the need to reduce the tax rate.

Prince William County has been successful in accomplishing both those goals. The latest budget recommendation proposes a real estate tax rate at $1.16 -- this represents a 20-cent reduction in four years. During this same time, the county's budget has increased, addressing critical operating and infrastructure needs and accomplishing the following:

Over the last five years, the county planned to fund the education of 5,053 new students, but we actually had to educate an additional 8,612 new students. We planned to build six new schools; we actually built 12. We planned to do only critical repairs on older schools; we actually renewed nine older schools. The education of additional students through the building of new schools and renewals of existing schools would not have been possible without increased revenue. Our focus on education has led to earning Time magazine's School of the Year award, earning the Senate Productivity and Quality Award and reaching standard test scores significantly above state and national averages.

Over the next five years, we will educate 9,216 new students, construct 10 new schools and lower the average age when our schools see major renewals from 35-37 years to 22 years. This is possible because of an award-winning partnership between the Board of County Supervisors and the School Board on revenue sharing and tax rate reduction.

Additional public safety funding has allowed the county to provide two more advanced life support 24-hour units, replace four ambulances and hire 75 additional fire and rescue personnel. Police presence has been increased throughout the community with the addition of 87 more police officers and the purchase of 14 additional take-home police cars to increase police presence in our neighborhoods. Over the next five years, we will add 100 police officers and 25 police civilians, staff three additional fire stations and five additional 24-hour units. Those fire and rescue improvements will result in 31 percent of the county's population seeing improvements in response times.

Our economic development success from 1997-2002 has yielded 137 new and expanding businesses, $1.9 billion in capital investment and 7,890 new targeted jobs. Five of the 10 largest economic development projects in the history of Virginia have been in the greater Prince William area, including Eli Lilly and America Online. Those accomplishments increased our commercial tax base and provided quality jobs in our community. Additionally, we have been able to invest in our historic properties and advance the county's tourism industry. The strategic focus and financial support of the economic development program has made this possible.

Prince William County provides human services to thousands of county residents each year. Programs include social services, mental health, substance abuse, school age care, services to seniors and at-risk youth. As our community grows and diversifies, so does the need for human services. Over the next five years, we will continue to provide services to a growing at-risk youth and mentally disabled population while maintaining current service levels. Having said that, we continue to see waiting lists for critical services and our community nonprofit groups struggle to serve more people.

County residents have consistently supported transportation improvements. In last November's election, voters approved an $87 million road bond to improve local roads. Those planned improvements will be added to 114 miles of roads constructed by the county and financed by previous bond issuances approved by county voters. The county has also proposed additional funding for transit -- for the commuter trains and buses and the local bus service. More commuters are riding the bus and train, which are supported by a county revenue-sharing agreement. This debt service and revenue sharing would not be possible without the support of the community.

The debate on what kind of community Prince William should be is a good one. We should discuss what kind of schools, public safety, transportation, economic development and human services we should have and how we can preserve the best future possible. We should discuss the balance of providing services that citizens have told us they want with their ability to pay for those services. We don't expect everyone to agree with all of our recommendations, however, we strive to present an annual budget and a five-year plan that provides the necessary information for citizens to engage in these discussions in a thoughtful and considerate manner.

Craig S. Gerhart

County Executive

Prince William County