Parents and advocates for the mentally retarded rejoiced yesterday at news that a popular Fairfax County program that provides jobs for the disabled will not be cut this year.
An infusion of money from state lawmakers will allow Fairfax to place all 48 graduates of the public school system's special education program in jobs the county contracts to give them and drive them to. After heavily subsidizing the program for years, county supervisors had planned to cut it back this spring, offering placements to just 17 graduates, the most severely retarded.
Also yesterday, the Board of Supervisors formally approved a planned cut in the real estate tax rate, to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value. The 3-cent cut had been provisional since April, pending a resolution of the General Assembly's prolonged budget stalemate. The owner of a house valued at $357,506, the projected county average, will pay $4,040 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, a $313 increase over the current average tax bill.
The board also adopted a planned fee for ambulance rides, over the objections of some residents and firefighters who testified that the elderly and uninsured could be afraid to call for help in an emergency.
The fee, to be imposed next spring after an information campaign, will shift costs from the county to insurance companies and to Medicaid and Medicare.
Supervisors said emphatically that the county still will cover rides for those without insurance. They called the new charge an effort to diversify the revenue source of a county that relies increasingly on property taxes to fund government.
"With this fee, we can help provide tax relief to our homeowners, and we can do it without imposing harm," board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said after an hour-long public hearing on the fee. "No one is going to stop you at the door of the ambulance saying, 'We need to see your MasterCard.' "
News of full funding for the jobs program, announced to the board yesterday, drew applause from about a dozen parents and advocates who sat in the audience at the Government Center waiting for official word from the county.
"If this hadn't happened, you would start to wonder why we were educating folks in county schools if they had nowhere to go when they graduated," Nancy Mercer, executive director of the Association of Retarded Citizens of Northern Virginia, said afterward.
The General Assembly approved approximately $35 million this spring for hundreds of mentally disabled people to live in group homes and for other services for those needing less supervision. Fairfax expects to receive funding for about 50 people this year and an additional 18 next year, said Alan Wooten, the county's director of services for the mentally retarded.
The cash, part of Medicaid and matched dollar for dollar by federal money, will free up funds that the county can use for the program for retarded graduates in June and next year, Wooten said.
"It's remarkably good news," said John Stephens, whose son, Franklin, 22, has Down syndrome. Stephens pleaded with supervisors at a budget hearing last month to pay for all of the new graduates.
County supervisors said they still plan to devise a plan that will ask the families of some participants to pay fees on a sliding scale.
The ambulance charge, approved with the county budget last month, will range from $300 to $550, depending on whether rescue workers provide basic service or advanced life support. In addition, a charge of $7.50 per mile will be assessed.
A dozen people spoke at yesterday's hearing, with about half opposing the new system. "Even if one person dies or has their life cut short because they're afraid to call an ambulance, one life lost is too many," testified Claudette Ward, who said her late husband might not have received a heart-saving drug in time several years ago if he had wondered whether insurance would cover his ambulance ride.
The vote was 8 to 0, with Supervisors Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) and Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville) absent. Several board members who voted for the fee said they were concerned that insurance companies would raise premiums. Arlington County and Alexandria charge for rides, but it was unclear yesterday whether premiums in those communities have risen.