Fairfax County's new school superintendent was greeted officially yesterday by the Board of Supervisors, who pleaded with him not to dig too deeply into the district's wallet.
"Stretch every dollar to the max," board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) told Jack D. Dale, as the chief of Virginia's largest school district stood before the supervisors a month into the job. "We are looking for internal savings."
The brief gathering opened the supervisors' final meeting before their summer recess, as the board took up a range of business from raising its cigarette tax to expressing concerns about how Virginia's tough new drunken driving laws will affect the county jail.
Dale, 55, started a four-year contract July 1, succeeding Daniel A. Domenech, who had an often-stormy relationship with the supervisors.
"To say we've been confrontational at times is an understatement," Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) told Dale. "It's been regrettable."
Domenech clashed with the board primarily over money, wanting more most years than the supervisors wanted to give as they struggled to control rising property tax bills. Yesterday, Connolly reminded Dale that local taxpayers cover 75 percent of school funding. "The burden is very heavy on our local taxpayers," he said.
Supervisors said they could not remember the last time a new school superintendent came to introduce himself so soon after starting.
Dale called himself a "process person" and said one of his top priorities will be harmony with the supervisors. One way to avoid surprises at budget time, he said, will be to do more long-range planning and involve both the School Board and county board in the early stages to set priorities. Negotiations with the School Board traditionally start after the superintendent proposes a budget, but the tradition can cause tensions, Dale said.
"It's messier at the beginning," with early discussions with stakeholders in the school system, he said. "But my view is, let's get out of the tension-building business and into the consensus-building business."
Also yesterday, the board voted to increase the nickel-a-pack cigarette tax in Fairfax to 30 cents, following the recent lead of Arlington County. The change was made possible by the General Assembly, which raised the state's tax on cigarettes to 30 cents a pack from the current 21/2 cents. Fairfax and Arlington can match the state's increase. Board members turned back pleas from Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), several speakers and hundreds of constituents to use some of the extra revenue to eliminate a $5.50 fee imposed this year for the use of athletic fields. Instead, a majority of supervisors pledged to use the money to ease the tax burden on homeowners. The tax will rise to 20 cents Sept. 1 and 30 cents July 1, bringing in $11.5 million annually.
An increase in the lesser-known tax on recording deeds also was approved by the board, from 4 cents to 8.3 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Also yesterday, Connolly complained that Fairfax's jail population is likely to surge as police arrest violators of what became on July 1 some of the nation's toughest drunken driving laws. The new laws, which set a lower limit of 0.08 for blood alcohol content, could result in so many jail stays that the county will have to open an addition to the Fairfax County jail that has been empty since 1999 because of staff shortages, Connolly said. The state, however, reimburses the county for only a fraction of what it costs to run the jail and care for inmates.
"Right now it's a charade," Connolly said. "We don't have a choice when the General Assembly changes laws. All of that has an impact on our local tax burden." He said the board will seek legislation in Richmond next year to receive higher state payments.
Board members also said they were rankled by comments from a Fairfax police lieutenant in a Washington Post article Monday on gangs. Lt. Chip Hudson, a supervisor in the Fairfax police gang unit, said several task forces formed to combat Northern Virginia's growing gang problem were ineffective, redundant, short-staffed and giving only "lip service to the effort."
"I just think his remarks are out of bounds," Connolly said, adding that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) has helped secure federal money for the effort. "I wanted to signal the displeasure of the board. . . . I don't want some officer in the Police Department publicly criticizing Congressman Frank Wolf's efforts."
Connolly said that if Police Chief David M. Rohrer needs more officers to fight gangs, Rohrer should let the board know.