The budget season officially opened last week in Prince William County when the Board of County Supervisors sliced nearly $18 million from this year's proposal, a prelude to what's coming in March, when it must find $22 million in cuts for next year.
Only two items were spared the ax, both related to the elderly. At the request of Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge), the delivery of vitamins as part of the Meals on Wheels program would continue. Eliminating the program would have saved the county $1,855 this year.
What stirred the most debate was a proposal to close an adult day-care center in Manassas, one of two such facilities the county operates. County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said closing the center was a business decision made because not enough people were using the center. Gerhart said he would have recommended its closure even if budget cuts were not necessary.
He told supervisors they would be faced with many difficult decisions during the budget process, including freezing hiring or eliminating jobs, postponing pay raises for county employees and ending services. Although closing the adult day-care center was a tough task, he said the county had found a nearby private center to take in the clients.
"In this case, there is an alternative provider," Gerhart said. "Is it a perfect swap? Probably not. But there is an alternative solution. That alternative is not going to exist for services you are going to have to look at as part of the fiscal 2008 budget. It is a difficult decision, but one of many we face."
Gerhart said the county would be privatizing the services by closing the Hearth and Home Senior Adult Day Care Center, which would save $127,308 this year.
Before supervisors got to the question of whether to close the center, about half a dozen people urged them to keep it open or at least delay on voting to close it.
As people lined up to talk during residents' time, Lucile Howell of Manassas entered the boardroom with her daughter, Cindi. Howell had a firm hold on her daughter's hand as she slowly walked down an aisle looking for a seat. Howell, 82, suffers from vascular dementia, and her daughter takes her to the Manassas center five days a week.
Once she settled her mother in a seat, Cindi Howell stood before supervisors and said, "I am here today on behalf of my mother."
Howell wanted supervisors to keep the center open or delay the vote. She said she had checked out the private day-care center the county had referred her to and decided it was too big to meet her mother's needs.
Howell said that her father, who died in August from complications of Alzheimer's disease, served in World War II and that her mother worked in a factory during the war. She said it is up to the government to take care of those who had served their country and paid taxes all their lives.
Afterward, Howell said in an interview that she has found no alternative to the county day-care center and that caring for her father through his illness, as well as her mother, had left her and her husband financially insolvent.
"We have both gone through our 401(k)s to take care of my parents," she said.
The emotional pleas to save the day-care center underscored the challenge the board faces in the coming weeks, as supervisors confront revenue shortages and no appetite to raise taxes in an election year. Supervisors have decided to keep the property tax rate unchanged, which means homeowners will pay less in taxes this year than last because, on average, housing values have dropped.
Budget season will cause pain, supervisors discovered. Although there are only about 24 clients using the adult day-care center, closing it would affect many families.
Barg said she saw the private day-care center as "an elite program." She noted that Prince William was not closing a second adult day-care center in the eastern part of the county, which is serving more clients and generating more income.
"I believe we should treat all of our citizens equally," Barg said.
Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) suggested that the board delay voting on the center for two weeks to give the county time to learn more about the private facility and to check reports that the state had cited it for violations. He said closing the county center and referring its clients to the other facility didn't amount to privatizing services.
"You aren't really tying into this organization, you are just dumping," he said.
As the board debated whether to postpone the vote, Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) warned supervisors that "delaying is not an option."
"If we don't do this reduction, something else will have to go," Stewart said. "If we don't cut here, something else might have to be cut, probably something that doesn't have a private alternative."
After more debate, the board voted unanimously to postpone the decision for two weeks. Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) urged those who spoke in favor of keeping the center open to work with the county to find more clients to support its level of service.
The center was not the only thing on residents' mind. A few spoke about the importance of human services in general. Bill Metheny of Stafford, a retired county police officer, said he was appearing on behalf of current and retired police officers to urge the board not to cut police jobs or services.
"Are they going to be willing to wait an extra 10-15 minutes for the ambulance while their loved one is having a heart attack, or are they going to be willing to wait an extra 10-15 minutes for a police officer while they are being pummeled by a thug?" Metheny said.
Supervisors will revisit the adult day-care center issue March 6, when they will be presented with the 2008 fiscal budget, including recommendations for $22 million in cuts.