Mental health services, pedestrian safety and police retention are top Fairfax County priorities in 2023

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay (file photo)

Fairfax County’s top priorities for 2023 will be increasing mental health services, boosting police retention, addressing commercial office vacancies, and improving pedestrian safety, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says.

Adequately addressing those needs, though, requires more financial help and local authority from Virginia’s General Assembly, he told FFXnow in an interview.

With the county increasingly reliant on real estate taxes, officials expect this budget cycle to be one of the most challenging in a decade.

As property values rise, the tax burden on property owners is already “significant” and hurting residents, McKay said. To not “exacerbate” the situation, the county likely needs to lower the real estate tax rate.

“I personally believe absolutely we have to reduce the tax rate as a part of this next budget,” McKay said.

Continued recovery from the pandemic is paramount, informing all the board’s priorities for the upcoming year, McKay said.

While economic recovery from the pandemic tends to get a lot of attention, there remains “a lot of work to do” on human services, according to the chairman.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the ongoing growth of mental health challenges, especially with some of our young people,” McKay said. “I do think that a good chunk of that is a byproduct of what we’ve been through with Covid.”

Mental health-related challenges affect everything from police calls to unemployment and schools, he said. The county’s current budget gave close to $186 million to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides support services.

McKay believes the state’s $37 million contribution isn’t enough, arguing that mental health funding should be “primarily a state responsibility.”

“This is something the state has to get really serious about addressing,” he said. “Frankly, if they provided the level of support that the county did, we probably wouldn’t have near the mental health challenges in Virginia that we have now.”

Increasing mental health services could mean more educational programs, staffing, and supportive programs.

It also ties into public safety, as the Fairfax County Police Department struggles with understaffing and retention. McKay says officers are being asked to take on responsibilities that they shouldn’t have to handle.

“Increasingly our police are almost being asked to be mental health clinicians [when then are] mental health service calls,” he said. “It’s stressing them out and getting people not interested in joining police departments.”

In 2021, the county instituted a co-responder program where a crisis intervention specialist joins police officers on certain mental health-related calls. Alongside the county’s Diversion First program, launched in 2016, it provides treatment to individuals instead of incarceration. McKay says the programs need to “grow dramatically.”

Right now, the co-responder program has only two full-time counselors, but it needs 16 full-time staff. The deficit became tragically clear in August when police shot and killed a 26-year-old McLean resident who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Inadequate staffing also means one mental health call could tie up an officer for an entire shift.

“They have to chaperone them into a hospital for endless hours, which takes officers off the street and costs the county a lot of money,” McKay said. “A big goal of mine is to fund the co-responder program and to hold the state accountable for their lack of funding. We have to recognize that if you’re going to get a full Covid recovery, you have to put resources into mental health services.”

He’s optimistic more resources could be coming the county’s way due to a state surplus and a better understanding of the magnitude of the problem.

$37 million [from the state] for mental health support is embarrassing given the need that we have and given the conversation that the governor has had about increasing funding in this area,” he said. “How can you not be optimistic that they see the obvious here and address it?”

Finding a solution to high office vacancies and an “overreliance” on real estate taxes are also priorities.

The board seeks to enable conversions of underused office space into retail, housing or even homeless shelters. While it’s up to the private sector to follow through, McKay acknowledged the county could make its policies easier to understand and implement. The county’s new online platform for permitting and zoning was plagued by technical issues last fall.

“It’s been a challenge, a massive headache,” McKay said about the system launch. “If we can get people through our process quicker, more predictable, and more reliable, using technology to help cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape, we can get some of these redevelopment projects moving a lot quicker.”

He said all the county’s processes need to be “firing on all cylinders.”

The board will also focus on pedestrian safety in 2023, with “major money” being committed to projects and programs after a surge in fatalities in Fairfax County and across the region.

McKay noted again that this isn’t solely a county problem to solve.

“We have a lot of [Virginia Department of Transportation] streets that the county doesn’t own, that needs sidewalk or pedestrian improvements,” he said.

McKay also referenced $102 million that was diverted away from Northern Virginia to fund Metro. About $64 million has been restored, but the remaining $40 million is “essential” for needed safety improvements. The county has already identified dozens of projects after the board pledged to spend more than $100 million over the next few years.

County Executive Bryan Hill will release the fiscal year 2024 advertised budget plan on Feb. 21. A final budget will be adopted May 9.

By then, the county should know exactly how much money to expect from the state.

“We don’t have unlimited funding,” McKay said. “Not to be a broken record here, but I’m pushing hard during this [General Assembly] session to get real money for these priorities.”