In the future, Fairfax County residents won’t need to trek to a park to experience nature.
Instead, the park will find them with the Wonder Wagon Mobile Nature Center, a Fairfax County Park Authority initiative that will bring educational programs on nature and the environment to underserved communities and Title I schools with limited access to green spaces.
“Mobile nature centers will allow greater opportunity for communities to come to know the Park Authority and the cultural and natural resources around them,” FCPA public information officer Benjamin Boxer said. “…The concept is to activate the nature that is all around us for those who may not have the means for easy access to one of the Park Authority’s facilities.”
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved an initial $114,640 for the mobile nature center with its adoption of the fiscal year 2024 budget on May 9. However, that funding falls short of the $229,279 that the park authority requested to cover two merit staff positions and operating costs for a full year.
In addition, the FCPA estimates that it needs approximately $200,000 to acquire electric or hybrid vans to transport the center.
The county hopes to fill those gaps with the help of the Fairfax County Park Foundation, the nonprofit that obtains private donations, grants and partnerships to supplement the park authority’s public funding.
Earlier this month, the foundation was awarded a $34,000 grant for the mobile nature center from the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia’s Environment Fund, which launched in 2018 with its first grant going to the Fairfax County Public Schools Get2Green initiative.
Boxer called the grant “a significant step” in the foundation’s fundraising effort.
“The Fairfax County Park Foundation is grateful for the generous…grant from CFNOVA,” Bobbi Longworth, the foundation’s executive director, said. “The grant will help fund the Wonder Wagon Mobile Nature Center that will teach children in Title 1 elementary schools and underserved areas about the environment and the importance of stewardship of nature and parks. By bringing environmental education to them, it will increase the children’s connectedness to nature where they live.”
According to the FCPA, the mobile centers will be filled with supplies for “a variety of interactive field trip experiences,” from science experiments to live insects and other creatures.
The exact programming remains to be determined, as the park authority plans to host some community engagement events starting this summer to gather ideas from the public.
“Test programs may begin in the fall,” Boxer said.
(Updated at 3 p.m.) The Herndon Town Council voted unanimously this week to reduce the town’s real estate tax rate for the first time in more than a decade.
At a meeting on Tuesday (May 9), the council approved a decrease of the rate from $0.265 per $100 of assessed real estate property value to $0.260 per $100 of assessed value.
“This council’s vote to lower the tax rate is acknowledgement of the higher cost of living many of our citizens are experiencing,” Mayor Sheila Olem said. “Real estate assessments are up. The cost of groceries, utilities, gas — all are up. Our aim in adopting this tax rate decrease is to offer some relief to our citizens in these economic times.”
The half-cent cut is a change from the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget submitted last month by Town Manager Bill Ashton II, who suggested keeping the tax rate flat.
But under the newly adopted budget, water and sewer rates will increase by roughly 1.5% due to higher treatment and commodity costs, according to the town.
The town is also positioning itself to absorb the town’s rising contribution to capital costs associated with water sewer treatment. Other taxes and fees remain unchanged.
Overall, the $62.2 million package represents an 8.6% spending increase over last year.
It also includes market rate adjustments (MRA) to boost employee salaries, particularly for sworn officers of the Herndon Police Department.
“The council’s adopted budget also authorizes a significant market rate adjustment for sworn officers of the Herndon Police Department, giving the town parity among nearby jurisdictions, all of which are competing for qualified law enforcement candidates,” the town said.
According to a town spokesperson, the details for the police MRA increase “are not final,” but non-sworn town employees will get a 1% bump this July, followed by a 2% increase in January 2024.
The adopted budget will be available online by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Fairfax County could be getting park rangers one day, but it won’t be this year.
With the police department’s staff stretched thin, the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) has proposed a new solution for addressing service calls in its system: a park ranger program.
But while the Board of Supervisors directed staff on May 2 to review options for law enforcement in the park system, the $1.1 million request didn’t make the cut for the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget, which will take effect July 1.
Depending on what the review recommends, funding could come in future years.
“In the proposed guidance for the FY 24-25 budget, the Board of Supervisors instructed county staff to ‘initiate a review of options to expand the presence of law enforcement within our park system, including the proposed park ranger program, and return to the Board with recommendations,'” Ben Boxer, public information officer for FCPA, said.
Boxer said issues like graffiti and thefts from vehicles have been increasingly problematic for the park authority in recent years.
“Parks, park users and staff often experience prohibited activities such as graffiti and destruction of property, unauthorized use, trespassing, encroachment, theft from vehicles, animal/dog bites, drug and alcohol use, littering, etc,” Boxer said. “These issues have always been a problem in parks but with Park Authority staffing cuts over the years, this type of activity has been steadily increasing and has driven the need to request and fund police coverage during the past several years.”
The FCPA has requested $1.1 million for a pilot program, consisting of six park rangers and three chief park rangers, along with vehicles and supplies. Those rangers would patrol the parks and educate the community on park rules and regulations.
Boxer said the possible Park Ranger pilot program is based on similar programs in Arlington County and Prince William County.
“Park safety and security rangers have been shown to help minimize the degradation of parks and improve the community’s park experience and satisfaction,” Boxer said. “The role is different from that of traditional law enforcement but can significantly alleviate the pressure on police in responding to calls.”
Instead, the new budget focuses on providing tax relief and increasing county employee pay. The budget is scheduled for adoption on today (Tuesday).
Thanks to higher-than-anticipated revenue, Fairfax County gave a financial boost last week to its affordable housing goals, public library collections and park facilities, among other initiatives.
Before taking a preliminary vote on the next budget, which will be adopted tomorrow (Tuesday), the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved nearly $10.7 million in changes to the current fiscal year 2023 budget — known as the third-quarter review — when it met on May 2.
For the biggest adjustment, the board increased funding for affordable housing by $8 million on top of $10 million already recommended by County Executive Bryan Hill.
The county has now committed over $118 million to affordable housing over the past two years, including $45 million in federal Covid relief funds, as it aims to produce 10,000 new units by 2034, per county documents.
“I think most people in our county, including very profoundly, the business community, understand that affordable housing is an essential ingredient for economic success,” Board Chairman Jeff McKay said. “It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s a requirement.”
Also included in the package was $300,000 for Fairfax County Public Library materials. FCPL Deputy Director Kevin Osborne says the library was “so pleased” that the board approved the funding, which will go toward research database subscriptions and ebooks.
“Due to the nature of eBook licensing to libraries, adding to the digital collection is more costly than adding to the physical collection so we are also hoping to purchase additional eBook licenses for some titles that have some excessively long hold queues,” he said in an emailed statement.
During a budget policy committee meeting on April 26, Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity put forward an “alternative” third-quarter proposal that gave $2 million to FCPL to expand its collection and hours, which were reduced last summer due to staffing challenges.
At the time, a library spokesperson said the vacancy rate was about 18 to 20%. While current numbers weren’t available by press time, filling the system’s 390 positions evidently remains an obstacle.
“Like many other employers, public libraries continue to face recruitment challenges,” Osborne said. “We have no update as to when normal hours will resume.”
Herrity’s proposal also suggested allocating $5 million to county park maintenance — with the combined $7 million coming out of the affordable housing funds. A version of the proposal without the library money died at last week’s meeting after no one else on the board “seconded” the motion for a discussion.
The approved third-quarter review did include $2.1 million for Fairfax County Park Authority projects:
- $1.7 million to improve six fields at Wakefield Park so they can accommodate softball
- $300,000 to replace and upgrade Lake Accotink Park’s playground, which has been closed since an inspector determined the equipment was unsafe in November
- $100,000 for a safety assessment of other playgrounds with equipment from the now-defunct vendor used at Accotink
The playground at Lake Accotink was removed the morning of May 2, according to the office of Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, whose district includes the park.
“FCPA is currently in the design process and expects to have information on the concept in the next few weeks,” a spokesperson for his office told FFXnow.
With its adjustments to the third-quarter review, the board also approved $217,308 to hire a contractor to remove signs illegally located in the public right-of-way and a $60,000 contribution to the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, an Annandale-based nonprofit that preserves land and water from development.
The influx of federal money that has helped buoy Fairfax County Public Schools and other school systems around the U.S. as they emerged from the first year of the Covid pandemic is starting to run out.
Facing a September 2024 deadline, FCPS officials presented a plan to the school board last Thursday (April 27) for spending approximately $57.5 million remaining from the $188.8 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) awarded by the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.
The biggest item in the plan is $22.2 million to extend contracts for special education teachers that compensate them for an additional 30 minutes of work per day, which FCPS says “is imperative” to attracting and retaining those faculty members.
“Our special education students were some of the students most impacted during the pandemic, and as a result, our special education teacher workload has significantly increased as they work very hard to meet the needs of those students,” FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio told the school board.
FCPS has 27,839 students with disabilities, who make up 15.5% of its enrollment, state data says. Based on data from before the pandemic, a report released last fall found significant disparities in test scores and discipline between those students and their peers not in special education.
In December, a U.S. Department of Education investigation determined that FCPS had failed to provide adequate support to special education students when it shifted to virtual learning early in the pandemic.
The proposed ESSER plan includes nearly $200,000 for compensatory services that FCPS is required to provide under its agreement with the DOE. The funds cover staffing as well as legal fees needed to reimburse for parents “for external educational costs incurred by them due to the pandemic-related school closures.”
When at-large school board member Abrar Omeish asked whether it was appropriate to use the funds on “trying to clean something up,” Presidio said the DOE confirmed it’s “an allowable expense” to address learning losses — one of four categories covered by ESSER.
While the spending plan mostly focuses on existing expenses, like a school health officer and the return of an expanded summer learning program, FCPS has proposed two new “projects”: $1.2 million to upgrade its website, and $250,000 to contract outside agencies that will work with chronically absent students.
About 15% of FCPS students missed 10% of school days or more during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).
“Essentially, we’re identifying individuals that can connect with the student and connect with the family, understand the root causes of why that student is not able to attend school,” Presidio said. “It might be a health issue, it might be a transportation issue, it might be a work issue and a scheduling issue, and really help try to resolve those for the student and family as best as possible.”
He said counselors, teachers, social services and other school workers will stay involved, but the chronic absenteeism provider will have more capacity for the “labor-intensive” task of working with individual families.
“We need somebody who’s able to actually do those home visits and really coordinate and kind of case manage the services for the student and to be able to spend time with the family and student to understand what those root causes are,” he said.
Some school board members expressed concern about the amount of ESSER funds going to staff positions, from social workers to academic tutors, given that the money will run out after the 2023-2024 school year.
Presidio noted that some positions previously covered by ESSER have been phased out, like social distancing monitors, while other expenses, like additional English as a Second Language workers, have been incorporated into FCPS’ regular budget.
However, he acknowledged that in many cases, decisions will need to be made about “can we afford to retain any of these positions or do we lose them all.”
The proposed ESSER budget for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, is scheduled to be approved by the school board on May 11. FCPS then hopes to get the VDOE’s approval by May 31.
With over $110 million in unallocated funds to work with, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors moved yesterday (Tuesday) to address employee compensation, tax relief and other priorities.
As approved by the board 9-1, nearly all of that available money will go toward reducing the real estate tax rate by 1.5 cents and fully funding salary market rate adjustments for county employees — items totaling $47 million and $54.9 million, respectively.
Other revisions to the county’s advertised budget for fiscal year 2024 include support for bamboo removal on park land, additional staffing for the 24-hour domestic violence hotline, and the creation of a self-help legal center in the Fairfax County Courthouse.
“The adjustments I’ve outlined here show a true balance between tax relief, investing in county employees, standing up and fighting for our school system, and also making sure that the core services that have made this county…are supported in this budget,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said when introducing the mark-up package.
The budget proposal that County Executive Bryan Hill presented in February kept the county’s real estate tax rate flat at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value, but with the average residential bill calculated to increase by about $520, board members indicated that they would look for ways to cut the rate.
With yesterday’s vote, the board agreed to adopt a rate of $1.095 per $100 of value, which will lower the average increase to $412.
Herrity proposes cuts to schools budget
Several supervisors expressed disappointment at not being able to make a bigger cut. Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross stated she had hoped for a 3-cent reduction, and Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity proposed an “alternative” budget that he said would take five cents off.
The reduction would’ve been achieved by cutting $100 million from the county’s funding for Fairfax County Public Schools and putting $31 million for affordable housing on hold, among other cuts, according to a plan Herrity shared at a pre-mark-up session on Friday (April 28).
After FCPS told the board in a memo that Herrity’s proposal would “most definitely” prevent the school system from fully covering worker salary increases, he revised the proposal yesterday to suggest cutting $31 million from schools, taking one additional cent off the tax rate.
“I’m all for giving schools all the resources they need to address the challenges of the pandemic and challenges of our kids, but the spending needs to be done in a responsible way,” Herrity said.
Other supervisors blasted Herrity’s proposal as “budgeting by ambush” and “completely out-of-touch.” McKay noted that any reduction in salary increases for teachers would mean losing state money contingent on average raises of at least 2.5% for instructional positions in FY 2024, which begins July 1.
“The Herrity budget proposal doesn’t cut waste,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “I think you were trying to find waste. Instead of waste, you found teacher salaries and textbooks. It’s not cutting fat from the FCPS budget, it’s cutting into the bone.”
Support for FCPS constitutes 52% of Hill’s proposed $5.1 billion budget, which includes a $144 million increase for the school system compared to last year. Read More
The Town of Vienna will reduce its real estate tax rate by a full cent for the upcoming fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1.
Approved unanimously by the town council on Monday (April 24), the reduction is bigger than the quarter-cent decrease first proposed by Town Manager Mercury Payton last month, but it still won’t be enough to completely counterbalance the rising property values most homeowners experienced this year.
The new tax rate of 19.5 cents per $100 of assessed value represents the 11th consecutive year where the town has adopted a flat or reduced rate compared to the previous year, according to a press release.
“While that rate doesn’t quite equalize everyone, it does help account for the increase in assessments,” Vienna Finance Director Marion Serfass told the town council. “…As homeowners in Vienna, we’re all pleased to know our houses are increasing in value. We’re not quite so pleased to pay increased taxes on them, but this lowering of the tax rate will offset that somewhat.”
On average, real estate assessments in Vienna increased by 10% this year, Mayor Linda Colbert said in the press release.
According to Colbert, the town council asked staff to revisit their financial forecasts to see if it would be possible to “to reduce that burden on taxpayers.”
“Thanks to conservative budgeting, no increase in health insurance rates for Town staff and an increase in other revenues reported later in the budget process, the finance staff determined that Vienna could further reduce the tax rate in the proposed budget and still operate at high standards,” Colbert said.
When presenting his proposed $50.1 million budget in March, Payton said the town anticipated getting increased revenue from business licenses, meals and sales taxes and interest rates, enabling it to address inflation and employee compensation.
Though the one-cent real estate tax rate reduction won’t stop many residents from getting higher bills, it will lower the average increase while allowing the town to maintain a rainy day fund with over 18% of the next year’s budget, the town says.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we cut the tax rate too far,” Serfass said. “We’re all worried about storms on the horizon. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, so we’re trying to be conservative.”
The proposed budget, which adds one staff position each in the public works and planning departments, is scheduled to go before the town council for a final vote on May 15.
A 12.5% salary increase for police officers will be under discussion later this week for inclusion in Fairfax County’s upcoming budget.
Other items under consideration in the mark-up package include more money for ArtsFairfax, funding for girls’ softball facilities, and establishing a self-help resource center in the Fairfax Courthouse library.
In many years, shifting revenue, expense, and administrative cost estimates enable adjustments to the advertised budget presented in February, opening up funding for some initially unaddressed items.
County Executive Bryan Hill left about $90.2 million in unallocated funds in the fiscal year 2024 advertised budget, but with adjustments, that has now risen to $110.4 million.
As a result, supervisors are able to submit items to be considered at a pre-markup discussion by the Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee on Friday (April 28) and a mark-up session with the full board on May 2.
Seven items were submitted for the mark-up package, totaling about $26.5 million.
The biggest ask, by far, is a 12.5% salary increase for police officers at rank of second lieutenant and below from Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity. The raises would cost $26.2 million and come in addition to the 2% market rate adjustment increase already in the budget.
“Budgets should be about priorities and public safety is a priority. We are short about 200 officers; we have had to disband many of our specialty units to staff patrol, and changed shifts which have had a negative impact on our current officers,” Herrity told FFXnow. “It is past time to address a staffing shortage we have seen coming for many years. We can address the public staffing crisis without increasing the tax burden on our residents.”
He added that he’s “very optimistic” the board will approve at least some level of salary increase, if not the full 12.5%.
Last year, the county gave raises to certain public safety workers as part of the mark-up package, but it was a step increase and cost the county $6.1 million.
Herrity also is proposing to reduce supervisor office support budgets by $1.1 million, the same amount it was increased by in last year’s budget.
“This is a microcosm for the illogical spending in our County. Last year, no one answered my question about who proposed the $1.1 million increase for Board office budgets,” Herrity said. “We certainly do not need increased staff budgets, certainly not on top of the 38% salary increase. The money would be better spent focusing on improving access and customer service by county agencies as Board staff spend about 75% of their time helping residents with services.”
Also set to be considered is a proposal from Board Chairman Jeff McKay and Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw to provide $300,00 to reduce the “disparity between girls’ fastpitch softball and boys’ baseball facilities.”
In February, the two requested funding after a recent study revealed a widening gap in the quality and quantity of fields in the county available for softball compared to baseball. The supervisors asked for $1.7 million in one-time funding and a recurring cost of $300,000 for consideration in this year’s budget.
Other items that will be considered at the mark-up sessions in the coming weeks include:
- Expanding the Opportunity Neighborhoods initiative into Centreville at a cost of $413,000
- Establishing a self-help resource center within the law library at the Fairfax County Courthouse at a cost of $96,000
- An increase of $200,000 to ArtsFairfax for operating expenses
- Providing $350,000 to nonprofit projects that make home repairs and accessibility modifications so low and moderate-income households who are aging or disabled can stay in their homes
The 2024 fiscal year budget is set to be adopted on May 9.
Fairfax County is currently set to keep its real estate tax rate the same as last year, but some local residents accused county leadership of trying to disguise a tax hike for local residents.
During a meeting on Tuesday (April 11), the Board of Supervisors held a public hearing for the fiscal year 2024 tax rate, which is likely to hold steady at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value.
The staff report notes, however, that holding the tax rate steady is effectively an increase in the tax bill for most residents. According to the report:
It should be noted that the total increase in assessed value of existing properties is expected to be 5.68 percent, including an increase of 6.97 percent for residential real property and an increase of 1.65 percent for non-residential real property. As a result, most property owners would experience an increase in their real estate tax bill even if the tax rate remains unchanged.
The tax rate drew the ire of some locals in the public comments, who said the relatively low attendance at the meeting was another sign that the public didn’t fully understand what the tax rate would mean for their bills.
“In his March 7 email, the Chairman said the advertised rate of $1.11 is unchanged from last year,” said Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers’ Alliance. “That statement is in violation of the Virginia Code, which states that previous years’ rate must be lowered to offset an increase in assessments.”
He claimed that the rate should be lowered to $1.05 and accused the County leadership of underhanded dealing when it came to the tax rate.
“A good rule of thumb for homeowners is that when supervisors say they are reducing the tax rate, expect a tax hike,” Purves said. “This is because the Supervisors only reduce the rate when there is an assessment increase and the rate is never reduced enough to offset the assessment increase.”
Purves said that, even as someone aware of the ins and outs of the budget process, it was still frustratingly difficult to find out when the public hearing on the proposed tax rate was being held. Others said they had similar challenges finding out when the budget hearings would be held.
“These taxes are a significant financial burden for businesses and homeowners alike,” said Justin Mastrangelo. “While I understand what you’re trying to do behind the increase, it can be difficult for many of us to absorb the cost.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay previously called the budget forecast a “real mixed bag” and indicated to FFXnow that he would support a reduction in the tax rate, though the board hasn’t signaled how much of a drop is under consideration.
Others at the public hearing noted that inflation and changing real estate markets would, as Mastrangelo said, put much of the costs onto county residents.
The tax rate is open to feedback until May 2, 2023. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote and adopt the FY 2024 budget on May 9.
Lake Accotink Park’s playground has seen better days, not unlike the lake itself.
The Fairfax County Park Authority closed the playground at the popular Springfield park in November after an inspector determined the rusting equipment was “unsafe for use,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said at a Board of Supervisors meeting yesterday (Tuesday).
The supervisor proposed allocating $300,000 to replace the playground. An attempt to repair the equipment faltered because the vendor that originally provided the playground in the mid-1990s is no longer operating, according to Walkinshaw.
“Other playground vendors do not offer matching replacement components that would allow for a safe repair and re-opening,” Walkinshaw said. “In the months since the playground’s closing, FCPA has exhausted every avenue possible to procure the needed matching replacement part. At this point, the only option left for the opening of a safe playground at Lake Accotink Park, is a full replacement.”
The funding request will be considered as part of the board’s budget review for the third quarter of fiscal year 2023, which ends June 30. Other items being discussed for the $51.2 million available to the county include upgrades for the county’s tax payment system and running bamboo clearing projects.
Originally installed in 1995, the playground near the marina at Lake Accotink Park (7500 Accotink Park Road) features a swing set and a structure with five slides, ramps and inclines, a “shaky bridge” and a tic-tac-toe game.
The new playground will be different from the current one, according to Fairfax County Park Authority spokesperson Benjamin Boxer, though the agency is still determining the scope of the project.
“While there may be some common features, it will be an updated design and composition,” Boxer said. “Once a final project scope is determined, contingent upon approved funding, we will have a more concrete idea of the final playground concept. The updated playground will be in the same location as the existing playground area.”
The park authority won’t know exactly what materials are needed — and therefore, when construction can take place — until funding is approved, according to Boxer.
“If approved, we could proceed with completing the scope and ensure conformance with permitting,” he said by email. “An actual timeline will be available once the requisition is created and availability and potential delivery of materials is arranged.”
The playground project comes in the middle of a larger existential challenge to the 493-acre Lake Accotink Park, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in August and saw more than 300,000 visitors a year before the pandemic, according to Walkinshaw.
After years of planning to dredge accumulating sediment, county staff recommended earlier this year that the lake instead be allowed to fill up and transform into a wetland, stating that dredging would now be too costly and have too many negative community and environmental impacts.
The Board of Supervisors will discuss staff’s proposal at an environmental committee meeting on April 25.
“The replacement of the playground would not be affected by the outcome of the Board’s decision whether or not to dredge Lake Accotink,” Boxer said.