Fairfax County Public Library branches that serve low-income neighborhoods, including Reston Regional Library, tend to have more cards blocked due to fines

After a slight delay, Fairfax County Public Library has come to the same realization as dozens of other library systems in the D.C. area and across the country: that fining patrons for overdue materials doesn’t work.

The library’s Board of Trustees got informal but clear support from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a joint meeting yesterday (Tuesday) to stop FCPL’s practice of charging late fees for unreturned books, DVDs, and other resources.

The trustees must still officially vote to eliminate library fines, but if that happens in November or December as anticipated, the new fine-free policy will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022, FCPL Director Jessica Hudson told the Board of Supervisors, noting that people will still be expected to pay back the cost of lost or damaged items.

“I have not heard anyone on this board that doesn’t wholeheartedly support [the fine-free strategy],” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “So, [I] look forward to the library board moving forward with that, and being able to accomplish that would be, I think, a big win for all our users.”

Fines Affect Library Access

Inspired by the One Fairfax policy, which commits the county to considering racial and social equity in its policies and decision-making, the FCPL Board of Trustees started exploring the idea of eliminating fines with the creation of an ad hoc committee in April.

Tasked with reviewing trends and determining the effectiveness of fines, the committee found that fines are not only futile at incentivizing the timely return of materials, but instead, actually discourage people from returning overdue items and utilizing library services.

“If you have a book checked out, and it’s a month late, and you know that you’ve got fines accrued on it, it doesn’t really make you want to run into the library and quickly turn it in and pay your fine,” Hudson said. “Instead, it acts as a punitive measure that ensures that some members of our population are never going to come back to the library.”

The committee recommended that FCPL eliminate fines at a Board of Trustees meeting on July 14, citing the policy’s ineffectiveness, its disproportionate impact on youth and low-income communities, and declining revenue from fines in a statement that the board accepted on Sept. 8.

According to the committee, 17% of the approximately 420,000 library cardholders that FCPL had prior to the pandemic — including 23% of cardholders younger than 18 — had their cards blocked because their accounts carried more than $15 in outstanding fines.

The number of blocked cards correlated closely with neighborhood income, with low-income areas served by the Reston, City of Fairfax, George Mason, Kingstowne, and Sherwood regional libraries having particularly high rates, according to Hudson. Read More

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Fairfax County officials are undertaking a comprehensive review of off-street parking for the first time since the late 1980s.

Conducted by a consultant, the county’s Parking Reimagined project will kick off a community engagement process this month for the public to weigh in on how it could update its approach to parking, such as by revising parking rates or reassessing land-use requirements.

County staff presented their efforts to assess off-street parking yesterday (Tuesday) during a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. The project is expected to last 12-18 months.

“One of the critical elements of this project is community engagement,” said Michael Davis, a county staffer and parking lead. “Our community outreach is intended to encompass all the different areas of the county in the sense of business owners, renters, residents, religious assembly leaders, nonprofits, because parking has an effect on all of these in some form or fashion.”

A white paper on the project notes the “engagement process will be ongoing and interactive with the community as we gain more knowledge of the parking needs…and propose changes to the requirements.”

Options to include the public may include community and town hall meetings, video presentations, surveys and more. Public hearings on proposed changes could occur in late 2022 into early 2023.

Two county departments are part of the project: Fairfax County Land Development Services, which deals with how property construction codes and regulations, and the Department of Land Development, which provides proposals, advice and assistance on land use, development review and zoning issues to decision-makers.

To assist with the review, the county hired Clarion-Nelson\Nygaard, a partnership of two land use and transportation consulting firms, this past spring.

The white paper says equity, affordability, land use, environmental, and economic concerns will all be considered as part of the study.

“Society has changed,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said during the meeting, noting that residents of one townhouse community in Annandale built in 1972 are “screaming they have no place to park.”

Gross said the county needs to look at retrofitting existing townhouse communities to meet current parking needs.

Changes in technology, development, and people’s habits over the past few decades require a reevaluation of how spaces are used and where they’re actually needed. The white paper highlights the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, ridesharing, remote work, and online retail among the trends that have affected parking needs.

On one end of the spectrum, limited parking spots can mean the difference between whether a business has enough spots and whether vehicles spill over onto nearby residential streets, Land Development Services director Bill Hicks said.

On the other, there are office parks and strip malls with lots that take up half a block but rarely host more than a handful of vehicles. Hunter Mill District Walter Alcorn called some parking situations in the county “bonkers.”

He also forecast that parking needs will continue to change over time, so county officials should examine the situation as it evolves over the coming years.

As the review of off-street parking gets underway, the county is also still considering potentially adding parking meters for certain on-street areas, particularly in Tysons and Reston. Proposals for that could be presented to the Board of Supervisors next year.

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Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams speaks at a union rally prior to a public hearing on a proposed collective bargaining ordinance for county government workers (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 6:45 p.m.) Scores of people called on Fairfax County to adopt a more robust collective bargaining policy for county government workers at a Board of Supervisors public hearing on a proposed ordinance yesterday (Tuesday).

At a rally before the public hearing and at the meeting itself, labor union representatives and other speakers stated that they want more workers to be eligible to participate in collective bargaining, more ability to negotiate working conditions, and more flexibility in discussing labor issues while they’re at work.

“This is a defining moment,” Fairfax County Federation of Teachers president Tina Williams said during yesterday’s public hearing. “Fairfax County can set the standard in Virginia.”

Williams and Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams were among the educational leaders who gave their support to a county ordinance, even though it would not cover school employees. Fairfax County Public Schools needs to adopt a policy separately.

Fairfax County has spent months developing collective bargaining procedures after the Virginia General Assembly broke from a 1977 state Supreme Court ruling that banned public-sector unions from collectively bargaining. The legislature approved a law in April 2020 that gives localities the authority to develop ordinances to permit collective bargaining if they choose to do so.

County leaders have expressed support for collective bargaining, which is already permitted for government workers in most states as well as D.C. Some neighboring jurisdictions, including Arlington and the City of Alexandria, adopted their own ordinances earlier this year.

With labor groups representing a wide range of workers, from firefighters and police to public works, nurses, librarians, and social workers, weighing in, the Board of Supervisors decided to defer a vote on the ordinance to its next regular meeting on Oct. 19.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said the postponement will let supervisors to absorb the testimony and respond to speakers’ requests to take more time on the matter. Written comments will continue to be accepted as part of the public hearing.

Most speakers during the hours-long hearing came in support of an ordinance, though a few raised concerns about the implications the matter would have on taxpayers.

The county projects that the ordinance will carry $1.9 million in annual costs to handle increased workloads.

At least nine full-time equivalent employees and additional support positions will be needed to address new work involving labor relations, legal support, policy administration, contract compliance and administration, according to a county staff report.

While there was broad support for collective bargaining, labor groups and other stakeholders voiced concerns about the most recent draft of the proposed ordinance. Read More

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Fairfax County officially has its first countywide strategic plan.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 yesterday (Tuesday) to adopt the document, which presents an all-encompassing, coordinated vision for the county’s operations, priorities, and services over the next two decades.

In the works since 2019, the strategic plan focuses on 10 “community outcome areas” that “represent the issues of greatest importance” to the community:

 

“The Countywide Strategic Plan will help guide our future together so the Board, residents and staff are working toward the same goals and outcomes,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said in a press release. “This plan will be a centralized, coordinated way for us to be even more efficient as a government so we’re more responsive to our community’s needs.”

The strategic plan was initially developed prior to the pandemic, but the county paused the process due to the public health emergency and reworked the plan to encompass new prioritizations from the last 18 months.

The main change was the separation of health and environment into two separate categories.

It’s intended to be a living document that integrates other broad planning efforts like the Fairfax County Public Schools’ strategic plan and the One Fairfax policy. It will also help the board focus its legislative efforts over the next several years.

In the press release, County Executive Bryan Hill called Fairfax County’s first-ever “unified” strategic plan “a key milestone” in the government’s efforts to shape the county’s future.

“I’m grateful to the tens of thousands of residents and hundreds of staff who have developed this plan,” Hill said. “I look forward to the next steps, including reporting results to the community, aligning existing plans within this framework and further advancing our One Fairfax equity lens across all outcome areas.”

At yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity was the only board member to vote against adopting the plan, citing insufficient community feedback.

He also argued that the plan should do more to address traffic congestion and that it will continue to allow taxes to be too high.

The other supervisors approved the strategic plan, despite several noting that they were not 100% pleased with the process and expressing concern that the document is too vague.

Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust criticized the lack of prioritization, information about implementation, or how the county is progressing based on over 150 metrics identified by the plan.

“I don’t think we are done, to say the least,” Foust said. “This is not, in my opinion, a roadmap for the county executive to prioritize and budget…We need to keep working, and the board has to stay involved to complete the process.”

Several supervisors observed that there was a lack of participation from a diverse set of voices.

As of September, the county had received nearly 22,000 survey responses in eight different languages. A fourth survey closed on Sept. 24, so that number will be updated later this month.

A feedback session held in July found that the attendees’ preferred focus areas were cultural and recreational opportunities, economic stability and mobility, financial sustainability and access to services.

Now that the plan has been adopted, the county will start implementing its guidelines, a process that will include further community engagement, prioritization, and identifying “headline metrics” in each of the 10 areas that will be used to develop the fiscal year 2024 budget.

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A new rebate program that starts next year would give thousands of dollars to Virginians who buy or lease an electric vehicle.

But it’s not funded.

Fairfax County officials said the Virginia House of Delegates sought to put $5 million into the program, which awards $2,500 rebates and more, but that money wasn’t included in the General Assembly’s budget.

“Until the General Assembly funds the rebates, there won’t be any rebates,” said Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy.

Her department is tasked with establishing a website to administer the program that includes weekly updates about the availability of funds.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam approved HB 1979 — the bill that created the program — on March 31, and it went into effect July 1. It stated that the rebates depend upon available funds.

The rebates would cover vehicles that must use electricity as their only source of power. They’d cover two categories:

  • new and leased vehicles that have a base price of $55,000 or less
  • used vehicles that cost $25,000 or less

Introduced by Loudoun County Del. David A. Reid, the legislation was intended to encourage greater adoption of electric vehicles in the Commonwealth. About 7% of U.S. adults have an electric or a hybrid vehicle, an adoption rate that lags behind China and Europe, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ legislative committee, which tracks state bills and determines the county’s policy positions and priorities, discussed the matter during a meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 21).

Board Chairman Jeff McKay, who serves as vice chair of the committee, suggested that the state should also modify a second rebate that was included in the bill.

Under the law, an additional rebate of $2,000 could be used for people whose household income is 300% or less of the federal poverty level, which currently equates to $38,640 for a single adult or $65,880 for a family of three.

McKay said that threshold would shut out many people in Fairfax County, even though they would be more likely to buy an electric vehicle than residents of some other parts of the state.

“This is really important from an equity standpoint,” McKay said. “Those can be affordable vehicles with these [types] of rebate programs.”

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A Food Lion in Herndon (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County’s new plastic bag tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, drew both support and opposition from the supermarket industry.

Food Lion and MOM’s Organic Market took opposite stances on the issue before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change last Tuesday (Sept. 14), imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided at grocery stores, convenient stores, and drug stores.

“While Food Lion strongly supports responsible stewardship and waste reduction efforts, complying with a patchwork of varying local single-use bag restrictions in the Commonwealth negatively impacts Food Lion’s ability to serve our customers and implement uniform brand strategies for waste reduction and recycling,” the company said in a letter shared by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only board member who voted against the measure.

Headquartered in Salisbury, N.C., Food Lion has one store in Fairfax County, located in a shopping center in Herndon.

The company’s director of operations, Eric Sword, said in the emailed statement to the county that the business recycled 6,914 tons of plastic in 2020, among other recycling efforts, and it’s working to meet a parent company goal to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

“Food Lion is supportive of broad-based efforts to reduce customer usage of both paper and plastic bags, and the brand continuously works to raise customer awareness of the value of using reusable bags,” the letter said.

However, Sword wrote that he believes the change will shift consumer behavior almost entirely to paper bags, even though the company seeks to encourage reusable bags for customers.

Meanwhile, a MOM’s representative noted during the Sept. 14 public hearing that their business voluntarily banned plastic bags over a decade ago and uses paper and compostable bags.

“We banned plastic bags 15 years ago because it was the right thing to do for the environment and the communities we call home,” Alexandra DySard, the company’s environment and partnership manager, said in video testimony.

The Rockville, Maryland-based supermarket, which has stores in Herndon and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, favors alternatives to a plastic bag that many people might only use for 12 minutes, DySard said.

“Plastic manufacturers are misleading consumers to believe that bags are being upcycled into benches and decks when the truth is the majority of plastic bags are being sent to landfills, incinerators, ending up in our waterways, or being shipped out of sight to third-world countries,” DySard said.

She also noted that D.C. saw a 72% reduction in plastic bags found in streams after its ban took effect in 2010.

FFXnow contacted other grocery chains in the area for comment, including Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter, but did not receive responses by press time.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the new tax 9-1, as advocates likened it to a fee that people can avoid and expressed hope that the move will encourage consumers’ environmental stewardship.

“Plastic bag taxes are proven in jurisdictions across the nation,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the measure. “This measure will reduce plastic pollution and the modest funds collected will be reinvested into litter prevention and to providing reusable bags for low-income community members.”

Herrity dissented, saying in newsletters sent to constituents before and after the vote that now is not the time to add another tax.

“Instead of instituting a rigorous education campaign — one that encompasses how to recycle and dispose of multiple forms of trash — the Board is taxing residents into compliance,” Herrity said, suggesting the county needs to “create more ways for people to recycle and more materials to educate them on how they can” do so.

The county hasn’t allocated the future tax revenue to a specific purpose yet, but state law permits it to be used for pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs about reducing waste, and reusable bags for residents who receive federal food assistance benefits.

The tax doesn’t apply to:

  • multiple bags sold in packages, such as those for garbage, leaves or pet waste
  • plastic bags used solely for certain food products such as ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items
  • plastic bags with handles designed for multiple reuse
  • plastic bags for dry cleaning or prescription drugs

With the board’s vote last week, Fairfax County was the first Northern Virginia locality to institute a plastic bag tax, but neighboring Arlington County and the City of Alexandria quickly followed suit, adopting their own ordinances on Saturday (Sept. 18).

Photo via Google Maps

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A solar energy-powered lamp post (via Sandra Parra/Unsplash)

Fairfax County has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and now, it has a plan to achieve that goal.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted the county’s first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) when it met on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

First proposed by the board’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council in 2018, the plan features an inventory of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and recommendations for how to curb them so the community can realize its aspirations of carbon neutrality.

“Together, the strategies and actions are intended to power individuals and organizations within the community, to engage in, lead, and champion the emissions reduction needed to achieve county-wide carbon neutrality,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said, reading from the board matter he issued. “Climate change is a major existential crisis already causing major impacts in Fairfax County.”

The final report calls on both the county and its citizens to take far-reaching, significant actions.

Proposals include cutting the use of fossil fuel-burning cars, installing solar panels at home, creating more through recycling and composting programs, adopting more stringent green-building policies, and being a “conscious consumer.”

Storck’s motion passed 9-0, with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity not present during the vote.

A few moments before the vote, Herrity said he was going to abstain due to concerns over timing, lack of proper community engagement, and cost, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The economic outlook over the next few years is uncertain,” Herrity said. “Our decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. This plan will have planned and unintended impacts on the economy and taxpayers. Beyond what I’m imagining will be a very steep cost to implement this plan, it will also have a very serious impact on the affordability of homes, increasing the actual cost as well as permitting and regulatory costs.”

The rest of the board countered that the county can’t afford to wait any longer to address the already-existing threat of climate change.

“The cost of doing nothing is significant, if not life-threatening,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “And I think most responsible people who are paying attention to the subject and the science…most certainly get that.”

Storck, who helped spearhead the CECAP as chair of the board’s environmental committee, reiterated that county operations and schools only account for about 5% of Fairfax County’s carbon emissions. The remaining 95% of emissions come from the private sector and the general community.

As noted in a presentation that Storck delivered, transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption are the two largest sources of greenhouse emissions. Combined, those areas produce more than 90% of all emissions in the county.

As a result, while the county will have a leadership role, this new plan is about asking the community to take the necessary steps to curb emissions, Storck said.

“There will be no area, sector, or part of our society that won’t be impacted [by the reduction goals in this plan],” he said. “How much? That’s largely a function of how aggressively we move forward.”

As the county worked to finalize the CECAP over the summer, the United Nations released a sobering report last month that said, even if future emissions are lowered, global temperatures will continue to rise until at least the middle of the 21st century, leading to more extreme weather and other worsening climate issues.

County staff told the board’s environmental committee in July that the CECAP’s implementation was already underway, a process that includes community outreach, public education, and an exhaustive review of existing county policies to see how they line up with the now-accepted plan.

Additional plans related to the initiative’s implementation, such as how the county can build on existing programs, will be presented to the board at an environmental committee meeting in early 2022.

Photo via Sandra Parra/Unsplash

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Plastic bag on ground (via Ivan Radic/Flickr)

Fairfax County will require certain businesses, but not all, to pay taxes on disposable plastic bags in a move to encourage customers to use reusable bags.

The Board of Supervisors passed the measure yesterday (Tuesday) after a new state law gave counties and cities the authority to begin imposing a 5-cent tax starting in 2021. The tax will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 for Fairfax County.

In a statement released after the vote, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay acknowledged the challenges of introducing a new tax while the county continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he says the impact of plastic bags on the environment “is too great” to not act.

“There are simple steps residents can take to avoid the over-use of disposable plastic bags,” he said. “A small fee on plastic bags is an opportunity for residents to look at their habits while providing the County with avenues for environmental cleanup, education, and access to environmentally friendly alternatives.”

Fairfax County is the first locality in Northern Virginia to adopt a plastic bag tax, according to Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw’s office. Walkinshaw initiated a board motion to pursue the issue in July as part of a joint effort with McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Consistent with the state law, the tax applies to grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, but there are exemptions for reusable plastic bags, bags used for perishable food to prevent damage or contamination, bags that carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning, and bags sold in bulk, such as garbage bags.

“Plastic bags frequently end up in a landfill, where it can take more than 500 years for the bag to disintegrate. Many plastic bags end up in our streams,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli said. “While the impact on human health is still being addressed, there is evidence that humans ingest and inhale thousands of microplastics per year, which result in the breakdown of disposable plastic bags and other plastic products.”

The Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination says the tax is intended to influence consumer behavior by discouraging consumers from using single-use disposable plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. uses over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create. Turtles, one of several aquatic creatures that suffer from the trash, die of starvation after eating them.

The Board of Supervisors approved the measure 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — the lone Republican member — opposing it. He said food banks reported relying on the bags to distribute food and argued that it’s the wrong time to add any tax. Read More

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