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A Fairfax County voting machine in use during the June 2021 primary election (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Early voting for the next general election has just gotten underway, but Fairfax County’s elections staff is already planning for next year and beyond.

The county’s Office of Elections has requested $5 million to launch a multi-year rollout of new, updated voting machines as part of a $190 million spending package carried over from fiscal year 2022, which ended on June 30.

Expected to start in 2023, the process will replace more than 1,200 machines owned by the county, according to Fairfax County Office of Elections spokesperson Brian Worthy. The existing machines are now eight years old.

“While the machines are secure, function well and meet current standards, the Office of Elections will replace them to keep up with technology changes, as well as meet new federal security guidelines that will become the standard in the near future,” Worthy said.

The voting machine replacement plan is one of several initiatives covered by the FY 2022 carryover review, which uses surplus funds to address previously approved or new, one-time budget items.

Buoyed by higher-than-anticipated revenue from staff vacancies and close spending management, per an Aug. 1 memo from County Executive Bryan Hill, the package includes a net total of 30 new positions, 27 of them for the upcoming South County Animal Shelter.

The animal shelter positions are needed to ensure the facility is staffed for an expected opening in May, Chief Financial Officer Christian Jackson told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee on Sept. 20.

The proposal raised some eyebrows, since it will require ongoing funding.

“We have traditionally been very, very disciplined about using carryover for recurring expenses,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “30 is a lot [of positions].”

Jackson reassured the committee that the carryover will allocate $1.9 million to fill the positions for part of a year, but full-time funding of $2.9 million will be included in the county’s next proposed budget, which is typically presented in February each year.

Other notable items in the carryover review include:

  • $10.3 million for environmental initiatives, including electric vehicles and charging stations as well as LED streetlight replacements
  • $3.5 million for an expanded child care center at the Original Mount Vernon High School
  • $2.58 million for employee pay and benefits
  • $2.5 million to establish a Tysons anchor organization
  • $5 million for Fairfax County Park Authority capital projects
  • About $13.2 million for facility improvements, including the demolition of two Historic Courthouse wings and a long-term design for the Hybla Valley Community Center

The Board of Supervisors has also proposed using remaining unallocated money to help bring permanent restrooms to local high school stadiums, improve sidewalks to Huntley Meadows Park, enhance trails in Gum Springs, and hire a data scientist for the board auditor’s office.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity requested that the county address police staffing shortages with a $2.5 million reserve for one-time hiring bonuses. He also proposed letting employees defer retirement for two more years and enabling the police chief to hire retired officers.

Jackson said employees can only use the deferred retirement option for up to three years, but the current average is less than two years. She also said retired police officers can already be hired for a limited amount of time, since otherwise, they’d have to un-retire.

The board will vote on the carryover review after a public hearing on Oct. 11.

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The Fairfax County Government Center’s COVID-19 vaccination site in March 2021 (via FCHD/Twitter)

There were undeniably hiccups along the way, but Fairfax County’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic earned an overall positive assessment from community surveys conducted this summer.

A general community survey issued in June received 2,148 responses, representing just a fraction of the county’s over 1.1 million residents.

However, 90% of respondents reported experiencing little or no difficulty accessing county services during the pandemic, and 89% said the same specifically for services related to COVID-19, Fairfax County Emergency Management Coordinator Seamus Mooney told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 13.

On average, 71% of 147 surveyed businesses said they would’ve had to stop operations or been otherwise negatively affected without access to county services. 91% of community organizations said they were satisfied with their collaborations with the county, per Mooney’s presentation.

“This was an international health emergency, the likes of which none of us had ever seen before,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “So, we were pivoting day in and day out, every minute to try to respond to our community, and this survey proves that our response was effective and that our agencies really stood up and did their job.”

The survey findings were shared as part of a COVID-19 After Action Report that the county is compiling to assess its response to the pandemic and how this experience could inform its response to future emergencies.

While the full report won’t be finalized until later this year, Mooney said the surveys and feedback from the supervisors’ offices and different county agencies suggest the government successfully adapted to the pandemic’s changing circumstances, from the park authority and library’s pivot to online programming to the “rapid rollout” of non-congregate options for sheltering people experiencing homelessness.

A Quarantine, Protection, Isolation/Decompression (QPID) emergency housing program provided temporary shelter in hotels for 2,188 people. Though the program ended in March, the board directed county staff to evaluate how it might inform the county’s approach to supportive housing going forward.

According to the presentation, the county also provided over $90 million in funding for rent assistance, food and other basic needs services. From May 2020 to July 2022, over 1.5 million meals were distributed at Fairfax County Public Schools and by trucks.

“Changes made during the pandemic have the potential to reset expectations for future operations and establish a new path forward that the county can utilize from here on out,” Mooney said.

One change here to stay is the option for community members to testify remotely at Board of Supervisors meetings, which was “a major success,” the presentation says.

When it comes to challenges, one date looms large in county officials’ memories: Jan. 18, 2021. That’s when the county launched its online COVID-19 vaccine registration system, which immediately ran into technical issues after demand overwhelmed the county’s call center a week earlier. Read More

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The county is considering ways to preserve dark skies around the observatory (via Fairfax County Government)

An effort is underway to preserve the dark skies around the Turner Farm Park Observatory in Great Falls.

To reduce light pollution in the area, Fairfax County is considering amending zoning standards for outdoor lighting within one-half mile of the observatory, which is located at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Springvale Road.

The observatory has several telescopes and a former National Defense Mapping Agency observation tower. Since the spring of 2018, the facility has served more than 3,700 people with educational programming.

Changes would largely impact residential development — roughly 500 properties — surrounding the observatory.

So far, county staff indicate that residents appear split about possible changes to the zoning rule. An official proposal expected in the winter of this year.

“Comments received in support of additional regulations expressed that the amendment would be an important and valuable step in protecting dark skies and the use of the observatory,” staff said in a memo. “Comments in opposition indicated that additional regulations are not needed, and concerns were expressed about several issues, including safety and security, and whether additional regulations within ½ mile of the observatory would be meaningful, given the overall light pollution of the area.”

The county held a public meeting on the issue on Monday (Sept. 19). Residents and community organizations offered feedback on the existing conditions near the observatory and possible changes that could affect properties within a one-half-mile radius of the observatory.

Representatives for the Fairfax County Police Department noted that proper lighting is a deterrent for criminal activity, but overnighting and uplighting are not required to facilitate a safe environment.

The Great Falls Citizen Association held the first official public meeting on the issue on March 24. The association has historically supported efforts to preserve the area’s dark skies.

“Because this proposed amendment involves a unique set of circumstances, GFCA is in the process of evaluating the County’s preliminary concepts on the amendment and considering its impact on the community, following two Town Hall sessions GFCA hosted,” Peter Falcone, a spokesperson for the association, wrote in a statement.

The observatory is also working toward becoming an official urban night sky place from the International Dark Sky Association.

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A Fairfax County Office of Elections ballot drop box from 2021 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 9:10 p.m.) In Fairfax County, the battle for control of Congress starts tomorrow (Friday).

The county will open three early voting sites and start mailing out absentee ballots for the Nov. 8 general election, which will decide three seats in the House of Representatives as well as the Town of Herndon’s leadership.

Turnout is tough to predict, but early voting and voting by mail “seem to be growing in popularity” after Virginia made both options available to all in 2020, Fairfax County Office of Elections spokesperson Brian Worthy says.

Nearly 70% of registered voters participated in the last midterm elections in 2018, but no individual House race saw a turnout over 37%, according to Worthy. Last November’s election, which anointed Glenn Youngkin as Virginia’s governor, drew a 60.2% turnout.

“Because the Office of Elections always prepare for high turnout, they will be ready to manage turnout greater than the recent gubernatorial election,” Worthy said.

He says the county has filled all of the 2,300 election officer positions needed for Nov. 8, but there is always a demand for bilingual poll workers, especially people who speak both Korean and English.

What’s New This Year

Voters may see different candidates than they anticipate on their ballot, thanks to last year’s redistricting process, which altered federal and state electoral boundaries in Virginia.

Polling sites will stay the same for 96% of voters in the county, but everyone should double check their district through the Virginia Department of Elections before voting in person, Worthy says. There have also been a few precinct changes unrelated to redistricting.

To limit confusion, the county elections office sent every voter a mailer with information about their legislative districts and polling place earlier this year.

“The office will be mailing voters a sample ballot with this same information, and the state is also sending a redistricting mailing to voters,” Worthy said.

In addition, Virginia will now let new voters register and cast a ballot up to and on Election Day. The General Assembly approved the change in 2020, but the law won’t take effect until Oct. 1.

While the new flexibility will be welcome for anyone who misses the Oct. 17 deadline, election officials don’t recommend waiting until the last minute to register. Voters who register Oct. 18 or later will get provisional ballots to allow “additional time to verify” their paperwork, according to WTOP.

Provisional ballots aren’t reviewed until after Election Day, and the state electoral board determines whether each of them can be counted.

“Because same day registration is a new law, the Office of Elections is uncertain of the impact, but they are prepared to manage a large number of same day registrants at early voting sites and polling places on Election Day, as well as to process these registrations,” Worthy said. Read More

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The Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County has issued a call for innovators to pitch solutions that work toward carbon neutrality and clean energy.

Pitch and Pilot,” a county-led innovation challenge, aims to find and pilot new projects that improve energy efficiency, increase renewable electricity use, and encourage the use of electric vehicles.

The winning team will have the chance to pilot their proposal in the county.

The pitch competition is sponsored by the county, George Mason University, and Smart City Works, a local nonprofit organization.

“Finding answers that increase energy efficiency and shift from a carbon-based to a carbon-neutral economy is a central goal in Fairfax County’s Strategic Plan,” event organizers wrote in last week’s announcement. “The county is courting solutions because the county’s first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) calls for carbon neutrality within the community by 2050, with a 50% cut in carbon emissions by 2030.”

An orientation is slated for Sept. 15. The contest concludes with a public pitch contest on Oct. 19. The deadline to submit a two-page concept is Oct. 3.

Smart City Works aims to empower communities to solve urban challenges and improve economic growth through technological innovation.

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Closed sign (via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Labor Day weekend is upon us, heralding the imminent return of pumpkin spice lattes and everything fall.

Fairfax County government offices will be closed in honor of the holiday, but some facilities will remain open. 

Government

Government offices for Fairfax County, Fairfax City, and the towns of Herndon and Vienna will be closed on Monday, although some facilities may remain open.

Fairfax County Public Schools will also observe the holiday. All libraries will also be closed.

Trash and recycling 

Fairfax County advises residents to contact their trash and recycling collector directly for any service schedule changes due to the holiday.

Transportation 

Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess will operate on a Sunday schedule. Because of the holiday, customers will benefit from off-peak fares, and parking will be free all day. 

There’s also another reason to celebrate: Labor Day is the last day of closures at five Orange Line stations.

Fairfax Connector will operate on a Sunday schedule.

Courts

The county’s circuit and general district courts will be closed due to the holiday. Juvenile and domestic relations courts will also be closed.

Recreation

All recreational centers will be open for regular hours with the exception of the George Washington Rec Center, which is closed for the day.

All historic sites will be closed, alongside county-run nature centers. Frying Pan Farm Park is open, but its visitors center is closed. Green Spring Gardens will be closed to the public.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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The Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

An end may be in sight for the local state of emergency that Fairfax County has had in place since the COVID-19 pandemic upended government operations and daily life in March 2020.

“A County Executive agenda item regarding ending the Local Emergency Declaration that was established to support response and recovery related to the COVID-19 pandemic will go before the Board of Supervisors at their next meeting on Tuesday, September 13,” Fairfax County Director of Public Affairs Tony Castrilli said in a statement.

The local state of emergency was declared on March 17, 2020 and expanded the county’s ability to adapt its operations, mobilize resources and apply for funding to address the public health crisis, which shut down schools, parks, and other public facilities just a day earlier.

In addition to enabling more virtual services and meetings, the declaration paved the way for the county to temporarily suspend its permitting requirements for outdoor dining and fitness activities with an uncodified ordinance first adopted on May 28.

Originally set to expire after 60 days, the ordinance was extended that July and then revised in October 2020 to allow closed tents with the weather turning colder.

As approved by the board on July 27, 2021, the eased outdoor dining rules will remain in effect until 12 months after the local emergency declaration ends.

Fairfax County will be one of the last Northern Virginia jurisdictions to lift its state of emergency, following in the footsteps of Loudoun County, Prince William, Alexandria, and Arlington.

With the vote still a month away, county staff are reviewing the details and implications of potentially ending the emergency declaration.

In Alexandria and Arlington, the return of pre-pandemic regulations for outdoor dining frustrated some restaurant owners, while the towns of Vienna and Herndon have developed new policies to permanently streamline their processes.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says he anticipates “minimal challenges” if Fairfax County ends its state of emergency:

For more than two years, the Board of Supervisors has worked nonstop to manage the County’s path through these extraordinary times. When the specifics of the recommendation to end the state of emergency are presented, we expect minimal challenges to implement should the Board decide to do so. I worked to have state legislation passed that allows Fairfax County to keep our uncodified ordinance in effect 12 months after the end of a local state of emergency, permitting for instance expanded outdoor dining to continue. We have also worked with County staff for many months to plan for this transition and ensure it is seamless, including proactive outreach plans for any impacted businesses.

Covid cases have been in decline for over a month now in the Fairfax Health District, which is averaging 249 cases per day for the past week, as of yesterday (Monday).

The district, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, had recorded a total of 10 cases when the county declared its local state of emergency.

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Fairfax County’s seal on the Fairfax County Government Center building at 12000 Government Center Parkway (file photo)

Local entrepreneurs now have a direct line to do business with Fairfax County.

On Aug. 1, the county launched an online portal that allows businesses to pitch a business idea, product or service to county agencies, departments and Fairfax County Public Schools. County agencies and departments can in turn take advantage of pitches that have already been vetted within the portal.

Wendy Lemieux, marketing coordinator for the Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives, says the program — which had a soft launch at the beginning of the month — is intended to increase supplier diversity.

By providing a consistent, business-friendly point of entry, organizations can now share information about their products and services with county agencies that may be potential customers,” Lemieux said. “This exposure will allow staff to see opportunities and reach out directly if they are interested. Electronic submission and circulation is intended to level the playing field and increase the opportunity for supplier diversity.”

The submission process for prospective vendors includes attending a free workshop, completing a form, and undergoing a review. Pitches are routed to county staff for review, and each submission is available to purchasing staff through the portal for one year.

The portal is for vendor-submitted proposals and does not conflict with the county’s legally mandated procurement process.

County officials hope the pitch process will boost equity for prospective suppliers by creating a standard and efficient process with relevant county staff.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay noted that many local businesses and entrepreneurs may be able to take advantage of the new portal.

“This portal offers a streamlined and user-friendly way to present business ideas, products, or services for consideration to county agencies, departments, and FCPS,” McKay wrote in a statement.

The soft launch of the program began Aug. 1. So far, no projects have been selected yet.

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Morning Notes

People walk by Caffi Field, a football field in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Driver in Fatal Franconia Crash Charged With Manslaughter — Sara Flores, 20, of Lorton was charged with involuntary vehicular manslaughter yesterday morning (Thursday) for a May 12 crash in Franconia where she allegedly drove into a telephone pole, killing a passenger. Police had already obtained a warrant charging Flores with driving under the influence. [FCPD]

Developer Pleads Guilty in Teen’s Death — “The owner of a Virginia construction company that specializes in luxury homes pleaded guilty Wednesday to involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 16-year-old boy who was killed while working for his company in 2019. Thomas Digges, of Digges Development Corporation, operated the Fairfax County job site where a trench gave way and buried Spencer Lunde, of McLean, on July 23, 2019.” [NBC4]

Two Displaced by Fair Oaks Townhouse Fire — A fire at a three-story townhouse in the 12000 block of Dorforth Drive on Wednesday (Aug. 10) was caused by improperly discarded smoking materials, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department says. The fire displaced two residents and resulted in approximately $175,000 in damages. [FCFRD]

One Rescued From Annandale House Fire — “8/11/22 at 1:08 a.m., in 3800 block of Gallows Road. One occupant trapped on 2nd floor was rescued by #FCFRD crews via ladder. Fire contained to basement. No injuries. NO smoke alarms found in home! Cause: improperly discarded smoking material. Damages $16K.” [FCFRD/Twitter]

County Names New Planning and Development Director — Fairfax County has appointed Tracy Strunk as director of its Department of Planning and Development, where she succeeds Barbara Byron, who retired earlier this year. Strunk’s career for the county goes back to 1998 and includes work as a planner and a member of the team that helped develop the Tysons Comprehensive Plan. [Fairfax County Government]

Fairfax County Public Schools Creates Program to Help Hire Teachers — “[Catherine] Coulter is entering her first year teaching in Virginia’s largest school system as a teaching resident, a newly-created position aimed at placing qualified teachers in classrooms while they take the final steps toward receiving a specific certification.” [WTOP]

Expansions and Renovations in Progress at FCPS — “Most students and teachers have taken the summer off, but Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has been busy with its usual tall order of school renovations and additions. Improvements now are in progress at these schools in the Sun Gazette’s readership area” [Sun Gazette]

Falls Church Development Nears Movie Theater Lease — “Developers of the new Founder’s Row mixed use development…announced through a new filing with the City that it is ‘in the final stages of securing a lease with Paragon Theaters,’ noting that ‘Paragon will operate a seven-screen movie theater, including an IMAX-similar screen with a total capacity of approximately 600 seats.'” [Falls Church News-Press]

Fairfax Shopping Center Gets New Mural — “If you’ve been by the Giant at Scout on the Circle recently you might have noticed some color appearing on the walls! The Abstract Expressionist painting on the corner of the building is by Steven Johnson. Johnson is a Indiana biased artist, who recently made his art available in the public domain.” [City of Fairfax/Facebook]

It’s Friday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 81 and low of 68. Sunrise at 6:21 am and sunset at 8:09 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Sun glare with clouds (via Ritam Baishya/Unsplash)

With the D.C. area’s summer heat in full swing, local organizers worry that there are too few options for unhoused residents in the county to cool down.

Last month, the Fairfax County NAACP approved a resolution calling on Fairfax County to improve heat relief services for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness in the county.

“Summer temperatures and storm frequencies are increasing due to climate change, thus homeless people are at greater risk of health impacts and even death,” says the resolution approved by the civil rights organization’s executive committee on July 28.

Potential solutions proposed by the resolution include a pilot program like D.C.’s heat emergency plan, better communication of hours and locations for the county’s cooling centers, vouchers to families for motel rooms, and distributions of water bottles, personal fans, and sunscreen at government centers.

In response to the resolution, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee directed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide the county’s current heat emergency plan.

In a memo dated July 29, DHHS listed a number of options available for cooling down. It also agreed to “enhance our efforts” and enact more “immediate action” for the county’s unhoused residents in need of relief from the August heat and humidity:

This work includes addressing transportation access gaps, evaluating both the variety and coordination of supply disbursements (both direct provision and at our cooling sites), considering the use of hotel vouchers in the event overflow shelters are at capacity, and providing a more robust communications plan as well as additional opportunities to provide direct communication outreach to individuals in need.

Additionally, NAACP officials tell FFXnow that a committee will meet tomorrow (Aug. 12) to discuss more solutions and ways to better help those in need.

Mary Paden, who chairs the NAACP’s Fair and Affordable Housing Committee, says she’s encouraged by the county’s willingness to listen and work with the group. But action needs to happen now, considering there are likely plenty of very hot days still left in the summer.

“Many [unhoused residents] are older and sick and are more affected by the heat than a younger, healthier person,” Paden said. “It took deaths for the hypothermia program to get set up in the winter…and you wonder if we have to wait for a death to get really serious about taking care of people in the heat.” Read More

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