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Town of Vienna sign on Maple Avenue (file photo)

Vienna residents’ next property tax bills won’t be quite as high as anticipated, even as the town commits to raising employee salaries and other additional costs.

The Vienna Town Council voted unanimously last night (Monday) to adopt a $48.7 million budget for fiscal year 2022-2023 with a real estate tax rate of 20.5 cents per $100 of assessed value — a 1.75-cent cut from the current rate. The new budget will be in effect from July 1 through June 30, 2023.

This will be the 10th consecutive year that the town has reduced or maintained its real estate tax rate, according to a news release.

With the average residential tax bill expected to increase 3.7% from last year due to rising assessment values, the council had urged staff to lower the tax rate beyond the 1-cent reduction initially proposed by Town Manager Mercury Payton.

“I think we did a good thing to help all residents in Vienna, but also, we were fiscally responsible,” Mayor Linda Colbert said after the vote. “We still have the rainy day fund and so on.”

Even with the increased tax cut, the adopted budget is 12.7% larger than the current spending plan, thanks to an “unusually large” surplus from fiscal year 2020-2021 and revenues bouncing back after two years of declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to town staff.

Parks and recreation fees have returned to pre-pandemic levels, jumping from $991,000 in fiscal year 2021-2022 to $1.1 million in the newly adopted budget, Director of Finance Marion Serfass told the town council.

The town also has also seen strong sales and meals tax revenues. The latter rose 23% to $3.2 million, according to budget documents, which attribute the increase to “easing pandemic conditions, creative solutions to restaurant dining including outdoor dining opportunities, and several new restaurants opening.”

The adopted budget includes a 4% salary increase for all eligible employees, on top of a 3% increase that was approved with last year’s surplus funds but deferred to the coming fiscal year. It also establishes a new, separate pay plan for the Vienna Police Department to “address challenges with officer recruitment and retention,” the town says.

In his overview for the budget, Payton noted that most town employees will see a 11.7% increase in health insurance premiums.

“The salary increase will assist employees in recovering those increases and also address inflation, wage pressure and employee retention concerns,” he wrote.

On top of the budget and real estate tax rate, the town council approved increases to the water and sewer rates of 2.6% and 3.8%, respectively. Fixed service charges will also go up by 4.8%, from $31.30 to $32.80 per quarter for most residential customers.

The average residential customer will see an overall increase of $10 per quarter, or $40 annually, in their bill.

According to the town, the service charges increase is necessary to bring them “in line with industry standards.” Serfass said the town’s utilization of federal coronavirus relief funds for $5 million in infrastructure costs prevented rates from growing even faster.

Vienna was allocated a total of $17.1 million by the American Rescue Plan Act, about $13 million of which the town intends to spend on water, sewer, park, street, and sidewalk infrastructure projects. The second half of the funds are expected to come in June.

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A few diners are seated on the patio behind Blend 111 on Church Street in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Outdoor dining is here to stay in the Town of Vienna — except at 111 Church Street NW.

The new regulations that the Vienna Town Council agreed to after a public hearing on Wednesday (May 11) are mostly straightforward, simplifying the permitting process for permanent and seasonal outdoor dining while setting clear standards for the number of seats allowed, operating hours, and other considerations.

However, in a change from the draft ordinance presented in April, the council voted 6-1 to allow outdoor dining within 60 to 75 feet of a residential property if the patio or tent meets certain conditions:

  • No alcohol served
  • No waitstaff or servers allowed
  • A maximum of eight seats
  • Hours of operation, including any time to set up or take down furniture, end at 7 p.m.

Town staff had proposed a prohibition on outdoor dining within 75 feet of residential properties. They said it would affect three of the 22 businesses where the practice is currently allowed under temporary measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Simply Social Coffee, Blend 111, and Bazin’s on Church.

The Vienna Planning Commission unanimously recommended the amendment, arguing that people drinking or eating outside at a cafe poses less potential for conflict between residents and businesses than at a sit-down restaurant.

Staff confirmed that the conditions would let Simply Social retain its outdoor seating, but not Blend 111 and Bazin’s, whose shared patio at the back of 111 Church Street has drawn numerous noise complaints from neighbors.

“That was supposed to be parking,” Councilmember Howard Springsteen said of the restaurants’ outdoor dining area. “We’ve had major complaints, and they just seem to ignore it.”

While the restaurant owners said at a November public hearing that the patio has proven popular, becoming a “lifeline” during the pandemic, residents testified last week that the level of noise had become untenable.

Howard Uman and Theresa Ayotte, whose house is directly behind 111 Church Street, told the town council and planning commission that the noise remains “unacceptable,” even under a temporary ordinance established in December that limited the hours and number of seats for outdoor dining.

“We hear everything and anything that’s in our backyard,” Uman said. “I think there were only one or two people in there, and there was a kid back there screaming his head off and we could hear every single word, so it’s really intrusive.”

Councilmember Nisha Patel made what she called “a last-ditch attempt” to find a compromise between the residents and restaurants, proposing allowing outdoor dining within 75 feet of a residential property under more limited hours and requiring a conditional use permit for more than 12 seats.

Patel said she “would love to just side with the residents” but couldn’t ignore emails that the council has gotten supporting the restaurants, including one read by Mayor Linda Colbert from her predecessor, Laurie DiRocco.

“Noise is one of the things we get probably the most complaints about, but that’s also living in a community,” Colbert said, noting that the town still hears from people who only feel comfortable eating outside.

Colbert voted for Patel’s proposal, which failed on a 5-2 vote, as well as the final ordinance with the planning commission’s recommended amendment.

The town council will formally adopt the new outdoor dining ordinance on June 6, and it will take effect in July, after the current temporary ordinance ends. Businesses that currently have waivers for outdoor dining will have 60 days after the adoption to apply for new permits.

Blend 111 owner Michael Biddick confirmed to FFXnow that his restaurant’s outdoor patio will revert back to a parking lot.

“We are deeply saddened and shocked by the decision of the Vienna Town Council to eliminate our outdoor dining patio,” Biddick said by email. “For many, it is an essential location to enjoy dining safely and a bright spot from the devastating pandemic over the past two years. We regret that the Council did not consider a compromise solution that further limited the hours on the patio and other reasonable steps to mitigate noise concerns from residents living in a nearby home.”

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Construction on Vienna’s new police station is expected to be complete in July (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

It will cost the Town of Vienna nearly $300,000 more to finish construction on its new police station at 215 Center Street South.

The Vienna Town Council agreed last week to authorize spending increases of $249,310 for contractor Hoar Construction and $48,817 for project manager Downey & Scott.

However, town officials emphasized that the overall project is still on track to come in $98,913 under the $17.3 million allocated to it from bond funding and cable fees.

“The police station has several different components to it,” Vienna Director of Finance Marion Serfass said at the May 2 meeting. “Some items are under the original budget, and some are over, but in total, the entire project is under budget by $98,000.”

One of the items that has gone over budget is Downey & Scott’s contract, which was originally approved in January 2019 with a $318,950 price tag.

Hired to manage the construction process, the firm previously requested and received an additional $67,680 in October, citing a longer-than-anticipated pre-construction phase and “unknown condition incidents” that emerged after work on the site began.

Bringing the firm’s bill up to $437,897, this new increase was needed to extend the contract by 90 days, according to a memo sent to the town on April 8.

“Due to supply chain disruptions, the roofing materials, fencing, and other materials have been delayed,” Downey & Scott said in the memo, reporting that Hoar’s estimated completion date for the project is July 19.

That will be “less than a month late despite historic issues with construction materials and the supply chain,” according to town staff.

The town council approved both funding requests without any public discussion, but members said they had talked about them in a closed conference session.

“I just want the public to know we discussed this in detail,” Councilmember Chuck Anderson said. “We asked a bunch of questions, so it’s not like we’re just automatically approving it.”

Construction on the Vienna Police Department’s new building began in January 2021. When completed, the station will be approximately 30,000 square feet in size with a firing range, additional interview rooms, more personnel and storage space, and a 1,500-square-foot multipurpose room that could be used by the community, among other amenities.

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The Cedar Park Shopping Center’s patio is set up for outdoor dining (file photo)

An end is in sight for Vienna’s months-long debate over the future of outdoor dining in the town.

The Vienna Town Council intends to vote on May 11 on a new draft zoning ordinance that will permanently ease the permitting process for restaurants seeking to provide outdoor dining — with some limits in place to ward off conflicts over noise, parking, and other potential issues.

The planned vote will immediately follow a joint public hearing with the Vienna Planning Commission.

“We’ve kicked this item around a long, long time, and businesses need to know,” Mayor Linda Colbert said at a Town Council meeting on Monday (April 25), noting that if the ordinance is approved, it likely won’t be formally adopted until June 6.

The proposed ordinance would allow permanent outdoor dining at ground level or on a roof garden as an “incidental use” for restaurants, meaning it would be treated as part of their regular operations, like carryout services, rather than requiring a separate permit.

Plans for outdoor dining, including any tables, tents, and other exterior modifications, must still be reviewed by the town’s Board of Architectural Review as well as Fairfax County building code and fire marshal officials.

The new process will be similar to the temporary waivers that the town introduced in June 2020 to assist businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling restaurants to bypass the Planning Commission review, Board of Zoning Appeals approval, and $1,500 fee required for a conditional use permit.

The town issued waivers to 22 restaurants, including 13 that used parking lot spaces for their outdoor dining space. A total of 58 off-street parking spaces were being used for dining, as of October, according to town staff.

Vienna has been looking at easing its outdoor dining regulations long-term since last fall, but numerous residents raised concerns about noise levels and the availability of parking at a public hearing on Nov. 15, ultimately convincing the Town Council to extend the approved waivers until June 30 and postpone adopting permanent rules.

Proposed rules regulate seating, hours

The newly proposed ordinance contains more detailed regulations intended to address some of the community’s complaints. For instance, it prohibits outdoor dining within 75 feet of a property zoned and utilized for residential purposes.

It also sets a 12-seat limit on permanent outdoor dining. Any restaurant that wants to have more seats would need a conditional use permit.

Outdoor dining will be permitted in off-street parking on a seasonal basis between April 1 and Oct. 31. Those areas can occupy up to 20% of a restaurant’s required parking spaces, and they can be active during the following hours:

  • 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday
  • 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday
  • 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Friday
  • 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday

For seasonal outdoor dining, restaurants will need a permit that’s reviewed and issued annually by the town’s zoning administrator, who has the power to revoke permits if there are violations.

Those seeking to have temporary outdoor dining are also required to notify all business owners within the same property or shopping center 30 days before they can get a permit approved.

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The former Faith Baptist Church is temporarily housing the Vienna Police Department (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Anything is possible for Vienna’s former Faith Baptist Church site — anything within the financial reach of a town whose annual budget comes in under $50 million, that is.

The 3-acre property at 301 Center Street South was a “godsend” for the town, hitting the market just as the search for a temporary home for the Vienna Police Department was becoming urgent, Councilmember Ed Somers said during a town council work session on March 28.

With the two-year project to build a new police station now in its second year, town officials are starting to contemplate what to do with the church property after the police move out.

“There’s not going to be new property in town, so this is kind of a special opportunity,” Town Manager Mercury Payton said at the work session. “…It could be something unique that would help further define who we are as Vienna.”

The most likely course of action appears to be a parks and recreation facility, which could mean adapting the existing building into a community center annex, as proposed by town staff, or clearing the site for a new ballfield or outdoor ampitheater.

Councilmember Nisha Patel floated a beer garden as a hypothetical possibility that the community could suggest outside the parks and rec umbrella, noting that “you don’t want to have a closed mind.”

Finance Director Marion Serfass suggested including a public survey in the next water bill mailings. Mayor Linda Colbert encouraged staff to use different methods to ensure all residents get a chance to weigh in, while other council members emphasized a need to control expectations of what’s feasible.

“It’s actually pretty exciting to go to the community and say, ‘What do you want to do?'” Payton said.

Annex proposed as short-term plan

Any long-term plan for the church property likely won’t come to fruition for another 10 to 15 years due to the length of the planning, design, and construction process and how long it will take sufficient funding to become available under the town’s debt model for capital projects, Payton told the council.

To prevent the building from sitting vacant for the next decade, the Parks and Recreation Department presented a plan to utilize the property — informally dubbed the Annex — for classrooms, event rentals, and recreational programming.

The church has offices that could host classes and meetings as well as a gymnasium and a stage in the sanctuary that could support artistic performances, according to Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Herman.

“We do have a big demand, and there are limitations to the community center,” Herman said. “When we had the renovation done [in 2017]…it added a gym. It didn’t add additional classroom space, so we’re still limited to what we can do there.”

However, converting the church into a recreational facility even temporarily could potentially cost $1 million, a study contracted by the town found.

An estimated $400,000 is required just to meet the building and fire code standards necessary to obtain an occupancy permit from Fairfax County. Other possible expenses include asbestos testing, roof repairs, and facility upgrades, such as an elevator to the second level and new floor to make the stage suitable for theatrical and dance performances.

On top of that, town staff estimated that the Annex would carry $229,000 in operational costs per year, while only bringing in about $214,000 in revenue from class and rental fees.

While staff reported that the town already has about $500,000 available to use for the church, including $300,000 from this year’s capital improvements bond, council members balked at the price tag for a temporary fix.

“Without knowing what we want to do with the property, asking for $1 million as a band-aid until we figure it out, I think, is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars,” Patel said.

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Vienna has hired a contractor to replace and upgrade the traffic signals at the Maple Avenue and Park Street intersection (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A central traffic signal in Vienna is set for an overhaul.

The Vienna Town Council voted unanimously on March 21 to award a contract for a reconstruction of the Maple Avenue and Park Street traffic signal, a project that has been in the works for more than a decade.

Located at a busy intersection near the Vienna Marketplace shopping center and Vienna Presbyterian Church, the signal is one of the town’s oldest and in need of a replacement and upgrade, Vienna Transportation Engineer Andrew Jinks told FFXnow by email.

According to the project page, the intersection’s traffic signals currently do not align with the road lanes. The mast arms on the two existing poles have also been strained by the addition of separate left-turn lights.

The poles will be replaced by a “four-pole configuration with underground wiring and pedestrian-audible countdown signals.” A design plan finalized last July indicates that the new mast arms will be 40 or 49 feet long and feature new road signs and LED lights.

The contract awarded last week went to the Richardson Wayland Electric Company, whose bid of $550,258 was the lowest of three competing vendors.

The council also approved a 10% contingency fund of $55,026, bringing the total to $605,284.

The project will be fully funded by the state through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s SMART SCALE program, which allocates tax dollars to local transportation projects based on congestion mitigation, safety, and other factors.

No date has been set for construction yet, but Jinks says the contractor is currently developing a schedule. The existing signals and vehicle detection system will remain operational during construction, according to the project plans.

“Since most of the improvements are outside of the roadway (or above it) we do not anticipate significant traffic impacts,” Jinks wrote. “Any improvements that many impact traffic will be scheduled at off-peak times.”

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The Town of Vienna is contemplating eliminating its free mulch delivery services (via Maddy Baker/Unsplash)

To mulch or not to mulch? That is the question the Town of Vienna has been mulling for years now, fertilized by resident frustrations with a noisy mulch grinder on Beulah Road.

An answer will come at last later this spring, when the town council votes on whether to continue free mulch delivery services that have been offered to residents for as long as anyone present at Monday’s public hearing (March 21) on the subject could remember.

According to Mayor Linda Colbert, emails sent to the council prior to the hearing were about evenly split between supporters of the mulch service — which uses a portion of the town’s annual leaf collections — and those who want to eliminate it.

“It was obvious people feel very strongly one way or the other, and people mention a lot of good reasons either way,” Colbert said. “It’s something I know all of the council has thought hard about.”

Vienna Director of Public Works Mike Gallagher presented three options for handling collected leaves going forward:

  1. Maintain current operations: Some leaves are ground into mulch at the Beulah Road facility. The remainder is transported to a Loudoun Composting disposal site.
  2. Short haul: Leaves are consolidated at the Beulah site before being hauled away for disposal, ending the mulch program.
  3. Long haul: Leaves go directly to Loudoun Composting, ending the mulch program and use of the Beulah Road facility.

A cost analysis developed with a resident’s assistance suggests the first option would be the most expensive one, while the long haul would be cheapest. If the mulching program ends, Gallagher said some of the expenses would shift to other town operations, rather than getting eliminated.

Vienna could maintain its current mulching operations, end mulching but still use the Beulah site, or eliminate both (via Town of Vienna)

“There’s obviously some pros and cons to each one of these,” he said. Read More

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Morning Notes

Outside the City of Fairfax Regional Library (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

County Lands $10M to Address Homelessness — Fairfax County will get $10 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to support services for people experiencing homelessness. The money will fully fund 19 projects and represents a 9% increase from last year’s award, mostly for a domestic violence rapid rehousing program run by the nonprofit Shelter House. [Housing and Community Development]

FCPS to Provide Free Online Tutoring — “Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said unlimited tutoring in any subject for every grade level will be available through a new partnership with Tutor.com. The rollout will begin after spring break.” [WTOP]

Utility Work Requires W&OD Trail Detour in Reston — Washington & Old Dominion Trail users are being detoured to a gravel path this week so that AT&T can relocate a utility line in preparation for the construction of the planned pedestrian bridge over Wiehle Avenue. The work began on Monday (March 21) and could last up to a week. [Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling]

Vienna Town Council Eases Rules for Residential Porches — “Home improvement just got easier in Vienna. Homeowners with homes built near the front setback line can now construct a covered front porch on their property thanks to last night’s Town Council vote on a zoning code update.” [Town of Vienna/Twitter]

Paved Trail in Burke Completed — “Burke residents joined Fairfax County officials on Sunday to celebrate the completion of the Burke Centre VRE Trail Project, a new paved path that will provide pedestrians and bicyclists with easier access to the Virginia Railway Express station.” [Patch]

Afghan Refugee Graduates from FCPS — “Mountain View High graduate Eltaf Samim traversed six countries, completed seventh, eighth and ninth grade multiple times in different nations and turned in coursework in three languages on the way to get his high school diploma in Fairfax County this year.” [FCPS/Inside NoVA]

Wolf Trap National Park Adds More Summer Performances — “Newly added shows include Van Morrison, Boyz II Men, Tom Jones, Boy George & Culture Club, Kool & the Gang and more. Closing the season will be a community singing celebration called Joyfully Together on Sept. 18.” [Patch]

Reston Museum Seeks Volunteers — “Reston Museum seeks volunteer docents for flexible shifts Tues-Sun 11-4 pm. Docents greet visitors, introduce them to the museum and Reston’s history and assist with shop sales. Training provided, register here.” [Volunteer Fairfax/Twitter]

It’s Wednesday — Rain starting in the afternoon. High of 60 and low of 43. Sunrise at 7:08 a.m. and sunset at 7:25 p.m. [Weather.gov]

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Morning Notes

Snow hit Fairfax County on Saturday (photo by Marjorie Copson)

(Updated at 8:45 a.m.) Car Crash Closes Old Dominion Drive — “Old Dominion Dr is closed between Balls Hill Rd & Mottram Dr in McLean, likely for several hours. A car crashed into a utility pole. No injuries. Please avoid the area while crews work to repair the pole.” [FCPD/Twitter]

Judge Denies FCPS Request to Keep TJ Admissions Process — “A federal judge has denied the request of Fairfax County Public Schools for a stay of his order invalidating the admissions system at prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, marking another serious blow for Virginia’s largest school system.” [The Washington Post]

Reston Shooting Still Unsolved — “It’s been one year since 40-year-old Santos Antonio Trejo Lemus died from gunshot wounds he received while walking near his home in Reston’s Winterthur Apartments. To date, no one has been charged in Lemus’ homicide.” [Patch]

Rep. Connolly Tests Positive for COVID-19 — “This morning, I tested positive for covid. I am mildly symptomatic and will be self-isolating. Fortunately, I’m vaxxed and boosted. This pandemic isn’t over yet so if you haven’t gotten your booster yet please do.” [Gerry Connolly/Twitter]

Person Injured in Shooting at Springfield Residence Inn — A driver shot at occupants of another car in the hotel parking lot at 6412 Backlick Road around 7:06 a.m. on March 8, according to the most recent police weekly recap. One person was hit and taken to the hospital for injuries not considered life-threatening. [FCPD]

GW Parkway Construction Closes Turkey Run Parking Lot — “The National Park Service is imposing a temporary closure of parking lot C-2 and partial closure of parking lot B at Turkey Run Park as a part of the project to rehabilitate the north section of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The dates of the closure are March 14, 2022, until further notice.” [NPS]

Former Vienna Mayoral Candidate Runs for West Virginia House — “Pasha Majdi, who served on the Vienna Town Council for six years before making an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2020, is running for office again — in his new state of residence, West Virginia. Majdi is seeking the Republican nomination to run for the 100th District seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates.” [Sun Gazette]

Reston Real Estate Company to Expand — “Fast-growing Reston real estate firm Verity Commercial has received a ‘significant investment’ to drive its expansion into new markets. The firm…received an undisclosed amount from Germany-based RSBG Global Cos. through its San Jose-based subsidiary, Vela Tech Holding Inc.” [Washington Business Journal]

Baby Pigs Born at Frying Pan Farm — “Nike, a year and a half old Hampshire Cross sow, delivered her first litter of piglets on February 24. For her first time, she acted like a pro and delivered in less than two hours.” [Fairfax County Park Authority/Facebook]

It’s Monday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 57 and low of 31. Sunrise at 7:23 a.m. and sunset at 7:16 p.m. [Weather.gov]

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The Vienna Police Department is seeking to introduce body-worn cameras like the pictured one used by Fairfax County police (via FCPD)

(Updated at 1:30 p.m.) The Vienna Police Department plans to institute a body-worn camera program, a practice that has gone from rare to commonplace in the D.C. region just within the past half-decade.

Police will request the Vienna Town Council’s approval tonight (Monday) to use $223,732 in federal relief funds for a five-year program that would equip all 41 of its sworn officers with cameras, according to the agenda for the council’s meeting.

The department hopes to use money from the town’s $17.1 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation, half of which came last summer. The remaining $8.5 million is expected this June.

Congress passed the ARPA stimulus package in March 2021 to address the ongoing effects of the pandemic. The VPD believes body cameras would be eligible for funds as a COVID-19 public health expense, according to a request form submitted by Police Chief Jim Morris and signed by town staff.

“Although the Department currently has a successful In-Car Video program, there are situations and interactions that cannot be captured from the police vehicle,” Morris wrote. “A body worn camera program would allow for officers to better capture and preserve evidence as well as provide a level of protection and oversight for the officers and the community.”

If the funding is approved by the town council, the VPD would enter a five-year contract with the law enforcement technology provider Axon Enterprises.

In a quote issued on Jan. 21, the company estimated that Vienna’s proposed body camera program would cost a total of $213,078, or $42,093 per year. The expenses include the 41 cameras, storage costs, and other equipment, such as camera docks and mounts.

As recently as 2016, just a handful of Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies utilized body cameras, according to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments survey. In pursuing a program now, however, Vienna lags behind even small jurisdictions like the Town of Herndon and Fairfax City.

Fairfax County approved a program in 2019 and completed a second phase in February 2021. The county moved in 2020 to accelerate its rollout with the goal of introducing all 1,210 cameras by the end of fiscal year 2021, which came on June 30, 2021.

The Fairfax County Police Department confirmed to FFXnow that it finished implementing the third and final phase of its program in April 2021, adding 516 body-worn camera operators.

“This included our Sully, West Springfield and Fair Oaks District stations as well as Animal Protection Police Officers and our Crisis Intervention Team,” the FCPD said by email. “Our Special Weapons and Tactics team also were [issued] Body Worn Cameras in 2021.”

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