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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Candidates clash over roads, taxes, and environment

Voters Fairfax County’s Braddock District got a close-up look at some of the candidates running for office in November at a forum Tuesday evening sponsored by the North Springfield Civic Association.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, who has been in the Virginia legislature since 1976, reminded the audience of some of his accomplishments: bringing $970 million worth of road projects to Northern Virginia, restoring $400 million for education funding last year, creating drug-free school zones, and requiring mandatory prison sentences for using a gun in a crime.

Saslaw’s Republican challenger to represent the 35th Senate District, political newcomer Robert Sarvis, charged that most of Saslaw’s accomplishments were in the past. “What has he done in the 2000s?” More of the tax money Northern Virginia sends to Richmond needs comes back here, Sarvis said.

When a member of the audience complained that the beltway HOT lanes will create more traffic congestion on side roads, Saslaw said, “I’ve never been a proponent of HOT lanes.” The state could have gotten the same amount of revenue from converting parts of the beltway and I-395 into toll roads as from a one-cent gas tax, when the cost of construction is taken into account, he said.

The meeting was held at North Springfield Elementary School, which is just a stone’s throw from the beltway. Even with a newly installed soundwall, the beltway traffic is still incredibly loud from the school’s parking lot.

The beltway tolls could be as must as $11 for five miles, which could cost a taxpayer as much as $500, Saslaw said. A half-penny gas tax, which was voted down, would have amounted to $40 per year, and that would have been a much better deal for taxpayers.

Sarvis called for a greater reliance on technology to handle traffic and tolls. He charged Saslaw with a “total lack of leadership” on the HOT lanes and BRAC issues. “Nobody is fighting for Northern Virginia,” he said. He also said there’s been no restraint when it come to fiscal responsibility in Richmond.

Virginia has been named the best-managed state and the state with the best climate for business, Saslaw countered, so “it’s hardly a mismanaged, out-of-control state.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova had expected to square off against her GOP opponent, Michael “Spike” Williams, but he didn’t show up. Perennial candidate Will Radle, running for chair of the board of supervisors as an independent, spoke to the group about how the county mishandled the Covanta incinerator deal in Lorton.

Bulova stressed her more than 20 years of experience as a supervisor representing the Braddock District before being elected chairman in 2009. Since then, she’s led the county through the “worst economic decline in our lifetime,” she said, by working with the community and workforce to bring down the cost of services “while being sensitive to taxpayers” and protecting the quality of life.

Braddock Board of Supervisor candidates, the GOP incumbent John Cook and Democratic opponent Janet Oleszek, squared off over local control of roads, an issue that’s come up in previous debates.

Cook wants Fairfax County to take responsibility for roads. “Every dime stays here, and we control how to spend it,” he said, adding that the county would do a better job fixing potholes.

Oleszek disagreed. If Fairfax County were to take responsibility for the roads, that would require a public-private partnership, resulting in more tolls and more taxes, she said. The county would have to purchase road maintenance and snow removal equipment. “There’s no way this would ever be favorable to Fairfax County,” she said. “The rest of the state isn’t going to want to pay for our roads.”

Carey Campbell, an independent who calls himself “the most conservative candidate,” stressed his slogan, “more trains, less traffic,” and called for raising revenue while keeping taxes low by supporting geothermal and solar energy.

In response to a question about how to balance environmental concerns and economic growth, Cook said the country is doing a good job of balancing those issues. He said the country is spending more on stormwater management, which is necessary to protect property values.

Oleszek questioned Cook’s record on the environment, noting that he has raised concerns on his website about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on impermeable surfaces, which are aimed at protecting waterways by reducing run-off. According to Cook, implementing the EPA rules would cost the county $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Oleszek said the EPA rules call for localities to install impermeable surfaces to the extent they can afford it. Cook’s attempt to scare people by saying everyone has to tear up their driveway is “alarmist. It’s not going to happen,” she said. The EPA rules address future development, not existing roads and driveways.

“I do not trust the borrow-and-spend incumbent to take the responsible approach,” Campbell added.
The Braddock District school board candidates both have strong backgrounds. Megan McLaughlin, who was endorsed by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, has been co-founder and chair of FairGrade and helped establish the Fairfax Education Coalition. She had been an admissions officer at Georgetown University, social worker, and PTA president.

Nell Hurley, who was endorsed by the county Republican Committee, is a retired Navy captain, former PTA president, and leader of the Braddock Youth Soccer club. Both were involved with the Annandale Regional Planning Study and the renovation of Woodson High School.

The new school board will face a major task—hiring a new superintendent to succeed Jack Dale, who announced plans to retire July 1, 2013.

McLaughlin said the superintendent selection process needs to be more transparent and include more community involvement than occurred when Dale was hired in 2004. “We can do better,” she said. Hurley said she agreed, but noted the process can’t be totally transparent because the applicants’ identities need to be protected.

Both candidates called for an independent auditor who reports to the school board, not the superintendent.
When asked whether they think the school system has too many administrators, Hurley agreed and said the communications and human resources departments are too big. McLaughlin said she is “committed to making the system more administratively efficient.”

Only one at-large school board candidate attended the forum, Ilryong Moon, who is also the only incumbent at-large member running for re-election. He said it’s “vitally important to have board members with experience,” because six of the incumbents are not running again.

He said the percentage of money spent on administration has gone down, and the percentage spent on teachers and classrooms has risen. “As stewards of scarce resources, we need to find a way to minimize the impact on the classroom and cut from the administration,” he said.

In response to a question from the audience, he defended the board’s decision to move away from letter grades for elementary students and to adopt online social studies textbooks.

Another member of the audience proposed changing the school calendar, because after testing is completed in mid-May, the rest of the school year is wasted. Hurley said she agreed that the school year should start and end earlier and would urge the state legislature to end its ban on starting school before Labor Day.

McLaughlin said the community should have input on whether the school year should start earlier. When it comes to testing, she would encourage schools to provide enrichment learning in the weeks after the SOLs. “It shouldn’t all be test driven,” she said.

Del. Vivian Watts, who also addressed the forum, noted that many Virginia school systems get waivers from the state allowing them to start before Labor Day. That’s separate from the testing schedule, she said, and promised to work on those issues.

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