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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mason supervisor candates stake out positions in debate

Left to right: David Feld; Ravenworth Park Civic Association
President John Iekel; Sleepy Hollow Civic Association
President Steve Tillman; and Penny Gross
Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross and her Republican challenger David Feld squared off in a debate last night at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School that touched on taxes, zoning, transportation, revitalization, and other issues of concern to Annandale votes.

The candidates were asked which programs they would cut if they had to trim the budget and which revenue enhancements they would support. Gross said she would look for efficiencies, rather than cut from programs that serve people, but it’s been a problem when the state has mandated programs but failed to fund them. The county has increased fees for people who use parks and recreation centers, she said.

“I would never cut essential services,” Feld said. “Our government is ‘we the people.’ It’s not the board of supervisors.” He would look for ways to save money by consolidating service like grass-cutting, which is done separately by county and school staff.

“When you have revenues, don’t expand the government,” Feld said. He criticized county officials for hiring too many people when the budget was in better shape. Now there are Fairfax County employees earning less than employees of neighboring counties and they can’t afford to live here.

Gross noted that the county has cut back on trimming grass in parks and said she’s gotten a lot of complaints about that. Today, the ratio of county employees to residents is 17 percent less than it was 20 years ago. “We are doing more with less,” she said.

“We have a system that is broken,” Feld said. “We are not getting the quality services we need.”

When asked about the top challenges facing Mason District, Gross cited the needs to provide good schools, address traffic congestion, and determine how to deal with urbanization.

Feld said a top challenge is maintaining the quality of life and essential services without the resources to do it. That can be solved with good leadership, he said. Another challenge is transportation, which he called a “self-inflicted wound.” He proposed redirecting the funds for the rail-to-Dulles project to relieving traffic congestion inside the beltway.

“We’re not taking advantage of philanthropy, charity, and volunteers,” he suggested. “There are people here who would contribute to services for the poor, he said, citing the church-run hypothermia program, which provides temporary shelter to the homeless in the winter.

Gross said she agreed that “the level of philanthropy in Fairfax County is not where it should be,” but noted that the hypothermia program is a county partnership, not totally run by volunteers.

In response to a question about how to revitalize the Mason District, Feld talked about the multi-occupancy problem. “People are living five to 10 to a room because they have nowhere else to live,” he said and proposed letting people volunteer in exchange for services.

Gross said the county’s code compliance efforts “have been very successful” in addressing complaints about multiple occupancy. The community needs to be educated about what is acceptable and what isn’t, and she pointed to the “neighbor to neighbor” programs in some communities where the civic associations send a letter to residents when there are cars on the lawn, the grass is too high, or some other problem. Those efforts have really made a difference in resolving problems before they get to the code compliance department, she said.

“Code enforcement is not the responsibility of the citizens. Code enforcement ought to be the responsibility of the government,” Feld argued. Multiple occupancy “is a symptom of a declining neighborhood.” The county needs to hire more code enforcement officers, he said, and property owners who let too many people live in a house should be fined.

When asked about blight in the Seven Corners area, Gross cited the new sidewalks and the pedestrian bridge over Route 50. Within the next year or so a transportation study will be done on that area, she said.

Feld noted that some revitalization has been done in Bailey’s Crossroads, but the county failed to reserve funds for maintenance, noting, “We have planning that does not make sense.”

Gross said she supports a county plan to provide drinking water to the 90,000 households in Fairfax County who are now paying twice as much for water from the City of Falls Church water system. Feld said he doesn’t think Falls Church is overcharging for water and that the funds likely cover maintenance and repairs. “I can’t imagine we could take that over and do it for less money,” he said. Fairfax County is not doing enough to maintain its water and sewer systems, he said, and that is going to be costly in the long run.

That’s not so, Gross countered. “Falls Church is using its water rates to pad their budget to keep property rates low,” and they’ve been forbidden by a judge from doing that any more. Feld called deferred maintenance a symptom of failed leadership,” citing, a sewer line running above Holmes Run that should be buried underground. 

Noting that Lake Barcroft has an agreement with VDOT to maintain roads in the community, Feld said, “If we want more, we have to do it ourselves.” He suggested giving landscaping companies recognition for maintaining areas along roads.

The state already has an adopt-a-highway program, and many civic groups are taking advantage of it, Gross said. “What my opponent is talking about is double taxing people,” she said. State taxes are supposed to pay for those services. Every county in Virginia has rejected a House of Delegates proposal that would have forced localities to take responsibility for road maintenance, she said.

Noting that she’s heard a lot of complaints about the poor condition of Sleepy Hollow Road, Gross said repaving is expected to start Oct. 3. She approved a noise waiver so the work can be done at night.

When asked about the feasibility of having underground utility lines, Feld said we should look into it but added, “I heard it costs $10 million a mile. I’m not sure if that’s true.” Actually the figure is about $1 million a mile in urban areas, Gross said. Underground utilities would be good, she said, but there’s a tradeoff—“you would have to cut down all the trees.” Addressing power outages by upgrading the transformers would be cheaper, she said.

At one point, Gross said “the amount of information my opponent doesn’t have is stunning to me.” They had been talking about the area plan review process, and Feld said it doesn’t work very well, because developers don’t follow the county’s comprehensive plan. Gross said “if a change is not allowed in the comprehensive plan, the plan has to be amended.” The process works well and it allows for community input, she said.

Feld disagreed, noting that community members can have their say, but their input is often ignored. Another issue they sparred over is speed humps. Gross said traffic calming is a “community-driven process.” Feld said speed humps are ineffective in slowing down speeders and said the best solution is more enforcement. “All I keep hearing from my opponent is more and more expensive ways of doing things,” Gross said. “More enforcement means more police, and that means more taxes.”

They clashed over the Columbia Pike streetcar line, too. Gross supports it, and Feld called it “bad idea.” As an alternative, he called for more express buses with cutouts in the side of the road, so traffic doesn’t get stuck at bus stops. That’s needed because commuters will clog local streets to avoid the BRAC project at the Mark Center, he said.

When asked if they would accept contributions from developers, Feld said he will not accept contributions from anyone who might benefit from county government. Gross said she has received “as many contributions from senior citizens as from developers. Does that mean I’m in the pocket of senior citizens? I don’t think so.”

In her final comments, Gross said, “the difference between the candidates is pretty stark. It’s a choice between experience and leadership and little experience and no leadership.” She listed the endorsements she’s received from organizations, such as the Fairfax Education Association, League of Conservation Voters, Fairfax Change of Commerce, and many others.

Feld said his lack of endorsements means he isn’t beholden to any groups. “This is not a great place,” he said. “We have a lot of problems. , , , Leadership is actually dealing with problems and solving them, not blaming someone else,” he said. He asked voters to consider whether they want “four more years of what you’ve got now or four more years with a plan of action to make things better.”

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