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Friday, October 9, 2015

Transportation, budget issues debated by candidates for Braddock District

Cook and Oleszek

Braddock Supervisor John Cook (R) and challenger Janet Oleszek (D) clashed over taxes, spending, and transportation Oct. 9 at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and other organizations.

The is the second time Oleszek, a former school board member, is trying to unseat Cook. In 2011, she came within 1 percentage point of beating him. Cook was first elected in 2009. The format called for members of the audience to submit written questions.

One issue that came up was about a controversial plan under discussion to add express lanes to Braddock Road to relieve traffic congestion.

A study under way by county staff with input from a citizens committee is looking at the possibility of widening Braddock Road to add a bus and carpool lane, but that is not expected to be in the final recommendations, Cook said. Other ideas under consideration include fixing the entrance to the beltway express lanes, improving various intersections, connecting trails, and improving pedestrian crossings.

Oleszek said she opposes expanding Braddock Road to add express lanes but notes that the committee may well go in that direction, as that topic is included in the group’s agenda and minutes. Representatives from many affected communities were excluded from the citizen task force, she said.

“Turning two miles of Braddock Road into a highway” will harm the Accotink watershed and  “destroy Braddock District,” Oleszek charged.

When asked about how the county can support the growing needs of Fairfax County Public Schools in the face of a huge budget deficit, Oleszek said she supports a meals tax as a means to raise revenue for the schools. She opposes increases in property taxes, as that would hurt seniors, but “a meals tax is a choice.”

Cook said he wants to increase the county’s transfer to the schools but the board also needs to constrain spending and a meals tax won’t solve the problem. He would hold the tax rate steady, increase spending on public safety and mental health programs, hold the line on everything else, and improve government efficiency. 

When asked about efforts to boost the local economy, Cook cited Inova’s purchase of the Exxon Mobil site for the development of a cancer center and translational medicine facility, which will attract private technology companies. He also called for more career and technical education in the schools and said there’s a group exploring ideas for repurposing vacant office buildings.

Oleszek said the key to economic growth is a high-quality school system. Companies do a lot of research on the schools before deciding to relocate here, she said. The county also needs more affordable housing to ensure a stable workforce.

A member of the audience asked what should be done about the vacant property that use to house Northern Virginia Training Center. Oleszek opposes development of the 88-acre property, which is owned by the state. “We’ve known about this for five years and heard nothing from the supervisors,” she said.

The state will sell the property to developers, and the county won’t be able to stop it, Cook said. If someone wants to develop it, the proposal would go through a planning process with community involvement. Leaving it empty would encourage crime and graffiti, he said.

When it comes to stormwater, Cook noted the supervisors passed a major stormwater ordinance last year that raises the bar for developers. Oleskez called for the county to install more permeable surfaces to reduce runoff on county buildings, noting, “we can lead by example.”

Regarding police reform, Cook said his idea for crisis intervention training is being adopted. Oleszek said the police department has suffered from a lack of transparency and insufficient training for years and blamed for the Board of Supervisors for not addressing the problem. She also called for better retirement and benefits for police officers.

The forum also offered an opportunity for the audience to submit questions to Braddock school board member Megan McLaughlin. Her opponent, Katherine Pettigrew, didn’t show up.

With FCPS struggling to deal with a large deficit, McLaughlin called for more coordination of funding between the school board and Board of Supervisors and more collaboration among various agencies in providing services to children. Despite the deficit, she said, teacher raises are critically needed, and “we need to safeguard the programs that meet the most need.”

McLaughlin expressed support for reducing class size, noting some schools have as many 36 students, but said it’s important to provide smaller classes for students with special needs.  

In response to proposals to save money by switching high schools from seven to six periods a day, McLaughlin said she is “very committed” to maintaining seven periods, because students need opportunities for electives, like art and career and technical programs, so they can  discover what they’re passionate about.

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