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The Choices Are Hard, But We Need to Act

January 6, 2014

With 10 children to raise, my family didn’t have the luxury of carefree spending.  Like most families, we lived by a strict budget.  My parents routinely had to make the hard choices between the necessities of life and the “nice to haves.” Our county is currently facing many of those same types of choices.

As the Board of County Supervisors begins the process of developing the FY 2015 budget, one of the biggest challenges we will face is how to solve the infrastructure deficits that have been created through a decade of neglect during the population explosion in the county.

One of the paramount issues we must confront now is the overcrowding of our classrooms that deprives our kids from receiving the highest quality education.  We currently pack students into classroom facilities that are too small to accommodate the number of students, and we put teachers into an impossible teaching environment where they have to manage huge numbers of kids.

Prince William County currently has the largest class sizes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is not a distinction of which we should be proud, and it is not a problem that has just happened overnight. The issue of overcrowded classrooms reflects over a decade of neglect, and it’s time we begin the work necessary to correct this. I will continue to push both the Board of County Supervisors and School Board to make certain that our tax dollars are going directly to addressing these issues.

We also face a serious problem with the funding of our public safety organizations, specifically, our Fire & Rescue and Police Departments. The national standard for emergency incident response time is four minutes or less for 90% of calls received. In Prince William County, our understaffed public safety personnel are able to meet that standard only 48% of the time.  We owe it to our brave emergency personnel to give them the resources they need to better protect and serve the people of the county.

These aren’t the only issues we face.  As a Board we have to weigh these critical issues with the challenges we face in providing an effective system to manage the many sports leagues. Kids should not be turned away from playing sports in Prince William County, but to address this issue, we can’t simply throw money at the problem. We have to reform the system so it works more effectively and provides sustainable solutions.

The main source of all of these problems is not difficult to identify.  We grew too fast, didn’t prioritize our schools and public safety highly enough, and didn’t take measures to offset the explosion of new residents.  We could have urged developers to invest a little more in the infrastructure of the county; we could have spent taxpayer dollars more wisely in the past; and we could have exercised our proper oversight over the finances of the schools to ensure that money gets spent in the classroom.

The problems we face are difficult, and unfortunately the solutions will be much more difficult.

During this budget season, we have to make sure we are prioritizing our tax dollars to reducing class sizes, paying our teachers a competitive wage, addressing the needs of our public safety personnel, and reforming the county’s policies towards sports leagues.

With one of the highest tax rates in Virginia, people still struggling to keep employment, and the cost of goods continuing to rise, we can’t simply raise taxes.  As a Board, we were elected to make the hard choices.  All too often, politicians keep on raising taxes so they never have to make those types of decisions.

My Dad would always say that “anyone can spend money; the key is making sure you’re spending money on the right things.” The challenges we face in the county won’t be solved overnight, but the path to the right solutions needs to start with the Board of County Supervisors making those tough choices.

 

Tele-Townhall Results

October 21, 2013

Thank you to everyone who was able to join my tele-townhall on October 9, 2013. And for those who were not able to make the call, I’d like to provide an update on what we discussed.

This was my second tele-townhall and let me tell you, I really enjoy this method of communicating with constituents. From my first day in office, it has been my goal to keep everyone updated on what is happening in the County. You elected me as your representative and I will continue to do all that I can to keep you informed and fight for your interests.

For the tele-townhall, I was able to call approximately 10,000 households to participate with over 2,000 people joining. Towards the end, I was able to answer 15 questions ranging from education to transportation.

Additionally, one of the benefits of this method of communication is the ability to take an instant pulse on the community through a few polling questions.

• On the Bi-County Parkway, 74% of those who have an opinion about the project are opposed, and 26% of those who have an opinion support the project.

• When it comes to the highest priorities for our school system, 53% of you said reducing classroom sizes, 29% said increasing teacher pay, 4% said building more amenities, and 14% of you said that something else should be the highest priority for our schools.

• 31% of the residents on the call support building a Western community center if it meant increased taxes, while 51% were opposed.

• 67% of the callers were in favor of expanding the VRE out to Haymarket.

My hope is to continue to hold these tele-townhalls, in addition to our regular townhall meetings that we’ve been able to hold in almost every part of the district. On a similar note, I want to encourage you to stay up-to-date on Prince William County government and Gainesville District news by visiting and liking my Facebook page. As always feel free to call my office or email me at Gainesville@pwcgov.org.

Again, I want to thank you for taking the time to join my tele-townhall. It is a privilege to serve you and I’m honored to represent the people of the Gainesville District.

Statement on Supervisor Covington’s Proposed Resolution

October 11, 2013

A few days ago, Supervisor Wally Covington (R-Brentsville), proposed a resolution that would extend the deadline for Prince William County personal property taxes due to the severe economic impacts on families as a result of the Federal Government shutdown.

I whole-heartily support Supervisor Covington’s resolution and will push to have this adopted immediately. At a recent Board meeting, I committed that, unless there was an emergency, I wouldn’t support a resolution without the requisite waiting period for the Board and public to review. However, I believe this is an emergency.

We need to act now to extend the personal property tax deadline to allow Prince William County families affected by the government shutdown to get through these tough times. As a Board, we need to show our commitment and understanding to those impacted by the shutdown.

Process Transparency

August 24, 2013

Over the last couple of months, we’ve had a lively debate regarding a new logo that had begun to pop up all around the county.

Personally, I had first seen this logo back in December when our Communications Director, Jason Grant, approached me after one of our Board meetings and showed me a picture of the new logo.  He explained that the logo was to be used only for economic development purposes (i.e. marketing materials, tradeshows, and so forth).

Several months later, Supervisor Jenkins was the first one to sound the alarm bells that this logo was being implemented at a much broader scale than any of us ever imagined.  He was absolutely correct to be concerned.  As Supervisor Jenkins and I began to investigate this issue further, we were deeply concerned about the process that was used.  This discussion went from logo to process.

The actual logo itself is only a small part of the overall issue.  There are two very important policy questions that need to be addressed.

First, did members of our County staff adhere to the long-standing rule that major policy issues must be presented for review and approval by the BOCS, and permit public input; and second, was the information presented by County staff about the logo development and deployment complete and accurate?

I felt it was our obligation as your elected officials to get to the bottom of these questions and find out the truth.  So I asked for documents to determine if the information provided to the BOCS by County staff was accurate and complete.

I am posting several documents on my website, and you can access them through the links listed below.  I want this process to be as transparent as possible and to allow for public input.  I welcome any comments or suggestions on these materials.

The documents and information I received from my FOIA request (later turned into a directive) indicate that the information given to the BOCS by County staff was clearly inaccurate, incomplete, and lacking in complete transparency.

The County staff initially reported the cost of the development of a new logo was only $750.

Based on information provided to me by a constituent, I asked Mr. Grant whether payments made to a Maryland vendor, Rogue Shard Design, LLC, were for logo development.

Mr. Grant responded that the Rogue Shard contract was mainly for animation of the introduction for the video that plays before each Board meeting.  Mr. Grant indicated that animation had to be redone since I was elected to the Board replacing former Gainesville Supervisor John Stirrup.

Supervisor Frank Principi also asked specifically how much had been spent on marketing and other costs associated with the use of the new logo.

County Executive Melissa Peacor responded with the statement that only the Department of Economic Development was using the logo, and she had personally had new business cards printed using the new logo, but only because she needed new business cards at that time.  Ms. Peacor assured the Board that nothing else was being done with the logo, and no other funds were being spent to deploy the proposed new logo.

In total, the Board was led to believe that the outlays for the new logo deployment, limited to the Department of Economic Development and Ms. Peacor’s new business cards, were significantly less than $10,000.The fact is that the claim that the Rogue Shard payment of $12,500 was for an animation is clearly inaccurate.  According to invoices from Rogue Shard, that $12,500 was specifically for a set of logos that were produced and then rejected by County staff.

There was a separate invoice from Rogue Shard for $2,000 that paid for the animation video.

The fact is that the logo was being actively deployed throughout the County, and not just being used exclusively by the Department of Economic Development.  Its deployment was well down the road to being used throughout the County.

The documents show significant expenditures for materials using the new logo by County Agencies other than Economic Development, including uniforms, shirts, printed brochures, signs, lapel pins, letterhead, tablecloths, etc.

Astoundingly, there was an order for temporary tattoos of the new logo in the amount of $ 244.60

Cleary, the implementation of this logo went well beyond Economic Development and shows how the BOCS and the general public were bypassed in making this critical decision.

My goal is to continue efforts to reform areas of County government that are not working as efficiently as they should.  My personal view is that the size of government should match the needs of the citizens, and the delivery of needed services should be provided as cost-effectively as possible.

In the past eighteen months since I was elected to the BOCS, I have worked to eliminate Supervisor’s discretionary fund accounts; to make financial disclosures of Supervisors more accessible to the public and have disclosures where potential conflicts may exist with official actions taken by the Board; to reform the budgetary process by requiring budgets be based on actual expenditures rather than on the prior year’s approved budget; and to make County government more transparent and more accountable to taxpayers.  I will continue on that quest.

I welcome your input, comments, and suggestions.  I am honored to represent the people of the Gainesville District, and I will continue to work hard to honor the trust you have placed in me.

- Rogue Shard Contract

- Rogue Shard Invoice for $12,500

- Rogue Shard Invoice for $2,000

- Rogue Shard Purchase Order for $12,500

- Rogue Shard Purchase Order for $2,000

- Rogue Shard Round One Logos

- Rogue Shard Round Two Logos

- Rogue Shard Round Three Logos

- List of items ordered with the new logo

- Temporary Tattoo order

The excerpts provided below were from discussions on the proposed implementation of the new County logo. I attempted to accurately depict, to the best of my ability, the statements made by each of the individuals who spoke during the discussion on this topic.  I prepared these documents without any professional equipment – only by listening to the recording of the meeting.  You can watch the video by visiting this link.

Let me be clear that these documents are not intended to be a legal transcript that would portray every nuance of language spoken by each speaker, including connecting phrases or non-decipherable sounds that are not actual words, but it is my best effort to accurately record the statements made during these meetings.

- Notes from the May 21, 2013 Board of County Supervisors Meeting

- Notes from the June 4, 2013 Board of County Supervisors Meeting

If you would like any further information, please contact our office.

A Crisis of Trust

July 24, 2013

Any parent who has taken their child out trick-or-treating has seen it before.  The lone bowl of candy left on the front porch of a house with a little sign that says “please take one”.  Children fight the urge to grab a handful and fill up their bags.  These are the opportunities we take as parents to teach our kids about restraint, trust, and honesty.

These lessons not only apply to the choices made on Halloween, but can be applied across our lives.  Our government (county, state, and federal) should only take from the citizens through taxes what it needs to run the core services of government, but not a penny more.  We see all too often politicians who grab more and more money without any thought about the sacrifices families have made to pay their taxes.

Since becoming Supervisor, I have learned one truth over and over again – trust in our elected officials and those running our County government is absolutely critical.  Without trust in those who manage our government and spend our tax money, the system weakens and fails to truly represent the will of the people.

Unfortunately, I have heard from many constituents that there is a real crisis of trust that has developed about our county government.  This is a real shame.  The vast majority of county employees and elected officials within Prince William County are honorable, hard-working men and women who take pride in the work they perform.

A few weeks ago, we learned that there had been a $25 million dollar budgeting mistake made in the FY 2013 budget, resulting in an immediate $5 million shortfall in the FY 2014 budget which multiplies itself over the next five years.  This mistake was simply human error and we are working as a Board to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

This past week, Chairman Stewart proposed a plan on how we can bridge the budget mistake.  While I agree with his plan and appreciate his efforts to correct the budget error without cutting government services or capital projects, a troubling practice came to light that raised several red flags.

In Chairman Stewart’s proposal, we will draw on almost $2.1 million from our Revenue Stabilization Fund.  Prince William County has several very large contingency funds – each of which allows us to cover emergencies and helps us maintain our AAA Bond Rating.  Certain levels of contingency funds are desired by rating agencies and I fully support properly funding these reserves.

What surprised me, however, was the size of the Revenue Stabilization Fund.  During the two budget reviews I have participated in, I directly and repeatedly asked the County staff if the funding levels for the Revenue Stabilization Fund were beyond the minimum levels required to maintain our AAA Bond Ratings.

The answer was always that the funding levels were absolutely needed to maintain that important AAA Bond Rating.  What we found out at the July 16 Board Meeting tends to contradict that information.  Our county staff revealed that we have been saving well beyond what was required.  In fact, the funding levels for the Revenue Stabilization Fund are at least $25 million higher than the levels required to maintain the AAA Bond Rating.

That disclosure was troubling in that it appears that we are overtaxing citizens beyond what the county government absolutely needs.  Remember, we have several contingency funds which allow us to cover any emergency and maintain our AAA Bond Rating – this money, however, is above and beyond what is needed.

During the FY 2014 budget review, the Board debated at length on important spending priorities, and the question of funding County services for programs like the $600,000 drug rehabilitation program in the County Jail, $30,000 for the Blue Bird Bus Tour Program, and adequately funding a new Fire & Rescue team to protect public safety, were all examples of tough decisions made by the Board on the false premise that the revenue from the proposed tax rate had no flexibility in it.

What we were not told is that the FY 2014 budget had a padded Revenue Stabilization Fund with an extra $25,000,000 tucked away.  In effect, another discretionary fund that has been hidden from the taxpayers.  Our government must be more transparent with our money.

I will continue to fight for taxpayers being protected from unnecessary and wasteful spending in County government.  I will strongly support a fiscally responsible budget plan, including contingency funds that maintain the funding levels to achieve legitimate budget objectives, so that government remains good stewards of taxpayer funds.

New Commuter Lot on I-66

July 16, 2013

I just wanted to inform you that as of Monday, July 8th, VDOT opened a new commuter lot at Cushing Road and I-66 near the Prince William Parkway. The new 433-space park-and-ride lot can be accessed from Balls Ford Road via Cushing Road

The new lot features a bus loop, a shelter for pick-ups and drop-offs, a new sidewalk from Cushing Road to access the lot, and a new traffic light at Balls Ford Road and Cushing Road. It also includes lighting, crosswalks, benches, bicycle racks and lockers.

The lot will allow commuters to easily access eastbound I-66 with a direct on-ramp. It is only open from the hours of 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and is restricted to buses and vehicles with two or more people.

In addition, OmniRide is providing bus service to the lot on its Linton Hall Metro Direct route to the West Falls Church Metro station. Direct service between the lot and Washington, D.C. is scheduled to begin this fall.

 

County Road Closings

July 12, 2013

Due to recent storms, many roads in Western Prince William County have been closed or have limited access.

As of 10:30 this morning, here are the roads in and near the Gainesville District that have been affected by high water:

- Lee/Groveton

- Lee/Sudley Rd

- Featherbed/Lee

- Gum Springs/Sudley

- 5310 Featherbed

- Pageland/Groveton

 

Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center Veterans Outreach

July 11, 2013

The Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center is a great nonprofit based in Prince William County that helps some of the most needy people in our community.  I was privileged to visit with them on my Walk for Prince William.

Here is a flyer for a Veterans Outreach program on the last Thursday of each month.  Please take a look at the flyer and feel free to pass it on to others in the community who may be interested in the Veterans Outreach program.

Hilda Barg Center Veterans Services Flyer

 

PWC Logo and FOIA Request

June 21, 2013

Over the last few weeks, there has been a substantial amount of media attention devoted to the issue about the new county logo and the process that was used to obtain and implement the logo.

The understanding of the majority of the Board was that this logo would be used solely by the Economic Development Department.  However, we quickly realized that this logo had been implemented in a much broader way, mostly without the approval or knowledge of the majority of the Board.

A few weeks ago at a Board meeting, Supervisor Jenkins led the way, questioning the process the County Executive and her staff had used in obtaining and implementing the new logo.  From the very beginning, Mr. Jenkins correctly identified that somewhere along the line, the process broke down.

When looking at the grand scheme of the county budget, the cost of a logo is relatively small.  We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in county services and for the most part, everything runs extremely well.   It would be easy to just ignore when problems arise in our government and just bury our heads in the sand.  But that is not what I was elected to do.

My colleague Supervisor Jenkins was absolutely right when he pointed out that the logo and its costs were secondary to the far more important issues of (1) was there accountability in the spending of county funds, and (2) whether the decision about the deployment of the new logo was properly handled by county employees.

At a recent Board meeting, we discussed these issues more in-depth.  I was very concerned as the responses we received as a Board from the county staff and County Executive were sometimes inconsistent with previous statements.

When the Board asked about the development of a new logo, and how much the total costs were, the answer was that it cost only $750.

But a couple of weeks later, when presented with information provided by a citizen showing that other work had been done, the County Executive’s staff informed us there was a second firm retained to develop another set of logos at a cost of over $12,000.  Two firms hired to develop logos – why wasn’t this information disclosed to the Board from the very beginning?

As troubling as that was, I was even more alarmed to learn that both firms used in the development of these logos were based outside of Prince William County and that with one of the contracts, no Prince William County firm was even invited to bid.

This is concerning to me due to the mere fact that the mission of the Prince William County Office of Economic Development consists of two elements:

  1. To attract new businesses and grow the commercial tax base in the county; and
  2. To support existing businesses and promote their goods and services.

As a county government, we should be doing all we legally can to promote and build the economy here in Prince William County.  It sends a poor message to potential businesses who are considering moving to the county that once they are here, we are not fully behind them.

In the end, the questions raised from these discussions were serious enough that the Board agreed to hold a “work session” on July 16 to explore the topics further.

In preparation for that meeting, I prepared a set of questions and requests for documents that would help the Board members get a better understanding of the facts with the contracts and clear up the contradictions made by county staffers.  My request provided county staff with over two weeks to obtain the information for the Board.

What happened next stunned me.

Two Supervisors objected to having the staff provide this information.

This procedural objection led the County Attorney to advise me that I could either present a resolution to the Board to approve the release of the requested information, or I could convert my request for information into a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

If I waited to bring my request before the Board, valuable time would be wasted that could be spent examining the documents and asking any additional follow-up questions.

So I was left with the only viable option – I had to convert my inquiry into a FOIA request.

The County Attorney informed me that I would have to pay for the FOIA costs, costs that I now know would be between $350 and $500.  That information was equally stunning to me given that I needed this information to fulfill my duties as Supervisor.

As I saw it, the policy of requiring an elected official to file a FOIA request in order to perform their duties sets a very dangerous precedent – one that could have a chilling effect over our whole form of county government.  Restricting access to information from any duly elected Supervisor and preventing the proper exercise of oversight is unacceptable.

Fortunately, during our last meeting, the majority of my colleagues agreed with me and I am extremely grateful for their support.

Now that I’m receiving the information without a FOIA, I believe it will help resolve those lingering questions about the logo controversy, and help us to reform the procurement process moving forward.

I take the responsibility the people of the Gainesville District have entrusted in me very seriously.   Over the last 18 months, I have worked diligently to ensure that every taxpayer dollar is spent appropriately, that your taxes are as low as possible, and that we continue to reduce the footprint of government in all of our lives.

I want Prince William County businesses to grow and thrive.  That starts with the county making a concentrated effort to allow local businesses the opportunity to compete for all contracts.

I am grateful for your overwhelming support and I will continue to fight for responsible, accountable government.

A Walk to Remember

June 15, 2013

With my knees finally recovering from my 33 mile walk across Prince William County, I thought I would take a moment to share some experiences I had while participating in the 2013 Walk for Prince William event.

As you may have heard, I walked from Woodbridge to Haymarket to raise money for six local non-profit groups that help every day to make Prince William County a wonderful place to live.  These non-profits included the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center, ACTS, SERVE, Youth Apostles Don Bosco Center, the Office Chris Yung Memorial Fund, and the Marine Lance Corporal Nick Thom Housing Fund.  Over the 33 miles, I had the opportunity to visit with many volunteers who give of their time and effort to support these organizations, all without fanfare.

Before I go on any further, let me thank all of you who made a donation during this event to help these non-profits.  When I began this effort, the goal was set of raising $30,000, and we are very close to reaching that goal.  But all of these wonderful non-profits still need more help from each one of us.  I would encourage everyone to visit the donation page at https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/walkforprincewilliam, and show your appreciation for the great work that is done by the hundreds of volunteers who serve less fortunate families in our community – and to recognize the sacrifices of Officer Chris Yung and Marine Lance Cpl. Nick Thom.

At 6:00 am on Memorial Day, a small group of us gathered at the Hilda M. Barg Homeless Prevention Center to kick off the Walk for Prince William, and to thank the staff at the Center.  For the first leg of the walk, I was joined by my good friend Supervisor Mike May (Occoquan) and Prince William County Police Officer Greg Pass – who volunteered to walk the whole 33 miles with me in remembrance of his friend and colleague, Office Chris Yung, who died in the line of duty a few months ago.

The weather was perfect and the company was even better.  Along the way, we were joined by a couple of residents who heard about the walk and wanted to join in.  It was a great experience to visit with the folks who came out and to see the county from the street view.  As we were walking past the Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center and the office buildings and shops along Smoketown Rd., it struck me how much business growth there has been in the county over the past several years.  While there is still much more we can do, Prince William County is a business friendly area that welcomes small and large companies with pro-business policies.

It also struck me how effective our networks of sidewalks are in the County.  Although more needs to be done, I was impressed that one could walk as far as I did, staying on safe sidewalks most of the way.

At our first stop after seven miles, we visited with volunteers from ACTS at the McCoart building.   This organization does so much to help and support those who find themselves in need of assistance.  I was touched to hear of their dedication to their work and some of the serious situations they help people through.  At this point, we parted ways with Supervisor May and made our long haul down the Prince William County Parkway.  Mike had family obligations for the day, but I know in his heart he wanted to stay with the entire Walk.  I am very grateful for his support and friendship.  This next eight-mile hike was long, but gave me a great opportunity to take in the beauty of our county.

After a few hours, we arrived in Manassas and walked over to the Youth Apostles Don Bosco Center.  This group helps predominately Hispanic middle school-aged kids in the community with a safe place to play and learn.  After meeting Father Ramon and visiting with volunteers, I was able to participate in an impromptu game of soccer.  With over 15 miles under my belt by that point, I admit I wasn’t at my best, but it was a lot of fun getting to know a few of the kids and seeing the great work being done there.

From the Don Bosco Center, Officer Pass and I walked a couple of miles over to the SERVE complex.  This organization helps individuals and families with a place to live, help with food, and assistance with job placement.  We took a tour of the buildings and learned of all the services they provide.

While walking along the road to SERVE, I had the privilege of meeting Charlie Pickens, a fourth generation resident of Prince William County.  It was truly an honor to visit with Charlie and hear about his time in the County, his families’ history, and his time in the Service.  In the end, Prince William is a great place to live because of the wonderful people that make up its population.  People like Charlie live their lives every day raising a family, going to work, and volunteering in the community.

When we were finished visiting with the good folks at SERVE, we walked over to the Western District Police Station.  Here, we were able to visit with those officers who knew Officer Yung and express our appreciation for the work they do in keeping all of us safe.  As the Gainesville Supervisor, I am reminded often of the wonderful men and women of our Police Department.  We truly have one of the best police departments in the country.

From the police station, we started our final leg of the trip – almost seven miles to the finish line in Haymarket.  By this point, my knees were in considerable pain, but I was able to pass the time by hearing the incredible stories of sacrifice and courage from Officer Pass.  He told me of his experiences as a Prince William County Police Officer and his appreciation for the opportunity to serve.

After 33 miles, 12.5 hours, and over 64,000 steps, we made our way into the town square in Haymarket.  We were overwhelmed to see almost a hundred people who had gathered to welcome us at the finish line.  We were able to have a small ceremony thanking our sponsors, and I was able to present Officer Greg Pass with our latest Gainesville Hero Award.

I won’t ever forget Memorial Day 2013, where I was able to participate in the Walk for Prince William and see the sites of the county and meet the wonderful people who help to make our community a great place to live and raise a family.  I’m looking forward to the Walk next year…hope to see you out there.