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News
The Rules of Prince William’s Most Expensive Board Game

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

Players are broken up into two teams, the Reds and the Blues. They come in different shades ranging from scarlet to pink, baby blue, to midnight. The color of a piece determines the moves the public may expect it to make. They play behind a wooden board called a Dias.

They may switch colors or shades at will. Sometimes they all turn purple.

Like all games, it’s a math problem. It’s more like Chess than Checkers. Graduate level courses on political calculus are necessary to really understand or play the game well.

It takes five votes to get anything done in Prince William County — five votes.

With six red and two blue pieces on the board, one would think that the game always comes to a quick end. That is seldom the case. Imagine those eight pieces constantly changing shades of color. Never changing shades, or never being one of those five votes, makes a piece irrelevant to the game and not worth watching.

Pieces may collect IOU’s for future votes and “trade moves” to win by losing. They keep track of the moves they trade. Every piece needs to win occasionally regardless of color, and those “IOU’s” come in handy when its time to collect.

Like Monopoly, this game is about money.

All of the wealth of Prince William County is like that money and those houses and hotels in the Monopoly box. Last year, the game cost $2.5 billion.

The goal is to get as much of it as you can and spend it on things to improve your position on the Board. While its ok to take a “chance” once and awhile, “going directly to jail” is something you want to avoid.

There are few rules. All of the pieces are kings. They have absolute discretion in the moves they make, however, they are limited to the number of moves available. They only have two choices: yes or no. The pieces make up the rules as they go along, and they all play to their own rules (which may be changed at will).

Score is kept electronically. The public may see who wins or loses individual moves by watching a set of red or green lights record their latest move.

People desiring to influence the game may do so by speaking directly to the players, or by paying campaign contributions.

The cynical suspect that we aren’t really watching the game at all, and that the real moves occur off the board. We wonder who is really playing? Surprise outcomes are not unusual.

Who is really moving the pieces? If you take your eyes off the board for a while and connect a few dots, you can figure it out.

A new set of the game starts every year. We call preparing for a new set of the game called Budget Season, where the players refill the Monopoly box with our money. The goal is to take “just enough” to stay in the game for four more years. “Too much” is a relative value judgment. The Red players differ on what is “too much” while the blue players think in terms of “never enough”.

While the pieces in the game make the moves, we ultimately have the power. We pay for the game. For the Reds and Blues, the tricky part is convincing the public that they are spending it on things that are really part of the game.

The game comes to an end every four years, and then we start over. The goal for a piece is to survive for another game.

Occasionally, a piece stops enjoying the game and drops off the board because the game isn’t as much fun for some as it used to be. In the past the pieces moved around in relative obscurity with little public interest in their moves. Now, many of us watch the game closely these days.

That’s changing the moves on the board, and perhaps the game itself.

Like all games, you can’t win if you don’t play. After all, its our money.

News
Teen’s Dressing Room Decision Leads to Mom’s Fashion Verdict

Mom on the Run

By LIANNE WILKENS

I’m in Kohl’s. In the dressing room. Looking. Thinking. Hard.

My sneakers are on the floor and my jeans are crumpled on top of my purse on that little corner seat. I’ve got two hangered black skirts on the hook, and a third on my body. I turn here and there, back and forth, assessing the image in the mirror. Hmmm.

Maybe a longer mirror would help, if I could stand farther back? Get a different angle,012113 Freedom center_edited-1 with a different light? Something to help me picture the skirt as I would actually wear it, with heels, instead of with my cheerful but so-wrong striped socks. So out I go, in search of a communal mirror, one that hopefully will reflect the perfect black pencil skirt.

Except … there’s no communal mirror in this dressing room. There are four little rooms in this alcove, each with its own full-length mirror, but no hallway mirror, nowhere else to stand without going out into the actual store. And I’m not sure this skirt has that much potential, really, to warrant all that.

Just as I turn to go back a young lady enters, looking for a dressing room of her own. She’s got an armful of jeans, and she looks to be in her late teens, with her long hair and her Coach sneakers. Aha!

“Excuse me,” I say, and she freezes and looks at me.

“What do you think of this skirt?”

Because this skirt, it’s from the Juniors section. The two from my own women’s section were wrong; one was too big, and there weren’t any in my size, and the other had a big waist panel and belt loops. I’m no longer buying and keeping in my closet any clothes that don’t make me look fabulous – no more cheap, “it’ll do” stuff for me, I have moved on in life and I’m not just Mom anymore, I want to look good – so those skirts, well, they just weren’t cutting it.

This skirt might do it, though. It’s got a great, flattering cut, and trendy but not wild little angled seaming at the waist. It doesn’t puff out in the front, and it’s all stretchy and elastic and very, very comfortable. And it’s a Juniors size!

A part of me giggles with joy. But … it’s tight. Every-curve, derriere-hugging tight. Much tighter and more revealing than anything I’ve worn in, oh, 20 years. And I’m pretty sure that’s the way this skirt is supposed to look – that’s the point of spandex, after all – but I’m also thinking that this skirt probably goes too far, especially in for my office.

So. Young lady in dressing room. A junior herself, obviously, who will make a pronouncement and help me decide. “What do you think of this skirt?”

“Umm .…” She looks at me uncertainly. She seems surprised that someone her mother’s age is asking her opinion. Finally she looks down at the skirt. I lift up my t-shirt so she can see the waist. I turn, left, right, let her see the whole thing. And, “It looks great,” she says.

“Really? It’s not too tight?”

“Oh, ah, no,” she says, with heavy, obvious hesitation. “Uh, that’s the way it’s supposed to look.”

And now I know. Yes, the skirt fits. Yes, it’s a good style. And yes, oh yes, this teenager clearly expressed that I’m too old for it, and that I cannot wear it in public. I thank the girl for her help, then go back into the dressing room, peel off the skirt, put it back on the hanger.

Well – a Juniors skirt! That was fun while it lasted, anyway. And back I go to the women’s section.

News
For Budget Watchers, Prince William’s Casciato Explains the Process

Opinion 

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

Occasionally I have a question about the budget. When I do, I usually look to the Office of Management’s Budget Questions Database to see if it’s already been asked and answered.

Quite a few of those questions in the database are mine. When I get a “complicated” question, I send an email to Michelle Casciato, Prince William County’s Budget Director. I always get a quick response.

My latest questions were about carryover funds. I’ve been watching this process for some time. Casciato recognized my question might get complicated if answered in an email chain, so she invited me to her office to chat. As one of Prince William County’s budding budget watchers, that’s an offer I couldn’t refuse.

To make sure our conversation was grounded in correct assumptions, I started our conversation by asking for clarification of the categories of money left over at the end of the year.

Casciato explained that there are really two kinds of end of year funds that Prince William County has to deal with. The first is carryovers. Not everything ends neatly at the end of the fiscal year. Carryovers extend previously approved appropriations from one fiscal year to the next.

The second is turnbacks. These are excess funds at year-end that are returned to the general fund by individual departments.

The public has come to lump these two funds together as “carryover funds”, or money of any flavor left over at the end of the year. I do believe that lumping turnbacks and carryovers into the same conversation has perhaps confused the public.

A look at the typical General Fund – Attachment D, Carryover recommendations, demonstrates that both flavors of money are addressed under the heading of “carryover recommendations”. This might contribute to the public’s confusion.

Ms. Casciato did mention that a lot of Prince William County’s budget process is based upon customs developed over the years.

Some issues weren’t “issues” in the past because little public attention was given to the details of the budget process. Of course, the discretionary fund issue changed all that.

This year’s more transparent budget process is actually a response to increased public scrutiny. I suspect this same level of transparency and awareness will also be applied to the annual carry-over process.

The flavor of money really does matter. I doubt anyone who understands carryovers really have an issue with them, and the normal practice for both Government and Industry.

Turnbacks are the focus of the budget watchers in our community. Addressing this issue, Casciato pointed out that budgets are built to fund the programs to succeed – no more, no less.

“To the extent that funding is left over at turnback, we build that turnback as a resource into the next year’s budget to return that funding to the taxpayers,” she said.

I understand intentionally collecting more than is perhaps really required to buy down risk; however, my real interest is in what happens to these “leftovers” at the end of the year.

I reviewed the last five years of carryover recommendations and noticed that many of them looked like things that should be part of the normal budget process, not an end of year leftovers subject.

Budget watchers such as me would prefer to see the movement of all budget items into the formal budget for public review and comment during the budget process.

An example would be the annual funding of Prince William County’s Technology Improvement Plan every year for the past five years (FY2008-FY2012) for exactly $5.5 million dollars (General Fund – Attachment D, Carryover recommendations, FY 2008-2013). I mentioned this to Casciato. She assured me this was in the nformation Technology and Improvements Section of the FY2013-2018 Capital Improvement Plan. Casciato did recognize my skepticism at the same recurring amount every year, funding for something as strategic as IT coming out of turnbacks, and the suggestion that perhaps something as dependable as this should be addressed up front as part of the budget process.

I was impressed when she responded that perhaps I was correct, and she would revisit just where funding for Technology Improvements are reflected in the upcoming budget. I only share this story because it demonstrates the two-way value of citizen interest and participation in County Government. Occasionally, we might even have a good idea.

As for my fellow budget watchers, the next Community Budget Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, February 16 at 9 a.m. in the Board Chambers at the McCoart Administration Building in Woodbridge. Bring your questions. After all, it’s our money.

News
No-Tag Traveler Intrudes on Neighborhood Adventure

By LIANNE WILKENS

“No, no, stay!” I call out, then hold my breath as the dog dashes across the dark street, just in front of the oncoming car. The driver sees him, though, and brakes, and the dog makes it, much to my relief. And now, here he comes. Straight toward me.

Reflexively, I grip my dogs’ leashes tight, try to pull them closer. They’re having none of it, though, Janie and Mixie are straining, pulling, desperate to meet the dog trotting toward them. I tuck my elbows into my sides, pull my fists – with leashes wrapped and wrapped around – close to my body, trying to keep 130 pounds of dog under control.

In seconds, the loose dog is here. All three dogs stop hard and greet one another stiffly, tails in the air. While they sniff around – Janie, Mixie, dog, Mixie, dog, Janie – I listen, hard, hoping to hear someone in the background, huffing up, calling.

The dogs are doing well, relaxing with each other, and I begin to relax, too. Whatever happens next, a fight doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. I transfer Mixie’s leash from my right hand and grasp it with Janie’s leash in my left, wrapping both leashes tightly around my still-flexed fist. Now, right hand freed, I bend down, and coo to the strange dog: “Come here, come here, let me see your tag.”

The dog, what looks like a short-haired yellow lab mix, isn’t afraid of me, but he isn’t helping, either. And my dogs’ heads are in the way, it’s a close-knit chaos of noses and ears. Every time I get close to the dog’s collar and his shiny tag, he moves his head away, teasing.

Finally the dog holds still, all the dogs hold still, and I read the tag, grateful that we happen to be in the circle of streetlight. But, dang it, it’s just the rabies vaccination tag. What good is that? I need this dog’s address, his owner’s phone number, something that will help me get him home, not the confirmation that he’s got his rabies shot. I mean, that’s reassuring, but it’s not the most useful information right now.

So there I stand, pondering. The dog is dragging a long clothesline-type rope behind him. He clearly was tied up outside, and broke away. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s very, very early. He ran across the street to get to us, nearly getting squished, clearly unfamiliar with traffic and cars. And with the way he’s wagging and panting at my dogs, I’m sure he’ll follow if we leave.

There’s nothing for it. I can’t just leave him here.

“OK, dog, you’re coming with us.” I pull off my glove and stuff it in my pocket, then reach down and grab the thin cord. It’s slick, and I wind it around my hand several times to keep a good grip. “Let’s go,” and I start to move.

The three dogs, excited, surge forward. The cord cuts into my hand, and, “Wait, wait, wait!” Janie and Mixie, veterans of daily walks, stop on command, looking back at me. The yellow dog doesn’t, he yanks and pulls, trying to keep moving. “Aaahh!” Quickly I loosen the cord from around my hand, then take it up and wrap it around my shoulder, under my armpit, over my coat. The dog tugs, the cable tightens, but it holds around my shoulder, and I grip it tightly with my hand to control the dog’s speed and direction.

Haltingly we head toward home, the yellow dog yanking and pulling and veering, cutting into my armpit and hand, my dogs confused and frustrated by their unnaturally short and close leashes. I stop every house or two to loosen the cord and pant with pain and rearrange dogs, who are going left and right and backwards. And at some point, on my fourth or fifth or sixth stop, I think ahead and realize that this is probably the easy part of this particular adventure.

 

News
More in Prince William Want to Know How ‘Government Sausage’ is Made

OPINION 

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

While most folks are generally worried about the weather this time of year, the real storm usually occurs in the McCoart Administration Building. I’m referring to the annual budget process for Prince William County. This is the battle of wills between the fiscal conservatives, the liberal right, and the center-leaning members of the county’s Board of Supervisors over just how little or much of our money they plan to take to run Prince William County during Fiscal Year 2014 starting July 1.

Historically, few people have participated in the annual budget process. That’s changed a bit since the discretionary fund issue that came to light in 2012. There are a lot more of us paying attention to just how our money is spent.

If you really want to understand how Prince William County Government works, you might want to check out the Code of Virginia, Title 15.2 – COUNTIES, CITIES AND TOWNS. Chapter 5 covers the County Executive Form of Government.

Here’s a fun fact – Prince William County and Albemarle are the only Counties in the Commonwealth that have a County Executive form of Government. Fairfax County has an Urban County Executive form of Government. There’s a difference.

The budget in Prince William County starts with our County Executive, Melissa Peacor. The duties of the County Executive are spelled out clearly in the Code of Virginia.

§ 15.2-539. Submission of budget by executive; hearings; notice; adoption.

Each year at least two weeks before the board must prepare its proposed annual budget, the county executive shall prepare and submit to the board a budget presenting a financial plan for conducting the county’s affairs for the ensuing year. The budget shall be set up in the manner prescribed by general law. Hearings thereon shall be held and notice thereof given and the budget adopted in accordance with general law.

Prince William’s budget is really the ultimate discretionary fund. It is important to understand that our elected officials, Chairman Stewart and the seven Supervisors, have broad discretion and sole responsibility for the decisions regarding how Prince William County spends our tax dollars. That being said, the County Executive frames the budget discussions with her proposal. She knows the math.

Government is a messy business. In the past, we never saw how the sausage was made. We only tasted the final product (which is usually not that bad). During the past year, we have started to wander around the butcher shop and noticed that perhaps the process in Prince William County isn’t quite as perfect as we would like. Lots of tasty tidbits are tossed in the grinder to make a lot of “connected folks” happy leaving some perhaps “good stuff” on the butcher shop floor.

Our real estate tax rate is actually driven up a penny here and there at a time, often on little things that add up. It’s easy to ignore a million or two in scraps here and there when they are lost in two billion dollars worth of sausage. We need to keep an eye on those scraps.

More people wandering around the kitchen is how we will finally get to a “better, leaner sausage” with less fat and scraps thrown in so everyone gets a taste they like.

Most people don’t mind paying taxes. They just don’t want to pay too much in taxes. That’s where paying attention to exactly what gets thrown into the sausage grinder comes into play.

There are some things our Board does to fulfill their vision of government’s responsibility. The Board tasked citizens such as myself to develop a Strategic Plan, a tool that helps drive the budget process, to reflect the people’s will regarding what should be funded. Once it’s done, the Board must approve it.

And then there’s “the rest of us,” the majority of the 410,000 people who live, work and play in Prince William County and are simply too busy to ask for anything.

At the end of the day, everybody wants something out of our elected officials. How they respond is really the driving force in how much we all pay in taxes and fees.

Perhaps the biggest decision, the decision that impacts every business, every family, every pocketbook in Prince William is how much revenue they collect in real estate tax revenue each Fiscal Year, or what percentage of the value of your home you must give to the government to pay for the police, firefighters, EMT’s, roads, schools, and other services in your community.

Our Supervisors all come with a Party affiliation, personal brand, or individual vision of what government is and how it should serve the Community. They are generally elected by some majority that buys into these individual visions.

Republican Chairman Corey Stewart, At-Large, and Supervisor Peter Candland have staked our the fiscal conservative point of view. Republican Supervisors Mike May and Wally Covington are leaning toward lower tax rates.

Republican Supervisors Marty Nohe and Maureen Caddigan strike me as center-right Republicans perhaps not as inclined toward the draconian positions laid out by their fiscal conservative Republican brethren.

Democrat Supervisors Frank Principi and John Jenkins are lobbying for higher tax rates and more government Services.

They are all correct from their point of view. As with all things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. They need to hear your point of view to develop their position for the upcoming budget discussions. Talk to them.

If you want to engage in the budget process, here are some tools you may use.

If you are curious just where your money is going, check out the Office of Management and Budget’s website.

The FY2013 budget documents give you a pretty good idea of where your money went last year, and perhaps a flavor for previous years.

The FY2014 Budget Choices presentation lays out the County Executive’s point of view regarding the tough decisions ahead in determining Prince William County’s tax rate.

If you have any questions about the budget, or want to see what others are asking go to the FY14 Budget Questions Database.

The Prince William County School System gets 56.75 percent of your real estate taxes. If you care about where your education dollars are being spent, check out the School Board’s preliminary budget.

Some dates you might want to watch:

Strategic Plan Public Hearing 22 January 2013

CXO FY 14 Proposed Budget 12 February 2012

Authorize Tax Rate Advertisement 26 February 2013

Establish Property Tax Rate 1 May 201

News
NOVA Commute Has Nothing on a Post-Sandy New York City Trek

By LAURA CIRILLO

Of all the things I worried about in preparation of Hurricane Sandy, my commute was not something I thought would be changed. Sure, I’ve whined and complained about commuting from the suburbs of Northern Virginia to Downtown Washington, D.C. I thought that was bad. Nope. That was nothing.

And then I found myself in New York City, helping in the aftermath of the notorious “Superstorm Sandy,” among many other things, learning to appreciate my regular commute. Oh, and my regular job. There was a point where I began missing that, too.

Learn more about PRTCWhen I had the opportunity to help the citizens of New York City who were affected, I couldn’t say no. Though I was born and raised in Northern Virginia, my entire family is from New York and New Jersey. And with many of my family members living in the impacted areas, without power, heat and even cell service for days, even weeks, Sandy really hit home for me.

After arriving in Manhattan, I learned that my assignment would be located in Staten Island – the one borough I had never really visited. And since I didn’t drive a car there and downright refuse to drive in New York City, I wasn’t sure how I’d get back and forth from Manhattan, where I managed to find one of the few available hotel rooms. Between displaced families and first responders in the area to help, the hotels were all packed.

Commuting won’t be a problem, I was told. There are plenty of options for public transportation.

Under normal circumstances, yes, there are many options in New York City for transportation. There’s the subway system, taxis, buses… of course, these were not normal circumstances. Imagine every possible logistical nightmare – the tunnels were flooded, same with the subway stations, power outages all over lower Manhattan. Navigating the city was tricky, to say the least.

My hotel in Manhattan was located a little less than two miles from the Staten Island Ferry Station, a bit far to walk, especially while carrying my equipment back and forth and returning sometimes very late at night. There was a subway station conveniently located right outside of the ferry station, on a line that I could access from a block away from my hotel; however, that station, being so close to the water, was badly flooded and remained closed for most of my time there.

In the meantime, my only other option was to use taxis, making my commute very unpredictable. It would sometimes take as long as 25-30 minutes to travel less than two miles, depending on traffic! Not to mention, hailing a cab on my street wasn’t always easy so early in the morning.

On a typical morning, I was rushing to the ferry station, hoping for as little traffic as possible on the way. The ferry only leaves about every half hour, so any delay could potentially throw off my entire commute. The ferry ride was around 25 minutes, and once in Staten Island, I’d have to board a train for another 30 minute ride. All in all, the commute took anywhere from an hour and half, sometimes closer to two hours. It was exhausting!

At first, I somewhat enjoyed the ferry experience. I loved being able to see the Statue of Liberty every morning, and lit up every evening. It was inspiring. I couldn’t help but stare in awe sometimes, knowing what Lady Liberty represents. On the days where I felt myself becoming cranky, tired and burned out, I had to remind myself why I was there. I had no choice but to keep going.

Ultimately, I spent a month in New York City, commuting six or sometimes seven days a week. Those days were long and the work was tough – perhaps the only thing more heart wrenching than seeing the stories in the news was reading the casework or actually meeting the people who had lost what little they may have had before the storm hit. While I had a safe, warm hotel room to return to every night, I felt almost guilty knowing there were so many people without that luxury.

As anxious as I was to return home to my own loved ones, I miss the work I did in New York City. I had the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people, and I came back with an incredible experience and a whole new outlook in so many aspects.

Sure, there are days like last Thursday, where traffic is so backed up that it takes two hours to commute home, and I’m mad that I missed my favorite class at the gym. I hate those days. But I try to keep in mind all of the good things in my life, all that I get to come home to, the fact that I have a comfortable home and so much to be thankful for (like not having to catch a boat back and forth to work every day!)

Sometimes, I just have to take a deep breath, close my eyes and enjoy the ride.

Laura Cirillo works for the federal government and lives in Prince William County.

 

News
Second Cake Try Ends with Smoke, Dripping Dollops

By LIANNE WILKENS

I am already disgusted with myself as I slide the cake into the oven. I haven’t had such difficulty baking a cake since the 6th grade, when my first solo cake broke coming out of the pan and I covered the whole thing with mini marshmallows to make it look decent.

Today’s cake is a gift for a sick friend. I pulled out my tried and true chocolate poundcake recipe, a surefire hit that is delicious and freezes well. I collected my ingredients, dug out my ancient tube pan – I mean really ancient, it was my mom’s, I used it as a teenager and appropriated it when I got married 24 years ago – measured the cocoa and separated the eggs. Oh, the batter was delicious.

But apparently the thermometer on my oven is off, because on minute 45 of the 70-minute recipe my husband called upstairs, “This cake is smelling pretty done.” I trotted downstairs, though it was way early, and was horrified to smell, yes, a pretty done chocolate poundcake. Seriously? Dang it. And since the situation wasn’t already bad enough, I accidentally dropped the whole thing as I went to remove the cooled cake from the pan. I was very relieved when it came out looking OK despite the crash-landing.

Until this morning, when, after worrying about it all night, I decided I was just going to have to try the cake. I could give it to my friend in individually wrapped slices, and one missing slice wouldn’t be noticed, but I couldn’t give it to her if it was overbaked. So, “Hey, you want to do me a favor?” My 17-year-old son was happy to help. I cut him a slab, and a thin piece for myself, and … “Yeah,” he said, two bites in, confirming my own conclusion. “This is too dry.”

So, dang it, I’m making another cake. I can’t believe it, I overbaked a cake! It’s been … decades! I shook my head, made a mental note to pick up an oven thermometer – and, until I get one, bake everything at, oh, 20 degrees lower – and pulled out the eggs and flour and sugar and cocoa and vanilla. Again.

I barely needed to look at the recipe the second time around. I had just made it! I creamed the butter and brown sugar, added the separated eggs, measured out the vanilla … and was just getting ready to pour it into the greased tube pan when I happened to lick my fingers. Ugh! What? I took another taste, looked at the recipe. Oh! I added the brown sugar, but not the granulated sugar! Whew, I caught that in the nick of time! I almost ruined the cake – again! Unbelievable! Hastily I added the sugar, poured the batter into the pan, and slid the pan into the oven.

And I felt good.

Until now, a mere five minutes later. When I hear a sizzle. And smell smoke. I flip on the oven light, and … no way. No, no way. Batter is leaking from the pan, dropping and burning in big dollops on the hot oven floor. Shoot! Dropping the tube pan must have dented the bottom, and now the inner piece and the outer piece are gapping. What can I do about this now? Shoot shoot shoot.

I grab oven mitts and my big long barbecue spatula. I open the oven door and lean in, scrape the batter off the bottom. One, two, three, four long reaches, my arm tingling from the heat, to scrape the burning blobs off the oven floor and – whack! – dump it into the sink. Finally I pull out a cookie sheet, long and wide, and slide it beneath the pan to catch the dripping batter.

The baking cake will solidify soon, I think, and I’ll lose some, but it’ll still be OK, I console myself. This second cake will still be fine. It’ll just be a little smaller. No one will notice.

But the batter … it doesn’t solidify quickly. It keeps oozing, dropping and mounding on the cookie sheet. Glumly I watch it drip and drip and drip.

A half-hour later, the cake smells done. Already. I shake my head, pull it out. The cake is maybe half the height of its overbaked predecessor, with the right side lower than the left. The cookie sheet underneath has a big heap of semi-burned cake, baked droppings from the pan above. And I got most of it out, but still – cough, cough! – there’s a good amount of smoke lingering in the kitchen.

Stupid darned annoying ridiculous cake, I think as I plop the pan onto the cooling rack. Tried and true surefire recipe my foot! Hey, maybe if I cover it with mini marshmallows ….

News
Old Rules No Longer Apply As Northern Virginia Job Market Faces Major Changes

OPINION

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

The Northern Virginia Telework Council announced its focus project for 2013: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.

The new jobs initiative comes after the Telework Task Force at the Prince William Chamber of Commerce held its final meeting on Friday. In its place is now the NVTC, and it’s new leader is intelligencecareers.com CEO Bill Golden.

“My focus for my 2013 is to pursue an agenda of jobs, jobs, jobs. How do we make this relate to money in someone’s pocket,” said Golden.

His company uses technology to connect people with careers all over the world. He is considered a subject matter expert on the defense industry, and travels around the U.S. and internationally to lead seminars on the subject.

Sequestration, the debt ceiling, and today’s announcement that Defense Secretary Panetta directed the Department of Defense to start implementing immediate spending cuts, have all been forefront on his mind. Golden said Prince William County depends heavily on the federal government for much of its wealth and success, and is very interested in exploring how people work during a time of economic change.

As the job market in Northern Virginia is about to change, Golden said residents in Prince William and Stafford counties need to prepare to lead the labor market into a new world of virtual jobs, free agent employees, and to help foster new relationships between employees and employers.

The old rules just don’t apply anymore.

Golden plans to establish a diverse board of advisors representing education, industry, government and technology to be represented on NVTC. In May, Golden plans to hold a “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” summit to share information with the public and “deep dive” into the issues. He looks forward to working with George Mason University, the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, Prince William County Government and it’s leader Chairman Corey A. Stewart, state and federal government, and other stakeholders to grow jobs, and to connect the region’s intellectual capital with the global marketplace.

Among other things, Golden owns internet radio and TV outlets and produces several live-stream programs. He does business within the virtual world he advocates, and said he knows where the NVTC’s meetings will be held.

“Online, of course! We plan to ‘eat our own dog food.’ No one will have to drive to attend a NVTC meeting,” said Golden.

If you would learn more about NVTC’s 2013 jobs, jobs, jobs project, just go to  usateleworkjobs.com. If you would like to participate in this initiative, just contact Bill Golden at golden[at]usajobzoo.com.

News
Sweet – and Sour – Gherkins

MOM ON THE RUN

By LIANNE WILKENS

I’m standing at the open fridge, gathering condiments. We’re having cheeseburgers for dinner, they’re on the grill now, and everyone likes different toppings. I’ve already got a plate of lettuce leaves and tomato slices on the dining room table, and now: ketchup, yellow mustard, spicy brown mustard, relish, mayonnaise … what else?

My arms are full – I refuse to make a second trip, I’ve got this – as I peruse the refrigerator shelves. There was something extra, and I’m trying to remember. Oh! I know! Sweet gherkins.

On Christmas day, my in-laws hosted a buffet dinner. On the table, among the ham and turkey, sour-cream potatoes and sweet potatoes and salad, deviled eggs and seven-layer dip was a bowl of small sweet gherkins. My 17-year-old son had experimentally put a few on his plate, and “These are good,” he had smacked appreciatively after trying them. “Why don’t we get these?”

“We do,” I had explained. “They’re sweet gherkin pickles. We probably have a jar in the house right now.” My kid had nodded, pleased, and shoved more in his mouth.

So now it’s cheeseburger night and, I think, a good meal for pickles. I’m sure we have a jar in here somewhere, though it’s been a while since I ate any myself. I stand, juggling everything else hamburger in my arms, and gaze at the door, with its assemblage of jars and bottles.

There, on the bottom shelf, a short round jar with a gold lid. Is it … nope, dill pickles. But to the left – there it is! “Sweet Gherkins,” confirms the label. I twist the jar around briefly, scan the lid, raise it high to check the bottom. I have no idea when I opened this jar, but there’s no expiration date. I guess pickles don’t go bad, really, all that vinegar. And out onto the table it goes with everything else.

At dinner, my son dresses his burger, squirts a puddle of ketchup for his tater tots. He inhales it all in what seems like just a few bites. He rests, leaning back in his chair, stretches a little, looks around, and spies the jar on the table. “Oh, nice!” he says. He reaches forward, grabs the jar and his fork, and proceeds to spear himself a little green pickle. And a second, and a third, and a fourth.

He’s got five pickles piled on his plate when his dad says, “Don’t you want to try one first, before you get all those out?”

“Nah,” says my son. Then he stops a second, because he knows me and our history, and he looks at the jar. “How old are these, anyway?”

“No idea,” I tell him. “But I looked. There’s no expiration date.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, and he parrots exactly what I thought earlier: “pickles probably don’t really go bad, it’s all vinegar.” And he stabs a pickle on his plate, bites it in half, chews. Then, “Though this tastes a little strange,” he says.

Before he can eat another one, his dad picks up the lid to the jar, looks inside, rotates it toward me, shows me the black tracings on the top. Silently, our eyes meet. Silently, we note the evidence. Silently, we agree not to say anything.

My son, however, notices the eyes-only exchange. He picks up the jar, inspects it, takes the lid from his dad, looks inside. “Awwww,” he groans.

And just like that, I know, the sweet gherkin trend is over!

News
With Lean Times on Horizon, Prince William set to Outline its Future

OPINION

I was a member of the Prince William County 2013 – 2016 Strategic Planning Team. It consisted of twenty appointees representing a wide variety of political, philosophical, and business points of view. It was a good mix.

Our first task was to develop a Strategic Vision Statement to frame the development of the Strategic Plan.

Strategic Vision Statement: Prince William County is a community of choice with a strong, diverse economic base, where individuals and families choose to live and work and businesses choose to locate.

This was used as the framework for our five goal areas (which follow).

Economic Development Goal: The County will provide a robust, diverse economy with more quality jobs and an expanded commercial tax base

The rational here is simple. Economic development pays for everything else. It creates new jobs in Prince William County, reduces the tax burden on homeowners, and creates multiple long-term streams of significant revenue.

 I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with and watching Executive Director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development Jeff Kaczmarek several times. While Prince William faces unique challenges inside the “federal bubble,” and the change to our fundamentals resulting from sequestration and a general trend to downsize, I believe Jeff is our best bet to at least stay even or perhaps gain a little ground.

The “surprise” in this mix is Chris Price, Prince William County’s Director of Planning. He actually comes from an economic development background, and filling those empty strip malls with new small businesses is on his radar. While Jeff is focused on bringing in new business from outside Prince William County, and helping existing businesses grow, Chris has created a community development position to pay attention to revitalizing our community.

I believe these two Prince William County executives offer the mix we need for the future of Prince William County economic development.

We also added an educational element to our mission.

Education Goal: The County will provide an educational environment rich in opportunities to increase educational attainment for workforce readiness, post-secondary education and lifelong learning.

It’s simple (at least, to me), education is the price of a civil society. The best way to reduce crime, develop mutual respect for each other, and increase employment is through a well-rounded education system. I don’t mind paying for that.

I am interested in a little more oversight in the School Board budget process and greater involvement of our Board of County Supervisors.

Public Safety Goal: The County will maintain safe neighborhoods and business areas and provide prompt response to emergencies.

Full disclosure: I was also on the 2008-2012 Strategic Planning Team. We were organized by functional area. I was on the Public Safety Team. I became so interested in public safety that I volunteered for the Prince William County Police Department Citizens Police Academy to learn more about this complex business.

Public Safety is, to me, government’s prime responsibility. We want the police, firemen and EMT’s to show up when we need them. I suspect, considering the aging demographic in Prince William County, that is not a unique distinction.

Transportation Goal: The County will provide a multi-modal transportation network that supports county and regional connectivity

Transportation is one of those things that only Government can really do. Prince William County does it well. Prince William County Director of Transportation Thomas Blaser was on our planning team. He understands that moving people around isn’t just about putting cars on the road. It includes, trains, bikes, flexible work hours (to reduce folks on the road), and telework (to take people off the road). I believe the ways to move around (or not… that “telework thing”) will be there for our residents as Prince William County grows.

Human Services Goal: The county will provide human services to individuals and families most at risk, through innovative and effective leveraging of state and federal funds and community partnerships

While there are some things only government may do, there are some things that are best left to others. Prince William County is blessed with an army of volunteers and not for profits who focus on the full range of human services.

I would actually like to see greater utilization of Community Partners to reduce the size of our local Government. My only angst with our Community Partner program is its potential for politicization. Many of us will be watching to see if the process truly plays out objectively (as intended) free from political interference.

So, what’s next? The 2013-2016 Strategic Plan will be presented in detail at a public hearing in January 2013

Every meeting started with citizens time. If you still have comments or input, this is your last chance. Watch the Prince William County website or Potomac Local News for information on when this will be scheduled.

While our Board of County Supervisors will look to the Strategic Plan for a framework within which to allocate our tax dollars, it doesn’t drive where our tax dollars actually go. This is the ultimate trade-off. Would you prefer more police & firemen, or a larger school board budget? Is our investment in economic development worth fewer community partners?

The community is paying more attention to the budget process than it has in past years. I suggest that for those things not in our Strategic Plan that show up as potential budget items, operative question might be “why?”

The Strategic Plan defines “core services” for Prince William County, and we need a really good reason not to get the police or firefighters we need, fund education for our children, or support Community Partners in under served areas before straying into funding things that serve no strategic purpose.

I personally believe that the fundamentals for Prince William County are about to change. Sequestration, the wind down of foreign wars, and a trend to downsize the Federal Government, the engine of our local economy, will sent perturbations through the housing market, our projections for growth, and our revenue base.

I would suggest that it would be wise to focus on the fundamentals, and leave the “other stuff” on the budget floor to brace for the lean times ahead.

Al Alborn is a political blogger, and active resident who lives in Prince William County.

News
‘Manland’ Gym Funny, Unfiltered Place You Can’t Talk About

MOM ON THE RUN

By LIANNE WILKENS

“Ugh,” my son says. He leans back in his chair, flops his head backwards in disgust. “Seriously, can we talk about something other than the gym?”

My husband glances over at him, then at me, and we laugh. Well, I laugh, cheerily, happily. My husband chuckles, kind of a flat solidarity “heh-heh”. And that sound stops my laughter.

“OK,” I say, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

My son knows this is a delicate area, and, “It’s just that it’s the only thing we talk about!,” he adds. My husband, not sure how I’m going to react, nods gently in support of his son.

I started going to the gym last February. I began using the treadmill, then graduated to the elliptical, and got bored and added circuit weights. Then I booked a series of personal training sessions with the very patient Jeremy. And then, because I’m cheap and needed a buddy to make me go, I asked my neighbor Dave to “show me some weights.”

So Dave did. Kind, generous Dave took me under his huge muscular wing, and dragged me along through his weight training routine for the whole summer, and now I do it all by myself. And Dave’s weight training routine is that of a body-building man, so, ta-da, that’s what I do. Accidentally. Had I realized, I would have found someone less, um, focused to teach me, another woman. But oh well, now here I am.

Or, rather, there I am, at the gym, every single day. Though he’s busy and not around much, I faithfully follow Dave’s training schedule, each day focused on a different body part: shoulders, back, chest, arms, and legs, with abs on alternating days. It’s me and 15 to 20 men in Manland, lifting heavy things up and putting them down, over and over and over.

At first I thought it was pointless and silly. But I’m competitive, and only lifting one-third (or less) of Dave’s weight annoyed me, so I started to focus pretty quickly. And now picking up heavy stuff and putting it back down is what I do in my spare time, and what I think about, and, apparently, what I talk about. All the time. My transition into gym rat was sudden and funny, but I guess the novelty has worn off, and my son has finally had enough.

“So I can’t talk about it at all?” I can try to follow the rules, but … not talk about Manland? About all the characters, like the Professor, and GI Joe, and Matchy-Matchy, and Baby? Not tell about how Psycho Nikes hollers and grunts when he lifts, and I’m sure he’s going to bite his tongue off? Not describe how Altar Boy prays, loudly, for divine assistance with heavy weights? Not even tell embarrassing stories about myself, like when I couldn’t get the bar back on the rack, so I wrestled it to my lap, and then when I tried to pick it up it tilted and all the weights slid off the bar and landed with a clang on the floor, and then the other side did too, and all the guys turned and stared?

Manland is a hilarious place! The men are unfiltered, belching and arranging themselves, and their raw true selves are so funny. And the fact that I’m in there too, picking up heavy things and putting them back down, and watching my new muscles in the mirrors, and drinking protein drinks afterwards … it’s a remarkable new world, and I’m not allowed to talk about it? Really?

“Well, a little bit,” my 17-year-old allows. I grin – yes! It’s something he and I can actually talk about together, one small commonality – “But you’re not allowed to call them ‘quarters’ and ‘dimes’. You have to call them 25 pound and 10 pound plates.” He stabs his finger at me for emphasis.

“Yes, sir,” I say, and grin.

I wait a beat, then, “So can I tell you what happened at the gym today?”

Together, my husband and son groan and roll their eyes, and look at each other in resignation.

Lianne Wilkens lives with her family in Manassas. Reach her at liannewilkens[at]hotmail[dot]com.

 

News
Alborn: ‘Sheriff’ a Self-Proclaimed ‘Disruptive Influence’ on Local Politics

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

So, who is the Sheriff of Nottingham of Prince William County?

The elusive blogger that has captured the attention of county residents and government officials agreed, for the first time, to be interviewed. He sat down in a coffee shop and opened up about the state of local government, the problems it faces as he sees them, and shared his disdain for the way local government is run in Prince William County.

During the past few months, we had exchanged notes and he finally offered to meet under certain conditions, the foremost was to protect his anonymity. I was surprised when a man I have never seen before ordered a cup of coffee and then approached me and said “Hello Al”, and then sat next to me. 

A blogger myself, I simply didn’t recognize him (and I know quite a few people). This surprised me. The writer goes by the pseudonym “The Sheriff.” I asked how I should address him, and he suggested I call him William Brewer. Brewer recognized me from the picture on my blog. He looks nothing like the picture on his blog.

With diverse connections in the county and a child who is a schoolteacher, Brewer started his blog in an effort to call attention to the actions of local government while protecting the interests of his friends, family and associates.

He felt compelled to write about things that he witnessed occurring in local government – penning mostly about things he disagrees with. His rising property tax bill was the “tipping point,” he said.

Brewer started The Sheriff of Nottingham of Prince William County in May. This was his first attempt at blogging, and he quickly hit a tone that resonated with his readers. Brewer now has 2,000 hits per day on his blog – a good number for a website with such a local focus.

Brewer is known for taking an adversarial tone toward those in elected office, as well as Prince William County Government employees. It’s all an attempt “to be noticed,” he said. He’s intentionally loud, and Brewer wants to control the conversation to get both the public and government’s attention. It’s a bid for both awareness and reaction, he said.

Brewer has intentionally cast himself a disruptive influence in Prince William County. He considers a lot of things our local government does with our money abuses of power. His first blog post was about the abuse of Discretionary Funds – monies that elected officials could spend as they saw fit. The Board of Supervisors later did away with those funds after much public outcry. Bloggers like Brewer to credit for the funds’ demise.

Brewer is now paying particular attention to what he sees as continued abuses of public money and bad behavior on the part of those who serve in local government. Most recently, one of his writings focused on the FY2014 budget process, and what he sees as unreasonable resistance to the flat tax proposal of Chairman Corey A. Stewart (At-Large) and Gainesivlle Supervisor Peter Candland. He opined that Prince William County operates without much public oversight. Most folks are just too busy commuting, raising their families, or getting on with their lives to pay attention to local government, he said.

“Character is what you do when no one is watching,” he said.

Brewer also has opinions about the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

“There is nothing better than a reformed sinner,” Brewer said regarding members of the Board. “Every sinner has a past, and ever saint has a future.”

“There is nothing the public would love better than for a Supervisor to simply admit he made a mistake, and move on,” he added.

Brewer is more interested using his blog to prompt a change in the actions of Prince William’s Supervisors as a whole.

County Executive Melissa Peacor has also been the focus of Brewer’s writings. Gainesville District Supervisor Peter Candland earlier this month voiced a no-confidence bid in Peacor following what he called a flawed review of his 2014 flat-tax budget proposal. Brewer, too, has called for Peacor’s ousting.

“The buck always stops with the chief executive, and they are well compensated to take the fall when the interests of the enterprise outweigh the interests of the individual,” said Brewer.

Following Candland’s statement, members of the Prince William Board of Supervisors said they supported Peacor, who serves at the direction of the Board. Overall, Peacor said, the rise in the popularity of bloggers in Prince William County has not prompted a change in the way her office conducts business.

“[County] staff serves the community by carrying out the direction of the majority position of the Board. We always communicate with the Board and serve them in the same capacity regardless of whether there are bloggers or not,” stated Peacor.

Although some have suspected he is, Brewer is not a member of Candland’s budget review committee that submitted a funding proposal for FY2014 to county staff.

Brewer is not alone in his quest to opine about local government. He has sources whom he refers to as “birdies” who sing to him, apparently, from inside the McCoart Government Center in Woodbridge. Many of them, Brewer said, are government employees that don’t like their jobs.

“My blog is the only place they may share their frustrations,” he said.

It’s not only Brewer who writes to get attention; so do those who comment on his work. Brewer’s readers only see only the “tame” comments on his blog because he filters out the really nasty stuff, and there is, according to Brewer, many nasty comments from Prince William County Government employees that he just chooses not to share.

While he doesn’t mind being a sounding board for those employees, Brewer said once the change that he feels is long overdue comes to the McCoart Building, he would be willing to hang up his hat. Until then, Brewer said he feeds the local government’s frenzy to respond to his posts, their paranoia about what he will say next, and the disdain that many county employees have for their employer.

“When they top obsessing and start correcting problems, I’ll go away,” said Brewer.

It’s a promise he offered to put in writing.

News
Alborn: Charitable Giving Shouldn’t be about Political Points

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I just packed for my flight home from Okinawa, Japan. I’ll be flying through Tokyo and because I have to switch from a Domestic Airport (Hanada) to an International Airport (Nareta), I’ll be spending the night there. As I make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I am also thinking about the list of “to do’s” when I get home. At the top of that list will be to make some donations to a few of the worthy not for profits in our community (and a couple National and International Organizations). I’ve been luckier than most in life and like to share my modest success in life those who because of chance or circumstance weren’t quite so lucky.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my charitable giving. It’s a very personal decision. My choices reflect my beliefs and personal philosophy. I favor small groups lead by mostly volunteers because I recognize they are driven by a passion to help others. I also look carefully at the percentage of revenue a group devotes to programs versus overhead. Yes, I look at the IRS 990’s, and draw upon my personal experiences.

Prince William County also likes to give my money to not for profits. In theory, I don’t object when I am confident that the recipient is perhaps performing some core service quicker, faster, or cheaper than the government might deliver it. In practice, I lack confidence in Prince William County’s ability to pass out my money for me because the process has become too politicized.

I have reviewed the Prince William County process for determining community partners and consider it a reasonable framework. If the process were allowed to play out without political interference, I frankly wouldn’t object. When I see Supervisors use this process as one more political tool to reward constituents, grab publicity, and protect incumbency I shake my head.

For too long in Prince William County we have watched our tax dollars go to ruthless self promotion, incumbency protection, favored groups, private causes, pet projects and even personal amusements through the Discretionary Fund process. When we noticed, and complained, the Discretionary Fund process went away.

We have already seen Prince William Supervisors use their position to attempt to influence the outcome of which charitable organizations are funded with tax dollars as “community partners.” While that’s their right, a First Amendment right I encourage, I question the fingerprints on those we elect to influence just how our tax dollars are spent on not for profit groups.

The “take away” for me is that perhaps those we elected to sit behind the Dias either don’t trust the community partner evaluation program that they approved or that they don’t think their favorite group will qualify if fairly evaluated.

Pick one.

I’ll admit it, the Beatitudes Jesus shared during the Sermon on the Mount are my life’s compass. He didn’t say, “Look to Rome to feed the hungry”, he was talking to us. Those who would like to pass that obligation on to anonymous bureaucrats perhaps missed the point.

I do the bulk of my charitable giving around Christmas. I put a lot of thought into just which groups I support, and how much I will give to each group.

I am disappointed that perhaps the community partner program might become the next vehicle for our supervisors to use our money and determine how it is spent as one more ruthless publicity, self-promotion, and incumbency protection program.

The process of spending taxpayer money should be objective and driven by the math involved in collecting just enough money to support those things that only Government can do. Not for profits are a valuable tool in delivering Government core services quicker, faster, cheaper.

I remain suspicious of any elected official who attempts to undermine what should be an objective process by directing our tax dollars to their favorite people (and its always about “people”). The price of not being one of those favorite “people” is just unacceptable to me.

I’ll be home “tomorrow” (crossing thirteen time zones and arriving the same day I depart). I’ll be pulling out my checkbook next week to share my modest success with those who perhaps didn’t get the same breaks. I encourage you to do likewise.

Merry Christmas from Japan! It’s time to catch my flight home.

News
Alborn: Telework Better Than Widening Rural Purcell Rd.

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

Memo to the Prince William County Planning Commission,

This evening, you will be discussing the fate of Purcell Road and the Purcell Road Widening Project. While I live in “the neighborhood”, and naturally don’t want to see this local treasure covered with asphalt, I would like to bring a larger issue to your attention.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement act mandating that all Government Agencies implement and support a strategy allowing Government employees to work at home (thus taking them out of the Transportation system).

As we speak, Congressman Gerry Connolly is working on Telework 2.0, an expansion of Telework legislation broadening its application to Federal Contractors.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has several incentives to encourage businesses to implement telework as well as guidelines for State Agencies.

Virginia Delegates Rich Anderson, Barbara Comstock and David Ramadan hosted the first Northern Virginia Telework Summit to kick of legislative initiatives in this are during the upcoming legislative session.

Commonwealth Transportation Secretary Connaughton identified telework as Strategic in his Report to the Governor and the General Assembly of Virginia (Report DocumentNumber 192, 2011).

The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering Telework and alternative work schedules in its Virginia Transportation Modeling Program.

Prince William County’s latest Strategic Plan lists Telework and alternate work schedules as a strategy for dealing with future transportation requirements I am on the current Strategic Planning Team.

The Prince William Chamber of Commerce has established a Telework Task Force to address how we might help local businesses take their employees off the road. I am the Chairman of this Task Force.

Simply put, technology, diminishing budgets for road construction and maintenance, clogged roads, and frustrated commuters are changing the dynamics around transportation planning. We continue to plan for roads framed in yesterday’s assumption of an ever increasing demand to move cars around instead of recognizing larger forces that may actually reduce traditional transportation requirements in the future.

Perhaps you should “take a breath”, evaluate telework as a technology megatrend, and perhaps consider incorporating taking people off the road in the transportation planning process. Such an action could change everything regarding Northern Virginia’s transportation requirements in the future, and perhaps prevent unnecessarily destroying the rural charm that attracted so many of our residents to Prince William County.

Building more roads follows the old paradigm of moving people to the information they need to do their job. The new paradigm is about moving the information to the people wherever they may be to do their jobs.

This evening, you are going to discuss destroying one of the few remaining “country roads” that help maintain Prince William County’s rural charm and unique character.

While this particular discussion is about Purcell Road, I request that you consider framing this and future discussions over the fate of Prince William County’s few remaining rural byways in the context of what the future will probably look like: successful implementation of Federal mandates, state incentives, and employee desires as more people work from home, telework centers or wherever they please in the future.

I strongly suggest that you defer any discussion of covering what little green space is left in Prince William County, Virginia with asphalt until you request staff adequately evaluate the impact technology, current and future legislation, and the nature of the future workforce on our transportation requirements.

It would be ironic if in twenty or thirty years, your legacy will be to have approved and encouraged paving over Prince William County’s rural charm with asphalt that simply wasn’t needed because of a failure to consider trends in how people will work in the future.

Missing the telework mega trend could be an expensive mistake.

News
Alborn: Answers to Budget Questions Begin with ‘No’

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

It’s interesting watching the Prince William County FY2014 budget process play out form a coffee house on the East China Sea in Japan. It adds a level of abstraction to, what at least to me, should be a simple process.

In past years, the budget process was conducted in relative obscurity out of the public eye. Budget committees were formed to gather citizen input; however, (in retrospect – I served on four), the committees in which I participated were more for “show” than “go”. And then, on 11 November, 2011, we finally recognized what was going on with our money.

We started noticing that most of our supervisors (some more than others, I exclude Chairman Stewart and Supervisor Candland) were dipping into our pockets to use taxpayer dollars for what were clearly private purposes, pet causes, entertainment and amusements, self promotion and memorialization on a grand scale, and perpetual incumbency protection schemes.

No policies were violated because there were… well… no policies to cover what we come to call discretionary funds. Some might call it stealing our money. I will make no such charge, preferring the term “apparent misappropriation”.

As we dug deeper into where our money was going, we discovered that the entire budget process was created around a simple quid pro quo system of mutual benefit between County Government and our elected officials. While we were successful in eliminating the what we now recognize as “small change” we call discretionary funds, we also uncovered an even grander scheme of avoiding the budget process called “carryover funds” (or intentional over-collection of our money) to fund the growth of government, off the books projects and causes, and supervisor projects.

We have very good reasons not to trust what Prince William County does with our money. If we hadn’t caught our supervisor’s hand in the cookie jar several times during the past year (perhaps its time to go back a few years and see what we missed), I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

Many of us have simply lost faith in how Prince William County Government establishes our tax rate, what it spends our money on, and our budget process.

We have learned that county government intentionally over-collects taxes and fees, creates a “shadow budget” to move projects out of the formal process into a “lightning round” of special projects and causes during what we have come to call the “carryover process” (or, what to do with the leftovers), and has become adept at creating ways to funnel “carryover” money to supervisors through the creation of various reserves (such as the employee and staff retention or the transportation and road improvement funds).

You know, I respect John Jenkins and Frank Principi for living up to their brand. Both are liberal Democrats. We expect them to fight for every dime of our money they can get so it may be redistributed among county groups and causes as government sees fit. That’s what Democrats do! That’s what they were sent to the McCoart Administration Building to fight for! Every time I grumble because Jenkins or Principi are arguing for even higher taxes, more public programs, and increased funding all round… I quietly whisper, “Gosh, I wish these guys were Republicans fighting for my side.”

Corey Stewart and Pete Candland are also living up to their brand. They are fighting for lower taxes, smaller government, more accountability, and more funding for core services such as public safety, libraries, and schools.

While proposing dramatic reductions in things many of us believe government simply shouldn’t be doing, they are also protecting our public safety folks, proposing raises for county staff and teachers, taking care of libraries, and making sure those things only government should be doing are done correctly.

That’s what I expect Republicans in conservative Prince William County to do when they get a seat on the dais. I’m glad they are fighting for my side.

Prince William County needs a “reset.” After years of achieving the dubious distinction of having one of the highest real estate tax rates in Northern Virginia (“effectively messaged” as one of the lowest real estate tax bills in Northern Virginia to divert attention from our true status), its time to start saying “no”:

…”no” to an even higher tax rate

…”no” to an ever expanding Government

…”no” to the diversion of public money to private purposes

…”no” to dollars taken out of our pockets to pay for perpetual incumbency protection schemes

…”no” to obvious conflicts of interests when it comes to funding our not for profits

…”no” to the quid pro quo agreement between our Board and county staff and among board members to quietly go along with excessive spending, questionable projects, the growth of Government and other nefarious uses of our money

…”no” to the intentional over-collection of our money to pay for projects and causes intentionally left out of the formal budget process to be funded quietly during an end of FY “lightning round” process called “carry-over” funds”

…”no” to anything but a flat tax in FY2014 and beyond to return to some sense of accountability for our money in Prince William County, Virginia.

Let us not forget how we got here.

The people who spent those discretionary funds, benefitted from those carry-over funds, and engaged in schemes for years to divert taxpayer dollars from core services to questionable uses are the one’s negotiating our tax rate.

I have little confidence that all but a couple sincerely want to change the way the process currently works.

We have absolutely no reason to trust that things will be different in the future unless we see a new respect for how much of our money is collected and how it is spent in FY2014.

If those who share my opinion agree, we also must say “no” to some of the incumbents in 2015.

We gotta clean this mess up sooner or later. I prefer sooner.

It’s time for a walk on the beach. I think I’ll order a latte to go and watch the morning waves break on the coral.

News
School Questions Swamp Budget Session

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I attended the latest in a series of fiscal year 2014 budget information meetings on Saturday at the Prince William County Government Center.

I always enjoy watching budget director Michelle Casiato’s mastery of the process. Prince William has three Triple A bond ratings and has won numerous awards for their budgeting process. I understand that the process is “bullet proof.” I also understand that the process has nothing to do with how much money Prince William County collects or what the government spends it on.

All things considered, I’m not sure if I take comfort in knowing that they are incredibly efficient at both ends of the process.

First, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. Casiato provided coffee and doughnuts. The coffee was excellent (which is unusual for stuff you get at government meetings) and the doughnuts were Dunkin, so this meeting was off to an excellent start.

Deputy County Executive Chris Martino was also in attendance and assured me that the coffee and donuts were not paid for with taxpayer dollars. My mind put at ease, I enjoyed two of them.

Dave Cline, Associate Superintendent for Finance & Support Services, Prince William County Schools, also joined us. He may reconsider ever returning to one of these meetings. The entire almost two hours was devoted to questions about sharing, maintaining, and paying for school system sports fields.

Topics also included the history, pros and cons, and future of the county’s current revenue sharing agreement with the School Board, student populations, school district planning and boundaries, construction projects, and the school board budget cycle.

Wallingford (as we say in the military) requited himself well under fire. He answered a broad range of questions without hesitation or assistance for the duration of the meeting. Two thumbs up.

I really don’t remember any questions about Prince William County’s budget during this meeting, although Casiato did provide detail and background on questions about the School Board budget.

It was also round one on Community interest in what happens to approximately half of the revenue collected by Prince William County, or that the 56.75 percent as provided in the existing revenue sharing agreement between the county’s Board of Supervisors and its School Board.

We may have ignored the School Board budget in the past; however, those days are over.

We’ll be back.

I grabbed a fresh cup of coffee and a doughnut on the way out the door. This was a good meeting.

Addendum: Thanks to John Wallingford for showing up today. He didn’t have to. He was a good sport, handled a variety of levels of frustration with aplomb and a sense of humor, and was generally a group pleaser.

*This post has been corrected

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Slugs Get Personal Details of Lives of Strangers

By LAURA CIRILLO

Talking among slugs is usually frowned upon, that is, unless the driver initiates conversation. And when the driver does initiate conversation, it’s usually guaranteed to be pretty interesting.

Many drivers follow the unspoken rule, besides to confirm their destination and maybe bid farewell to their passengers at the end of the ride. But every once in a while, slug riders will encounter a chatty driver.

Considering most slugs who ride together are complete strangers, it can be surprising how much people will divulge about their personal lives.

Phone calls can be the most telling about a person, especially when taken on speaker phone. Many times, I’ve been able to tell a person’s marital status, how old their kids are, and evening plans, just from a simple phone call. And it’s not that I’m so interested in who these people are or what they do, but it isn’t really hard to figure out.

Alright, and maybe sometimes I do get a little curious.

Once, I rode with a driver who took a call from a friend during the ride. Though he wasn’t using a speaker phone, my interest quickly peaked when I heard him start discussing something really personal – he started telling his friend details about his divorce!

At first, I thought, clearly I must be misunderstanding the conversation. No way would someone talk about something of that magnitude with strangers in the car, right? But as the conversation continued, it became more and more clear that was exactly what he was talking about.

Last week, a woman I rode with one morning took a phone call from the principal at her daughter’s school. No big deal at first, until she started to argue with the principal and talk about very private things that had been going on at home.

She referred to her daughter’s teacher as immature, and insisted that the teacher be punished for her daughter’s troubles in class. Clearly, this was not a quick phone call, and being in the front seat, I was pretty uncomfortable – especially once she hung up the phone and wanted to complain to us about it afterwards. Awkward!

It’s not just the conversations that are overheard in the car that can be revealing. Occasionally, drivers are very open about their personal lives with their slugs, regardless of not knowing each other. Sometimes I wonder if it is because the slugs are unfamiliar that they feel more comfortable opening up. Maybe it’s knowing that the chances of running into the same people again are slim that makes people feel safe discussing their private matters? I’m honestly not sure.

Just recently, I got into a car with a lady who was very talkative. Although I’m usually not one to talk much early in the morning, she was so animated that I couldn’t help but chat with her. She started by chastising herself for running late again that day, and saying how hard it was to get out of bed any earlier. I know that feeling all too well.

“Thank goodness I don’t have any children!” she exclaimed. “If I did, I’d never make it to work!”

I laughed, and she asked if I had any kids. I told her that I don’t, but that I’d probably have to quit my job when that time comes. I have enough trouble getting out of the house in the morning!

Quickly, the conversation transitioned to whether or not we were married, dating or single, and she began to tell me how much she hated dating. She had just separated from her boyfriend of one year, and was getting back into the dating scene. She went on to tell me in detail how they had broken up, and about the guys she had been out with since. She talked about text conversations, their dates, and what they did for a living. It certainly wasn’t anything that I needed to know that morning, but still, the conversation was flowing so easily that it felt like we were old friends.

It wasn’t until I started to get out of the car that I considered that I may not ever see my new pal ever again. I might never know which guy she chooses, and how it turns out for her. And if I did run into her again, we may not even recognize each other. That’s just how slugging works.

To me, it’s fascinating that people are willing to share so much with their unfamiliar passengers, but when they do, I have to wonder why. I have to think that sometimes, people just need someone to talk to. And hey, I have no problem being that person. Though the odds are that we won’t be BFFs, I don’t mind providing a little slug therapy every once in a while.

As long as I can take my nap on the way home!

 

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No Pity for Tardy Slugs

SLUG TALES

By LAURA CIRILLO

Running late is the worst feeling.

I take that back: running late in the morning, in the rain, when there’s traffic, no parking at the commuter lot and no cars waiting to pick up slugs is the worst.

Seriously, sometimes I feel like I just can’t seem to get it together in the morning. No matter what I do or how early I get up, I always find myself running out the door at the last possible second and rushing to the commuter lot. Oh, who am I kidding? I never wake up early!

Why do I do that to myself? Every day, I say that I will get up earlier, that I’ll get on the road sooner. I won’t be late tomorrow! No, tomorrow, I will be on time. But it never fails… tomorrow, I’ll be saying the same thing.

And I’m confident that I am not alone in this. There are days where I am literally running to the slug line with not a second to spare, sure that I won’t find any slug drivers still waiting to pick up, but I almost always find someone running just as late as I am.

Luckily, there are several drivers who I come across who pick up at the commuter lot in the last ten minutes or so of the commute. Once the clock strikes 9 a.m. and the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes open up to all traffic, drivers have no incentive to pick up slugs. Some drivers will even take their chances by entering the HOV lanes minutes before 9 a.m. without any slugs. So the closer it is to 9 a.m., the less the chances are of finding a slug ride.

And there is almost nothing worse than standing in the slug line, wondering if anyone will feel bad enough to pick up a poor, lonely slug, or if that tardy slug will be left behind with no choice but to take the bus to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

As many times as I’ve been late, I’ve been left in that very predicament. When there appear to be no more cars going to L’Enfant Plaza, my ultimate destination, I’ll usually walk over to the slug line for the Pentagon. Not only am I usually more likely to find a late driver there, but there are always cars sitting close to the HOV entrance, which means gives me hope that someone will drop off near a Metro station. Any Metro station. Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, the drivers who sit and wait to enter HOV solo after 9 a.m. take very little pity on late slugs. When I’ve been in this sort of critical situation, I’ve approached the waiting drivers with other late slugs to ask if they’re going anywhere in or around downtown Washington. Sometimes, drivers will agree to drop off near their destination; other times, they will flat out refuse.

Recently, I asked a driver waiting by the ramp if he was picking up slugs.

“Nope,” he replied rudely, rolling up his window. Geez, he could have at least been polite about it!

I’ve been fairly fortunate and haven’t had to take the PRTC Metro Direct bus – a great last resort when there are no other options, but it takes sooo long to get to work that way – so the bottom line is that I’ve got to step it up.

I swear I’ll start getting up earlier. I’ll make my breakfast and lay my clothes out the night before. I’ll have my lunch packed and ready; I’ll even take a quicker shower. No more delays, no more distractions…

Starting tomorrow. Seriously.

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Friendly, Breakfast-Offering Driver Fools Slug

By LAURA CIRILLO

I feel like I’ve been duped.

This morning I parked at the new Telegraph Road Commuter Lot only to find there were no cars waiting to pick up slugs. I wasn’t surprised, as the lot is still very new, and in the handful of times I’ve parked there so far, I’ve yet to see any drivers waiting.

So I set off walking from the new lot to the Horner Road Commuter Lot, where I knew I’d be more likely to find a ride. As I was making the trek, an SUV pulled alongside me, and its occupants asked if I was going to Washington.

I told them that I was going to L’Enfant Plaza and they said OK, so I hopped in. The couple was really nice, and even asked if I wanted some of the breakfast they had picked up on the way. I politely declined, but thought, what nice people. They had saved me from the remainder of a pretty long walk, offered to feed me, and then were dropping me off at my destination, even though the lady mentioned she was going to the State Department.

Or so I thought.

Once we were on the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, I had to at least close my eyes – I’ve been so tired lately. Rushing as usual, I had forgotten my sunglasses in my car, but it was a bit dark and dreary this morning anyway. I dozed off almost immediately.

When I opened my eyes, we were approaching the exit for the Pentagon, but I realized the driver was getting into the left lane to exit toward the Memorial Bridge, which does not lead to L’Enfant Plaza.

“Wait!” I wanted to call out to him. “Where are you going?!”

We shouldn’t be going left! L’Enfant is straight ahead, across the 14th Street Bridge!

Instead, I said nothing, slowly realizing we must have misunderstood each other. I was assuming they would drive me where I told them I was going, and they must have assumed that I had agreed to get out near the State Department, where she was going. Well, we all know what happens when we assume.

Oh well, I thought. I’ll just have to get out by a Metro station, so that I can get to my office. At least I had made it to Washington, which was closer than I had started at the commuter lot.

Just then, I heard the couple in the front seat discussing where they were going to drop off.

“She’s going to, uh, ‘Elephant,’ I think she said,” said the lady.

“Elephant?’ Where’s that?” asked the driver.

“I don’t know where ‘Elephant’ is at. Maybe straight ahead?” she wondered. She said she’d call her friend and ask if there was a Metro nearby, to get to ‘Elephant.’

Wait a minute: they don’t even know how to get to a Metro station from here?

I started to feel uneasy; my apparent good luck this morning had run out. I’ve been desperate and taken rides to 18th Street NW before, but usually only as a last resort, since it’s so far from my office. The traffic is always backed up forever, and once I get there, the Metro stations are still six or seven stops away. So inconvenient.

But at the same time, I couldn’t complain about getting a ride. I was just frustrated with the situation in general, and I was definitely going to be late to work.

Finally, we were approaching the Foggy Bottom Metro station, but traffic was unmoving. The driver asked if I minded walking the last couple of blocks, and I thought, why not? The road was so congested that I might as well walk the rest of the way. And maybe it would help me to blow off some steam, too.

As I got out of the car, I reminded myself again that I was closer than I had started, and it could always be worse.

And maybe I wasn’t duped, but that misunderstanding certainly cost me quite a bit of time this morning!

At least I made it to work.

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Friend Saves Day after Parking Lot Amnesia

By LAURA CIRILLO

I love it when I walk out to the Slug Line right outside of my office building and get a ride right away.

I hate it when I realize halfway there that I’m not parked in the commuter lot where the driver is going to drop me off.

The week before school started again, I found myself in this very predicament. I left my office right at 5 p.m, walked out to the Slug Line and found a line of cars sitting idle, with no slugs waiting in line. Because I had plans that evening to attend a concert, I was thrilled to be in a car and heading back towards home so quickly.

Usually, my ride home is spent either napping or tweeting commuter-related traffic alerts on Twitter to keep my fellow slugs updated during rush hour, but that afternoon, I was eagerly texting my friends to let them know that I was on my way to meet them… until I realized that I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, like a ton of bricks, it hit me: I was being driven to the Horner Road Commuter lot in Woodbridge, and I was not parked there.

During the summer, I had been able to park at the Horner lot almost every day, so I had become used to getting in the returning Slug Line. However, I had to make a stop on my way in that morning, which set me back and forced me to park at the commuter lot at Va. 123, near Occoquan, where I could take the last OmniRide bus.

It was the first time in a long time that I had parked there, and it had totally slipped my mind. Just as panic began to set in, I started to think – how could I get from one lot to the other?

When picking up Slugs, the driver calls out their destination, and unless requested otherwise, that is where the Slugs will be dropped off. It is understood that neither slug nor driver will ask later along the ride to be dropped off somewhere completely different or out of the way.

And since there’s always another passenger in the car, I would have to assume that they are most likely going to be dropped off at the same location. I certainly couldn’t ask at that point for the driver to take me somewhere else, regardless of what hardship it might cause me.

The lot was definitely too far for me to walk. I wondered if I should call a cab. Would I have time? I had places to go, people to see! Did I even have cash? Ugh.

I sent a flustered text message to one of my friends whom I was meeting up with that night, knowing that she’d be coming down the highway from work as well, hoping that the timing would work so that I could ride with her.

And luckily, the timing worked out perfectly. My friend came and saved the day; she picked me up at the commuter lot and we both made it on time to the concert with the rest of our group.

When we got home after the concert that night, still on a high from the music and dancing, my friend turned to me and asked, “So, where is your car?”

After all of the excitement, I had completely forgotten to go back to pick up my car that night. Oops…

Let’s just say I’m a lot more careful now to remember where I’ve parked each day!

 

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Wife Wishes Slug Driver Would Put Up Car Windows

To roll the windows up or down when riding with Slugs? That is the question.

When cruising solo or with familiar people, that question is more easily answered. But when driving Slugs up and down the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, it could be a bit trickier.

Sure, the weather has been beautiful, and who doesn’t love the fresh air? Problem is, Slugs don’t usually have a say in opening or closing the windows, or adjusting the heat or air conditioning – and technically, Slugs are supposed to remain “seen and not heard.” So, what’s a Slug to do when the driver decides to go full speed ahead with the windows down if they’re not comfortable?

To the non-commuter, this topic may seem silly; however, as a Slug that has experienced this very situation more than once, I can tell you, it’s nothing to joke about. Rolling the windows down at 70 mph or more can be a very serious issue.

Back when I used to Slug from Potomac Mills mall, I once rode with a gentleman who pulled up to the Slug line with all four windows rolled down. I remember the weather was beautiful that morning, in the 70’s and not a cloud in sight. It was the kind of day that you might be tempted to call in sick, just to stay outdoors and soak up the sunshine, rather than being stuck in the office all day. But I digress…

I was first in line, so I hopped in the backseat while another passenger sat in the front passenger seat, and off we went.

Drivers normally roll the window down to call out their destination when they approach the Slug line, but generally speaking, all windows are up and the heat or AC is running once they’re on the highway.

At first, the breeze felt nice and I daydreamed about staying out and enjoying it all day. Then came the hardcore heavy metal, which was quite unexpected, coming from this 30-something professional (driving a hybrid, by the way). But, whatever. Music choice is not something that bothers me either way, but it was VERY loud.

When we got onto the HOV lanes, I assumed that the windows would go up, the AC would be circulating, and the music might be turned down a bit. The really crazy screaming part of the song had just kicked in, and I began to accept that my morning nap was not going to happen that day. Not to mention, my hair was whipping around in the wind, getting more and more tangled by the second.

I decided at that point that rules were meant to be broken, at least some of the rules are, and it was time to roll my own window up. However, I was still new to the Slugging world, and not yet comfortable complaining to the driver. Instead, I used my phone to record the part of the ride, and jokingly sent it to some friends. Welcome to my world, I told them. The wonderful world of Slugging!

A few weeks later, I rode from the same commuter lot one morning with a lady I’d never met before. As we waited in the lot for another passenger, her cell phone rang, and she said it was her husband. They hadn’t realized that they were both driving to work on the same day, and he told her that they should have planned to ride together.

Shaking her head and laughing as she hung up the phone, she exclaimed, “I can’t ride with him! I can’t stand his music, and he insists on leaving all of the windows down, even with Slugs in the car!”

Hmmm, I thought… her husband couldn’t possibly be the same man I’d ridden with just a few weeks earlier, could it?

Just as the thought ran through my mind, there was the same 30-something hybrid driver, music cranked and windows down, pulling in right behind us in the Slug line.

His wife waved at him in the rear view mirror, and again, shook her head.

“I hope he at least turns the music down when people get in,” she wondered out loud.

I wanted to tell her, no. No, he won’t turn the music down.

And he won’t roll those windows up, either.

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