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Roads are Last Century’s Answer, Telework is this Century’s Answer

Opinion: Al Alborn 

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I’ve been thinking a lot about the commute north these days.

I was one of the many drivers that made that commute for years. Between 1988 and 2002, I dutifully woke up every morning with 105.9 tuned in on the radio, poured myself a cup of coffee from a pot set on a timer, watched TV traffic reports to see if I needed to take a different route, and then entered the darkness to drive through Clifton to get to Tysons Corner and other points around the beltway.

As the years passed, I had to adjust my alarm clock to get up a bit earlier to beat the crowd. I remember the dread of being stuck for hours with no way out while a traffic accident was cleared. I also remember two near-death experiences where my life flashed before my life (literally) as I thought I wouldn’t make it to work (the first accident) on I-95 or home (the second accident) on I-66.

Now that I spend more time simply thinking, I question why so many people who don’t really need to commute, well, commute. I suggest that while we have the policy and commonwealth incentives in place to allow people to work at home, at a telework center, at Starbucks or wherever while encouraging companies to let them do so, we lack the strategy to translate this policy into a meaningful reduction of people competing for ever scarcer transportation resources (road, rail, bus, slug lines, van pools, etc.)

One of my favorite books is the classic Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove. It’s a “cult classic” among management consultants and on my shelf of ready references when advising business and Government on how to manage change. In Grove’s book, he discusses inflection points and the importance of recognize when any enterprise faces one.

030113-inflection

Every now and then, any enterprise needs to reassess the world within which it operates and question exactly what its business mission is. It has to look out for inflection points, those changes to the fundamentals in the world within which an enterprise operates. Enterprises that recognize those inflection points increase their chances of thriving in “what’s next”. Those who miss inflection points are usually doomed to failure.

Recognizing an inflection point when I see one allowed me to stop commuting in 2002. Pointing them out as public policy considerations is now an amusement.

So, what’s the question?

The traditional question was, “how do we move people around efficiently to get them too and from work?” In the industrial age where people reported to typewriters, factories, or shops this was a pretty good question.

We’re not in the industrial age any more.

Transportation planning and technology need to converge so building roads to move people around and reducing competition for those roads become part of one solution set. Conceptually, these alternatives are variables in the same model.

I suggest that the question has changed to, “how do we move information around more efficiently to get it to the people who need it?”

Roads are last century’s answer. Telework is this century’s answer.

For a large percentage of our population, those folks who do something with information, there is really no reason to actually drive somewhere to add value to that information. With today’s technology, you may do your job anywhere.

Government “gets” this. At the federal level, the Telework Enhancement act of 2010 mandated that every federal agency implement a telework strategy and make it available to eligible employees. In Virginia, tax credits are in place to encourage businesses to allow employees to telework.

Commuters have figured out that they waste two hours of their day, ten hours of their week, around 500 hours a year risking their lives and sanity commuting to work. I am one of many who survived two near-death experiences while commuting. Every life you take off the road for even a day is a life that’s a bit safer.

People who do business with the Federal Government recognize the increased facility costs of housing people who perform contracts, lost time driving around Northern Virginia to attend meetings, and opportunity cost driving somewhere instead of developing new business.

Our transportation planners, whether they by PWC, NVTA, COG , Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, local overnments, or whatever consider technology, changes in the nature of work and the simple fact that strategies to take people off our already stressed transportation infrastructure be part of the solution.

Government and quasi-government bodies at all levels assess Northern Virginia’s infrastructure to ensure we have the necessary broadband, technology, services, and policy in place to let people work at home or at a local telework center (particularly important for classified work) and integrate the results into its transportation strategy. We also need to continue developing the right federal, state and local policies to encourage and support both businesses and individuals who wish to work anywhere but a centralized office somewhere.

The right question for transportation planners is, “how do we move information around more efficiently to get it to the people who need it?” Perhaps we need a new group of “Information Planners” to develop strategies for moving information around. In any case, models developed to predict traffic flows and transportation requirements are incomplete if they don’t consider the impact of applying technology to reduce the load on the system.

Letting people work at home under existing policy with available technology is a pretty simple idea. Sometimes, the simple solutions are the best answer to the question. In this case, my question is, “why not?”

Let’s not miss this rather obvious inflection point. The stakes are just too high and the rewards too great. I’m not sure we can afford to do otherwise.

When Slugging, Do You Know Where You’re Going?

Slug Tales 

By LAURA CIRILLO

When slugging, it’s always a good idea to know where you’re going.

Sure, this may sound like a no brainer, but there are many slugs and drivers alike who assume everyone is on the same page, and well, we all know what happens when we assume.

Slug lines are typically organized at specific locations, based on their destination. For instance, slugs headed for the Pentagon stand in line near the bus bay in the Tackett’s Mill Commuter Lot in the morning, or they wait near the intersection at 14th & Independence in the afternoon to get to the lot at Old Hechinger’s near Occoquan.

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For the most part, slugs generally know where to wait and drivers know where to pick up. However, we’re all human, and occasionally, we make mistakes – and some of us have had to learn this the hard way!

I speak from experience, clearly. There’s one day in particular, where I remember standing in the Horner Road-bound slug line at L’Enfant Plaza. The slug lines there are all located along D Street, with different destinations in Springfield, Woodbridge, and Stafford, and are somewhat close together, even closer on days when the lines are very long.

This was one of those days, and it was getting late, so I was relieved when I was next in line and the next car finally arrived. I got into the front passenger seat, and the driver took two more riders into the backseat. As we settled in for the journey home, I guess none of us thought to confirm our destination – we were just happy to finally have a ride. It wasn’t until I looked up and saw that we were passing the exit that we realized something was wrong.

Confused and almost speechless, I pointed to the exit too late. “Horner?” was all I could manage to spit out.

The driver, just as bewildered, responded only by saying, “Stafford? 610?”

Right away, the two ladies in the backseat awoke from their drowsy state, just in time to tell the driver that we all thought we were going to the Horner Road Commuter Lot, not the lot at Route 610 in Stafford. The driver apologized, and was kind enough to take the next exit to circle back and drop us off.

Later, I heard a story from a friend, who slugs from Woodbridge, that when the same thing happened to her, the driver refused to take her passengers back. That poor slug had to call a family member to be picked up in Stafford.

Since then, I’ve always been sure to confirm my destination with the driver before getting into the car. It only takes a second and can save a major headache later. Still, miscommunications are bound to happen from time to time. Especially in the morning, I’ve gotten into cars with drivers who have said they will go to L’Enfant Plaza, and once they’re on the road, ask for directions. That’s not so bad, if that’s the worst of it. Once, I rode with a couple who said they knew where L’Enfant was, yet somehow, we ended up at Foggy Bottom. What a mess that was!

Another time, I rode with a man who was running late for a meeting and decided in the middle of the ride that he wouldn’t have time to stop by L’Enfant to drop me off before shooting over to 14th Street.

“I used to work near L’Enfant,” he kept assuring me. “I’ll drop you off real close.”

Never will I ever believe that lie again – where he ended up dropping me off was not close at all! To be fair, it was walking distance, but it was absolutely freezing that day. I would have never accepted a ride knowing that I’d have to walk such a distance in the wind and cold. And you know how much I hate the cold. I was bamboozled.

At the end of the day, there’s always a chance that something will go wrong; people will make mistakes, or change their minds, and life will go on. But clear communication is your best bet in avoiding such situations, to make sure everyone gets where they need to go without any issues along the way.

Completing FAFSA Forms a Series of Questions & Deep Breaths

Mom on the Run

By LIANNE WILKENS

I take a deep breath, and type: “www.fafsa.gov.”

I am set, and ready. To my right, completed taxes and bank account information. To my left, my precious dark-green folder, containing an inch of papers – virtually everything I have learned about the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, over the past three years.

I first became acquainted with the FAFSA 021113-freedom-mom-tagwhen my daughter was a senior in high school. Despite three “All About Financial Aid” sessions presented during various college tours, that first application took me hours. Hours of reading fine print, and clicking for more information, and running up and down, up and down the stairs finding financial information.

The second year, before my daughter’s sophomore year of college, the process was easier. I had learned what documentation I needed, and kept all the passwords in my vital green folder. And the third time around, last spring, I felt so comfortable with and annoyed with the process that I procrastinated until the absolute last minute.

Which is darned near what I’m doing this year. In 2013, my son is a senior in high school, and a completed FAFSA is required just to apply to certain colleges. We got our taxes done early, because I know the FAFSA is entirely reliant on completed taxes; I have been collecting additional materials as they have popped up in the mail since the first of the year; and now, a week from deadline, is the night.

I type: www.fafsa.gov, and up pops the familiar website. OK, here we go. Um, two big green buttons, “Start a new FAFSA” or “Login.” OK. “Start a new FAFSA.” Next page … Student Information. Name, Social Security number .…” Dang. Up from my chair, trot downstairs, dig through papers, find my son’s Social Security number. Back upstairs, type it in, hit the blue “Next” button.

“Federal Student Aid PIN.” My hand hovers over the green folder. Except … this is the first FAFSA for my son. All previous FAFSA requests have been for my daughter. I need a new PIN for him, right? OK. “Get Federal Student Aid PIN.” Click. Um, input email address. I hate that field. Whose email address? Mine, or my son’s? I’m completing this form, I want any related emails to come to me. So in goes my email address. “Your PIN confirmation will be sent to your email address.”

Sigh. I minimize the browser on my screen, open my email, sit and wait for a minute … ah, the PIN delivery email. Click, copy the PIN, close the email, reopen the browser, paste in the PIN. Ta da!

OK, now I’m in, and really starting. I take my second deep “here we go” breath. I easily complete the first several questions. My name, my husband’s name. My son’s name. Permanent street address. What school year does this FAFSA form cover? Which colleges should receive a copy of the FAFSA? I click on drop-down menus, I fill in open fields. Question by question I plod through, gaining confidence with each answer. Yes, I dread the FAFSA, yes, it is time-consuming and involves a lot of research, but I am doing it! It’s unpleasant, but I’m prepared and experienced.

So I’m feeling good when I arrive at the first financial question. “Income for 2012.” That should be easy enough. I pick up the draft copy of our tax return from our tax preparer. There are two pages per sheet of paper, and the print is teeny. I look and look. There’s the total “wages, salaries, tips, etc.” but … no breakdown of income for me and my husband. Just our total income.

Uh oh. I take my mouse, scroll down, look at the next questions. And I realize, on the very first financial question of the FAFSA … I’ve only got the draft copy of our taxes. Not the final copy. No W-2s, with salary and tax and 401(k) breakdown. The accountant still has all that backup paperwork.

Quickly, I analyze. Quickly, I decide. Quickly, I slide my keyboard in and stand up, victorious. For completely legitimate reasons, I can’t do this today. The FAFSA just has to wait. Yahoo!

Budget Season: Speak Up Now or Suck it Up Later

 

Alborn

Alborn

Opinion 

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

Prince William County Government is characterized in many different ways. Some frame it within the county’s Strategic Plan while others talk about core services. The county’s Comprehensive Plan is mentioned often.

Make no mistake, government is about our money. Every thing government does depend upon how much of our money it collects as taxes and fees, and how it is spent.

Are you interested in fields for football or soccer, or basketball hoop for your kids? Do you have a disabled son or daughter who might need a little help? Are you familiar with an abused child or spouse who needs protection? Interested in helping the homeless? Like more cops or firefighters on the streets? Tired of seeing your kids sit in trailers at school? Overcrowded classrooms getting on your nerves? Now is the time to get engaged, and speak up.

It’s our money. It’s your money.

If you show up at a Community Partner – organizations that provide services such as healthcare, wellness, and arts — and find their doors closed because Prince William cut funding during the budget process, you have absolutely no standing to complain unless you advocated for them during the budget process.

If your son or daughter’s sports team can’t find a field because there wasn’t enough money in the budget, suck it up unless you spoke up during the public hearing.

If you are wondering why we are building a swimming pool instead of giving teachers a raise, perhaps now would be a good time to mention it.

If you see something in Prince William County that you think you shouldn’t be paying for, just drive on by unless you spoke out against funding it to your Supervisor.

If you’re one of those folks who simply don’t care how Prince William County Government spends your money, you can stop reading this column right now. If I’ve captured your attention and you wish to advocate for or against something, or perhaps both read on.

Virginia Code gives the County Executive responsibility for preparing and proposing a budget. You may see the proposed budget on Prince William County’s Office of Management and Budget website.

If you have a question about the budget, or are interested in what other questions have been asked, I strongly recommend you check out the FY 2014 Budget Questions Database

During the next six weeks, Prince William County Government will be engaged in the annual discussion over just how much of our money they should take during FY 2014 and what they should spend it on. While the Chief Executive has the responsibility to prepare the proposed budget, only the Board of County Supervisors (which includes the Chairman) has the Authority to actually approve it.

If you want to engage in the process, you should take note of these dates and participate in at least one or two of the events.

March 5 Budget Work Session

March 12 Budget Work Session

April 2 Schools

April 9 , 2:00 p.m. Budget Recap

April 9, 7:30 p.m. Budget Public Hearing

April 16 Budget Markup (Board of Supervisors regular public meeting)

April 23 Budget Adoption (Board of Supervisors regular public meeting)

If you can’t make it to one of these events, or are really passionate about some particular issue let your Supervisor know. We elect our Board of County Supervisors to represent our interests. They don’t know what we care about unless we tell them.

So, tell them. Here’s their contact information.

Chairman At-Large: Corey A. Stewart

Brentsville District Supervisor, Vice Chair: Wally Covington

Coles District Supervisor: Martin E. Nohe

Gainesville District Supervisor: Pete Candland

Neabsco District Supervisor: John D. Jenkins

Occoquan District Supervisor: Michael C. May

Potomac District Supervisor: Maureen S. Caddigan

Woodbridge District Supervisor: Frank J. Principi

Government at all levels, in spite of the rhetoric, is about our money, how much of it our Government collects, and how our elected officials decide to spend it.

Typically, only a few people actually participate in the budget process. I’m one of them. This column isn’t about advocating the County that I would like to see, it’s about advocating about the County that the majority would lie to see.

If you are happy with a few folks advocating for some narrow agendas deciding whether or not your kids have a sports field, the folks who need a little help get that help, schools are overcrowded, mid-county gets a new swimming pool.., or not, get involved, speak up, communicate with your Supervisor.

If you opt not to get involved, you’ll get the County the few folks who show up think you should deserve.

Nodding off for a More Restful Commute

Slug Tales 

By LAURA CIRILLO

Many people say there are not enough hours in the day. I vehemently disagree with this statement. If you ask me, there are not enough hours at night!

Think about it. There are 24 hours in each day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per day, but research says that many adults report less than six hours of sleep per day. So even if we’re getting the recommended amount of sleep, that’s still 18 hours, give or take, spent moving and shaking on a daily basis.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired just thinking about that.

Learn more about PRTCJust imagine your own routine – commuting to work every day to deal with meetings, emails, your demanding boss, then coming home, making dinner, taking care of children and pets, cleaning, laundry, trying to squeeze in a workout… it’s all so exhausting.

And often times, the only thing that keeping me going is my daily nap while slugging.

My power naps are one of the many features of slugging which I consider a great luxury. Not only is it fast, free, and relatively easy to slug, but I can use that time to catch up on some rest while riding, preferably in the backseat.

My fiancé tries to discourage me from sleeping in strangers’ cars because he’s convinced I won’t wake up when the car stops and I’ll wind up a prisoner in some weirdo’s garage. I try to assure him that this has never happened, and if it did, I’m pretty sure the driver or other passenger would wake me up. This actually happened one morning last week, when the passenger in the front seat had dozed off and wasn’t easily awoken when we arrived at L’Enfant Plaza.

“Ma’am?” the male driver said, carefully attempting to rouse the sleeping passenger. I paused for a moment before exiting the backseat to see if she would open her eyes, but she didn’t.

Finally, he gently tapped her shoulder. When she finally woke up, she looked a bit alarmed. She apologized, and seeming embarrassed, grabbed her things to quickly get out of the car. The driver was understanding and sort of laughed it off, unlike one driver I can recall who openly wouldn’t tolerate his passengers sleeping, but I could totally relate to the tired slug’s humiliation.

Once, after a long evening ride to the commuter lot, I was told by the gentleman who slugged in the backseat that he “felt so bad” watching me nod off and wished he could have given me a pillow. I was mortified to picture myself conspicuously falling asleep, my head falling over, right next to the driver. How embarrassing! I must have been such a distraction.

But I honestly can’t help it. I’m just like a baby – put me in a moving vehicle, and BAM! Out like a light. I may not be able to sleep soundly through the night, but the second I get into the passenger’s seat of a car, it’s almost guaranteed that I will fall asleep.

As with most rules, however, there are exceptions to this. Stop-and-go traffic always puts a damper on my evening slug naps, for whatever reason. Until we’re cruising down the highway, I’m wide awake. And like clockwork, I always wake up the second we hit the exit ramp for the commuter lot. It’s as though my body just knows it’s time to wake up.

Recently, I’ve found that books on tape also interfere with my beauty sleep. I’m not sure why this is, especially when I’m not at all interested in the topic, but I find myself completely unable to turn my brain off with any sort of commentary in the background. It’s the same reason I can’t fall asleep with the television on, regardless of the volume.

Normally, I have no complaints about what a driver chooses to play on the radio while I slug happily along, but I suppose audio books are the one exception. Audio books and complete radio silence are on my overall short list of pet peeves while slugging. For whatever reason, both interrupt my much-needed catnaps.

Sure, I could probably manage to get through the day without the extra rest, but it sure helps to supplement the sleep I’m probably not getting every night.

So until some genius scientist comes up with more hours for us to sleep at night (or, more realistically, until I can find a way to get to bed earlier), I’ll be using those hours I spend commuting every weekday to catch some shuteye.

Judge me for sleeping if you wish, but I recommend you do the same… that is, unless you’re driving!

Spiced-up Chicken for 1 – It’s what’s for Dinner

Mom on the Run

By LIANNE WILKENS

My son first mentioned it weeks ago, one night as I was preparing to serve dinner. “I wish,” he said wistfully, “that one night you would make a whole package of chicken just for me.”

“Just for you?” I had laughed at my kid. “Could you really eat all that much?” Since my daughter has left for college and I’m cooking just for three, I’ve switched from chicken breasts to chicken tenders. They are easier to trim, cook more quickly, and the “fridge to freezer” packs of eight to 10 tenders are just the right size for our smaller family.

021113-freedom-mom-tagBut still, eight to 10 tenders, I think, is a lot. “Oh, yeah,” he had said, nodding firmly, “I could eat them all. Especially this kind.” I’ve recently discovered the Kraft Fresh Take cheese and breadcrumb mixes – oh, absolutely, I could mix these few basic ingredients together myself and avoid the processed, packaged foods. But they’re quick and easy and after roughly a decade I’m sick of cooking dinner. So, “Just add chicken, pork or fish to the mixing bag” it is. And my son loves them! Bonus! Loves them so much, in fact, that he wants to eat a whole package of chicken by himself.

So tonight, when I asked my husband what he wanted for dinner – “I’ve got chicken and salmon thawed. Which would you prefer?” and he said, “Salmon,” but then added, because our son hates salmon, “But why don’t you go ahead and fix the chicken too?” – I knew that tonight was the night. I laughed a little, and pulled out the Spicy Chipotle Cheddar Recipe cheese and breadcrumb mix, and I got to work.

My son figured it out about 10 minutes ago when he came downstairs, just as I was wrapping up in the kitchen. “What’s for dinner?” “Dad and I are having salmon,” I said. “You get chicken.”

He realized it instantly: “I get chicken? Do I get ALL the chicken?” My 17-year-old, who towers over me, who plays ice hockey and lacrosse and lifts weights at least four times a week, my kid who never seems to get enough food, stared at me, mouth and eyes wide open with hope.

“Yup,” I said, grinning up at him. “You get ALL the chicken.”

“Yessss!,” he did a low-key, waist-high fist bump. Then after hesitating for a minute, looking over my shoulder at the status of dinner, he turned on his heel and went into the living room to wait.

Finally, “OK, guys, come and get it,” I announce. The rice is done, the chicken is out, salad is in bowls, and I’ve just come in from outside (brr!), where I grilled the salmon. In an instant my son is there, in the middle of the kitchen, waiting.

He has a thought, and, “What’s the flavor?”

I turn away from him, move to the counter, pick up the empty package. “Spicy Chipotle Cheddar.” I smile again, knowing he’s going to be happy.

A movement behind me catches my attention. I turn, and there’s my starving high-school senior, hopping up and down, in place, lightly, five, six times, he’s so pleased. “Spicy Chipotle Cheddar. And I get it all!” Before his dad even gets into the room he grabs a plate and a spatula and starts loading it up.

My husband and I stand back to give our starving teenager his space. And for a brief startling moment, I look at the salmon filet and hope it’s enough, because nobody else is getting any chicken!

Telework Would Keep Employees Spending Cash in Local Economy

Opinion 

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I’m a telework evangelist. I enjoy “connecting the dots” between the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, Rep. Gerry Connolly’s Telework 2.0 initiative, Virginia Delegates Ramadan and Comstock’s legislation to offer telework tax credits, the federal push to reduce the size and cost of Government, BRAC, and our ever-expanding road budget.

The folks who should really be vocal supporters of telework are local business owners, particularly small business owners that operate in the bedroom communities that support “inside the beltway” business and Government activities. I live in Prince William County however, the principle applies to all bedroom communities.

Many who spend time in Prince William are often struck by how empty our shops and restaurants are during the day, by the number of vacancies in our strip malls, Manassas Mall, and Potomac Mills mall. Our local economy appears to start at around 6 or 7 p.m.

That’s because over half of our local labor force (or around 105,000 folks out of a civilian labor force of 212,230 “in place” employees and an estimated 4,900 self-employed folks) works outside Prince William County, according to county documents.

These folks who don’t work within Prince William County are heading for Reston, Tysons Corner, Downtown Washington, or other points north of here. Every day, we send over half of the county’s labor force, and their wallets and purses somewhere else. They shop somewhere else, eat somewhere else, buy and service their cars somewhere else, drop off and pick up their dry cleaning somewhere else, Christmas shop somewhere else – they live most of their lives in someone else’s economy.

Let’s bring these people and their wallets home.

We do that by implementing a telework-friendly policy at all levels, and integrating a philosophy driven by letting our residents work and shop at in Prince William County instead of thinking of more ways to move people and their pocketbooks out of the county. Let’s integrate telework into our strategy for solving Northern Virginia’s transportation problem. Let’s think about ways to take people out of local roads instead of just building more roads.

Over half of our local labor force (or around 100,000 folks out of a civilian labor force of 212,2301) work outside Prince William County.

Let’s do the math.

Let’s assume that we take 10,000 of those folks (or roughly 10% FTE) off the road via telework. Because they are staying in Prince William County (you can “plug in the math” for any county) and that they spend a modest $5 a day (using a 5 day week) or $25 a week on the local economy (instead of “somewhere else”). Suddenly, we have over $13 million and change spent in our local economy instead of somewhere else.

Five dollars a day amounts to a Venti at Starbucks, gum and a candy bar, or a magazine at a drug store. It adds up quickly.

Some more fun with numbers:

If just 200 of these folks purchased a car that cost $25,000 in Prince William County instead of somewhere else (I purchased three in Tyson’s Corner over the years), that would add another $5 million in annual revenue.

If half of these folks (that 10%) got their car serviced twice a year in Prince William at $100 each service, that would add another $1 million a year pumped into the local economy.

If half of these folks (again, that 10%) dropped of their dry cleaning once a week here $5 a pop, that’s another $1.3 million (and change).

I could go on. This is real money that leaves Prince William County every morning.

These are conservative estimates and admittedly fuzzy math, but they give you an idea of the dollars and cents value of telework to our local economy. The more successful we are integrating telework into our transportation strategy, the more money we keep in Prince William County businesses.

When I commuted to Tysons Corner, I “lived there,” bought and serviced my cars there, bought my family birthday, anniversary and Christmas gifts there, ate lunch there, joined a gym there. I would suggest that perhaps the dollars are big enough to have a more robust analysis performed perhaps by the Prince William County Economic Development Department.

If you’re a business in Prince William County, you really need to get behind telework. Our federal, state, local, and city governments habe been developing transportation policy for years that sends county pocketbooks elsewhere to spend their discretionary income. We need to change this trend.

I’ll be focusing on telework for a while. Delegates Ramadan and Comstock successfully passed a new telework tax incentive in the Virginia House, and Congressman Connolly is working on Telework 2.0 legislation will make it easier for federal contract officers to give contractors more freedom to telework.

I plan to explore how telework impacts economic development, the real estate market, public safety, our quality of life, community involvement, and just about everything in future columns.

Not everyone can telework; however, for those of us who do it’s “what’s next” in the way we live, work and play.

Ticketed at Horner Road Lot, Slug Vows to Fight the Law

Slug Tales

I am one angry slug.

Why, you ask? I’ll tell you. On Monday evening, I received a parking ticket in the Horner Road Commuter lot. And as far as I am concerned, I was not parked illegally.

If you remember as far back as Monday evening (is it only Wednesday?), you’ll remember that it was a dreary, rainy day. It hadn’t started out very well for me, either. That morning, I waited past 9 a.m. for a ride. Thinking it was hopeless, I thought I might have to drive in, or at least drive to Springfield to take the Metro in to D.C.

Learn more about PRTCLuckily, a nice lady passing through the lot felt bad for the poor souls still waiting for a ride, and offered to drive us to Crystal City. It was very kind of her, and I appreciated it greatly – but as I got into her car, another car pulled up and took the other three riders who were waiting with me to my destination, L’Enfant Plaza. Since two of those riders were actually behind me in line, I was pretty annoyed; however, I suppose it was my own fault for not waiting to see where that other driver was going.

Anyway, I digress…

On Monday evening, I was parked alongside the shoulder, closest to the entrance at the Prince William Parkway intersection. If you’re familiar with the Horner Road lot, you’ll know that cars have always parked along that road, within the painted white lines. Where the white lines end on either side, there are No Parking signs with an arrow pointing away in either direction, which seems to signify that parking is allowed within that designated area.

Arial view of  the Horner Road Commuter Lot in Woodbridge

Arial view of the Horner Road Commuter Lot in Woodbridge

I have been commuting from Horner Road for years, and as far as I know, parking has always been allowed in this area.

On Monday evening, however, there were two Prince William County Police officers who believed otherwise.

It was beginning to get dark and still slightly raining as I made my way up the shoulder of the road towards my car, carrying my bags and the dry cleaning I picked up before slugging home. In the distance, I noticed the flashing lights of a police cruiser. It was double-parked dangerously close to my car, but I wasn’t worried, knowing I had safely parked in a legal space – or so I thought.

No Parking sign, indicating parking is prohibited from the sign in the direction of the arrow.

No Parking sign, indicating parking is prohibited from the sign in the direction of the arrow.

As I got closer, I noticed small, white papers in the windshield of two of the cars near mine, and then saw one in my windshield as well.

It couldn’t be a ticket, I thought. No way! I’ve gotten my share of tickets for parking illegally, but I was good today. I had plenty of room to park before the No Parking sign!

Just as I approached where the police car was parked, there was another lady, waving that little white piece of paper in her hand. She didn’t look happy, and she was parked just a couple of cars ahead of me.

“That’s not a ticket, is it?” I asked.

Much to my dismay, it was indeed a ticket. Her car, my car and the car in between us had all received one, and the two young police officers insisted that parking was prohibited in this area.

This was certainly news to us! I tried reasoning with them, explaining that cars had been parking here for years. We told them we had never heard of anyone being ticketed for parking in this area, and pointed out the arrows of the No Parking signs, which indicate that parking is allowed within the signs on either side.

It was no use; the damage was done. The tickets were written. Our only option now, according to the ticket, is to “appear in person… and file the necessary paperwork” at one of the locations listed, in order to have our case heard in court. Of course, this means taking time out of work to file the paperwork, and more time off to appear in court. Lovely.

Some may say a $35 is not worth the trouble. I disagree. I can understand if we had disobeyed the law, if we had parked somewhere that parking is not allowed. Hey, I’ve paid my share of parking tickets. Begrudgingly, maybe, but I knew I had broken the rule, and as such, I had no choice but to pay the piper.

This time, I refuse. I will not pay for something that is not right. I believe these officers ticketed us unfairly, and that they were incorrectly interpreting the signage in the commuter lot.

If parking is indeed prohibited in the area where we were ticketed, then it needs to be clearly and properly communicated to drivers who park here and should be done so before tickets are issued. And if parking is no longer allowed on that shoulder, all of us who use that area for parking will have to find space elsewhere to leave our cars. That should be interesting…

I may be an angry slug, but I will stand up for my commuter rights!

Hockey Warm-up Pants Found: Score!

Mom on the Run

By LIANNE WILKENS

“Beth Beth Beth Beth!!” I am so excited, typing this email. “I found the pants!” I’m dancing in my seat, I’m so happy.

OK – backing up.

For my son’s senior-year season of ice hockey I volunteered to manage spirit wear. Not a big deal: pick the stuff out, get quotes, create an order form, collect orders and money, distribute orders. Right?

021113-freedom-mom-tagPretty much. The process took a little longer than I thought, and involved two vendors for two batches of stuff, screenprinted and embroidered, but ultimately everything came together. Almost everyone on the team ordered something screenprinted – sweatpants or sweatshirt or t-shirt – and a new coach and a new player each ordered an embroidered warm-up jacket, and one previous player ordered a new pair of warm-up pants. Everything came in quickly, was accounted for, and was delivered.

Well, the screenprinted stuff came in and was delivered quickly. The embroidered stuff took longer, and when those three items finally came in, I gave the box to my son. “Give Coach Britt and James their jackets, and give Andrew the pants.” “Uh huh.”

Later that night, “Did you give everyone their warm-up stuff?” But: “None of them was at practice.” Oh, OK.

So, before the next practice: “Don’t forget to give out the warm-up suit stuff.” “Yeah, I know.” That night: “Did you give out the warm-up stuff?” “I gave Coach his jacket. Nobody else was there.”

It took a couple of practices and a bunch of nagging, but finally everything was delivered. I saw the boys wearing their spirit wear. There were no complaints or questions. Everyone was pleased. I was pleased!

Until a month later, when I got the email from Beth: “Andrew never got his warm-up pants.” What? Dang it!

I checked with my son: “Andrew says he didn’t get the warm-up pants. Did you give them to him?” Ha – a month later. I really bothered to ask? “Uhh … I gave out everything you gave me.”

“We gave the pants to Andrew,” I emailed Beth. And she replied: “Andrew says he doesn’t have them.”

I checked with my kid again: “Are you sure you don’t still have the pants?” “I’m sure!” I had him check his hockey bag, the back seat of the car, the trunk of the car, his room.

Beth had her son check his hockey bag, his backpack, his bedroom. No pants. Not at our house, not at their house.

Check again, I told my son, five, 10 times. Five, 10 times he checked. Check again, Beth told her son, five, 10 times. Five, 10 times he checked. No pants. Finally, Beth emailed, “I’m sure they’re buried here somewhere. Don’t worry about it.”

Not worry? No way. This was my project! And my kid! I was so distressed; I needed to find those pants!

So I thought about it. I thought and thought. And – oh! James only got a jacket! Maybe my son thought James got a full warm-up suit? I pulled out a whole-team email, guessed at a James-family email address, and sent out: “You only ordered a warm-up jacket. Did you happen to get a pair of pants as well?”

I was holding my breath. It was a leap, thinking James had the pants, and I made a note to move forward on Plan B, which was to wait a few more weeks, see if the pants popped up, and then pay for a new pair of pants for Andrew. But still, before Plan B came Idea A: maybe James has them. I was hopeful.

And finally, a return email! “Yes, we have the pants. We will get them to Andrew.”

Victorious, I email Beth: “Beth Beth Beth Beth! I found the pants!”

Beth writes right back: “Fantastic!” And then she says, with relief, what we were both thinking: “Neither of our boys is crazy!” Exactly. Exactly.

Getting People Off Roads, Knowledge to Workers Should Be 21st Century Transportation Strategy

Al Alborn: Connecting  the Dots

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I like roads. When I drive Va. 234 from Interstate 95 to 66, or the Prince William Parkway from Woodbridge to Manassas, I am grateful Prince William County’s proactive approach to transportation infrastructure. I’m looking forward to the Tri-County Parkway.

If I understand the math correctly, we just can’t get ahead of our transportation problem regardless of how many new roads we build. Unless we start thinking differently.

We continue to be locked into the old paradigm of moving people to their jobs. If you build things or service things, you do have to get to your job one way or another. The simple fact is that in the Washington, D.C. area, most people work with knowledge. They take information and do something to it adding value.

These people are knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers don’t have to drive somewhere to do their jobs. They only need access to the information with which they work. With today’s technology, knowledge workers may work anywhere.

Telework is the 21st Century paradigm for connecting knowledge workers with the knowledge they need to do their jobs.

The old paradigm is to continue to build roads, trains, buses, carpool parking lots, or other tools to move people to some physical location to work with knowledge. The new paradigm is to move the knowledge to the people who need it to do their job.

In today’s economy, perhaps a strategy that reduces the resources devoted to building and maintaining roads by simply taking people off them might be a good thing. This would help us win another battle, lower taxes.

The word “transportation” is defined as moving people around. I suggest it’s time to redefine that word to include moving information around.

Transportation authorities all need to incorporate telework strategies for incorporating today’s technology and public policy into transportation planning to take people off the roads. Broadband, wi-fi, cyber security, and telework friendly public policy are the tools that will help us get ahead of the problem of moving people around every morning and evening.

Using the right tools, we can focus on moving fewer people around.

The simple fact that telework is good public policy because it reduces the cost of Virginia’s transportation infrastructure and allows us to finally get ahead of the demand to get people to the knowledge they need to do their job. It improves public safety, reduces road building and maintenance costs, creates jobs, is good for our residents quality of life, keeps discretionary dollars in their communities instead of sending them “north.”

A few politicians “get it”. Congressmen Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf successfully passed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 mandating Federal Employees be allowed to telework. Congressman Connolly is now working on Telework 2.0 to extend this mandate to Federal Contractors. Virginia Delegate Rich Anderson is working with other Delegates to use telework to create jobs, reduce traffic, and improve the quality of life of Virginia residents. Delegates Anderson, Comstock, and Ramadan just hosted the first Northern Virginia Telework Summit to increase public awareness of its potential. Ramadan just successfully passed a telework tax credit in the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates. Governor McDonnell recognizes it’s a good idea.

I still do not see our transportation planners at all levels “connecting the dots” between telework and transportation planning. I haven’t found the Government entity who has re-defined their mission to include the tools and infrastructure to take people off the roads.

People are locked into mental models of the way things were. We need a few leaders who may ponder the way things could be: knowledge workers who stay here instead of commuting to Washington D.C. to do a job that they could just as easily do on their back deck, or Starbucks.

It’s not lost on me that one of the reasons government emphasizes roads at all levels is because that’s what our business infrastructure knows how to do. If all you are really good at is building more roads, you focus on building more roads. You also look for politicians who are interested in building more roads.

If there is a huge opportunity here for existing businesses to redefine themselves for “what’s next”, for existing businesses to expand and add jobs to meet the demand of a large percentage of the local population working within their community, and for new businesses to provide a range wide of services to support a telework community.

Telework is a business development opportunity. Prince William County’s Economic Development Team needs to integrate telework and the businesses it both attracts and creates into its strategy.

To do otherwise it to “miss” perhaps the 21st Century’s greatest tipping point in how people perform work and the business opportunities that come after the nature of work changes.

Cold Weather, Time Crunch Weighs on Those in Slug Lines

Slug Tales

By LAURA CIRILLO

 Man, I hate the cold.

That taste of 70-degree weather was such a tease, just to be followed by a dusting of snow at the end of the week. And unless the snow is significant enough to close the government, or at least get us a telework day, I’m not interested.

I hate walking our puppy in the snow; it’s too distracting for him and he only wants to eat the snow or play in it. I hate cleaning my car off in the morning, and I don’t drive well in icy conditions (really, does anyone?). But more than anything else, I dread slugging in the cold.

Learn more about PRTCThe walk from my car to the slug line in the morning and back in the evening seems so much longer in the cold, especially with that biting wind and all the nasty rain and snow we’ve had lately. It’s almost painful just to stand in the slug line, counting down the number of riders in front of you before you’re in a warm car.

As much as I love slugging, cold, dreary weather can make it pretty miserable. And the unpredictability of slugging, of not knowing how long you’ll be waiting in the slug line, freezing and shivering and pathetic, well, that’s pretty much the worst.

If you don’t slug, you may think I’m being overly dramatic. And if you do slug, and you hate the cold as much as I do, you know just how right I am about this.

Yesterday evening, I left my office just after 5 p.m. and, much to my dismay, walked out the door to find a very long slug line filled with people headed for the Horner Road Commuter lot in Woodbridge. My heart sank, as it usually does when this happens, and I trudged to the end of the line. Five minutes passed and then 10, then 20. It seemed the slug line was barely moving, and I silently cursed each car that created any sort of obstruction in the road, preventing slug drivers from possibly getting to us faster.

I tried counting all of the people waiting ahead of me in line, but stopped after about 12. It seemed hopeless. What if it gets too close to 6 p.m. when the restrictions are lifted in the HOV lanes, and I end up on the bus again? I stayed pretty calm when that happened last week, but I may not be able to handle it again tonight.

Finally, I got closer to the front of the line, but I refused to get my hopes up. I made that mistake last week, and then waited at the very front of the line until after 6 p.m. but wound up taking the Metro back to the Pentagon to take the commuter bus to my car to drive home. Yeah, it’s a trip.

I just couldn’t do it again.

Checking the time again, I continued to worry. After 5:30 p.m., and still no ride. And I wasn’t even next in line! Tomorrow, I need to bring gloves, I reminded myself. My hands were nearly frozen and I could picture them sitting in the passenger seat of my car, right where I left them that morning.

Next thing I knew, we were moving up again. Two people were in a car, with another car waiting behind them, and there went the next two. Finally, I was at the front of the line, and a few minutes later, there was my sweet, sweet chariot (or Ford Explorer, but whatever).

It was about 35 minutes of unpleasantly cold, sheer torture overall, but getting into that warm and toasty SUV and napping on the way back to the commuter lot was just what I needed. Of course, the bus runs on a more predictable timetable, but when something throws that schedule off, you can be stuck waiting, or worse – standing in the aisle the whole ride home. My preference is almost always to slug. Besides the possible wait time, it’s just faster than any other alternative.

As much as I hate the cold weather, I don’t love sweating in the scorching hot sun in the summertime, either. I’m sure I’ll be complaining about that in a few months, but for now, I’m just so over winter. Bring on the heat!

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

Mom Blocked from Child’s Facebook Page: Is it Fair?

Mom on the Run

By LIANNE WILKENS

It’s a quiet weeknight and I’m home alone. It’s not quite bedtime, I’ve already checked email, I don’t feel alert enough to read a book or do a crossword puzzle, so TV it is. I scan the list of DVRed shows – does anybody watch TV as it airs anymore? – and settle on “How I Met Your Mother.” A half-hour show, no brains required, perfect.

As the show runs I putter around. I’m up and down, up and down, doing little things. The dogs go out, then scratch at the door 012113 Freedom center_edited-1to come back in. I look over, see a drink bottle, carry it to the recycling bin. I think about tomorrow and set out my son’s lunchbox, just to save myself a minute in what is always a rushed morning.

I don’t pay much attention to the show: no brains required.

Until one of the characters comments that her dad has sent her a Facebook friend request. “No, no!” cry her friends. “Don’t do it!”

What? Riveted, I move into the family room, perch on the edge of the sofa. I lean forward, listening hard. I need information. The characters on-screen – in their late 20s and early 30s, I think – helpfully complain about how terrible it is to be Facebook friends with their parents. Not that they don’t want their parents to know what they’re doing, but their parents’ own postings, the characters whine, are inappropriate, repetitive, and annoying.

Huh. I sit back, and consider. My 21-year-old daughter, currently a junior in college and studying abroad for the semester, recently blocked me from her Facebook page. I can see the pictures and comments she had added before she blocked me, and I can see a recent post where she mentioned me, but that’s it. And I don’t know why.

It’s embarrassing, being blocked by my own kid. It seems unfair. I just wired her a pile of cash for the semester abroad. The post where she mentioned me is actually thanking me for sending her a care package – at great expense, to fly all the way to Europe. I’m a good mom!

And even worse, my daughter hasn’t blocked my friends. We have 108 mutual friends – 108! – and it is embarrassing when Christy asks, “Oh my gosh, don’t you love those shoes she bought?” and I have no idea what the shoes look like.

When Donna exclaims, “I love all the pictures she’s posting!” I can’t talk with her about them. And when Steve from church, who barely knows my first-born, says, “It sounds like she’s having a great time over there!” I can only nod.

I can’t figure out how to fix it. When she left to spend a weekend in Berlin I emailed, “Since I can’t see your Facebook page, please text me occasionally so I know you’re alive.” I got an “OK” in response, but no confirmation that she picked up on the hint.

I asked her brother: “Do you know why your sister blocked me on Facebook?” and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. She didn’t block me.” And I mentioned it to my husband, who is not blocked, hoping he would pull rank and tell her to re-friend me, but either he hasn’t asked, or she hasn’t complied. Sighhh.

So now, watching “How I Met Your Mother,” I have to reconsider: was it my posts? I don’t play Farmville or any of those games. I don’t write and upload book reports. I don’t think I have embarrassing posts, and I virtually never link her to them, anyway.

And now, reminded of my social media humiliation, I sink deep into the sofa and pout. My kid has blocked me from Facebook. And apparently that’s normal and funny enough to become sit-com fodder. Stupid show. I pick up the remote, turn it off, and go to bed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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

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.

 

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 ….

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.

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!

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