People asking the Board of Supervisors to fund mental health supports, collective bargaining with county employees, affordable housing and a county environmental strategy were the most numerous voices at public hearings on the county budget Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Loudoun Family Services Advisory Board Chair Aimee McKinney urged supervisors to address the rising mental health crisis and bolster supports for people in need.
“It's critical to put a human face to those are who are benefiting from this county’s support. Most of us in this room are not struggling with how we get to work, or if we need to decide whether to take our child to the doctor or bring food home for dinner,” she said. “But many of the working poor and Loudoun County are doing just that.”
She particularly urged growing the public benefits and child protective services programs, citing crisis-level caseloads.
“At the end of the last year, the average number of cases per benefits specialist in Loudoun County was double the recommended number. They are just not able to do their jobs effectively,” she said. “The scenario described above is similarly reflected in the CPS program, which has the highest caseload in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. At the end of last year, the average number of cases per caseworker was more than four times the recommended guidelines. High caseloads and workloads dramatically impact a specialist’s ability to ensure child safety in our county.”
Loudoun Community Services Board Chair Patty Morrissey urged the board to stay on track with plans to fund a mental health crisis receiving and stabilization center, somewhat like an urgent care for mental health.
“Our capacity to appropriately care for people in a mental health crisis is very limited given the demand, and often our citizens don't know where to go for help,” she said. And she said today, even many people who go looking for help—or are placed under an emergency temporary detention order—don’t get it.
“Our most recent data shows that 79% of people treated for a psychiatric crisis end up spending more than two days boarding in a hospital emergency room before appropriate treatment or hospitalization at a mental health facility is provided—or the patient decides to leave on their own accord,” she said. “In the second half of 2022, a hospital bed could not be secured prior to a temporary detention order expiring for 69 people. This is a failure of the community safety net. This endangers both individuals suffering a mental health crisis as well as the public.”
Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions co-founder Jean Wright urged the county board to fund a proposed environmental work plan and energy strategy in the county budget.
“It is a matter of urgency. NASA has just released its latest update on vital signs of the planet stating that 2022 is the fifth warmest year on record, with the last nine consecutive years, being the warmest nine on record,” she said. “The good news is that we here in Loudoun County can make a difference for the environment, but that difference includes passing the full budget.”
That project, which is included in the draft county budget, include a range of green energy and environmental projects and hiring a new energy program manager to oversee that work.
“As a walker and hiker, I see the eroding river and stream banks and too many dying and dead trees. Also, I'm hearing and seeing fewer birds. This saddens me. The energy work plan is essential to the health of our soils, water animals, vegetables, and yes, human life,” Wright said.
Piedmont Environmental Council spokesperson Gem Bingol said the energy program manager, in particular, is a crucial hire.
“This person is essential to start implementing the energy strategy and getting them on board will help to apply for and receive grants from the Department of Energy to support the goals of the strategy,” she said. “Without this position the strategy will be just another good idea on the shelf at a time when urgent action is needed.”
And Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Michael Myers, speaking for the county’s Environmental Commission which proposed the work plan and energy strategy, the part of that plan that would collect county information on energy and natural resources in one easily accessible place on the county website. Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Conservation Advocacy Specialist Trinity Mills said that hub, along with a new watershed management plan, would end up also saving the county money.
“Funding these important projects would help provide the county with actionable tools to prevent environmental issues regarding improper or incomplete water quality protection. This in turn would ultimately save the county time and money by enacting a proactive approach to correct issues within the watershed before they become costly or dangerous,” she said.
And Ashby Ponds resident Louise Evertt said if the county makes glass recycling collection widely available, “you’ll hear a loud cheer from Ashby Ponds.” Already, she said, residents there routinely collect glass from their neighbors and transport it to the nearest glass recycling drop-off at Sterling Park Community Recycling Center by Park View High School.
SEIU Virginia 512 Loudoun County Chair Julius Reynolds said this will be the last budget the Board of Supervisors passes without a collective bargaining agreement with its employees in place, and “we deserve a seat at the table.”
“Without hearing from employees directly and collaboration, how can the county hope to pass a budget that matches the reality about jobs?” he said. “When employees like me have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, then it means that significant changes need to be made. Many of our employees also can't live in the county that they work in, and those that do in many cases are hardly ‘living’ in the county but merely existing, because it's so expensive to live and thrive here.”
SEIU member and Loudoun County employee Stacey Fedewa said at a previous government job, a union contract had protected her from retaliation by an elected treasurer who sought to cut her pay.
“The union contract gave me a choice. Without that, I would have just left him and went back to bartending. And right now, Loudoun County employees don't have the same choices that I did, and we need to move to change that,” she said.
And others came to urge the board to invest more in affordable housing, including some asking them to push the half-cent of the real estate tax dedicated to the housing fund up to a full penny, or about $12 million a year in tax revenues.
Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance Executive Director Jill Norcross said the current funding proposal is insufficient to meet the demands for housing or the goals in the county’s Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan.
“It's not an issue of charity, but it is an issue that directly ties to Loudoun County's future economic wealth and prosperity,” Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties Executive Director Amy Owen said. “We also believe workforce housing shall not compromise the rural landscape and environmental safeguards in our community; and further, that thoughtful development that meets the county’s unmet housing strategic plan through innovation, flexibility, reduced parking allocation along with increased density, merits approval and support.”
Members of New Virginia Majority, some speaking through interpreters, told their own stories of growing housing costs and struggling to afford their homes. They also said that COVID-19 era federal aid does not help all taxpayers equally.
“We know that the income assistance program will use the money from the ARPA emergency funds that was established during COVID. The restrictions on immigration status put on this program hurt the disadvantaged families in the community,” New Virginia Majority community leader Kellen Orellana said. “I urge the Board of Supervisors and county administrators to work with equity and inclusion for all communities regardless of their race, color or immigration status.”
Supervisors will hold one more public hearing Saturday before they begin budget work sessions. The hearing begins Saturday, March 4 at 9 a.m. in the county boardroom in Leesburg.