A local radio station is running a series of commentaries this week about the so-called “competition” between Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland. Apparently, the station is trying to determine which jurisdiction is “better” than the other.
It reminds me of another study, entitled “A Tale of Two Suburbs,” released in 2007 by the Center for Survey Research at Stony Brook University in New York. The study compared Suffolk and Nassau Counties on Long Island with Fairfax County, and showed that taxation and housing costs were a greater concern on Long Island. However, there were stronger ties for people who live on Long Island, and they tended to be satisfied with their government services, even though those services were acknowledged to be better in Virginia. Schools received higher marks in Virginia, and our economic outlook was considered more vibrant than on Long Island.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the radio reporter’s research ultimately reaches the same conclusion. Life is pretty good in Fairfax County but, as in all things, there is room for improvement. Granted, Montgomery County has more agricultural land and open space in parks. It also is about 100 square miles larger than Fairfax, and is catching up with Fairfax in redevelopment of former farmland. Our respective household incomes are closely aligned, and Fairfax County schools usually rank a little ahead of those across the river. Unemployment is below the national average in both jurisdictions, although that status doesn’t help much if you are out of a job. Despite protests to the contrary, when you add everything up – real estate taxes, personal property, state and local income tax, and business taxes – Fairfax County taxes are lower than Montgomery County’s.
That revenue also provides the funding for local government services – schools, parks, libraries, police and fire, human services, public works, environment – those everyday items that figure so importantly in the overall quality of life. As noted above, there is room for improvement. Children need to be able to succeed in school. They need to read, to analyze, to think. They need encouragement and support from the entire community. Great things are happening in our schools, but too many children don’t graduate, or need remediation before pursuing a college degree. We need more park playing fields, and more facilities for an increasingly diverse population. Library hours, reduced to help balance the county budget, need to be restored and expanded when funds are available. At almost five percent, Fairfax County’s poverty rate is low, but that percentage translates to more than 50,000 people living pretty austere lives, with diminished opportunity for advancement or improvement. The environment needs more attention as stormwater issues and the amount of impervious surface becomes a greater and greater challenge to restoration of our local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s probably human nature that comparisons tend to focus on the negative, rather than the positive. I still remember the comment of a Fairfax County teacher who spent about six weeks of her summer out of the area. In a private conversation, she noted that she was really looking forward to seeing how much better other places were, but when she finished her trip, she realized that the best place was right here. After all was said and done, she was mighty happy to be home in Fairfax County.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]