Local Commentary

Editorial: In Defense of The Innocents

When dealing with the issue of the future of the Child Development Center in Falls Church, it is relevant to be reminded that the first public building constructed in Renaissance Florence, Italy, was an orphanage. The “Hospital of the Innocents” was designed by Brunelleschi, commissioned for its construction in 1419.

In the Italian Renaissance, the cradle of our democracy, there was a direct connection between fledgling ideas and experiments in democracy and care for the “innocents,” in the Florentine case abandoned children.

In rough economic times like now, it becomes increasingly challenging for public officials to maintain the focus that has accounted for the best and most morally sustainable cornerstones of our democracy. Democratic principles are worth fighting for when they reflect their humanitarian aspect – after all, democracy is about people.

The case of Falls Church’s Child Development Center (CDC) is exemplary. Falls Church city officials have issued a letter saddling the Easter Seal operators of a highly successful, and important, child care center with an ultimatum that could result in a sudden expulsion of the program within a month.

This shocking development has caught everyone by surprise, especially Easter Seals and the many parents with children in the program. Instead of the current $1 a year lease agreement, first established in the 1950s, the City is now demanding $120,000 a year in rent, while also requiring that the Easter Seals group continues to provide full maintenance of the structure at a cost of about $75,000 a year.

Before this letter was sent last week, it was assumed that the City was negotiating in good faith to find a reasonable compromise that would allow the child care program to remain in place at least until next summer. Suddenly, however, failure of the Easter Seals program to agree to the City’s terms on a new rental arrangement will result in an expiration of the current lease on Nov. 11, and presumably the eviction of the program.

Of course, financial interests underlie the City’s sudden Scrooge-like move. City Manager Wyatt Shields contends that it is the City’s responsibility to its taxpayers to gain fair market value from its CDC property. Good questions can be asked about whether, if Easter Seals doesn’t agree to the terms and its program expelled, anyone else would step up to pay fair market value.
The Falls Church Schools’ interest in the building was dampened by an assessment determining it would cost $2 million to bring it up to state code requirements, and if it was put to that use, the schools would carry the cost of the on-going maintenance that Easter Seals has been providing to this point.

In a residential neighborhood, if the property were put up for sale for redevelopment purposes, options would be very limited.

There is more to good government than balancing budgets. Falls Church, with its commitment to education, knows this well. It should apply that notion to the CDC case.