Fairfax County is just one of 3,069 counties in the nation, one of the largest population-wise, but shares commonalities with even the smallest counties, such as Loving County, Texas, with a population of 82, and Virginia’s Highland County, on the West Virginia border, with 2321 residents. Counties are just one notch below the state in the governmental structure; in Virginia, counties are responsible for providing public education, public safety, and a myriad of other services that constitute strong communities.
According to a National Association of Counties (NACo) report issued on Monday, county economic conditions are an essential measure of the well-being of county residents. While the scale may differ, county governments large and small still are feeling the effects of the Great Recession, even while national economic trends are improving. Ninety-five percent of county economies have not recovered to pre-recession lows. The report indicates that job growth accelerated in 2014, but only about 40 percent of new jobs are in industries paying above the average county wage. In Fairfax County and Northern Virginia, there is job growth in the service and hospitality sectors, but those jobs are lower paying than some of the jobs lost as a result of sequestration and reductions in federal defense contracts. A quick review of the NACo report reveals that Fairfax County enjoyed faster economic growth in 2014, compared to 2013, and fared well in cost-of-living and inflation adjusted wages. Fairfax County remains a benchmark, which other counties of our size compare in delivering county services to constituents, and we measure up well.
State presidents of NACo’s member jurisdictions gathered at the White House on Thursday to discuss the county/federal relationships with Jerry Abramson, former Kentucky Lt. Governor and the new Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and his senior staff. Topics for discussion included housing for homeless veterans – the goal is to end veterans homelessness by the end of this calendar year, and many jurisdictions have had great success in meeting that goal through rapid rehousing and involvement of non-profit providers. The Alaska state president noted that many boroughs in her state are so remote that it is difficult to get any services to them at the local level, much less from the feds, and that everything has to be flown in, creating additional costs and challenges. Hearing her stories of flying into remote villages in all kinds of weather made me rethink my view of the drive to Richmond on Virginia Association of Counties (VACo) business!
Whether leading a large county or a small one, county officials are dedicated to creating better communities for their residents and businesses. It is not an easy task. At the presidents’ meeting last week, NACo President Riki Hokama (Hawaii) commented that NACo members are “like any big family. We can have our disagreements but, at the end of the day, we all must paddle the boat in the same direction, or we go nowhere.” Virginia counties are heading in the right direction, and creating better communities for all.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]