The coronavirus pandemic is changing a lot of holiday celebrations and traditions, and one casualty is the annual Mason District Holiday Town Gathering. For the first time in 25 years, that annual kick-off to the holiday season, sadly, is cancelled, but I hope that we can return to our usual format — including live entertainment, refreshments, and door prizes, in December of 2021. My annual State of Mason District report also is delivered during the Town Gathering; the event may have been cancelled, but my annual report is not! It is being presented, starting Wednesday, December 9 at noon on my county webpage, www.fairfaxcounty.gov/mason, and can be viewed on cable Channel 16 on Sundays at 5 p.m., Tuesdays at 8 p.m., and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., also starting Dec. 9. For convenience, following is a precis of my report.
The 2020 calendar year began with the newly elected Board of Supervisors and School Board holding get-acquainted retreats. Other than the fact that more than half of the meeting attendees had been in elected office for barely one month, it seemed that 2020 was getting off to a normal start. Black History Month and the Asian Lunar Festivals attested to the broad diversity of our community. County Executive Bryan Hill presented his proposed budget on Feb. 25, with new programs and services, expanded library hours, affordable housing initiatives, an increase in the school transfer, and compensation enhancements for county staff. It also recommended a small increase in the real property tax rate. The Mason District Budget Town Meeting was scheduled for March 12, the same day that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth because of Covid-19. The meeting went on as scheduled, but life changed dramatically afterward.
Within weeks, it became readily apparent that the proposed budget would become a curious artifact of the past — all the assumptions and all the work that had gone into building the proposed budget had to be replaced in weeks, not months. Gone were the new programs and services, the school transfer, compensation increases, and the real property tax rate increase. The revised budget predicted revenue losses of more than $150 million, and a bare bones budget was adopted, with no joy on any side. Virtual meetings became the rule of the day, day-after-day. Masks and social distancing were necessary; no more handshakes or hugs.
Following George Floyd’s death in June, a memorial rally was organized quickly at the Mason District Governmental Center parking lot. Hundreds of people, including many young students, participated, and shared their intense belief that Black Lives Matter. The usual summer events — free summer concerts, civic association picnics, and Fourth of July parades — had to be canceled. The wildly popular Taste of Annandale, and its 5K run, were cancelled. Schools remained closed, and parents learned to juggle, sometimes with great frustration, the responsibilities of work and children’s learning.
Nevertheless, county services persevered. The Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax RISE program from CARES Act funds, and awarded millions in 10, 15, and 20-thousand-dollar grants to nearly 5000 small businesses. Additional CARES Act funding covered personal protective equipment for county staff, contact tracers for the Health Department, and additional elections staff for the 2020 presidential election. That extra staff was tested, as more than 600,000 voters cast ballots in Fairfax County; 400,000 of those cast absentee ballots in person, including at two satellite locations in Mason District, or absentee by mail ballot, with very few complaints.
The environment, land use, and transportation also figured significantly in Mason District this year, and I will provide Part II of my annual report in next week’s column. In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy, wear a mask or face covering, and observe social distancing, especially when holiday shopping at our local businesses.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]