Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors Corey A. Stewart gave the annual State of the County address during the Jan. 10, 2017, Board meeting. The Chairman's remarks are below.
Before I begin, I did want to take a moment to remember Senator Chuck Colgan. Senator Colgan was a great hero of mine; he was a great hero of so many here in Prince William County. He was a great statesman. Someone whom we could all look up to as a great role model. And I just want to pay my condolences, on behalf of the Board of Supervisors and the community as a whole, to the family and loved ones of Senator Chuck Colgan.
As we look back at 2016, there is much to reflect on. We had triumphs. We had tragedies. Yet, through it all, one thing is clear. You, your businesses, and your families continue to make Prince William County a community where people choose to live and businesses choose to locate. And the Board of Supervisors continues to invest in the community by funding initiatives that enhance the quality of life that our citizens expect and deserve while keeping your tax bills the lowest in the region.
In 2016, the county spent approximately $148 million on transportation projects. Every area of the county saw some type of transportation improvement. From the widening of Route 1 from Neabsco Mills to Featherstone to the widening of Route 28 from Linton Hall Road to Vint Hill Road, we are making it easier for residents to get around the County. In total, we added more than 21 lane miles of roads, 4 miles of multi-use trails and 3.5 miles of sidewalks, and improvements to five independent intersections in the county last year… and we aren’t done yet. The county’s Department of Transportation is currently working on more than a dozen projects, which will enhance the quality of life here in Prince William County.
The Board has also invested heavily in our parks. We launched an aggressive campaign to upgrade park facilities across the county. This includes the construction of new parks – like Occoquan Riverfront Park – and significant upgrades to existing parks – like Hellwig and Long Park. Altogether, we completed 17 parks projects this year. These park projects provide opportunities for both active and passive recreation and represent an investment of more than $6 million in Prince William County in this year alone. And our Parks and Recreation Department is currently working on 40 other projects, with the majority expected to be completed over the next few years.
So, why is this important? Because during 2016, more than 31,000 youth sports league participants played on the County’s fields. More than 350,000 people visited our pools and waterparks. And our park rangers helped keep visitors to the parks safe by conducting more than 25,000 park visits and 6,000 school site visits. Parks play an important role to our community’s high quality of life.
This focused dedication to enhancing the quality of life of our residents is paying dividends with our economic development efforts as businesses continue to locate and expand here in prince William County. And we are not only dedicated to attracting new companies, but more importantly, to our commitment to local business.
We also pay special attention to start-up businesses. This is particularly seen in our success with specialized start-up incubator companies in the Prince William Science Accelerator and the Serious Games Institute.
We are proud of the dynamic growth and economic vitality we have created here in Prince William County. We remain committed to policies and practices that make it easy to do business in Prince William.
However, we also make certain that businesses operate responsibly and protect the quality of life of our residents. We voted to hold Dominion Virginia Power responsible and accountable to dispense of their coal ash ponds responsibly. We designated nearly 10,000 acres of land as Data Center Opportunity Zones to encourage data center development and guide data center businesses on ideal properties that are best suited for such a business venture.
The incredible thing is that all these accomplishments were attained while having the lowest average residential tax bill in Northern Virginia. They are, in fact, 30 percent lower on average than the surrounding jurisdictions in the region. Instead of raising taxes to pay for these things; instead of expecting our citizens to bear the financial burden; instead of taking the easy way out, this Board is strategic and thoughtful in the way that we manage the county’s financial responsibilities.
It has not been easy. There were certainly challenging conversations that were had and difficult decisions that were made. We, on the Board of Supervisors, have not always agreed on every item, but we have, however, agreed that our citizens must always come first. Therefore, we continue to work toward a more efficient government while keeping the average adjusted tax bill flat. The average citizen’s tax bill has remained the same or has gone down, in adjusted terms, since 2006. That means that when you adjust for inflation, over the last decade the county has provided needed services while improving the quality of life for our citizens without the average taxpayer having to pay more than they did 10 years ago. That is a huge accomplishment and one of which we are very proud.
I don’t say this to imply that our work is done. In fact, there is still a lot of work that must still be done. We must continue to work toward diversifying the tax base, so that the financial burden doesn’t lie mainly with residents as it does now. We must continue to be strategic and thoughtful in how we manage our finances. And we must continue to remember that the citizens of this community depend on us to do the right thing for them and their families each and every time.
That’s why it is important not only to examine what went well last year, but where our greatest challenges lie ahead.
While the County has strict sound financial management practices, it does not seem like the state has the same standards. Couple that with the fact that we are the second largest county in Virginia with a growing, thriving community that demands more services, it is fair to say that there will be budget challenges ahead. We know that there is always a desire to do more with less. It is up to us to find a way to balance expectations with reality. We are committed to being financially prudent and to ensuring that the County keeps its triple AAA bond rating. We are one of only 36 jurisdictions in the United States of America with such a rating, and we will not lose that distinction.
As we consider the welfare of our citizens in each decision we make, we must include our children in those decisions, as well. Therefore, I implore the School Board to work with the Board of Supervisors to find a way to meet the critical need of reducing overcrowding in our schools. I am confident that we can work together to find a way to provide our children with the facilities that they need, the facilities that they deserve.
We must also consider our most vulnerable within the community – the aging, the homeless and the mentally ill. Our Police Department and Community Services agency have partnered together on several initiatives, including programs to help those who are mentally ill so that they can get the help they need rather than being incarcerated. For those who are arrested for drug use, we are able to get them the treatment that they need quickly, which can be the difference in helping them to become productive members of our community. We are finding ways to serve the vulnerable populations by creating partnerships and efficiencies that allow us to better meet their needs.
Finally, we can’t look back on 2016 – or look forward to what lies ahead – without remembering one of the County’s darkest days, that of Feb. 27 when Officer Ashley Guindon was shot and killed on her first day of work along with two other officers who were injured. It is a stark reminder that our first responders are everyday heroes, as they are willing to lay down their lives for our safety. I’ve never been more proud of our community than during that difficult time. You all supported our Police Department in ways that could not have been imagined. You brought food, cards, and flowers to the police stations. You stopped police officers on the street and gave them hugs, handshakes and a word of encouragement. You lined the streets to support Ashley, her family and her fellow comrades. Your support helped our Police Department heal and showed the rest of the world what type of community we truly are – one full of caring and compassionate people.
It is unfortunate that it takes such an incident for us to understand how lucky we are to live here in Prince William County. While other communities across the nation have been torn apart over incidents involving police officers, both our police and fire departments have extremely high satisfaction rates and excellent relationships with the community.
Despite an anomaly in the murder rate in 2016, it is important to remember that we have seen our crime rate decline significantly over the past few years to a 24-year low. That is something we can be proud of. We know, however, that there are challenges ahead – challenges that every growing community faces. Therefore, in order to keep our community safe, we absolutely must continue to invest in our public safety. We broke ground on a new police station and new fire station in 2016. And we continue to look at ways to deliver critical public safety services in a way that is more efficient and effective.
It has been proven that our investment into the community works. The 2016 Community Survey showed that:
- 91 percent of our residents agree that the overall quality of life meets or exceeds their expectations;
- 91 percent said that the overall quality of county services meets or exceeds their expectations;
- 88 percent believe the county provides services and facilities that are a good value for their tax dollars;
- And all public safety services received ratings of 90 percent or higher. How many communities can say that?
While we are proud of what we have accomplished so far, we know that there is more work to be done. So, we look forward to 2017 with hope and commitment – hope for a prosperous, safe and healthy year for all, and a commitment that we will work together to achieve our vision for Prince William County as a community of choice, a community that residents are proud to call their own.
May God bless you and your families, and may God bless Prince William County. Thank you all very much. Happy New Year.