Suburbs In Peril

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A sobering article in today’s Post about the challenges facing Fairfax County, just across the Potomac from Montgomery County and often cited as a role model of what MoCo should aspire to.

For decades, Fairfax County has been a national model for suburban living, a place of good governance and elite schools that educate children from some of the country’s richest neighborhoods.

But Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges.

A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services in what is still the nation’s second-wealthiest county, even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream.

Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. They now say that there is no fat left to trim.

Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes, draw new businesses and revitalize worn neighborhoods. Their effort mirrors the struggle of aging suburban communities nationwide, as a turn-of-the century economic boom settles into a sluggish post-recession status quo.

Sound familiar? For years, while some argued that NoVa was “pulling ahead” of MoCo as a desirable place to live, I’ve been arguing that Virginia was ultimately in the same boat as we were. Turns out theirs is leaking too.

Not that we’re in such great shape either. The county budget is a wreck, revenues are flat, the Supreme Court delivered a fiscal punch in the face in the Wynne case last year. Plus we’re adding students to our public schools at the rate of one Blair High School every year for the foreseeable future.

So what now for the “rich” suburbs like Montgomery and Fairfax? Chasing new businesses and trying to build ourselves out of the doldrums is no solution at all, as we’ve seen over the past decade. We need an entirely new conversation that speaks frankly to the choices we have to make going forward. What can we afford? What are our priorities? The blunt reality is that we can’t “have it all” as we could 25 years ago.

And what do we do about the political imbalances between the state of Maryland and the county? We can talk about how we’re the economic engine of the state, and it’s true, but we haven’t been able to translate that reality into a more realistic and balanced relationship. We’re still perceived as the rich, white enclave where the streets are paved with gold.

That stereotype was never true, and it’s utterly absurd today. But it’s been politically expedient for the rest of the state to see it that way for a long time, even as we remain the home of more than 25% of the Democratic caucus in the House of Delegates and just under that in the Senate.

If we’re going to keep the MoCo economic engine purring, we need to ask some new questions and find some new answers at both the county and state levels. Or that engine is eventually going to start sputtering, both economically and politically. That won’t be good for anyone.

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