Loudoun County supervisors on Monday briefed state lawmakers on the county government’s priorities for the next General Assembly session, including perennial priorities of funding regional transportation projects and maintaining local land use and taxing authority, and new issues like allowing the county to donate to faith-based nonprofits and avoiding lowering funding for school districts that have seen enrollment drops.
The county’s lengthy list of legislative positions and priorities got a new look this year with the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new lobbying firm, Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, which the county first hired in 2020 to battle the Dulles Greenway in the State Corporation Commission over tolls.
But at the top of that list once again is that the state restore the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority funding that the General Assembly took away from regional projects in 2018 to fund Metrorail. That money, raised through regional taxes, was the latest example of Northern Virginia residents seeing themselves taxed in ways other Virginians are not.
“The money that NVTA amasses is because we tax people in Northern Virginia already. And so returning the funding does not mean retaxing Northern Virginians, it means returning the funding,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “So I always want to make sure that we say that because we have no desire to tax people a second or depending on the tax—if it’s the grantor’s tax, it would be the third time.”
Another request is to end the funding shortfalls that forced state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to close admission at five of the commonwealth’s eight adult psychiatric hospitals, as inadequate staffing led to unsafe conditions. That has exacerbated existing problems, including that people subject to a temporary detention order—an order signed by a magistrate when someone has been determined to be a danger to themselves or others—are being held in private hospital emergency rooms under police supervision while they wait for a psychiatric hospital bed to become available.
“It’s going to be traumatic for them, and it also pulls law enforcement off the streets,” said legislative liaison Gwen Kennedy. “So the other thing to note about that is that after certain orders are done, law enforcement can’t hold them. So people are eloping, even though they definitely are in need of services.”
Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Disability Services Margaret Graham said it’s a problem that needs to be solved yesterday, and is only exacerbated by the shortage of people qualified to hold those jobs.
And Loudoun is asking for funding to open its future state park north of Hillsboro—a relatively small sum of $923,006 over two years, in the context of the state’s budget.
Randall: ‘There Are Some Faiths I’m Not Going to Want to Give To’
Among their new requests this year, county supervisors are asking the state to relax the rules around grants to faith-based nonprofits. Currently, state law generally prohibits public funding of organizations controlled by a church, and county staff members say during the annual competitive grants process, they must vet organizations on a case-by-case basis to see whether that is so—such as checking to see whether more than half of an applying organization’s board members are affiliated with a religious group.
The county’s request asks state lawmakers to permit donations to faith-based organizations to fund non-religious services that group is providing in the community regardless of the recipients’ religious affiliation.
The move to permit public funding for religious organizations was among the most controversial as supervisors were revising this year’s legislative agenda. During the county board’s meeting Oct. 19, proponents of the change warned that the current law not only creates an administrative burden on the county staff, it may mean Loudoun runs afoul of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court majority’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer held that a religious organization cannot be denied a public benefit simply because of its religious character if it otherwise would qualify.
“If a religious organization is providing services to absolutely anybody … then why shouldn’t we want that institution to be at least eligible for the services that we provide?” asked Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
Meanwhile Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) worried the change would erode the separation of church and state, and could lead to public funding for religious schools and indoctrination.
“This is such a slippery slope right now. I mean, this feeds right into the ideology that we should be able to use public funds for religious schools, and I cannot support that,” Briskman said. “… Democracies end over little things like this where we’re not paying attention.”
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), while supporting the change, worried it would be difficult to determine whether all the money the county gave to a faith-based nonprofit went to strictly charitable purposes regardless of religious affiliation.
“I think this is going to make it difficult to parse whether what we’re giving money to is being used for religious purposes or whether it’s being used for charitable purposes, and I know for many churches they see the two as entwined,” Umstattd said.
And Randall at two meetings board expressed concern that the county would not be permitted to discriminate against organizations based on their religion.
“When we think of faith, we think of our faiths, we think of faiths we know, we think of Christian faith and Muslim faith and Buddhist faith, but we don’t think about the faith of the two-headed dragon who wants some money, and I don’t want to give them any money, period, the end, ever, never, for any purpose,” Randall said Oct. 19. “So there are some faiths that I’m not going to want to give to.”
The county’s full legislative program is at loudoun.gov/388/Legislative-Program.