[PWCBG editor’s note: In later posted versions of Chair Wheeler’s speech below on pwcgov.org site, transcription of speech was changed in paragraph two, first sentence from “increased by 280,000” to “increased from 280,000”.]
Welcome to everyone who is here today or listening or watching us online. It is a historic day in Prince William County, and I am so grateful to be part of it. I stand here, both honored and humbled, to have been elected by the people of Prince William County to serve as the Chair of the Prince William Board of Supervisors (BOCS). As I address the State of the County today, I do so in reflection on our past and a call for a vision of the future. This is a vision where Prince William County is not simply the second largest county in Virginia, but ultimately an inclusive, welcoming community, well-known and respected by its residents, neighboring jurisdictions and the rest of the Commonwealth. A place where we can show the blending of the strengths of the past with a vibrant and technologically forward-thinking future.
Over the past 20 years, we have experienced dramatic growth. Our population increased by 280,000 people in the year 2000 to more than 468,000 people today. This increase in population has brought some challenges, but this growth has also built a wonderfully diverse community that can be a shining example of how to embrace change and growth to make the most of what the future has to offer. We are a different community than we were 20 years ago, and today, Prince William County is a minority-majority community. More than one-third of our population speaks a language other than English at home and 25% of our residents were born outside the United States. I believe this diversity, this striving for the American Dream, is our greatest asset. We all come from different walks of life, have different backgrounds, genders, skin colors, and political ideologies. Prince William County may look a little different than it did 20 years ago, but at heart we are still a group of hard-working, educated and down-to-earth people; that despite our current differences and our differences from our past, we share one commonality over all this time. That is, we all came to Prince William County to pursue a better life. We came to Prince William County to raise our families and be part of a community. We all came here looking for a bright future. I believe this common goal must be the guiding light for this current Board. This begins with establishing a long-term vision focused on three key areas of opportunity.
First, we must invest in our public schools and capital infrastructure to make Prince William County a community where families throughout Northern Virginia seek to locate in order to provide greater advantages for their children’s future. We must build upon the strengths of our school system, and its excellent curriculum and teachers, to create a destination school system. We must do more to incrementally increase teacher pay to compete with our Northern Virginia neighbors. We must fund the addition of new teachers to dramatically reduce the untenable class sizes that exist in many of our schools. We must expand the current Pre-K program and strive to implement universal Pre-K access for all residents by 2030. And we must find ways to update our older school facilities to make certain that every child has the same quality education regardless of the school they are zoned to attend.
Second, we must find ways to improve our transit system. As voters overwhelmingly approved a $355 million-dollar road bond program, we must find ways to invest in the road projects on the referendum, and especially a solution to Route 28. However, the creation of additional roads will not solve our transportation issues. We must dream big and lay the groundwork for a future that brings multiple transit opportunities to Prince William County. This includes beginning to study the extension of the Metro Blue Line to Woodbridge, reconsidering the extension of VRE to Gainesville, as well as the expansion of both our commuter bus system and our local transportation system. In addition, we must make land-use decisions that support development around key bus, road and rail transportation hubs.
Finally, the key to our future lies in our economic development efforts. For too long, Prince William County has relied upon residential tax revenue to fund our community needs while simultaneously committing to try to hold the lowest tax rates in Northern Virginia. This has left the County behind in our ability to provide certain critical services and infrastructure. While our economic development efforts have prioritized commercial investment, in the future we also need to further increase the number of high-wage jobs here in our community. Prince William County currently has the highest percentage of residents in the region who work outside of the county, and our residents have some of the longest commutes in the nation. Locating more businesses here, small and large, through the fostering of a business-friendly environment will help reverse these trends and help both our commutes and our tax bills.
We will continue to grow over the next 20 years. It is inevitable. As we consider future land-use decisions to support this growth, we need to support mixed-use developments that create walkable, livable centers within our county. We must work together, rather than fighting, to ensure this growth takes place in the best interests of all the people of the county and that we spend our energy guiding and determining this growth rather than fighting it.
As I stand here today, I am proud not only of the great community I have the honor to serve, but also that I have been elected to serve alongside a board that truly reflects the vibrancy of our community. It is truly a historic day in Prince William County. Together we must strive to make decisions that will lead Prince William County into the future as we discard the vestiges of divisiveness and intolerance and we have much work to do as we embark on this journey.
The future we envision will not come easily and there will be obstacles along the way. Yet, we must dream big, work together, and stand strong for the future that we all collectively seek for Prince William County. I task the County Executive and his team with preparing a budget that reflects achieving our strategic goals and priorities while balancing that with an appropriate tax rate. I task our new Board with looking long-term into the future and supporting investment and growth in our county that will build it into the premier place to live, work and play.
I am excited for the future of Prince William County. As we begin this new chapter, we have so much to offer the region and the Commonwealth. Thank you all for your trust in me; now it’s time to get to work.