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Immigration Program Drains Reserves

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post

Cash-strapped Prince William County nearly cleaned out its rainy-day fund yesterday to pay for the start-up cost of increasing law enforcement directed at illegal immigrants.

The Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved transferring almost $800,000 from reserves, leaving Prince William with about $3,000 to spend on unexpected expenses before the budget year ends June 30.

The money pays for a program that directs county police officers to check the citizenship status of people suspected of breaking the law, no matter how minor the crime.

The decision to dip into reserves is unusual, and shows how Prince William is having difficulty financing the crackdown on illegal immigration since the board approved it in October. The rainy-day fund is normally used to offset revenue shortfalls or match grant funds; the county has a separate emergency fund for such expenses as natural disasters.

"It is certainly unusual for the board to use this money to start a new program," said County Executive Craig S. Gerhart.

The county has a $51 million shortfall and supervisors are likely to raise taxes and cut spending to cover the gap. But the supervisors, many of whom were reelected last fall by supporting the crackdown, are obligated to carry out the new program.

Initially, the program, which also includes denying certain services to illegal immigrants, was estimated to cost more than $14 million over five years. But that number could go higher next week when Gerhart makes what he called "fairly significant" recommendations in his proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget probably will include money for installing cameras in police cars, which Police Chief Charlie T. Deane has said he needs to protect the county against allegations of racial profiling.

At yesterday's board meeting, the concern over finances was evident as Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) attempted to remove from the resolution a requirement that the police department be fully staffed in order for the county to move forward with its plan to curb illegal immigration. But other supervisors insisted the requirement remain.

"The chief was clear that this only works in the context of a fully staffed department," Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said.

Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said the requirement "does not bind the board in any way" to finance a fully staffed police department.

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