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The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
County Board members made it clear at the recent Arlington Civic Federation meeting that they were leery of cutting back on capital spending because they are getting such good deals on construction costs.
This reminds me of a shop-a-holic going hog wild with their credit card because they are getting so-called “good deals.” They come home and announce to a spouse, friend, or roommate, “I saved a lot of money today.”
In reality, they borrowed a lot of money today, probably on several things you didn’t really need now — or ever.
Our board’s shopping spree includes a lot of spending on plenty of unnecessary things:
- The purchase and rehab of a new building for a homeless shelter at more than ten times the cost to retrofit the current shelter
- An $80 million state-of-the-art aquatics center
- A trolley that will cost five times more than a new and improved bus system
- And, the black hole known as the Artisphere
The difference between the shopper who maxes out their credit card and our County Board is that the shopper cannot force their friends to pay for the spending spree. The board can just stick the taxpayers with the tab. This week, we learned that the County Manager is proposing a 3.2% real estate tax rate increase for this year.
We also discovered that the county will likely cut its workforce. It seems the County Manager, who was recently given a generous raise, is going to give out as many as twenty pink slips to county staff to match anticipated spending with projected revenue.
Year after year, our County Board has spent well over the rate of inflation and population growth and put our budget in this position. They are leery of even slowing down when it comes to capital projects.
The matter of keeping up with current technology is prompting county workers to investigate whether Arlington’s 911 system can soon upgrade and add a texting option. While it appears texting eventually will be added to the mix, it isn’t imminent.
“Certainly texting is something we want to get to, especially when someone is in a compromised position where they can’t talk on the phone,” said Arlington County Office of Emergency Management Director Jack Brown. “It’s something I believe is in the future.”
A few communities across the country — such as parts of Tennessee, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont — have implemented or are experimenting with “Next Generation 911.” The Federal Communications Commission — which in 2010 held a press conference at Arlington’s Emergency Communication Center touting Next Gen 911 technology — announced in December that the top four cell phone carriers in America agreed to speed up the availability of the service, ensuring that 90 percent of the country’s cell phone users would have the capability by May 2014.
Although cell phones will be enabled for emergency texting, few 911 dispatch centers have the ability to receive texts. The Next Gen 911 systems are largely in their infancy and gaps exist to such a degree that officials in Arlington prefer to wait until the technology becomes further perfected.
“We want to put our money and time into the right place the first time,” said Emergency Communications Center (ECC) Deputy Commander Jeff Horwitz. “Prematurely, a resource could be more harmful than waiting to release it. So we’re really nervous about people sending texts to 911 before it’s ready.”
The current programs do not have provisions to allow 911 dispatchers to immediately determine a text sender’s location like they can with a phone call. Some communities moved forward with the texting system even without the ability to pinpoint where an emergency occurred, but Arlington is not willing to take that risk. Additionally, the texting system doesn’t allow dispatchers to determine if a person is quietly awaiting more instructions or if the emergency has resolved itself.
“When you hang up, our system knows you dropped a call. When you text, I don’t know when you’re done. Are you there? Are you being attacked? Are you unconscious? I don’t have any info telling me your call is dropped,” Horwitz said.
Perhaps the most pressing concern surrounding emergency texting is the inability to communicate immediately with callers. Although situations arise in which callers cannot speak to dispatchers, such instances are relatively rare. Typically, dispatchers are able to get more information from callers, soothe them and even offer potentially life saving assistance. It would prove far more difficult for dispatchers to help someone administer CPR, for example, if the person attempted to text while doing chest compressions.
“We really like to be able to talk to the people,” Brown said. “I can just envision someone texting 911 and someone trying to text back instructions. We haven’t worked that out yet.”
Both Horwitz and Brown stressed that implementing a flawed system could prove disastrous. Arlington had a glimpse into the seriousness of a failed 911 system during last year’s derecho, and nobody is interested in repeating that type of scenario.
Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed FY 2014 budget will raise property taxes while cutting county jobs, including positions in the police and fire departments.
Facing a $35 million budget gap, Donnellan said she did her best to strike a balance between cuts and tax hikes, given the budget guidance given to her by the County Board.
“It is not an easy thing to recommend an increase in the property tax rate,” she said in a statement. “We have tried to maintain services that Arlingtonians hold dear and to respect the values of our community. To do that, we are forced to ask our community and our staff to contribute to closing this budget gap.”
Donnellan’s budget proposes a 3.2 cent tax hike, bringing the overall residential property tax rate to $1.003 for every $100 in assessed value. That represents an annual tax increase of about $262 for the average homeowner. That and other modest fee increases are expected to bring in an additional $13 million in revenue for the county.
As we previously reported, Donnellan’s budget would cut about 46 county government jobs.
Those will include 7 jobs in the police department and 3 jobs in the fire department, all of which will be cut by attrition. The police department would also see its district policing effort consolidated from 3 districts to 2. The fire department’s reserve “rover” staffing — extra personnel who fill in when a firefighter is not able to make it to work — will be reduced from 3 to 2 rovers per shift. One job will also be eliminated from the county’s 911 dispatch center.
While all county departments are taking cuts, one of the hardest hit county departments under Donnellan’s budget is the Department of Human Services, with 15 proposed job cuts. Those cuts will reduce the number of school nurses in the county, reduce home aides for seniors and the disabled, reduce employment services for the mentally ill, and reduce inmate medical services at the county jail.
Donnellan said cuts were proposed where efficiencies could be found or where services were underutilized. She said the county is working to find new positions for employees whose jobs are set to be eliminated.
All told, the cuts are expected to save about $9.3 million per year. But with remaining employees working harder as a result of the various cuts, Donnellan is proposing $3.4 million in merit-based salary increases in FY 2014. The proposed budget also keeps existing county services largely in tact.
A library administrative aide will be eliminated, but library hours — previously a hot budget topic — will remain the same.
Artisphere will still be funded largely by county tax dollars. At the same time, however, the facility is being placed on notice, with half of its $1.8 million budget coming from one-time rather than on-going funding. Donnellan suggested that the money-losing cultural center could be on the chopping block next year.
“I am assessing its performance and programming model,” she wrote in a note to the County Board. “The combination of one-time and ongoing funds will allow us to pursue a variety of options as we consider the future of the Artisphere.”
Local taxpayer funding for housing programs will remain a significant portion of the county budget — $32.3 million, or about 5 percent of the $661.5 million county operating budget. (Arlington Public Schools accounts for $411 million of the $1.073 billion overall proposed budget, up from $405.1 million of the $1.052 billion budget last year.)
Housing expenditures include $9.5 million for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, $8 million for rental assistance, $5.2 million for real estate tax relief for the elderly and disabled, and $3.75 million for facilities and programs for the homeless.
Starting at 10:00 p.m. on Friday the East Falls Church, West Falls Church, Dunn Loring and Vienna stations will be closed. Crews will be working on signal system integration with the new Silver Line extension. Trains will still operate on a normal weekend schedule between Ballston and New Carrollton.
Free shuttle buses will replace trains between Ballston and Vienna. Express buses will run only between the Vienna and Ballston stops; local buses will serve all stops in between Ballston and Vienna. Customers taking the express buses should expect to add an additional 25 minutes of travel time and those using the local buses should add up to 50 minutes of travel time.
The service alterations continue until closing on Sunday. More information about weekend track work throughout the system is available on WMATA’s website.
DCA’s passenger traffic increased 4.1 percent to 19.7 million passengers. The growth came during a year when industry-wide airport passenger growth was less than 1 percent. It also comes a year after Reagan National hit a then-record 18.8 million passengers in 2011.
A new construction project this year will help ease some of the crowding at Reagan National, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
“The airport continues to be a popular choice because of its proximity to downtown Washington,” MWAA said in a press release. “A construction project in 2013 will address some of the increased demand at Reagan National, expanding security screening areas in Terminal A to provide improved access for passengers using the terminal’s nine gates.”
While international travel grew by 2 percent at Dulles, MWAA says domestic travel was hurt by competition from DCA.
“Dulles saw domestic service declines mainly resulting from the transfer of some airline routes to Reagan National and reduced capacity on other routes,” the authority said.
(Updated at 11:10 a.m.) A 21-year-old Arlington man was arrested and charged with indecent exposure after an incident on Monday afternoon.
Police say the man exposed himself to a woman as she walked from an apartment building in the Columbia Forest. She eventually entered 7-Eleven store, at which the man finally stopped exposing himself.
From this week’s Arlington County crime report:
INDECENT EXPOSURE, 02/18/13, 1000 block of S. Frederick Street. At 1 pm on February 18, a subject exposed himself to a female victim on the side of an apartment building. The subject followed the victim and continued to expose himself until she entered a 7-11 store. Police located the subject a short time later and placed him in custody. Kendrick Webb Raphale, 21, of Arlington, VA, was charged with indecent exposure. He was held on a $3,000 secured bond.
The rest of the crime report, after the jump.
Arlington on a ‘Money-Hungry Crusade?’ — Arlington is on “a money-hungry crusade for increased revenue at the expense of neighborhoods and communities,” writes the Arlington Connection. The paper suggests that “residential neighborhoods are increasingly in the crosshairs of developers seeking larger and larger densities,” and the County Board is acquiescing to their demands in an effort to drum up more tax money. “This is a County Board that acts like Republicans even though they’re all Democrats,” one civic association president is quoted as saying. [Arlington Connection]
Governor Backs Bipartisan Transportation Deal — A bipartisan compromise on transportation funding in the Virginia General Assembly has won the support of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). The deal, which will ultimately raise $880 million per year for transportation projects, replaces the 17.5 cent gas tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gas and a 6 percent wholesale tax on diesel. It also raises the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and imposes a $100/year fee on hybrid vehicles. [Richmond Times-Dispatch]
Shakespeare Production to Include ‘Splash Zone’ — The Synetic Theater production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” opening today in Crystal City, will include 2,500 gallons of standing water on stage, an on-stage rainfall, and a “splash zone” (a section of audience seating likely to get wet during the show). [Washington Post]
Parks Dept. Says Camp Registration Went Smoothly — The Arlington County parks department received more than 1,900 summer camp registrations between 7:00 and 7:10 a.m. yesterday. Officials said the registration process, which has been beset by technical problems in the past, went smoothly this time around. [Patch]
ARLnow Commenters Called ‘Offputting’ — An Arlington “community notable” has “found the ranting of loony respondents on ARLnow to be offputting,” according to Sun Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey. McCaffrey predicts that of Arlington’s three online-only news sites, “odds are not all will survive the year.” [Sun Gazette]