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Howze Calls for Public Land Use Discussion

by Ethan Rothstein | July 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm | 1,014 views | No Comments

Democratic County Board candidate Alan HowzeDemocratic Arlington County Board candidate Alan Howze is calling for a “broad-based community process” to develop a plan for better utilizing public lands around the county.

Howze is running for a four-year term on the County Board in the general election Nov. 4 against Republican- and Green-backed independent John Vihstadt, who defeated Howze in a special election for the Board seat in April.

The county has promoted its “Public Land for Public Good” platform during its deliberations over the 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan. County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s recommendation for moving a fire station to green space near Marymount University and the Arlington School Board’s proposal to build an elementary school on a park next to Thomas Jefferson Middle School (125 S. Old Glebe Road) have drawn criticism for, among other reasons, not including sufficient community input.

“The County Board and School Board have made good faith efforts to address very pressing community needs and their staffs have presented options for some of the most critical of these needs,” Howze said in a press release. “But I share the frustration of community members who feel that key decisions that will affect our community for decades should have more meaningful public input at an early stage as proposals are being developed.”

In his 577-word press release, Howze declines to state a position on any of the specific public land use proposals, simply advocating for more discussion while pointing out the “critical need for school capacity, affordable housing, open space, and public safety and public works infrastructure.”

Vihstadt will have a hand in determining the fate of public land when he and the County Board vote on the 10-year CIP on Saturday. He sent ARLnow.com the following response to Howze’s call for a discussion on the issue:

Land and money are finite. Setting county priorities often requires hard decisions. I heard loud and clear that citizens believe many major decisions made by both the County Board and the School Board too often originate and get settled from the top down rather than from the ground up. As a County Board member, I’m working with my colleagues and communities across Arlington to help ensure that our planning process begins earlier, includes all stakeholders, and truly considers and accommodates the sometimes competing needs and diverse interests of our County.

County Manager to Recommend Permit Process, Fees for Pub Crawls

by ARLnow.com | July 8, 2014 at 12:35 pm | 2,798 views | No Comments

Pub crawl organizers should have to obtain a permit for each crawl and reimburse the county for the cost of extra police on the street.

That’s what Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan is expected to recommend to the County Board at its meeting later this month. Donnellan will recommend that pub crawls be classified as “special events,” subject to the county’s special events policy, according to county officials.

Arlington’s special events policy was last updated in 2012. The policy is designed to ensure that adequate resources are available for special events while allowing the county to recover its support costs.

Classifying pub crawls as a special event is seen as a compromise, somewhere in between the crawl participants who would like the events to continue unabated and residents who see the crawls as a nuisance and would like them curtailed. The events will continue, but in a more regulated environment, provided organizers can afford the extra costs.

“Organizers would have to get a special events permit and would be required to cover the costs of additional police, fire and trash services — above core services — generated by their event,” Arlington County spokeswoman Mary Curtius told ARLnow.com. “At this point, the Manager’s recommendation does not include any minimum or maximum allowed numbers of pub crawls — the applications will be reviewed as they come in and approved based on the availability of resources.”

Donnellan’s recommendation is coming less than a month after an attendee at the All American Bar Crawl (photos from the event, above) allegedly stripped naked and led police on a car chase that ended in a crash in Clarendon. In an email to a concerned constituent, County Board Chair Jay Fisette addressed the incident.

“I want you to know that we have no tolerance for this kind of behavior. At the same time I want to stress that this incident was highly unusual,” Fisette wrote. “Our top priority is safety. The Board has concerns about the impacts of pub crawls and in April asked the Manager to research options to address these impacts.”

Fisette went on to say that pub crawls can be regulated, but not banned.

Clarendon is one of our most vibrant and lively areas. We support the businesses there, and we welcome visitors who patronize our many great restaurants, shops and pubs. We want to keep it a great place to live, visit, dine, work and shop. It’s important to know that, under Virginia law, we can’t ban pub crawls. We can, however, regulate pub crawls to ensure that they are safe for all and effectively managed. Part of that regulation must include ways that the County can recover some of the costs associated with the stepped-up enforcement activities during the events, and trash and litter cleanup after the events. In the meantime, as part of the FY15 budget, the Board approved one-time funding ($42,000) for overtime costs in the Police department while a longer term strategy is developed to address the increasing frequency and cost associated with pub crawl events.

In addition to the June incident, a bar crawl attendee made the news in March when she allegedly showed up naked at the Arlington Magistrate’s Office and demanded that she be allowed to visit her husband, who was arrested earlier that day during a St. Patrick’s Day-themed pub crawl.

Both bar crawls were organized by Courthouse-based Project D.C. Events. According to the company, the two events attracted a combined 8,500-9,000 registered attendees.

“It’s two incidents out of thousands of people,” said Project D.C. Events co-owner Alex Lopez, who also pointed out that neither happened inside a bar. Lopez and fellow co-owner Mike Bramson said they work closely with Arlington County Police and with participating bars to ensure there’s plenty of security on hand.

Neither could explain why bar crawls in Arlington have resulted in high-profile incidents and controversy while D.C.-based crawls seem to go off without a hitch.

“We’ve taken the same steps in D.C. as we do in Arlington,” Bramson said.

“You don’t hear about bar crawls in D.C. because nothing happens at them,” said Lopez. “If you say, ‘oh everything was peaceful in the last bar crawl,’ well, no one is going to read that.”

Bramson and Lopez said they and other bar crawl organizers shouldn’t be on the hook for the cost of extra police staffing because the events are already generating thousands in extra tax revenue.

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Bids Canceled for Aquatics Center As County Seeks Private Funds

by ARLnow.com | June 5, 2014 at 3:30 pm | 1,852 views | No Comments

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness Facility

(Updated at 3:45 p.m.) Arlington will not award a contract for construction of the Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health and Fitness Facility, delaying the project for at least a year, the county announced this afternoon.

The decision to cancel the bids for the facility follows an effort by County Manager Barbara Donnellan and her staff to work with construction companies to “value engineer” the project and lower costs. The bids initially came in well above the level necessary to keep the aquatics center within its original $79 million projected cost. Even with cheaper furnishings and other cut corners, however, we’re told the revised cost estimate “got close but not close enough.”

With $42.5 million in bond funding and a $15 million developer contribution already in place, that puts the County Board in a position in which it must approve additional taxpayer funds, scale back the design of the facility, or seek private funding. For now, the county will seek private funds.

County Board Chair Jay Fisette said the aquatic’s center design resulted from an extensive community outreach process that took into account its location near the Potomac River, within view of I-395 and major D.C. monuments.

“This facility resulted from [a community needs assessment] and then took several years to design,” he said. “I still think that to fulfill that plan is the right way to go. But I understand that staying within the previous budget is also appropriate.”

Fisette said the county will now seek funding from a private entity. Possibilities include a corporate sponsorship and naming rights, working with a for-profit operator, or partnering with a university or other institution.

Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston is one such facility built by the county but operated by a rent-paying, for-profit entity. The fields at Long Bridge Park and Barcroft Baseball Field #6 are partially paid for under partnerships with Marymount University and George Washington University, respectively.

A corporate sponsor may be interested in the naming rights to the facility, especially given its high-visibility location. Fisette said he’d be open to having the facility known as the Under Armor or the Nike Aquatics, Health and Fitness Facility, among other potential sponsors.

“The goal is to identify any balance of funding beyond those already approved by the voters,” Fisette said. “This is an unusual and exceptional opportunity for someone who would like to have that visibility.”

What might make the opportunity more exceptional, according to county officials, is D.C’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Later this month, the United States Olympic Committee is expected to narrow down the list of U.S. cities being considered as an Olympic host. Should D.C. be on that list, it could give a boost to the effort to attract sponsorships, given that the new aquatics center is likely to be one of the facilities used for the games.

“We are under the impression that as they move forward with their bid, that this site is included in their plans,” according to Fisette.

The county will “aggressively pursue private funding support” over the next 6-8 months, Fisette said. Donnellan plans to report back to the County Board in mid-2015, prior to any additional bonds being sold. Should attempts to find private funds prove unsuccessful, the next steps for the facility are “yet to be determined.”

The county press release on the announcement, after the jump.

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Affordable Housing Planned on Four County-Owned Sites

by Ethan Rothstein | May 14, 2014 at 11:15 am | 2,695 views | No Comments

Fire Station 10 in Rosslyn (photo via Google Maps)Four Arlington County-owned sites are already in the planning stages to be developed into affordable housing.

The sites — Rosslyn Highlands Park/Fire Station 10 (1559 Wilson Blvd); Courthouse Square and Plaza; land adjacent to Lee Gardens at the intersection of Fairfax Drive and Arlington Blvd; and Gables North Rolfe Street (1307 N. Rolfe Street) — were introduced by County Manager Barbara Donnellan yesterday when she presented her proposed 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan to the County Board.

The sites are already in the planning process, Donnellan told the Board, and the county is exploring their potential for affordable housing during said process. Providing more affordable housing has long been a priority for many of the Board’s elected members.

In addition, Donnellan identified three sites as potential places for new school construction. Those locations include Wilson School, which had already been earmarked for a potential new school, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and the Arlington Career Center/Fenwick Center site at 816 S. Walter Reed Drive.

“Affordable housing and schools are two of our County’s highest priorities, and the County Board has emphasized its commitment to the concept of using Public Land for Public Good,” Donnellan said in a press release. “We need to do a lot more analysis, but this is a good start for finding ways to use public land to achieve important community goals.”

Four other sites are considered “Tier 2″ potential places for affordable housing — they are not in the CIP for redevelopment but they have been identified as areas where affordable housing development could be feasible. Those sites are Lubber Run Park, which one interfaith community group has also identified as having potential for affordable housing; Fire Station 8 on Lee Highway; land adjacent to Jennie Dean Park on Four Mile Run near Shirlington; and the Edison Complex, adjacent to Virginia Hospital Center.

The county and Arlington Public Schools analyzed all 678 parcels of publicly-owned land in the county to develop the final list of 11 sites. Donnellan is recommending each of the sites be considered for development within the next 10 years.

Photo via Google Maps

Cost of Pike, Crystal City Streetcars Estimated at $585 Million

by ARLnow.com | May 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm | 2,857 views | No Comments

Streetcar CIP slides Streetcar CIP slides

(Updated at 5:55 p.m.) The combined cost of the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar systems is now estimated at $585 million.

Presenting an overview of her proposed FY 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan to the Arlington County Board this afternoon, County Manager Barbara Donnellan and her staff said that the cost of the streetcar systems had risen $190 million from the 2013 CIP due to changes in the size of the streetcar vehicles, higher engineering and start-up costs, higher inflation and a larger project contingency.

The CIP projects that the Crystal City streetcar will begin operating in the spring of 2020 at a capital cost of $227 million. The Columbia Pike streetcar is projected to begin operating in the spring of 2021 at a capital cost of $358 million, $71 million of which would be pegged to the Fairfax County portion of the line.

“This is a large capital investment for Arlington, but we have not shied away from large capital investments ever,” Donnellan said. “These are generational projects. Every generation is asked to make decisions that will ultimately benefit generations that follow. Building high-capacity rail in South Arlington will be a transformational investment for our community.”

Nearly 75 percent of the financing for the Columbia Pike streetcar is projected to come from federal and state sources. Most of the funding for the Crystal City streetcar will come from dedicated county transportation funding or bonds, with a portion coming from the state but no funds coming from the federal government. The CIP does not anticipate issuing general obligation bonds for either streetcar system — without which the county would need state legislative approval in order to conduct a referendum on the streetcar systems.

The $585 million price tag is the latest projected cost increase for the controversial Columbia Pike project. Initially pegged as a $161 million project in 2007, that number jumped to around $250 million in 2011. Last spring, the Federal Transportation Administration rejected a county grant application for funding because it estimated the project’s cost between $255.9 million and $402.4 million. At the time, a contractor estimated said $310 million was “a most likely cost” for the streetcar.

Arlington County’s latest transit ridership projection suggests that ridership along the Columbia Pike and Pentagon City-Crystal City corridors will double, to nearly 60,000 daily transit trips, by 2035. Most of those trips will be on a streetcar, the county said. The Columbia Pike line alone is projected to increase real estate values by $3.2 to $4.4 billion and generate between $455 and $895 million in additional tax revenues for Arlington and Fairfax counties over a 30-year period.

The total CIP for the next 10 years calls for $2.7 billion in investment, more than half of which is dedicated to transportation projects, including the streetcar. Donnellan’s proposed CIP now will now be considered by the Board, which will conduct work sessions and hold a public hearing on June 10 before a planned adoption on July 19.

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Police: Wrong-Way Snow Plow Later Ran Stop Sign, Caused Accident

by ARLnow.com | March 19, 2014 at 9:35 am | 4,607 views | No Comments

(Updated at 10:00 a.m.) Shortly after being caught on video driving the wrong way down Military Road — a story first reported on ARLnow.com — an Arlington County snow plow driver ran a stop sign and caused a multi-vehicle accident, according to police.

The accident happened at 9:18 a.m. on Monday. The 51-year-old plow driver was heading southbound on S. Monroe Street when he ran a stop sign at 18th Street S. and struck an eastbound Toyota Highlander on the driver’s side rear panel, according to Arlington County Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck. The Highlander then struck two parked cars.

“There were no reported injuries as a result of the accident,” Sternbeck told ARLnow.com. The driver was cited by officers for disregarding a stop sign.

The accident happened less than two hours after local filmmaker Jason Berry said he was nearly run off the road by the plow, which was driving the wrong way down hilly, twisting Military Road. At Tuesday’s Arlington County Board meeting, Board Chair Jay Fisette encouraged County Manager Barbara Donnellan to take disciplinary action.

“I think all of us saw that video and thought, ‘oh my God,” Fisette said. “That was horrible. It’s inconceivable to me that there’s a justification for driving a [snow plow] down the wrong side of the road. It was quite amazing to watch the video. We are just fortunate that nothing terrible… came of that particular driving experience.”

Donnellan reported that the driver was working a midnight-to-noon shift and called the incident “unfortunate,” “dangerous” and a “near miss situation.”

“This is completely unacceptable behavior for snow plowing. it is a violation of our Arlington county driver policy and training,” Donnellan said. “As soon as the county learned of the unacceptable behavior we identified the responsible driver and immediately removed him from duty.”

“The investigation is underway,” Donnellan continued. “We’re taking appropriate action with this employee. A full range of disciplinary actions is always on the table for serious safety violations. Our safety policy strives for zero incidents.”

Donnellan noted that the county also received calls thanking snow removal crews for their tireless work during this snowy winter.

“It’s easy to focus on one driver, on one day, but we also have many, many drivers who are safe, courteous and do great work too,” Donnellan said. “My many thanks goes out to staff who works incredibly hard during these weather events to keep our community safe and to keep our streets, trails and sidewalks clear.”

County Taxes: Real Estate Up, Hotels and Sales Down

by ARLnow.com | March 13, 2014 at 10:45 am | 1,268 views | No Comments

Personal property tax envelopeArlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan released her mid-year review of Fiscal Year 2014 earlier this week, and it’s generally good news for the county.

County staff is projecting that Arlington will collect $20.8 million more in taxes than originally budgeted for, led by a $23.4 million increase in real estate tax revenue. Another bright spot an additional $3 million from personal property taxes.  The increases are due to higher-than-expected real estate assessments and strong new car sales and used car values, according to Donnellan.

Some county revenue is lower than expected, however. Sales taxes are projected to be down $2.6 million, hotel taxes are down $2.1 million, fines are down $2 million and cigarette and communication taxes are both down $300,000.

Donnellan’s memo to the County Board blames the federal government shutdown for the lower sales and hotel tax revenue. The decrease in fines is largely due to “parking ticket revenue declines.”

Given additional savings found in county expenditures, Arlington estimates it has an additional $27.6 million available. Of that, $9.6 million will be transferred to Arlington Public Schools, $12.3 million is to be used as one-time funding in Donnellan’s proposed FY 2015 budget, and $5.7 million is unallocated.

The one-time funding included in Donnellan’s budget includes:

  • $2.8 million — Affordable Housing Investment Fund
  • $3 million — Paving
  • $1 million — Facilities maintenance
  • $1 million — Parks maintenance
  • $1 million — Transportation maintenance
  • $1.5 million — Technology capital investment
  • $1.5 million — Park lands acquisition

Public hearings on the new county budget are scheduled for March 25 and 27. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

Board Advertises No Change to Real Estate Tax Rate

by ARLnow.com | February 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm | 1,006 views | No Comments

arlington-va-logoThe Arlington County Board on Saturday voted to advertise no increase to the county’s real estate tax rate.

That means that the tax rate can only go down or remain the same ($1.006 for every $100 in assessed value) in the Board’s budget, which will be crafted over the next two months before final approval on April 22.

Two residential fees, meanwhile — the water-sewer rate and the household solid waste rate — are proposed to increase 3.4 and 2.4 percent respectively in County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s budget, which will be used as a jumping off point by the Board.

In all, thanks to a 5.9 percent increase in residential property assessments, the total tax and fee burden on the average Arlington household is expected to increase by $368, or 5.3 percent, to $7,371 if the Board follows Donnellan’s proposal to hold the real estate tax rate steady.

Additional information on the budget and the budget process can be found in our previous article and on the county website.

County Manager’s Budget Includes No Tax Rate Increase

by ARLnow.com | February 21, 2014 at 11:50 am | 1,660 views | No Comments

County Manager Barbara Donnellan presents her FY 2014 budget on Feb. 20, 2013Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s new proposed budget will hold tax rates steady, but would still result in a higher tax bill for residents.

Donnellan is proposing no increase in real estate and stormwater management tax rates, which impact homeowners. The combined tax rate would remain $1.006 for every $100 in assessed value.

There will be modest increases in waste collection and water and sewer fees, plus a $0.25 increase in ART bus fares and a $0.50 increase in some STAR fares.

With Arlington residential property assessments rising 5.9 percent this year (5.3 percent for single family homes), homeowners will pay more in taxes under Donnellan’s budget, despite tax rates holding steady. The average Arlington household will pay $7,371 in county taxes and fees, a $368 or 5.3 percent increase over last year.

Arlington’s general fund spending would increase $28.4 million, or 2.6 percent, to $1.12 billion under Donnellan’s budget. That includes $687.7 million for county government operations, a $11.9 million or 1.8 percent increase, and $432.2 million for Arlington Public Schools, a $19.6 million or 4.7 percent increase.

Among the areas of higher spending proposed by Donnellan are:

  • $5.2 million for county employee salary increases
  • $600,000 for a half year of operations of the new Homeless Services Center
  • An additional $3.5 million for street paving, bringing the total paving funding to $11.1 million
  • A 7.5 percent increase in the county’s health care costs
  • A 1 percent increase in grants to nonprofits from the Department of Human Services
  • Three additional School Resource Officers
  • Additional funding for streetlights and traffic engineering
  • A dedicated “principal planner” for Crystal City

Other budget priorities identified by Donnellan include investments in encouraging cybersecurity companies to move to Arlington; technology investments like a “pay by cell” parking system; and growing the county’s “BizLaunch” business assistance program.

Affordable housing investments accounts for $34.3 million in local tax dollars — 5.1 percent of the county’s general fund budget (excluding schools). That includes contributions to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, housing grants and funding for the rapid re-housing program.

Despite this year’s snowy winter, there is no change proposed for the county’s snow removal budget. Donnellan, however, said that the county is studying whether changes are necessary to the county’s snow removal operation.

Donnellan will present her proposed budget at Saturday’s County Board meeting. The County Board will begin holding work sessions on the budget next week. Public hearings on the budget and tax rates are scheduled for March 25 and 27. Final budget adoption is scheduled for April 22.

Following budget adoption, from May to July, Arlington will go through its Capital Improvement Plan process, where spending plans for major projects, like the Columbia Pike streetcar, are set.

DEVELOPING: Long Bridge Aquatics Center on Hold Due to Rising Costs

by ARLnow.com | January 3, 2014 at 6:35 pm | 2,185 views | No Comments

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness FacilityConstruction of the Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health and Fitness Facility is on hold due to higher-than-expected construction costs.

Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan announced late Friday afternoon that construction bids for the first phase of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center came in “significantly higher” than the $79.3 million projected cost. As a result, Donnellan says she will not be recommending a construction contract for County Board approval in early 2014, as planned.

Donnellan said it was “disappointing” that the bids far exceeded the estimate provided by its architect, which was in turn backed up by a third-party firm.

“The high bids were particularly disappointing because the County had done extensive due diligence to ensure that the estimate was sound and within the available budget,” she said in a statement. “We took an additional step of contracting separately with an engineering firm to review design and construction documents and provide independent third party cost estimates.”

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness Facility“Once staff concludes its assessment of the bids and our architects’ estimates, I will present options to the County Board for next steps,” she continued. “In the months ahead, the County Board and the community will continue their careful consideration of the costs and benefits of building and operating this facility as we shape the FY 2015 Budget and the Capital Improvement Program.”

Reached by phone Friday evening, Donnellan told ARLnow.com that she expects to receive recommendations from county staff as early as February. She declined to speculate about the recommendation, saying that there’s significant work and analysis left to be done by staff.

Donnellan also declined to specify how many bids were received and how much higher those bids were than the estimate, citing legal constraints.

News of the delay in the project comes just a month after news that the aquatics center’s operating deficit would be 2 to 4 times that of original estimates. Local fiscal watchdog Wayne Kubicki says the county should consider scrapping the project altogether.

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness Facility“This project has been mishandled by the County Board almost from the beginning,” he said. “With the pressures on other parts of the county and school budgets and the stagnation of commercial real estate values, it might well be time to moth ball the Long Bridge aquatics facility and simply leave the current park as-is.”

At least two candidates for the upcoming County Board special election – John Vihstadt and Evan Bernick – are on record as saying they oppose the aquatics center project.

Construction bids received by the county for the project were technically for “Phase 2” of Long Bridge Park, which encompasses both the initial phase of the aquatics center and minor improvements to the park itself, including “public gathering areas, trails, public art, interpretive signs, and walkways.” Much of the funding for the projected cost of Phase 2 has already been secured, including $42.5 million from a parks bond approved in 2012 and $15 million from Vornado as part of the PenPlace development.

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness FacilityA Phase 3A and 3B, for other park improvements, are also planned, as is a Phase 4, which would complete the Aquatics, Health & Fitness Facility by adding a large “multiple activity center,” additional fitness space, racquetball and squash courts, a climbing wall, an elevated jogging trail, rental meeting rooms and a 547-space underground parking garage.

“Long Bridge Park is an ambitious project for our community, an infrastructure investment that is transforming a one-time industrial wasteland from a brownfield to an iconic gateway on the Potomac,” Donnellan said in her statement. “It will provide multiple recreational opportunities for our growing population and for future generations.”

Increased Efficiency Earns County Rare Kudos from Taxpayers Association

by ARLnow.com | December 10, 2013 at 11:45 am | 492 views | No Comments

County Manager Barbara Donnellan discusses her proposed budget in 2011The Arlington County Taxpayers Association doesn’t usually have nice things to say about the county’s spending habits. But on at least one metric the group has some plaudits to share.

The county’s Department of Management and Finance recently released its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2013, which ended June 30, 2013. In broad terms it looks like county spending is continuing its inexorable rise: “Total expenditures increased from $745.8 million in FY 2004 to $1,122 million in FY 2013, 50.5%, an annual average of 5.1%,” ACTA reported.

Also on the rise: the county’s indebtedness, which now stands at $4,082 per capital for general bonded debt, a 62 percent increase from FY 2004.

But operational efficiency — as determined by looking at the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) county and school employees per 1,000 residents or students — is improving at the same time. For county government, there were 18.68 FTE per 1,000 residents in FY 2004 and only 17.05 FTE per 1,000 residents in FY 2013. Arlington Public Schools were a similar story, with 186.02 FTEs per 1,000 students in 2004, and 177.79 FTEs per 1,000 students in 2013.

The increased efficiency is made possible by increases in the county population and the student body, but ACTA credits County Manager Barbara Donnellan and APS Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy with running a tight ship, so to speak.

“While there is still too much local government in Arlington County, and too high taxes, the numbers above show some numbers such as the efficiency ones are moving in the right direction,” ACTA wrote in a blog post. “Kudos to the Manager and staff for keeping the FY 2012 to FY 2013 increase in total expenditures to less than the inflation rate. Also to the Manager, especially, and the Superintendent for increasing operational efficiency.”

Donnellan and Murphy will present their proposed FY 2015 budgets in the first quarter of 2014.

Board Closes Out FY 2013 with Budget Surplus

by Katie Pyzyk | November 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm | 1,160 views | No Comments

County Board discusses FY 2013 closeout funds on 11/19/13Along with discussing recommendations for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget, the County Board closed out the FY 2013 budget at its meeting on Tuesday. As it turns out, the county was left with a $25 million budget surplus.

The surplus is due, in part, to savings by both the county and the school system, in addition to higher than anticipated tax revenues. Many of the funds will be re-appropriated to FY 2014.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan gave a presentation to the Board outlining the carried-over funds and recommendations for re-appropriation, noting that several of the funds have dedicated revenue sources which restrict their use.

“With all of the economic uncertainty, the federal government shutdown, sequestration and BRAC, Arlington continues to be fiscally responsible,” said Donnellan. “I am recommending that we add to certain pots to ensure that we are prepared for an uncertain economic environment.”

She added that the county anticipates keeping its triple-A rating.

Carried-over funds were allocated to reserves, previous commitments, and priority projects. Some of the one-time allocations are detailed below:

  • Additional $5 million to the economic stabilization fund in light of federal sequestration and BRAC impacts.
  • One-time $3.3 million employee compensation contingency, in case employee step/market pay adjustment is not included in the FY 2015 Budget. Another $1.5 million to fund ongoing comparative pay studies.
  • Affordable housing initiatives for FY 2015, including $2.9 million to Affordable Housing Investment Fund and $1.5 million to housing grants.
  • Additional funding of $1.7 million for Artisphere, for both FY2014 and FY2015.
  • Other FY 2015 set-asides, including a $3.0 million unallocated contingent to provide flexibility for the Board and funding various one-time projects primarily in the technology, planning and safety areas.

Donnellan specifically addressed the issue of what to do with Artisphere, which came in over budget for FY 2013. Donnellan had handed down a warning about Artisphere in February but seemed more optimistic on Tuesday.

“This is a facility that came online just as the economic environment was turning. For the arts to be successful, it needs participation from attendees, donors and local or state support. Very few arts facilities like Artisphere can exist without some form of government support,” Donnellan said. “I want the Artisphere to be successful, and I think many others in our community want it to be successful as well.

Donnellan recapped her previous decision to shift half of Artisphere’s funding from ongoing to one-time. She then made a recommendation for the future, highlighting the arts center’s recent increased attendance, better programming and increased revenue from rentals.

“I’m recommending that we use some of the closeout funding to shore up this facility for this fiscal year and next. I told the Board that FY 2014 would be a transition year for Artisphere,” she said. “We’re beginning to see real signs of progress toward our goal of creating an arts and cultural center that will draw thousands of people from our county and across the region into Rosslyn, generating economic and cultural benefits for our entire community.”

Last fall, Donnellan imposed a hiring slowdown to provide expense savings in light of the budget gap faced in FY 2014. The county credits the hiring slowdown with helping departments achieve a higher amount of savings than in previous fiscal years. The slowdown is expected to continue indefinitely in order to achieve savings in FY 2014.

According to the county staff report, three departments did not achieve expenditure savings in FY 2013:

  • County Attorney’s Office (-$485,626): The over expenditure was primarily the result of increased legal costs and expenses including consultants, expert witnesses, filing fees, court reporters, copying costs and outside legal counsel related to law suits and other transactions the County was involved in during FY 2013.
  • Office of the Treasurer (-$146,731): The over expenditure was due to increased printing expenses and full staffing, which did not enable the Office to achieve a budgeted expense that assumed savings from vacant positions.
  • Economic Development (-$83,647): The over-expenditure resulted from personnel costs exceeding budgeted amounts, including temporary help for Artisphere

After Donnellan’s presentation, the Board voted unanimously to approve the recommended re-appropriation of funds carried over from FY 2013.

Board to Manager: Assume No Tax Rate Hike

by Katie Pyzyk | November 20, 2013 at 1:35 pm | 745 views | No Comments

County Board discusses FY 2015 budget on 11/19/13Budget cuts could be coming next year as county officials try to figure out a way to balance the county’s budget without raising taxes.

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Arlington County Board gave direction to County Manager Barbara Donnellan for developing the proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget. The Board recommended the County Manager close a projected $20 to $25 million budget gap while maintaining the current tax rates.

Although this is the sixth consecutive year the county expects a gap between revenues and expenditures, Board members note the gap for FY 2015 is not as severe as in recent years. It’s smaller partially due to higher tax revenue projections — mostly from an increase in residential property assessments — but a significant gap still exists.

“It’s not something to ignore,” said Board member Chris Zimmerman. “There may be tough choices that have to be made.”

An average increase of 5.5 percent for residential real estate assessments is expected to boost the overall real estate tax base 2.6 percent. Commercial assessments are expected to remain flat or decline slightly. Real estate taxes are the county’s largest source of revenue.

Board members recommended Donnellan does not increase the tax rate, which currently stands at $1.006 per $100 of assessed value.

“I for one, could not give guidance to the manager today to raise the tax rate, knowing that we project an increase in real estate on homeowners and not on commercial,” say Board member Jay Fisette. “With all of the issues out there that we will have to grapple with, now is not the time to do that, in my view.”

The Board requested continued funding for services that protect residents’ health and safety, investments in affordable housing and environmental sustainability, and adequate support for public schools. That includes funding for an expected increase in school enrollment. Board members spent much time discussing the need to maintain school funding.

Costs are expected to increase for items such as county employee compensation, funding for Metro and debt financing for major capital projects. New costs are expected for projects such as the new homeless shelter, the Long Bridge Park aquatics center and investments in the ConnectArlington fiber network.

The Board members repeatedly pointed out that this is simply an initial recommendation and more input is necessary before Donnellan presents the proposed budget in February.

“This is the very beginning of the budget process,” said County Board Chairman Walter Tejada. “There’s a whole lot more information and data that we will be getting over the next few months.”

Board members acknowledged the potential to discuss additional cuts should the economic climate worsen. Measures could mimic Donnellan’s previous cost cutting measures, such as the county hiring slowdown that began in 2012.

“Our guidance to the Manager begins a months-long conversation with our community that will involve tough decisions,” Tejada said in a subsequent statement. “With the increase in residential property assessments costing many homeowners close to $300 more per year, we have directed the County Manager to assume no tax rate increase; however, we recognize that this is a time of continued financial uncertainty. If the economic environment changes, we expect the Manager to give us options that may include further budget cuts and/or revenue increases.”

The Board approved the guidance by a 4-1 vote, with Libby Garvey offering the opposing vote.

County Manager Recommends Against Hen Raising

by ARLnow.com | November 13, 2013 at 5:45 am | 1,917 views | No Comments

County Manager Barbara Donnellan presents her FY 2014 budget on Feb. 20, 2013Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan is recommending that the County Board take no action on the hot-button issue of urban hen raising.

At a work session with the Board last night (Tuesday), Donnellan and county staff presented their work thus far on the recommendations of Arlington’s Urban Agriculture Task Force.

While the task force made a total of 27 recommendations on various urban agriculture issues, the issue of whether to allow residents of single family homes to keep egg-laying hens in their backyards has garnered the most public attention. Donnellan told the Board that there are too many “unanswered questions” about hen raising in Arlington County and enforcement of new hen-related ordinances could prove to be a “drain on county resources.”

She recommended that the current county code on poultry — which requires that the poultry owner keep the animals so far from neighboring property lines that only 15 properties qualify countywide — be maintained. Should the Board decide to move forward with a more permissive ordinance, Donnellan recommended moving slowly — spending up to a year on a public process to try to achieve community consensus.

In a presentation, county staff expressed concern over a number of issues requiring, in their words, further “eggsploration.” Those included:

  • How to dispose of dead or dying hens
  • What to do with abandoned hens
  • How to best enforce hen-related laws and how to find the funding for that enforcement
  • The potential of overstressing the Animal Welfare League of Arlington and its animal control officers
  • Health and pest concerns
  • Virginia laws authorizing hen owners to kill dogs that chase or kill their poultry

Donnellan said a pilot program for urban hens is not possible under the current zoning ordinance. She cautioned that pushing through the hen issue now would require additional county resources at a time when Arlington is facing a $10 million budget gap for Fiscal Year 2015.

In response to Donnellan’s recommendation, the two chicken-related advocacy organizations in Arlington weighed in with dueling statements. Backyards Not Barnyards, which opposes hen-raising in Arlington, wrote the following.

Obviously, we are hugely in agreement with the County Manager… We agree that there are higher priorities for this county than figuring out how make hens to “lay an egg” or two.  The benefits don’t come close to the setup and enforcement costs, environmental impacts, health issues and likely neighbor vs. neighbor conflicts.  Let’s hope the County Board has the same priorities.

The Arlington Egg Project, which has been promoting the idea of backyard hens for nearly 3 years, said it is confident that the Board will overrule Donnellan’s recommendation.

Thankfully, the County Manager works for the County Board, not the other way around. Chairman Tejada has been clear and persuasive in calling for new efforts on urban agriculture, including those related to restoring our freedom to keep small numbers of backyard hens. We are looking forward to moving ahead under the leadership of Chairman Tejada and his colleagues.

We know that writing clear and enforceable regulations on backyard hens is achievable because hundreds of urban communities have done so — including some that started and completed that process since the Urban Agriculture Task Force was commissioned.

Three County Board members — Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada and Chris Zimmerman — expressed support for allowing urban hen-raising during the work session. Libby Garvey and Mary Hynes said they would rather put the issue aside indefinitely and focus on other priorities.

(more…)

Arlington Launches Review of $1 Million Bus Stop

by ARLnow.com | June 25, 2013 at 1:55 pm | 1,968 views | No Comments

New Super Stop at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive(Updated at 2:20 p.m.) Arlington County is launching a planned independent review of the $1 million Walter Reed “Super Stop” on Columbia Pike this week.

In a press release, the county says contractors will be conducting a “comprehensive review of the performance, cost, design and construction” of the bus stop. The review will include three primary components: interviews with bus stop users, a design review, and a financial and performance assessment.

Clarendon-based NeoNiche Strategies has been tapped to survey Super Stop users, per a $7,500 contract, while Arlington is still in negotiations with firms for the other two contracts, according to county spokeswoman Laura G. Smith. She declined to estimate the cost of the remaining two contracts, citing the ongoing negotiations.

“The goal of the review… is to facilitate the construction of the remaining planned stops faster, at lower cost and with improved functionality where necessary,” said the press release.

Completed in March, the bus stop features shelter for some 15 passengers, lighting, heating, and an electronic display that shows when the next buses are coming, but at a construction cost of more than $1 million.

Super Stop bus stop at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed DriveThe cost of the stop, and some of its perceived shortfalls — like lack of shelter from the elements — sparked a controversy that became national news and prompted the county to announce a “reassessment” of its design and cost within just two weeks of its opening. Twenty-three other planned Super Stops on the Pike, expected to cost around $900,000 apiece, were put on hold.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan says the project will proceed once the review is complete and an acceptable, lower-cost alternative is found.

“Arlington is committed to investing in the Columbia Pike corridor and providing quality transportation options to meet the community’s current and future transit needs,” Donnellan said in a statement. “We look forward to the findings of these reviews and will take steps necessary to ensure the construction of future stops at a significantly lower cost while maintaining functionality and the amenities needed for a high-capacity station.”

The review process is expected to wrap up in late fall 2013.

“The County Manager, after consulting with Arlington County Board Members and WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), will announce her decision later this year,” according to the press release, which blamed the high cost of the first stop on a number of factors.

The Walter Reed Super Stop was a first-of-its-kind, high capacity transit stop. The Super Stop was designed to serve the growing number of riders along this heavily utilized transit corridor and to handle the projected increase in future riders expected with Columbia Pike streetcar. The completed prototype features a design to attract new riders, and includes expanded shelter and seating, lights, real-time electronic arrival displays, level boarding for bus passengers, transit maps, signage and more.

Over the course of the construction of Walter Reed Drive prototype stop, set-up costs, construction challenges and delays, and design refinements increased the total cost of the project. Due to the higher-than-expected cost and functionality concerns, the County Manager placed construction of the future 23 Super Stops on hold pending completion of the review.

Earlier this year, county officials directed blame for the extra costs and delays on WMATA, which managed the construction of the first stop.

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