The 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.
Along 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
The Board discussed the matter in a closed session before unanimously approving it. According to County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac, it is standard procedure for the Board to discuss a grant behind closed doors. The grant agreement will be made public once the county attorney finalizes it.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan said the grant will help bring the theater current with real estate taxes owed to the county. Funding for the grant was provided from budget savings identified at the end of Fiscal Year 2012.
The Arlington County Department of Management and Finance indicates the grant includes around $85,000 for past due real estate and business tangible taxes, $99,000 for the next two payments of real estate taxes and around $30,000 for the next business tangible tax payment. The remaining $35,000 will either help fund a financial consultant study or go to future tax payments.
Signature Theatre has sole access rights and branding capability in its current space within a county owned building. It is responsible for the full costs of operating that facility, including real estate and business tangible taxes. Other county supported arts groups performing in county subsidized spaces are not required to pay taxes.
“Signature is thriving, and has a great future ahead of it,” Donnellan said. “This grant addresses an immediate, short-term need by providing temporary relief from a tax burden that is not shared by other supported arts groups.”
The county emphasizes that the theater is a cultural anchor for Shirlington and provides financial benefits to the community. It estimates that more than $150,000 in annual sales and meals taxes can be directly attributed to Signature’s presence in Shirlington.
Signature faced several debt-related lawsuits in Arlington General District Court last year, including claims from Waste Management, Conde Nast Publications and the Delancey at Shirlington Village apartment building. The Waste Management and Conde Nast claims were eventually dismissed. The court ruled in favor of Delancey at Shirlington Village.
County Treasurer Frank O’Leary told the Sun Gazette that Signature was delinquent on its real estate and business taxes.
Arlington County officials are pressing forward with plans for a Columbia Pike streetcar system, despite the federal government’s initial rejection of the county’s funding request due to projected cost overruns.
Officials explained last night, at a County Board meeting, that the Federal Transit Administration rejected its request for $75 million in grant funding because the total project cost was estimated to exceed the $250 million — the cap for projects to receive funding under the FTA’s Small Starts program.
Though pegged by the county at $245.9 million, a contractor hired by the FTA estimated the project cost to instead be between $255.9 and $402.4 million, including contingencies, and thus ineligible for a Small Starts grant. The contractor said $310.1 million was “a most likely cost.”
County officials said the contractor’s report and a subsequent in-person meeting with senior FTA staff lead them to believe the project is still likely to receive federal funding.
“They made it very clear that their action wasn’t based on the merits of the project,” Arlington County Transportation Director Dennis Leach told the Board. “It was really that technical factor that they felt our cost estimate was likely to be somewhat higher.”
Arlington will actually be eligible to receive more than the initially-requested $75 million in federal funding if it applies under the FTA’s New Starts program. Unlike Small Starts, New Starts doesn’t have a cap on total project cost.
“If the county were to choose to reapply as a New Start, the project could qualify for more federal funding,” said Stephen Del Giudice, Arlington County Transit Bureau Chief. ”We have a high likelihood of success in addressing the goals of the project.”
“What’s clear at this point is that changes to the evaluation criteria will most likely have a positive impact on FTA’s future rating of our project,” echoed Brian Stout, the county’s federal liaison. ”We’ll continue… to work with our partners at FTA to identify federal opportunities for them to support the Columbia Pike streetcar project.”
Even before the report on the FTA’s rationale for its decision, County Board Chair Walter Tejada said the county was not abandoning plans for the streetcar.
“Moving forward with a modern streetcar is our stated policy, and that’s what we’re committed to doing,” Tejada said. “We can repeat it many times, but nothing’s going to change.”
Tejada’s vote of confidence for the project came after Libby Garvey, the lone streetcar critic on the five-member County Board, gave a PowerPoint highlighting problems with other streetcar systems around the country. News reports cited by Garvey include:
- Walking is often faster than riding streetcar in Portland (The Oregonian)
- Portland streetcar fare revenue nearly 50 percent below projections (The Oregonian)
- Tampa streetcars could require city subsidy (Tampa Tribune)
- Cincinnati streetcar facing $26 million cost overrun (Cincinnati Herald)
- Tucson streetcar operating costs 4 times initial estimate (Arizona Daily Star)
“I have not made up the articles, I have not made up the facts,” Garvey said. “These facts are facts. They’re inconvenient, but true.”
The recommendation, one of numerous spending cuts in County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed budget, was met with controversy. Hundreds of parents and residents signed a petition against the elimination of Arlington Child Care Office, which would have turned inspections over to the state and resulted in more lax oversight.
The county issued the following press release about the Board’s decision tonight.
Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada today said that the County will continue its inspections of childcare centers and family childcare homes and will continue to train providers. County Manager Barbara Donnellan had recommended in her Proposed Fiscal Year 2014 Budget that the County eliminate childcare inspections and provider training.
“The Board is committed to maintaining Arlington’s inspections of childcare facilities and training for providers,” Tejada said. “Although most localities in Virginia rely on the State alone to conduct inspections of childcare facilities, Arlington has, for more than 40 years, provided an extra layer of inspections and training for providers – and the Board is committed to continuing both of those elements.”
Tejada made his statement at the start of a Board public work session on the Department of Human Services’ proposed FY 2014 Budget. In her Proposed FY 2014 Budget, had recommended that the County rely on the state to inspect childcare centers and family childcare homes, and cut provider training, as part of her effort to cut costs across departments. The proposed cuts to inspection services had raised concerns within the community about the safety of Arlington’s childcare facilities.
The measure would have saved about $250,000 per year. The County Board will approve a final Fiscal Year 2014 budget on April 20.
The announcement comes following a public outcry about the cost of the first Super Stop, at the corner of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive. As first reported by ARLnow.com, the prototype bus stop — which offers amenities like lighting, heating and an electronic display that shows when the next buses are coming — cost more than $1 million to build.
While county officials blamed the high cost and construction delays on various factors — it was the first of its kind, its construction was managed by WMATA, etc. — the amount budgeted for the remaining 23 stops in the planned Columbia Pike Super Stop network suggests a still-high per-stop cost of around $900,000.
Other criticism of the stops, which will eventually serve the Columbia Pike streetcar system, includes the lack of shelter from wind and rain.
In a press release, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan calls the Super Stops a “key long-term transit investment.” But the county says it has cancelled bidding for the next planned Super Stop, in front of Penrose Square, pending a review of the design, timing and cost of the stops.
Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan said today that the County is reassessing the design and timing of the roll out of its planned Columbia Pike Super Stops in the wake of public concern about the recently opened Walter Reed Super Stop.
“Super Stops are a key long-term transit investment for our County,” Donnellan said. “They are integral to our efforts to transform Columbia Pike to a more transit-oriented Main Street. We have to get them right. Although our Walter Reed Super Stop is a prototype, and has only been operating for about a week, I’ve heard the community’s concerns about its design and cost. I have asked staff to pause the program while we look for ways to improve the design and reduce costs of future Super Stops.”
“This project took longer and cost more than it should have,” Donnellan said. “We have an obligation to the taxpayers of Arlington, the Commonwealth and the nation to ensure that our infrastructure projects are delivered in a timely, cost-effective manner. We will do better.”
Arlington built the Walter Reed prototype Super Stop under a project agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that put Metro in charge of the stop’s construction. More than six months ago, the County deleted two other planned stops from its agreement with WMATA and will build all future Super Stops on its own. This week, the County rescinded an invitation to bid on the planned Penrose Square Super Stop pending the Super Stop design and cost reassessment.
“I ask riders to keep in touch with us about their experiences with the Walter Reed Super Stop,” Donnellan said. “Our goal is to build stops that are safe, comfortable and encourage more people to use transit.” Comments and suggestions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Super Stop” in the subject line.
Long-term transit investment
Arlington plans to build 24 Super Stops along Columbia Pike, one of the most heavily travelled corridors in Northern Virginia. Each stop is meant to last for 30 years or more. Much more than a traditional bus stop, the Super Stops will shelter up to 15 riders and will serve both buses and the planned streetcar. Arlington’s Super Stops were designed with extensive input from riders and other community members during a multi-year public design process.
In her proposed FY 2014 budget, which calls for a 3.2 cent tax hike and 9.2 million in spending cuts, County Manager Barbara Donnellan also identified — for discussion purposes — ways the county could cut enough spending to negate the need for tax hikes.
The county would need to cut an additional $13 million to balance the budget without the property tax increase. Among Donnellan’s theoretical options for cuts are: reducing library hours, closing Artisphere, delaying major capital projects, eliminating employee pay raises and cutting maintenance funds.
From the manager’s budget:
- Changing operating hours of facilities and / or evaluate repurposing or closure of facilities
- Reducing library hours to 2011 levels – $0.5 million
- Closing the Artisphere would result in $0.9 million in ongoing savings in FY 2014 (assuming one-time closure costs are covered with other funds)
- Delay opening of new facilities which could result in operating cost and possibly debt service savings
- Evaluate employee compensation, including both pay and benefit levels
- Eliminate merit step increase for FY 2014 – $3.4 million
- Shift health care increase to employees and retirees – $1.8 million
- Evaluate service levels in each operating department for possible reduction or elimination
- A 1% across the board reduction in County departments would yield $4 – $4.5 million
- Reduce maintenance capital — a 10% reduction would equal over $1 million
- Redirection of dedicated revenue streams, e.g., reduce allocation to Crystal City Tax Increment Financing Area from 33 to 20% would yield $0.9 million; redirect dedicated bike-pedestrian fee to any General Fund use – $1.2 million
On top of the county’s $13 million in cuts, in a no-tax-hike scenario, Arlington Public Schools would need to find an additional $6.8 million to cut from its budget.
Even if tax rates remained the same, however, local homeowners would still pay higher taxes this year. The average single family home property tax bill would increase $52, thanks to an increase in property assessments. Under Donnellan’s budget, the average homeowner will pay an additional $262.
If the county were to decide to do away with all of Donnellan’s proposed cuts — including cuts to public safety, human services and other departments — Arlington would have to raise the real estate tax rate 5.7 cents to $1.028 per $100 in assessed value. That would result in a $351 increase in the average real estate tax bill.
Such a tax hike is not legally possible in FY 2014. Last month the Arlington County Board voted to advertise a $1.021 tax rate, meaning the Board cannot ultimately set the rate higher than that.
The Board will adopt its final budget on April 20. Public budget hearings are scheduled for March 26 and 28. The Board’s next budget work session is set for March 12, and will address the police, fire, sheriff and emergency management budgets.
The Arlington County Board voted over the weekend to advertise a higher property tax rate than that proposed by County Manager Barbara Donnellan in her proposed FY 2014 budget.
By advertising the $1.021 rate, the Board will have the flexibility of raising the tax rate up to 102.1 cents per $100 in assessed real estate value. The Board can still, as it usually does, select a lower rate than advertised when it adopts its final budget in April.
Donnellan proposed a $1.003 rate – a 3.2 cent rate increase that would cost the average Arlington homeowner an additional $262 per year. The advertised $1.021 rate — a 5 cent increase from the current 97.1 cent rate — would cost the average homeowner an extra $356 per year (nearly $30 per month, a 5.3 percent increase) over the current tax rate.
The four Board members present for Saturday’s meeting — Chris Zimmerman was home sick with the flu — split the difference between two different rate proposals.
Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes proposed to advertise a $1.011 rate, an increase of 4 cents, citing concerns about taxpayers who might be impacted by the upcoming federal budget sequester.
“I want to send a message… that if others are being called to tighten their belts, that we will exert the same discipline,” Fisette said. He called Donnellan’s proposed 3.2 cent tax rate increase and spending cuts “a really reasonable balance.”
Libby Garvey and Board Chairman Walter Tejada argued for a 6 cent increase, citing uncertainty about how the sequester might affect county finances and the finances of those served by the social safety net.
“I don’t think 4 cents will be enough,” Tejada said. “Sequestration is hanging over our heads. We have to make decisions now and anticipate and prepare. I want to be as responsible as we can for all taxpayers… including the most vulnerable in our community.”
In the end, the Board voted for a compromise 5 cent advertised rate.
“In this climate of economic uncertainty, it is important that the Board maintain some flexibility in setting the tax rate for Fiscal Year 2014,” Tejada said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, we will engage intensively with our community on how best to balance necessary service cuts with a reasonable tax rate increase. “
The Board also voted to decrease solid waste rates and fees and certain permitting and park fees. After being adopted in April, the final rates and fees set by the Board will go into effect on July 1, 2013, the start of the county’s 2014 fiscal year.
Among those expected to be evaluated are the money-losing Artisphere, two community centers and two Department of Human Services facilities.
In her budget message to the County Board, Donnellan said “potential facilities to be evaluated” include the Madison and Woodmont community centers in north Arlington, the Edison Complex near Virginia Hospital Center, and the Fenwick Center on S. Walter Reed Drive.
“As our population changes and as technology changes the way we deliver services, I believe we have many opportunities to do things differently, particularly in the area of buildings and facilities,” Donnellan said. “I have asked staff to begin evaluation of some of our facilities that require significant capital investment or are underutilized — with one of our initial tasks being how we engage the community and stakeholders in these discussions.”
Possible recommendations for the facilities could include changes in use or closure, said Arlington County spokeswoman Mary Curtius.
“The evaluations will look at a full range of options, including no change in use, repurposing these facilities for a new use (County or otherwise), or potentially closure — but it’s preliminary to speculate until the process is complete,” she said. “As the Manager’s message noted, one of the initial starting points will be to get public input — and other evaluation factors will include utilization rates and building condition and age, among others.”
Also on the chopping block is Artisphere, the Rosslyn-based cultural center that opened with high expectations in 2010. As previously reported, Donnellan is including $1.8 million in taxpayer funding for Artisphere in her proposed FY 2014 budget, but warning that she’s “assessing its performance and programming model” for next year.
“We’re going to evaluate the fiscal sustainability,” she told County Board members on Wednesday. “I’m forcing them to reevaluate how they operate. It’s an expensive operation to continue and I need to evaluate it to make sure it’s sustainable.”
Photos (top, middle) via Google Maps
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.
(Updated at 4:00 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan will propose a 3.2 cent real estate tax rate hike when she outlines her proposed budget to the County Board Wednesday afternoon, ARLnow.com has confirmed.
Donnellan’s recommendation, if approved by the County Board, would raise the overall tax rate to 100.3 cents per $100 in assessed value for residential property. It would be the first time since 2001 that Arlington’s residential tax rate has crossed the $1 mark.
Donnellan is expected to tell the Board tomorrow that the county is facing increased expenses as a result of more public school students and more county facilities — like the Arlington Mill Community Center — that must be staffed and programmed. At the same time, county tax revenue is flat as commercial property assessments feel the effects of BRAC, which has resulted in numerous Department of Defense offices moving out of Arlington.
On Friday, Donnellan announced 46 job cuts as part of her effort to close a $25-50 million gap in the upcoming county budget. She has said that her recommended budget will include both spending cuts and tax hikes.
While a rate of 100.3 cents may seem high compared to Arlington’s 81.8 cent rate just six years ago, for tax year 2007, it is not the highest rate county taxpayers have paid in recent memory. In 2000 and 2001, the rate was 102.3 cents.
It’s also lower than some neighboring jurisdictions. This past year, Arlington’s rate was $0.971 per $100 in assessed value, compared to:
- Fairfax County: $1.075
- Loudoun County: $1.235
- Prince William County: $1.209
- City of Alexandria: $0.998
- City of Falls Church: $1.270
- District of Columbia: $0.850
- Montgomery County: $0.838
- Prince George’s County: $1.072
The County Board may, as it has done in the past, set a different rate than the manager’s recommendation. Last year, the Board approved a 1.3 cent tax rate increase, to the current 97.1 cents, after Donnellan recommended a 0.5 cent increase. In 2011, however, the Board agreed with Donnellan’s recommendation and held the tax rate steady from the year prior, at 95.8 cents.
Arlington’s overall real estate tax rate includes a 1.3 cent tax for stormwater management. For commercial properties, the county imposes a 12.5 cent Transportation Capital Fund tax on top of the residential rate.
Hat tip to Wayne Kubicki
The cuts are being made to help plug a $25-50 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year. Donnellan will outline her proposed FY 2014 budget to members of the media on Wednesday afternoon. The budget is expected to include a mix of cuts and tax hikes.
On Friday, in a memo to county employees (below) obtained by ARLnow.com, Donnellan announced that the county is cutting 46 staff positions, including 20 that are currently filled. She also said that the county has instituted a hiring slowdown and that 20 employees have taken an early retirement package.
The county is working to place the 20 employees whose positions were cut in other open positions within county government, Donnellan said.
To: All County Employees
Re: Balancing the FY 2014 Budget
Date: February 15, 2013
I’m sure you are aware that we are grappling with a $25 million gap for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget.
As a County we have taken many steps to help close that gap, and I am proud of the way departments have embraced this challenge. To close the gap, we will need to use a combination of tax rate increases and spending cuts.
As a part of the spending cuts, we instituted a hiring slow down a few months ago, which limits the pace at which departments may fill openings. Another piece of the strategy was to offer an Early Retirement Window for eligible employees, and 20 employees participated in that program.
After much thoughtful discussion, we have made the difficult decision to cut 46 County staff positions. Unfortunately, of these, 20 are currently filled, and we are working to move these employees into other open positions. The department directors and I do not take this decision lightly; these are among the toughest decisions that we have to make. We are making every attempt to place those employees into other positions within the County. If we are, for some reason, unable to match an employee with an open position, the employee will receive a severance package.
These are difficult fiscal times. We are aware that over the last few years, we have asked you to do more with less – taking up more work when a colleague retires and isn’t replaced; addressing new and increasing service demands due to our growing population; performing administrative work in addition to normal job duties.
We are successful only because of the strength of our staff, and I am grateful for your continued dedication and service to our community.
Barbara M. Donnellan