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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.

Board Approves Bailout for Signature Theatre

by Katie Pyzyk | May 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm | 2,450 views | No Comments

Signature Theatre (photo via Signature Theatre website)The County Board approved a $250,000 grant for Signature Theatre (4200 Campbell Avenue) during its meeting on Tuesday.

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.

County Optimistic About Federal Funds for Streetcar Despite Cost Concerns

by ARLnow.com | April 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm | 1,263 views | No Comments

Columbia Pike streetcar renderingArlington 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.

Rendering of a streetcar along Columbia Pike“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:

“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.”

(more…)

Board: County Childcare Inspections to Continue

by ARLnow.com | April 2, 2013 at 6:55 pm | 2 Comments

Sign at the County Board budget hearing on 3/26/13The Arlington County Board has taken a proposal to eliminate local childcare inspections off the table for the 2014 budget.

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.

County ‘Reassessing’ Super Stop Design, Cost

by ARLnow.com | March 29, 2013 at 10:35 am | 1,309 views | 117 Comments

New Super Stop at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed DriveArlington County has halted the planned construction of a new “Super Stop” bus stop along Columbia Pike, pending a review of the project’s design and cost.

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 des@arlingtonva.us, 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.

How Arlington Could Balance Its Budget Without a Tax Hike

by ARLnow.com | March 8, 2013 at 11:05 am | 2,128 views | 115 Comments

arlington-va-logoIn 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.

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