Carol Mitten most recently served as Executive Director for Urban Affairs and Headquarters Consolidation at Homeland Security, before which she was chief of the Land Resources Program Center for the National Capital Region at the National Park Service, according to the county’s press release.
“I am thrilled to have Carol join my team,” Donnellan said in the release. “She brings broad and deep experience, as well as a fresh perspective.”
Mitten will oversee Arlington’s largest department, which deals with everything from the county’s roads and waste collection to local transit and parking. She starts work on Jan. 5.
Mitten will be Donnellan’s second deputy county manager, joining Mark Schwartz, who’s been Donnellan’s second-in-command since 2010. Donnellan also employs six assistant county managers among her staff.
Mitten’s experience in local government came across the river, while serving on the District’s Zoning Commission.
“While working in D.C. government, I came to deeply appreciate the positive impact that local government can have on the lives of our community,” Mitten said in the release. “This is where I developed my passion for local government, and I’m so pleased to be joining the Arlington team.”
Arlington’s full announcement of Mitten’s hiring, after the jump: (more…)
(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) Arlington County could come to the rescue for Signature Theatre‘s financial troubles.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan is recommending the county lend the Shirlington theater $5 million, to be repaid over 19 years at a low 1 percent interest, she announced today.
The Arlington County Board will decide whether to approve the theater’s new financing plan at its recessed meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17. If approved, the county would also forgive Signature for $411,000 in unpaid lease and utility payments, and not collect rent for the term of the loan.
“Signature Theatre is key to Shirlington’s success,” Donnellan said in a press release. “This restructuring will put Signature on a sound financial footing and help ensure that it will continue to draw thousands of people to Arlington every year. This loan, which Signature will repay over the next two decades, is the basis of a responsible financial plan. It will support one of the County’s most important arts organizations, an organization that yields important cultural and economic benefits for our entire community.”
The $5 million will be allocated from FY 2014 closeout funds, Donnellan said. The loan removes Signature from consideration for future county cultural grants. Last spring, the county awarded the theater a $250,000 grant to help it pay off its real estate and business taxes.
The loan negotiations have been ongoing for several years, the county said, and include Signature’s private lender, United Bank, forgiving $2.7 million of its $7.7 million loan.
“All of us at Signature are deeply grateful to our partners at United Bank and Arlington County for working with us to ensure that Signature can continue to thrive in Shirlington for many years to come,” Signature’s Managing Director Maggie Boland said in the release. “As the largest arts organization in Arlington, and Virginia’s largest theater, we are very pleased to cement this long-term partnership with the County.”
Signature, which won a Regional Theater Tony Award in 2009, is arguably the county’s most prominent arts organization. The theater is currently hosting the world premiere of the musical adaptation of Diner. It also conducts an education program for high school students called Signature in the Schools.
Janet Kopenhaver, chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, says the commission enthusiastically supports the county’s loan proposal.
“On behalf of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, I want to express our total support for this agreement with Signature Theatre — a critical asset to the County’s vibrant arts community,” Kopenhaver said. “We applaud the County for considering not only protecting a vital real estate investment in Shirlington, but also supporting our nationally-renowned, Tony-award winning theater company that we are so proud to have located in Arlington County.”
Photo via Signature Theatre
County Manager Barbara Donnellan and Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy, in a meeting with a few dozen residents last night, explained plans to handle the Arlington’s projected $28.4 million shortfall for next year.
“It will take cuts,” Donnellan said from a podium in Washington-Lee High School’s cafeteria. “It’s not an option. The Board may increase [spending] in some areas, but we’re going to have to cut.”
After presentations where each laid out the state of their administrations — Donnellan summarized the stagnant corporate real estate assessments, while Murphy laid out the school system’s exploding enrollment — residents broke into groups with staff members to discuss possibilities for budget improvements.
“I think there should be more sharing between the county and schools,” one resident said, telling a story about tree surveying around Thomas Jefferson Middle School. He said the county conducted a tree survey, and months later APS conducted one of its own. “There is too much duplicity and excess.”
Other resident questions and ideas posed in breakout groups, as taken down by county and APS staff, were:
- Why not use budget reserves instead of cutting services?
- Is APS looking into cutting from summer school or increasing class size?
- Will the county close Artisphere?
- Can the coordination between county permitting and APS improve for projecting student generation?
A topic that came up at multiple groups was Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, an initiative that has drawn community support and is offered in a majority of the county’s elementary schools. Multiple attendees suggested the program could be scaled back, while others, who supported its implementation, questioned the common sense of offering FLES while not allowing sixth-graders to take a language.
Donnellan and Murphy said they were gathering information before creating their proposed budgets, which will be presented to their respective boards in February.
“The residents give a lot of good insight into the tolerance for what they’re willing to live with and without,” Donnellan told ARLnow.com. “You get a lot of balance and they have a really good conversation.”
Murphy was less focused on cuts than the school system’s performance thus far and its growing needs. APS is projecting $8.7 million in this year’s budget for teacher pay step increases, and Murphy said the idea of a hiring freeze or cutting teacher pay is not a solution.
“D.C. is now offering $50,000 for an entry-level teacher,” he said. “They are stepping into the fray to make the market more competitive. We need to maintain that competitiveness.”
While many have called for more coordination between the governments, Donnellan and Murphy stressed that the two organizations work in tandem, not in opposition.
“It’s not schools vs. county,” Donnellan said after her presentation. “It’s one budget, it’s one community.”
Of that money, $203.3 million has already been allocated for FY 2015 programs, toward county reserves or spent according to county policy.
This includes $46.7 million toward Arlington Public Schools and $62.4 million toward “maintaining the operating and self-insurance reserves” required to keep the county’s current bond rating.
A significant leftover sum is present nearly every year and was accounted for in the FY 2015 budget process. This year, there’s $29.8 million in discretionary funds remaining the county can spend as they see fit.
The County Board approved in a 5-0 vote the county manager’s recommendation to allocate:
- $13 million for “FY 2016 budget issues,” including $6.3 million in capital improvements like ConnectArlington and the continued move of Department of Human Services divisions to the Sequoia Plaza along Arlington Blvd
- $8.2 million to the affordable housing investment fund for FY 2016
- $3.4 million for “employee compensation and management,” including recruiting for the Arlington County Fire Department, staffing the Emergency Communications Center and the fourth year of the county’s pay reclassification program
- $2 million for safety and technology investments, such as field training, software replacement and records retention
- $2.4 million for programs like economic development and for contingency funds
- $1.5 million to housing grants
Among the $13 million is $1.3 million for funding Artisphere. Next month, County Manager Barbara Donnellan will give the County Board a recommendation on the future of the facility, which was expected to be self-sustaining but instead requires millions of dollars in county funding per year.
Donnellan declined to give a preview of her recommendation, but said that even if the county decided to terminate its contract, it would still need to pay $1.1-1.3 million as part of its commitment to the owner of the building that houses Artisphere.
Last year, the county had a $25 million surplus and spent it on many of the same projects: Artisphere, employee compensation and affordable housing. During the County Board’s discussion on Tuesday, no Board member brought up the idea of directing funds elsewhere, including back to taxpayers.
The County Board approved its annual budget guidance to County Manager Barbara Donnellan yesterday, the framework from which Donnellan will work before she presents her proposed budget to the Board in February. As part of the direction, the Board says Arlington Public Schools should again receive 45.9 percent of county revenue, but County Board Chair Jay Fisette said that number will go up.
“The percentage share is going to change,” Fisette said. “It will end up being a percentage increase to the schools, I think. It will end up being inevitable through the process.”
The county is projecting a 3 percent growth in real estate tax revenue, but that will come entirely from a 6-8 percent increase in residential real estate assessments, according to county CFO and Finance Director Michelle Cowan. Commercial real estate assessments are “flat,” Cowan said, which, coupled with the county’s now 21.4 percent office vacancy rate, is putting “increased pressure” on commercial real estate growth.
“We’re sort of back to where we were in mid-90s,” Cowan said about tax revenue. “Back then, where we were growing was in commercial [growth]… now it’s residential.”
According to the county’s projections, expenditures will outpace revenue based on funding levels from the FY 2015 budget. On the county side, there’s projected to be a $4 million to $6 million funding gap; for Arlington Public Schools, that gap is projected at $20 million.
The chair of APS’ Budget Advisory Council, Moira Forbes, asked the county to increase its funding level to the district, if only to cover the cost of the higher-than-anticipated enrollment growth the schools are experiencing this year.
“While the county of course also is experiencing a lot of pressures and desire for public services because of population growth, the costs associated with new students are immediate, significant, and driven partially by state and federal requirements,” Forbes said. “The Budget Advisory Council suggests that the County Board either increase the revenue sharing percentage or provide a fixed amount to offset half of the $14.1 million in costs [APS is expected to incur] associated with the enrollment growth.”
To help trim costs, the Board asked Donnellan to “eliminate duplication and inefficiencies, and explore further collaborations with Arlington Public Schools as well as regional collaborations and partnerships that might lead to cost savings and efficiencies.”
The Board also directed the manager to provide an alternative option in her recommended budget that would include a 1 percent cut of operating expenditures. In the event that tax revenue exceeds the county’s projections, Donnellan is asked to look at either lowering the tax rate or providing more funding for schools, new facilities and affordable housing — or some combination of the two.
County Board member Libby Garvey suggested postponing the budget guidance until next month to allow the public to comment, but her motion ultimately failed by a 4-1 majority.
“One of the things we could improve in how we engage the public is bringing them in more at the beginning level,” Garvey said. “Having people read this through and think it through… I think that’s helpful.”
Donnellan, when asked, said she hasn’t spoken to her department heads about the FY 2016 budget, and postponing the budget process for a month would make it far more difficult to present a full budget by her February deadline. Fisette and Vice Chair Mary Hynes each said the public had ample opportunity comment on the budget and tax rate later in the process.
“I think we have a good idea of what we would hear,” Hynes said. “This is the box, not the stuff in the box. We will hear a lot from the public about what’s in the box.”
A plan to redevelop the Key Boulevard Apartments (1537-1545 Key Blvd) is being given a thumbs down from county staff.
On Saturday, the Arlington County Board is scheduled to consider affordable housing developer AHC Inc.‘s plan to tear down the three 72-year-old buildings to construct a new, 158-unit building with 82 affordable units. The current apartments have a combined 41 units and were identified by Preservation Arlington as one of the “most endangered historic places” in the county.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan has recommended the County Board deny AHC’s proposal.
Donnellan and county staff say the requested density “does not substantially comply” with the county’s policy to preserve the character of the Colonial Terrace Conservation Area of Rosslyn, where the apartments sit. County policy calls for reinvesting in existing housing or redeveloping housing with no more than 48 units per acre the zoning ordinance allows. The proposed site plan would build 127 units per acre on the site, according to the county staff report.
AHC needs County Board permission to transfer development rights from two of its Gates of Ballston affordable dwellings to the Key Boulevard apartment site in order to have enough allowable density to build the project. Donnellan is recommending the County Board deny the transfer, which would keep the Gates of Ballston buildings eligible for redevelopment with an additional 106 units of density.
If the County Board decides to approve the redevelopment despite Donnellan’s recommendation, AHC would have the go ahead to build its six-story, square building with an internal courtyard and two levels of underground parking. The 82 affordable units would be rentals, while the remaining 76 apartments would be sold as condominiums.
The project would completely demolish the existing buildings, which the county designated as an “important” site in its Historic Resource Inventory in 2011. AHC wrote on its website that it has been gathering community support for the project for years.
“Now more than 70 years old — with aging building systems, inefficient windows and appliances, and accessibility issues — the complex is ready for an update,” the website says.
In a separate item on the County Board’s weekend agenda, Donnellan is recommending the Board approve a multi-million dollar loan to AHC for the purchase of the Spectrum Apartments at 5055 S. Chesterfield Road, near Wakefield High School.
Photo via Preservation Arlington
The $1 million “super stop” at Columbia Pike and S. Walter Reed Drive – the exorbitant price tag for which became national news – was so expensive because of poor communication, an independent review found.
The review, conducted by CliftonLarsonAllen, found that a “lack of clear communication between County and WMATA staff” and “poor execution of construction performance” were the main reasons the prototype took so long, and cost so much to build.
That poor execution includes the bus stop not being built to what was designed, including glass panels being produced at the wrong size; curbs being built at the wrong height and having to be redone; and a four-year delay in getting approval from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
According to the report, the initial budget of $2.15 million was supposed to cover three “super stops.” There was no communication between the county and WMATA over any change in the budget when plans for the two that were never built were ultimately scrapped. On Dec. 22, 2011, the county informed WMATA that it wanted to cease site work for the two other stops, called Dinwiddie West and Dinwiddie East.
“While it would appear the removal of site work for the two stops would result in a lower base cost… no official communication was made by the county to WMATA,” requesting the budget be lowered, the report states. “We find that the county should have requested a proposal for the deductive change order (lowering the budget), and then should have proceeded with negotiations” to change the terms of the agreement with WMATA
According to the review, $881,933 — less than the oft-cited $1 million — was spent on the prototype that still stands today, but $456,882 was sunk into the two prototypes that were never built.
“We accept the findings of this report,” County Manager Barbara Donnellan said in a press release. “They confirm concerns that we already had, and we have already addressed the issues systematically, so we can ensure that the remaining 23 transit stations will be built efficiently and cost-effectively. I asked for this review because, as I have said before, the Walter Reed prototype took too long and cost too much to build.”
The county announced in May that the remaining 23 transit stops would be redesigned with modular components, reducing the total project budget from $20.9 million to $12.4 million. Moreover, the county is now working independently of WMATA in designing and building the transit stations, which, when built, will accommodate both bus and streetcar passengers.
As opposed to the custom-built “super stop,” the transit stations have a modular design, with interchangeable parts that allow flexibility from station to station, and are significantly cheaper to build and maintain. Construction is expected to begin construction on the first eight transit stations by FY 2017.
“This project was an exception for Arlington,” Donnellan said. “We have a solid record of delivering large, complex projects in a timely, cost-effective manner… Unfortunately, work on the Walter Reed prototype began in 2007 at a time when WMATA was scaling back its capital improvement management program, and the project suffered as a result. Delivery was further complicated by the fact that several entities were involved. With the completion of this thorough review, we are confident that we are well positioned to effectively deliver the transit stations that the Pike needs, and continue to rebuild the Pike’s transportation infrastructure.”
All Access Taxi has submitted applications for 60 taxi licenses with Arlington County, which allows companies to request additional taxi licenses for two months every other year, according to county Dept. of Environmental Services spokeswoman Shannon Whalen McDaniel.
All Access Taxi COO Rick Vogel told ARLnow.com that his company would be the first in the region to offer 100 percent of its fleet as wheelchair accessible. The former Envirocab executive claimed that the standard wait for a wheelchair-accessible cab in the D.C. area is about three hours.
“There really isn’t anything for spontaneous service,” Vogel said. “Reagan lies within our boundaries, yet there’s no accessible service there. About once a week, someone gets stuck there with no way around. There are just no taxis.”
“I think Arlington has always been a leader in disabled issues,” Vogel continued. “All our buildings are accessible, everything is, except our cabs. At first I thought of it as a business idea, but now it’s becoming a cause. It upsets me because they can’t get around town.”
Vogel said he plans for the company to be headquartered in South Arlington and to train drivers in assisting people with disabilities. He plans on purchasing vehicles like the Ford Transit Connect (pictured), the Dodge Caravan, the Honda Odyssey and others. Each cab will be equipped with a wheelchair ramp in the back, a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit.
To operate as a taxi service in Arlington, however, a company needs to own a county taxicab certificate. There are 787 certificates in the county right now, only 37 of which are wheelchair accessible. County Manager Barbara Donnellan, however, recommended in a July 1 memorandum that no new taxicab certificates be issued until 2016, specifically including accessible taxis in her recommendation.
“Based on staff’s quantitative analysis,” Donnellan wrote, “there are sufficient bases to justify maintaining the existing number of taxicabs (750 vehicles and 37 wheelchair vehicles) authorized to operate in the county.”
Donnellan and her staff will make her final recommendations by Oct. 15, the Transportation Commission will make its alternative recommendation on Nov. 15 and the County Board will decide whether to approve new certificates, if any, at its December meeting. The county issued 22 new licenses in 2012, and didn’t issue any in 2010.
According to Donnellan’s memorandum, the county’s population has increased by 3,300 since 2012, but the workforce has shrunk by 6,900 jobs. While there are roughly the same amount of cabs per person now than before the new certificates were issued, there are now 3.47 taxicabs per 1,000 employees, as opposed to 3.36 in 2012. The overall number of cabs dispatched has increased 1.1 percent over the course of the last two years.
Donnellan wrote in the memorandum, however, that a new application for a certificate might be considered if the applicant provides adequate reason or innovation. Vogel believes his company deserves to be awarded certificates to serve a chronically underserved populace.
“I think this idea’s time has come,” he said. “These people have money to spend, but they can’t get to where they want to go. I think at the end of the day, we can make people’s lives better.”
Photo via Ford
Arlington posted the open position on its jobs page this morning. According to county spokeswoman Mary Curtius, the position has been open for six months after interim deputy manager Jay Farr returned to his original post as deputy chief of the systems management division with the Arlington County Police Department.
Farr had replaced former Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier, who stepped down about a year ago into a part-time position as assistant county manager of special products, Curtius said.
The salary for the open position is “negotiable for up to $195,000″ and the responsibilities include overseeing the Department of Environmental Services, the county’s largest department.
“This executive will be a visionary leader who will focus on overseeing the Transportation, Environmental and Capital Programs,” the posting states. “The Deputy will focus on ensuring that the strategic vision and goals are being met and are aligned with the County mission and vision by providing oversight to all staff associated with the Programs and in collaboration with task forces, citizen groups and other stakeholders.”
The county also announced it was seeking a new director of Arlington Economic Development, who would become the full-time replacement for the late AED Director Terry Holzheimer. Holzheimer died in March of a heart attack. Deputy Director Cindy Richmond has served as acting director since Holzheimer’s death.
The new regulations will include fees charged to the organizers to recoup the cost of extra police and community resources required to deal with the nearly 5,000 people estimated to attend some of the crawls. The crawls, which have previously been organized without much input from the county, will now need to be approved in advance.
The specifics of how much organizers will have to be and the criteria under which pub crawls will be approved or rejected have not yet been determined. County Manager Barbara Donnellan said she plans to return to the County Board with the full, implemented policy before Halloween, which is expected to be the date of the next major pub crawl.
“We have, I believe, the highest percentage of 25-34 year olds as a percentage of our population than any community in the United States, and we embrace that group,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said during the meeting. “We embrace their vitality and the energy they bring to our community as a creative class and workforce, and at the same time we request and require that they respect others.”
The approved regulation was seen as somewhat of a compromise between residents who want fewer and smaller crawls and the organizers who want to see the crawls continue on unabated. The Board first discussed amending its special events policy, last updated in 2012, in April during budget discussions. At the time, Donnellan requested $45,000 for police overtime specifically to manage the pub crawls. The Board directed Donnellan to return with an updated policy.
In the meantime, the crawls drew another round of controversy after an attendee in June allegedly stripped naked before leading police on a car chase that ended with a crash in Clarendon. That incident, paired with a women alleging stripping naked at the Arlington Magistrate’s Office during a March bar crawl, helped bring the issue to the Board’s attention.
“It’s two incidents out of thousands of people,” Project D.C. Events co-owner Alex Lopez told ARLnow.com earlier this month. Lopez pointed out that neither happened inside a bar. Project D.C. Events organized both the March and June pub crawls at which the incidents take place, as well as crawls in D.C. that have occurred without public incidents. “You don’t hear about bar crawls in D.C. because nothing happens at them. If you say, ‘oh everything was peaceful in the last bar crawl,’ well, no one is going to read that.”
According to a county press release, about 1,130 people responded to an online survey about how best to manage the pub crawls, but only one member of the public spoke during the comment period: frequent County Board critic Jim Hurysz.
The motion passed 5-0 and the Board generally lauded the police and staff for their work in bringing a “common sense” solution to the issue.
“It’s an evolution to figure out how to satisfy the various kinds of people who live in Clarendon,” Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said. Hynes lives just a few blocks from the epicenter of the pub crawls in Clarendon. “People don’t want Clarendon’s reputation to be only what happened at that last pub crawl. Business owners want people to come to Clarendon and eat and enjoy all the amenities.”
“We’re going to do this and monitor and see what happens,” Hynes continued, “and if this doesn’t work, we’ll be back here… to see if we need to take any more steps or not.”
Photo via Project D.C. Events
(Updated at 5:45 p.m.) An independent consultant hired by Arlington County has found that the planned Columbia Pike streetcar could generate between $2.2-3 billion more than an enhanced bus system for the corridor over the next 30 years.
The study, conducted by HR&A Advisors, estimates that the streetcar will generate between $3.2-4.4 billion of net impact to the area in the form of increased property values, density and retail opportunities, among other factors. In addition, the streetcar is estimated to bring in up to $620 million in additional local tax revenues between Arlington and Fairfax counties over 30 years, plus 4,600 more jobs within 10 years after construction is completed.
“[This study] is a great validation for what we’re about to do,” County Manager Barbara Donnellan said at a press conference this afternoon announcing the results of the study.
The study, which was commissioned last year as an update to the streetcar’s projected return on investment, compared the streetcar to an enhanced bus system. HR&A President Eric Rothman said the study did not factor in bus rapid transit because a dedicated bus lane is “not feasible” for the Pike.
HR&A used four case studies for its projections for Columbia Pike, as well as interviews with Arlington developers and retailers — some of whom are already invested along the Pike — to formulate its predictions.
HR&A used the streetcar in Portland, Ore., and the Hudson Bergen lightrail system in northern New Jersey as case studies for the streetcar. The Boston-Washington Silver Line and the Max Bus in Kansas City, Mo., were used as case studies for enhanced bus service.
“Previous studies that have been done by and large found positive impacts across the board for streetcar implementation in the country the last 15 years,” Rothman said.
Kyle Vangel, who was the study’s project manager for HR&A, said the developers he interviewed the project looked more favorably at the Columbia Pike streetcar if it connected with the Crystal City streetcar line, which Transportation Director Dennis Leach said will have its environmental impact study completed this fall. He also said that, while the tracks and wires might not be aesthetically pleasing, rail engenders confidence in long-term investment.
“In many people’s perceptions,” Vangel said, “the streetcar has more of a feel of permanence than an enhanced bus.”
From one end of the corridor to the other, Vangel said the streetcar would only take one fewer minute than an enhanced bus system, but it would hold 61 more riders per trip, be a one-seat ride to Crystal City and would be under capacity by 2035, whereas enhanced bus would be over capacity in 30 years.
“Having previously spent many millions of taxpayer dollars on studies trying to justify the choice of the Columbia Pike streetcar”, said Peter Rousselot, ARLnow.com columnist and a leader for Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, in a press release, “there was no legitimate reason to spend more taxpayer money on another ‘study’ unless the consultant had been given the independence to reach the conclusion that the streetcar was the wrong transit choice on Columbia Pike.”
Rousselot’s main point of contention was over the contract HR&A signed with the county, which stipulated the county must approve the study at certain milestones before it could be presented. Rothman said those milestones were simply submitted to the county so the company could receive payment, not edited for review.
“The county provided no substantive input for the numbers in the report,” Rothman said.
Frequent County Board critic Jim Hurysz, attending the meeting for his blog, Arlington Yupette, railed against the consultants and county staff members giving the presentation, accusing them of cherry-picking examples of streetcars and buses to serve the county’s agenda. Hurysz fired off questions and opinions alongside reporters from ARLnow.com, the Washington Post and the Washington Business Journal, before being shouted down by a county communications staffer, as she was attempting to end the meeting on schedule.
Yesterday, County Manager Barbara Donnellan announced the appointment of Assistant County Manager Shannon Flanagan-Watson as the county’s new business ombudsman, responsible for working with the business community to identify improvements to the county’s business processes.
Flanagan-Watson served as the director of business development for the International City/County Management Association before coming to Arlington, according to her biography on the county’s website.
“During my listening tour with the business community last year, I learned a lot about how we can improve the way we do business,” Donnellan said in a press release. “One important component is appointing a senior-level person in my office to work on my behalf with the business community in coordination with County officials and agencies. Shannon brings the skills, passion and understanding of how important our work is in this area to nurture sustainable partnerships.”
Flanagan-Watson will report directly to Donnellan and work with the county’s BizTeam, an interdepartmental group created to assist small businesses with navigating the county’s bureaucracy. For site plans projects, however, the ombudsman will only become involved after County Board approval.
Flanagan-Watson will continue to serve as Assistant County Manager, and none of her responsibilities in that position have been removed, according to Arlington Director of Communications Diana Sun.
“This is not a new position, but rather a new area of focus for me as an Assistant County Manager, and I am excited for the opportunity to work with businesses here or looking to come to Arlington,” Flanagan-Watson told ARLnow.com in an email. “This new role will provide an additional resource and point person to ensure the permitting process in Arlington is as efficient and smooth as possible.”
Ombudsmen, by definition, are typically given a degree of independence from the organization over which they have oversight to ensure they are effective in advocating for the public’s — or in this case, the business community’s — best interests.
Photo via Arlington County
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.
Arlington’s projected budget gap for Fiscal Year 2015 is between $20 and $25 million, the county manager’s financial forecast shows.
County revenues are expected to increase 2.6 percent to $1.093 billion, thanks largely to higher residential real estate assessments. Residential real estate tax revenue is expected to increase 5.6 percent, while commercial real estate revenue is expected to stay the same or slightly decrease, due to weakness in the office market.
Expenses, meanwhile, are expected to increase, thanks to pay raises for some of the county’s 3,344 full-time employees, a rise in the county’s payment to Metro, and costs associated with new facilities like the year-round homeless shelter and the Long Bridge Park aquatics center.
Total county expenses are projected at $675.6 million, and that assumes cutting the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund and pay-as-you-go project financing in half, due to the removal of one-time funds. The county government will face a $7.7 million revenue/expenditure gap.
Arlington Public Schools, meanwhile, will see its budget transfer from the county rise 3 percent to $425 million. Still, the school system is expected to face a $16 million budget gap due to a rise in enrollment.
County staff caution that the figures are still preliminary at this point. FY 2015 doesn’t begin until July 1, 2014.
“Current projections rely on incomplete revenue data and preliminary cost estimates,” staff wrote. “Projections will change as more data becomes available and further analysis is completed. Cost estimates could increase and revenue projections could decrease, exacerbating the problem, or estimates could also improve.”
County Manager Barbara Donnellan will present her budget projections to the County Board at its meeting tonight (Tuesday). The Board, in turn, will provide budget guidance to the manager and her staff.