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Advocates Plead for Funding at Budget Hearing

County Board budget on 3/26/13Dozens lined up Tuesday night to ask the Arlington County Board to open the county’s purse strings just a bit more.

Most speakers at the 3 hour, 45 minute public budget hearing addressed the $9.3 million in proposed cuts to social programs, environmental initiatives, the arts and other county services — though some came to encourage additional cuts, namely to the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar.

The top issue at the meeting by speaker count was County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed cut of the county’s Child Care Office. Some 16 speakers, wearing yellow in solidarity, asked the County Board to reconsider the $250,000 budget cut, which would deregulate small home-based child care operations and return the regulation of larger child care businesses to the state.

County Board budget on 3/26/13“These extra services and higher standards helped us feel comfortable about using an in-home daycare provider in Arlington,” said Michelle Sagatov, a full-time working mom with two kids. “The state does not have the same standards.”

Lauren Harris, the owner of Little Ambassadors Academy in Arlington, said she opposes the Child Care Office’s closure, even though reverting to state regulations could allow her to have a higher and more profitable child-to-employee ratio.

Affordable housing was another hot topic, with about 9 speakers urging the County Board to invest more in affordable housing. Donnellan’s proposed budget, which is currently under consideration by the Board, calls for a total of $32.3 million to go to affordable housing — or 4.9 percent of the County’s general fund budget (excluding schools).

Tim Wise, of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, countered that the county spends enough on “the so-called affordable housing special interest.”

Wise and about a half dozen other speakers also called for the Board to cancel the $250 million Columbia Pike streetcar project.

“As an Arlington county resident, I appreciate our services and our relatively low taxes compared to D.C. and Maryland and even Fairfax,” said Lee Schalk, who works at the National Taxpayers Unions “But with our current budget gap… we must pump the brakes on this quarter of a billion dollar streetcar project. Instead of throwing away our tax dollars on an inefficient form of public transportation, based on questionable assumptions… the local government should work to keep spending and taxes in check.”

Schalk called the streetcar a “boondoggle” and said he was “not amused by the $1 million bus stop” on Columbia Pike.

At least one speaker urged the County Board to press on with the Columbia Pike streetcar project.

“I’m very concerned about lots of misinformation that seems to be going out into the community,” said Juliet Hiznay, the Chair of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. “The revitalization of Columbia Pike is underway, but it’s underway with the understanding that the streetcar is coming.”

“I am concerned that there’s something afoot here — an attempt to upend ten years of planning along the Columbia Pike corridor,” she added.

About a half dozen speakers addressed the topic of homelessness at the hearing. They asked the Board to restore a 100 Homes project case manager cut under Donnellan’s budget, and to increase funding to the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network’s Opportunity Place.

Kathy Sibert, the Executive Director of A-SPAN, told the Board how two formerly homeless clients who had been placed in apartments died within the past week.

“They were able to live with dignity at the end of their lives,” she said.

Proposed cuts to environmental programs — staffing at nature centers, an invasive species removal contract, tree maintenance funding — were also singled out by a number of speakers.

“The message this budget sends is that the county does not value citizen engagement in support of our natural resources,” said naturalist Caroline Haynes. “We need to do more than to just talk about environmental sustainability.”

Two residents spoke out against the elimination of the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program, which is being transitioned into the county’s “Complete Streets” program.

“For a time there will be no traffic calming in Arlington County,” warned resident Kevin Sweeney, who said the transition will take too long. Two other speakers spoke in support of the cut.

“It was a well-intentioned program that we think has outlived its usefulness” said Ray Messina, a past critic of the practice of adding speed humps to local streets. “It has degenerated into a divisive program that set neighbor against neighbor.”

Several well-known local nonprofits asked for the Board to overrule proposed cuts to their stream of county funding.

Charles Meng, of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, said AFAC stands to receive 12.7 percent less county funding this year, on top of federal cuts that may come with sequestration. Jerrie Bethel of the Arlington Arts Center says the organization is facing a 20 percent cut to its ongoing funding.

Other Arlington-based organizations and programs facing local and state cuts that spoke out include:

Other speakers spoke out against cuts to art grants and mental health programs, against a proposed $1 per hour parking fee at the new Arlington Mill Community Center, for more pedestrian facilities, and in support of Bike Arlington.

Despite calls for additional spending, a number of speakers warned that the federal budget cuts are going to be an increasing drag on the local economy, which could produce additional budget pressures in coming years.

“The goose that laid the golden egg has reached menopause,” said frequent County Board critic Robert Atkins. Atkins lampooned the $1 million Columbia Pike Super Stop and called for the county to cut off funding to Artisphere.

The County Board will approve a final Fiscal Year 2014 budget on April 20. A hearing on the county’s proposed tax rate will take place at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. The Board has advertised a 5 cent tax rate increase, though Donnellan’s proposed budget calls for a 3.2 cent increase.

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