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JUST IN: Proposed County Budget Would Trim Programs, Keep Tax Rate Steady

Community paper shredding events. Arlington’s poet laureate. The Citizen newsletter.

Those are a few of the relatively small cuts that add up to enough savingsin County Manager Mark Schwartz’s new proposed budget to bridge Arlington’s $20 million budget gap.

The proposed $1.27 billion budget, which is being presented to the County Board today (Thursday), keeps the county’s property tax rate steady — at $0.993 per $100 in assessed value, per the County Board’s earlier guidance — while generating some new revenue through slightly higher utility taxes and additional paid parking hours, rates and fines, among other measures. It includes $775.9 million for the county’s operating budget and $498 million for schools.

Schwartz says his budget cuts 50 county programs and eliminates 48 jobs, including 29 currently filled positions. It includes $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in “funding realignments.”

The cuts are necessary, in part, due to budget pressures from Metro and the need to raise employee salaries, particularly in the police and fire departments, to remain competitive with nearby jurisdictions. Arlington’s fast-rising home values, which have helped the county keep up with rising expenses, were offset this year falling commercial property values caused by higher office vacancy rates.

Among the ways the proposed budget increases county revenues:

  • Commercial utility taxes increased by 5%
  • Residential utility tax increased to $3/month per utility (revenue earmarked for schools and the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, which is proposed at $13.7 million, matching last year’s AHIF proposal)
  • Parking rates increased by $0.25/hour
  • Parking meter hours extended to 8 p.m.
  • Parking fines increased from $35 to $40
  • Household Solid Waste fee up $2/year

Among the proposed cuts and “realignments:”

  • The Citizen printed newsletter, sent to all county residents ($82,000/year)
  • Lee Highway planning process scaled back ($500,000)
  • ART routes 54 and 92 eliminated ($350,000/year)
  • Snow blower loaner program eliminated ($30,000/year)
  • Free community paper shred events eliminated ($20,000/year)
  • Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program cut ($555,000)
  • Poet laureate eliminated along with other humanities programs ($77,000)
  • Long Bridge Park Fourth of July event entertainment eliminated ($50,000)
  • County window washing reduced from twice to once per year ($48,000)
  • In-house pharmacy and lab services cut from Dept. of Human Services ($625,000)
  • Reduction in DHS employment services staffing ($825,000)
  • Eliminate the Office of Community Health in the Dept. of Parks and Recreation ($483,000)
  • Eliminate a youth boxing program ($85,000)
  • Eliminate a parks volunteer office ($197,000)
  • Reduce money earmarked for Crystal City infrastructure, originally intended for the streetcar project, as generated via Tax Increment Financing (about $1 million)
  • Reduce the parks department vehicle fleet ($52,000)
  • Cut county funding for Arlington Independent Media by 20 percent ($91,000)
  • Eliminate the county cable administrator, who receives complaints about cable service from residents ($181,000)

The budget includes raises for many county employees, and even higher raises for most public safety personnel. Police officers, from the rank of sergeant on down, will see an additional 2.5 percent increase in pay, while firefighters will get an extra 4 percent bump over other county employees. Schwartz acknowledged that the departments have been having trouble filling open positions due to competition from other jurisdictions.

Schwartz said he and the county’s economic development office are determined to reduce Arlington’s office vacancy rate, which is back to nearly 20 percent after ticking down a bit from its previous high water mark. Schwartz expects office vacancies will put pressure on the budget for the next several years.

“It remains my primary focus to work on that vacancy rate, to get it down,” he said in a budget briefing with reporters. “We need to work through this problem. We have a lot of economic projects that are coming into the county, but this is the underlying problem that is going to challenge us in coming years.”

The Arlington County Board will advertise a property tax rate on Saturday, setting a ceiling on what the rate may go up to, and will hold various budget work sessions and hearings between now and final adoption on April 21.

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