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County Budget Nixes Some Proposed Cuts, Boosts First Responder Pay

by ARLnow.com April 23, 2018 at 6:35 pm 0

The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously passed a $1.276 billion balanced budget that includes a number of fee increases but no real estate tax rate hike.

The FY 2019 budget notably restores $70,000 in funding for Arlington Independent Media — County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting about $90,000 in county funds for the community TV and radio broadcaster — after AIM collected more than 1,300 online petition signatures against the cut. The Board also boosted first responder pay, particularly starting pay which police and firefighter associations say is low and hurting recruitment, by $1.6 million above the manager’s recommendation, which already included a pay boost.

Funding the increased spending is the reallocation of $2.5 million from proposed renovations to the county government headquarters in Courthouse and the freezing of 16 vacant public safety positions.

Per the manager’s recommendations, the budget also increases parking meter rates and extends metered hours until 8 p.m., while increasing utility taxes, household waste fees and various departmental fees.

“The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget,” notes a county press release, below. County Board Chair Katie Cristol called the adopted budget “sustainably progressive.”

County funding for Arlington Public Schools will top the $500 million mark, as the school system continues to face pressures from enrollment growth and the opening of new schools. Metro, meanwhile, will receive a 3 percent increase in funding, receiving $73.1 million from the county’s coffers and state transit aid earmarked for Arlington.

In addition to AIM and first responders, the Board nixed the following cuts proposed by Schwartz, according to the markup record:

  • $620,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund
  • $365,000 for Lee Highway planning and $25,000 for the Lee Highway Alliance
  • $40,000 for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which serves immigrants
  • $200,000 for a body scanner at the county jail
  • $50,000 for the Arlington County Fair
  • $20,000 for community shredding events
  • $40,000 for the Arlington Neighborhood College program
  • $184,000 for a youth mental health therapist

Among the proposed cuts not restored: the elimination of the printed Citizen newsletter, the elimination of two ART bus routes, the elimination of Arlington’s poet laureate and a $555,000 cut to the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program.

The latter drew some pushback from Board members.

“The cuts that we’re doing this year to AIRE — nobody’s going to die, there’s nothing fundamentally that any of us are going to lose sleep over or should be ashamed of,” said Erik Gutshall. “But while people don’t die, our planet is dying, its ability to sustain our life at least.”

“In future budgets, while we’re going to continue to make tough choices, we’re not going to let our commitment to the environment fall behind,” he added.

Despite the disagreements, the Board was unanimous in its vote on the budget, which Board members praised for prioritizing key areas while avoiding a tax rate increase. (The tax burden on the average homeowner will still increase by $296.)

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said in a statement. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

“I see this budget really as a transition from the way we’ve been doing things to the way we’ll need to do things going forward,” said Libby Garvey. “This community has pretty much gotten used to having as much money as we need to do what we want to do. This year it’s starting to change. It’s likely to be even harder in the future with the stresses we have moving forward. I think it’s a good transition to what we’ll be doing moving forward.”

“What I think we’ve done is really weatherize our fiscal house for the inclement weather ahead,” echoed John Vihstadt. “It’s only going to get tougher as we move forward, but we took some important steps here that, while not greeted uniformly favorably, were necessary to be done.”

Arlington Independent Media and public safety associations, meanwhile, expressed gratitude for the additional funding.

Arlington County’s press release about the budget, after the jump.

The Arlington County Board today adopted a $1.276 billion balanced General Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that includes no increase in the real estate tax rate.

The Board voted 5 to 0 to adopt the budget and 5 to 0 to set the real estate tax rate at $1.006 per $100 of assessed value (including the stormwater tax). The Board’s action culminated months of reviews with the County Manager, departments, commissions and stakeholders. The Board also considered more than 1,000 comments from residents and other stakeholders.

Calling the budget “sustainably progressive,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said that “with projected growth in community needs — schools, Metro, debt service — outpacing projected growth in assessed property values in coming years, the Board chose to slow the growth in expenditures and close a $20 million budget gap without raising the tax rate.

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget.

“Over the next several years, we will face continued gaps between revenues and expenditures requiring more tough choices,” Cristol said. “As we begin deliberations on the Capital Improvement Plan, and next fall, as we start the Fiscal Year 2020 budget process, we will continue to work closely with our community to establish clear priorities.”

The 3.9 percent increase in residential property assessments in 2018 means that although the real estate tax rate will not rise, the average homeowner will see an increase in taxes and fees from $8,446 to 8,742, a $296 or 3.5 percent increase.

To read the staff reports on the budget,  view the agenda for the April 21, 2018 Regular County Board Meeting. (Item No. 47 A-V).

Utility tax, parking meter rates, other fees increasing

  • Utility taxes: 5 percent increase in commercial rates. Up to a $3 per month increase per utility for residential rates. Revenues to go to affordable housing and Schools.
  • Parking meter rates, hours and fines: $0.25 /hr increase in rates. Hours extend from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fines increase to $40.
  • DPR, ACFD, DES, CPHD fees to increase at various rates, to begin to achieve full cost recovery.
  • Household Solid Waste fees increased $2/year (full cost recovery). The increase will bring the Household Solid Waste fee to $316.16 per year.

Funding public schools

“Arlington’s public schools are among the best in the nation, and the County Board is committed to the School Board’s efforts to maintain that status,” Cristol said. “That is why the Board cut $2.5 million from the budget for much-needed renovations to the Government Center to add to Schools funding. This difficult de-allocation recognizes the challenges facing APS as it expands existing schools and adds new ones to accommodate ever more students.”

The County’s funding for Schools in FY 2019 will increase by $10.6 million, to $500.8 million. The additional funding will help address budget pressures from continuing enrollment increases.

Funding Metro

The Board approved an increase of 3 percent for Metro, from local sources and the County’s share of state transit aid. The increase will bring the County’s total operating support for Metro to $73.1 million in FY 2019.

“It is a watershed action that the General Assembly provided a dedicated source of funding for Metro,” Cristol said. “But that funding is coming from existing revenues, not new revenues. The General Assembly’s package requires Arlington to shift $12 million  a year from our Capital Improvement Plan to fund Metro. The package also shifts $102 million a year from regional transportation funding to Metro funding. That means Arlington will be competing with other jurisdictions for a smaller pot of regional transportation funding.”

Funding affordable housing

The Board slightly increased funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, the County’s primary funding sources for the creation and preservation of affordable housing. It also increased the percentage of ongoing AHIF funding. Total County funding for AHIF in Fiscal Year 2019 will be $14 .3 million.

Investing in the workforce

The Board provided $1.595 million more in public safety compensation beyond what the Manager had proposed in February, citing the need to compete in an increasingly tight labor market to attract and retain police officers, firefighters and sheriff deputies.

The Board also approved a 3.25 percent increase in merit-based compensation for non-public safety employees.

Restoring proposed cuts

The Board restored funding in several areas that the Manager had proposed reducing. Among the restored cuts:

  • Funding for Arlington Independent Media – the Board restored $70,000 in one-time funding for Arlington Independent Media, the community non-profit broadcasting organization. “AIM is a valued community resource,” Cristol said. “It has trained thousands of Arlingtonians in video production and radio broadcasting, and is an independent voice on cultural, political and social issues in our community. “The Board wants to give AIM more time to work toward economic self-sufficiency.” Noting the decline in cable franchise revenues that for decades have funded Arlington’s Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Channel coupled with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the Board directed the Manager to examine the current structure of the PEG channels and radio station, compare how other nearby localities provide PEG services, and provide options for cuts in funding by December 2018.
  • Funding for Lee Highway long-range planning – The Board restored $365,500 in funding the Manager had proposed cutting for long-range planning along the Lee Highway corridor.
  • Neighborhood College – The Board restored $40,000 in one-time funding to pay for outside facilitators for the County’s popular Neighborhood College program, noting that the facilitators are the linchpin of a program successfully attracts economically, socially and ethnically diverse “students” and trains them to effectively advocate for their neighborhoods with County government.
  • Preserving the County’s free paper shredding service – the Board restored $20,000 in one-time funding for the County’s free paper-shredding service that the Manager had recommended eliminating.
  • Continuing funding for immigrants – the Board approved $40,000 in one-time funding for the Legal Justice Service, to provide legal services to immigrants.
  • Funding a body scanner for the County jail – the Board approved $200,000 to purchase a body scanner for the County jail.

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