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County Board Unanimously Passes $1.4 Billion Budget

Arlington County has a new budget and a higher real estate tax rate.

The County Board unanimously approved a $1.4 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020, avoiding the most controversial of its proposed cuts while hiking the taxes paid by the average homeowner to $9,023, an increase of $281.

Arlington property owners will now pay an additional two cents for every $100 in assessed property value, on top of increasing property values. Most of the additional revenue will go to Arlington Public Schools, which is set to receive $532.3 million in local tax dollars, which will help it also avoid some proposed, controversial cuts.

County Board members characterized the budget as fiscal prudence, despite the tax hike. They noted that it includes $4.8 million in county budget reductions, trimming 27.5 full-time staff positions deemed to be no longer necessary due to declines in demand for certain services.

The cuts range from a 5 percent reduction in funding for community radio and public access TV operator Arlington Independent Media to cutting Arlington Transit bus service on a route that records as few as 3 riders per hour.

“I would think about this not as government getting smaller, but as government getting smarter,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

Board member Erik Gutshall said county leaders went over the budget with a “fine tooth comb” and the result is a budget without “an ounce of fat.”

“We certainly would prefer not to raise rates at all but this is a budget we can be proud of as thoughtful, progressive, and sound,” said Board member Matt de Ferranti.

While the Board restored a pair of arts positions — cuts that would have affected theater programs in the county — it asked the County Manager to study those positions and the county’s arts programs in general prior to the next annual budget. Vice Chair Libby Garvey said that libraries should also be studied.

“[I’m] hoping in this next year… we take kind of a holistic view of libraries, and what we want libraries to be in our community, what role we want them to play,” she said.

There was hopeful talk on the dais about the effects of Amazon’s new Arlington presence.

“Happily the commercial vacancy rate is getting a little better,” Garvey said, adding that “obviously Amazon helps that a lot.”

In Arlington, roughly half of county revenue comes from commercial real estate and businesses.

The FY 2020 budget helps to shape a community “that a company like Amazon wants to come to,” said Gutshall. “And when they come they help our commercial [real estate] assessments that did the most of the work in bridging the gap this year.”

The full Arlington County press release on the budget’s passage, after the jump.

The Arlington County Board today adopted a $1.4 billion balanced General Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2020 that includes a two-cent increase per $100 of assessed value in the property tax rate for Calendar Year 2019. The Board’s approval of the budget concluded an intensive review that included a series of work sessions and two public hearings.

“After hearing from hundreds of constituents and holding a work session with the School Board, this Board was convinced that more funding was needed to avoid significant cuts for our schools,” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “We are committed to ensuring that Arlington’s public schools remain among the nation’s best. At the same time, we wanted to raise the property tax rate as little as possible. To that end, we accepted many, but not all the cuts proposed by the Manager, and raised the tax rate only as much as necessary to meet essential needs.”

The Board voted unanimously to approve the FY 2020 Budget and CY 2019 property tax rate, along with a number of associated actions. To read the staff report, visit the County website. Scroll to Item No. 40 on the agenda for the Tuesday, April 23, 2019 Regular County Board Meeting.

The Board’s action set the CY 2019 tax rate at $1.026 (including the sanitary district tax) per $100 of assessed value. That rate, together with increased assessments as well as other taxes and fees adopted by the Board, will cost the average homeowner (with a home valued at $658,600) $9,023 in FY 2020 in taxes and fees, an increase of $281 from FY 2019, or 3.2 percent. The 2020 fiscal year begins July 1, 2019. The County saw a 2.8 percent increase in the average residential property assessment in 2019.

The Manager had proposed a tax rate increase of one-and-a-half cents (including one cent to Arlington Public Schools to address the cost associated with opening new schools, including Alice West Fleet Elementary School, Dorothy Hamm Middle School, and The Heights Building), when he presented his proposed FY 2020 budget to the Board in February. The Board added another 0.5 cents to increase funding for Arlington Public Schools.

The Board retained the 0.5 cents proposed by the Manager for County priorities of public safety and general employee compensation as well as resources to support Schools ,including school nurses, school resource officers, and increased support for APS swimming pools. The efforts to ensure competitive pay for public safety continues a commitment made by the Board last year that will address our critical need to recruit and retain talented staff.

The Board adjusted other spending recommendations by the Manager to increase funding for the County’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, its main funding mechanism for affordable housing, to $16 million in FY 2020. The $1.5 million increase was funded with one-time funds.

The Board also fully funded the Electoral Board staffing request, and restored arts and literary programming and staffing that the Manager originally recommended reducing. The restoration of cultural affairs programming is the first step in a broader initiative outlined in the guidance to the Manager that will examine how Arlington delivers arts programming.

“This budget makes strategic investments in our infrastructure and our schools, maintains our social safety net, and helps us compete regionally in attracting and retaining high-quality public safety staff,” Dorsey said.

$4.8 million in budget reductions

After the restoration of some Cultural Affairs programming, FY 2020 budget reductions total $4.8 million and approximately 27.5 full time staff positions. These reductions are in areas where service demands have declined, where there is another way to provide the service or achieve administrative efficiencies, or where the program is of lessor priority than new demands.

Fee adjustments

The FY 2020 budget includes adjustments to some existing fees – including Parks and Recreation fees that are reviewed annually and development services fees – as well as new fees for Special General Land Use Plan (GLUP) study process changes, Conceptual Site Plan applications, and a lifetime dog license. The household solid waste rate that residents pay for garbage and recycling is decreasing from $314.16 to $306 annually, while water and sewer rates are increasing by 1.3 percent, or $11 per year for the average household.

Closing Schools’ funding gap

The Board closed the funding gap in the Arlington Public Schools by adopting a 1.5 cent tax rate dedicated to APS, and allocating an additional $0.6 million in one-time funding. Total County funding for Schools in FY 2020 is $532.3 million, with $522.4 million in ongoing and $9.9 million in one-time funding.

Guidance to the Manager

The Board gave direction to the Manager in several areas including Metro, cultural affairs and environmental sustainability, for the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

Non-profit funding: The Board directed the Manager to develop a submission tool and methodology to evaluate non-profits with service contracts with the County to evaluate requests they make for more or supplemental funding for substantially the same scope of work, and for a separate evaluation of non-profits that request funding from the Board for scopes of work not currently supported by public funds.

Metro: The Board directed the Manager to project Arlington funding for Metro for the next two budget years by identifying the high/low variants based on a Fiscal Year 2021 Silver Line phase 2 opening, and maximum increases to Arlington’s portion of state-capped operating subsidies.

Cultural Affairs: The Board accepted the Manager’s revised Cultural Affairs transition plan, including full funding of Arts Grants and proposed “bridge” staffing for the Costume Lab and Scenic Studio, for 3700 Four Mile Run, and for the Facility Technology Services Director, with the expectation that a more strategic funding proposal for the arts in Arlington will be forthcoming in Fiscal Year 2021. The Board offered guidance to the Manager on the elements that must be included in any draft charge, and said the review should be completed in time for the FY 2021 budget development process.

Environmental sustainability: The Board directed the Manager to explore the financial and operational feasibility of installing a solar array at the Minor Hill pumping station, with the goal of a successful net metering arrangement producing more energy on site than is consumed on an annual basis. The feasibility study will be performed by a consultant if such capacity is helpful after consideration of staff expertise. Up to $50,000 is available for such consultant or staff time, whichever will complete the analysis most effectively and expeditiously in the opinion of the Manager.

The results of the feasibility study should include, subject to staff’s expertise, a zoning analysis, conceptual cost estimate, concept plan, draft elements of the business framework for net metering, input from neighbors, and strategy for maintaining both the solar array and the underlying water storage infrastructure over the long term.

Staff will also work with the County Attorney’s Office to address the legal issues and matters related to the proposal, including the drafting and negotiation of necessary agreements. The feasibility study will be undertaken with the goal of a decision on whether to proceed with a solar array at Minor Hill no later than the FY 2021 budget process.

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