With COVID-19 cases trending down, vaccines being distributed and restrictions loosening, County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti says his focus is starting to shift toward Arlington’s economic and social recovery.
“There is more work to do on the pandemic but recovery has already begun,” he said.
And Arlington County, by his assessment, is in a fairly strong place financially — in some ways, he said it is in a better place than when numerous federal agencies and military offices decamped from Pentagon City and Crystal City starting around 2005.
Arlington will receive $23 million this year and next year through the federal American Rescue Plan, some of which will be used to return funding for affordable housing and hunger prevention programs that had been on the chopping block from the 2022 budget. The new budget, as passed, boosts spending by 3.5% despite the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.
In addition, Amazon’s presence is contributing to Arlington’s stability. De Ferranti said the e-commerce giant’s arrival is and will continue attracting talent and businesses of all sizes, strengthening the county’s commercial office base. And, for now, the county has been spared from making incentive payments to Amazon.
The county’s incentive package for Amazon stipulated that Arlington would share a cut of the revenue generated from an increase in hotel stays if Amazon met its hiring goals. Since the economic impact of the coronavirus also included dramatically fewer hotel stays, Arlington has not been on the hook for these payments.
If any of these things weren’t true, de Ferranti said he “would be more worried about the fiscal outlook in 2023, 2024 and 2025.”
This moment — when the county’s financial outlook is strong but there’s still significant need in parts of the community — is exactly when the government needs to step in, he said. Keeping people who are at risk of eviction in their homes, fighting hunger and providing grants and loans to small businesses will have big economic returns later on, the chair said.
The county has learned a number of financial lessons from the coronavirus, de Ferranti noted. Arlington will need to invest more in public health staffing and is considering a rainy-day fund for future public health emergencies. When the American Rescue Plan funding dries up, the county may need to increase its support, through grants and loans, for small businesses as well as its investments in hunger and eviction prevention.
While the county has been focused on the pandemic response, it has held back on certain equity-focused work. Some community engagement in land-use changes to address Missing Middle housing was pushed back due to the pandemic, as have investments in multimodal transit and workforce development.
“Arlington is committed to equity, but it has been hard,” de Ferranti said.
And while Amazon is economically propping up the county in some ways, Arlington Public Schools’ budget will not be feeling the returns as directly. The county will need to do more work with the School Board and administration to address APS’s systemic budget deficits, he said.
One pandemic-era innovation de Ferranti wants to stay: virtual meeting participation. After the public health emergency is declared over, Virginia would need changes to state laws to better allow both to continue.
“There are limits to participation virtually but there are arguably more limits to coming to the third floor of the Bozman building to share your thoughts,” he said. “You get more people participating, and the few that are the loudest, their voices get brought into context with everybody else who gets to speak.”
Additionally, de Ferranti the county should look at ways to offer more services online, following the lead of Permit Arlington and the county’s CAPP system for paying taxes and utility bills online, both of which predated the pandemic but made things easier for county staff and residents during it.
Ultimately, de Ferranti said he is excited to see what the rest of the year brings.
“There will be a time when I go to Shirlington and I see everyone outside, and they’ll say, ‘I’m so thankful to be out at a restaurant and enjoying life as we once knew it,’ and the same thing will be true for the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and the Pike,” he said. “There’s an emotional recovery, a sense of joy, and some true vacations that people are hoping for when we get to August.”