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County Board Hopefuls Call for Small Business Supports, Budget Audits

(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) Arlington’s four candidates for the County Board agree that Arlington County should take more steps to support small businesses.

The County Board hopefuls articulated their plans for supporting the business community and encouraging economic development during an Arlington Chamber of Commerce candidate forum last night (Tuesday).

Candidates suggested providing grants, cutting certain taxes and fees, expanding online permit applications, and improving both the county’s regulatory processes and how county staff help businesses navigate them.

The debate was moderated by Alex Koma of the Washington Business Journal, a former ARLnow reporter. Koma also asked candidates about office space vacancies, housing and development.

Citing his “Freedom and Justice Plan,” Democratic challenger Chanda Choun said he would encourage public-private partnerships that fund grants for startups and minority-owned businesses, which often struggle to get loans. He would also eliminate the Business, Professional and Occupational License (BPOL) tax, which is calculated based on the gross receipts of a business.

“If you’re a small mom and pop, and you generate revenue — not even profit — of $10,000 or more, you have to start paying business license fees,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

Independent candidate and Yorktown Civic Association President Mike Cantwell said the county should eliminate the business tangible tax — which taxes the assessed value of business furniture, machinery, tools and computer equipment — and instead tax specific things like automated checkout machines.

“The business tangible tax takes in approximately 4% of revenue for the entire budget and it is a highly inefficient tax and an administrative burden on small businesses,” he said, adding that “we have a role to play to make sure machines don’t replace humans.”

Perennial independent candidate Audrey Clement supported expanding the Permit Arlington portal, which took some permits process online in 2019 (a dozen others are already slated to go digital through 2022). She said the county needs to keep up its vaccine distribution efforts and review the real estate assessment process.

Democratic incumbent Takis Karantonis called for small business grants; better customer service for people navigating county, state and federal regulations; and — for big businesses — a review of county processes to see if they are efficient.

“We need to create something that will sustain [the smallest, women-owned and Black- and Brown-owned businesses] in the long term,” Karantonis said, adding that continuing a pandemic-era business loan program “would be a signal that we welcome them and are committed to restoring neighborhood retail and retail diversity.”

Choun said better permit assistance could have helped more restaurants secure permits for temporary outdoor seating areas during the pandemic. Delays in permitting may have caused “a death sentence” for Summers Restaurant, he said.

The county should look to expand this program post-pandemic, Karantonis said.

“TOSAs changed Arlington’s conservative view of how we use public spaces,” he said. “I do think that we should go further.”

Cantwell and Clement went after how the county builds the budget and evaluates development projects as sources of excess spending.

“There isn’t a culture of accountability and frugality, where people go to work every single way figuring out how to do things better, faster and cheaper,” Cantwell said. “It’s very important we fund the office of the internal auditor. We have an auditor thanks to John Vihstadt and others, but we need to create an office of several people to dig into the books of this $1.4 billion enterprise.”

That office could improve affordable housing, he later added. Struck by the conditions at the Serrano Apartments, owned by nonprofit developer AHC, Inc., he said an auditor could track where grant money goes and how much benefits someone like AHC CEO Walter Webdale, who today (Wednesday) announced his retirement.

Clement said the tax rate burdening small businesses is likely inflated by waste, fraud and abuse, as well as what she characterized as the over-development of Arlington.

“The excessive costs associated with developments are pushing up the real estate tax rate and the tax rate for homeowners as well,” she said. “I’m extremely critical of the county’s unwillingness to implement fiscal impact analyses.”

Clement agreed with Cantwell that the county should fund the auditor position to expedite audits that are stagnating, citing a recent work plan.

Some had novel approaches to office vacancies, which Koma said currently stand at 18.7% in Arlington, up from 16.6% from last year and down from a peak several years ago when vacancies reached 20%.

“This is a very dangerous time for our local economy and our tax base and budgets,” Choun said. “We are entering a remote work revolution: Will big companies lease out big spaces for their workforce?”

He suggested expanding the presence of colleges and universities in Arlington, which would also fill apartments with college students. Another solution Choun floated: turning vacant buildings into vertical farms.

“Office towers and residential towers are going unwanted,” said Clement, citing a recent Sun Gazette report. “The obvious solution to excess residential capacity is for landlords to restructure rent. The solution to the office glut is not simple… I would put plans for new office development on hold until the pandemic shakes out.”

Karantonis said he is focused on converting office buildings into other uses where possible, as well as strengthening business improvement districts that act as the ambassadors for local office space.

But Arlington will always have an office vacancy problem if it has a workforce housing problem, Karantonis said. The county should continue investing in the Route 1, the Rosslyn-Ballston and Columbia Pike corridors, where the infrastructure already exists to support growth, he said, adding that the county should continue expanding its housing grants programs.

Still, Cantwell said in light of the Serrano Apartments news, he is skeptical of county-run affordable housing programs. He echoed Clement’s thoughts on “upzoning,” the practice of re-zoning single-family home neighborhoods to allow for duplexes and other styles of housing.

While billed as potentially helping to solve the county’s lack of diverse, affordable housing options, Cantwell asserted that upzoning will disproportionately hurt historically Black neighborhoods such as Green Valley and Hall’s Hill.

Photo via Arlington Chamber of Commerce/Facebook

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