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Rising costs, mortgage rates and office vacancies putting pressure on upcoming county budget

Arlington County Mark Schwartz (file photo by Jay Westcott)

The upcoming Arlington County budget process will be tough, albeit not the toughest, according to County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz made the remark at the end of Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting, as the Board discussed its guidance to the manager as he starts work on a proposed 2023-2024 budget.

The backdrop is an economy that may or may not be heading into a recession in 2023, while inflation puts upward pressure on costs — and higher mortgage and office vacancy rates put downward pressure on county revenue.

According to Schwartz and a budget presentation given by staff last month, the county is expecting overall revenue to rise more than $40 million, or 3.4% in the next fiscal year. But inflation, wage growth and other factors are expected to lead to a $35 million gap between expected revenue and county expenditures if current service levels and tax rates are held steady.

That’s on top of the flow of federal Covid relief dollars, which bolstered county finances over the past two years, largely shutting off.

“The revenue picture is tough,” Schwartz told the Board.

Chart showing rising mortgage rates and office vacancy rates, putting downward pressure on Arlington County property tax revenue (via Arlington County)

The county is currently expecting a modest 1.9% rise in residential property assessments, which will be mailed out to homeowners in mid-January. And with office vacancies rising, commercial assessments are expected to remain flat.

The office vacancy issue could get even worse over the next few years, Schwartz warned, as long-term leases expire. Office building owners are struggling to fill vacant space amid work-from-home trends, he said, and that will likely result in falling commercial property assessments for much of the decade.

Schwartz said he has “a lot of faith in the long-term resiliency of the economy,” but that it may be rough seas for awhile.

“We’re still transitioning,” he said of the local economy. “We don’t know where we’re transitioning to.”

At the Saturday meeting, the Board adopted budget guidance for Schwartz, outlining priorities including:

  • A balanced budget
  • Preserving the county’s AAA bond rating
  • Budget decisions made with equity in mind
  • Funding for collective bargaining with county employee groups
  • Continuing to invest in affordable housing, eviction prevention, mental health and environmental priorities
  • Maintain ongoing funding of the county’s affordable housing fund

The guidance calls for “actionable strategies for economic development that fully recognize and respond to the impacts of the work-from-home paradigm shift on Arlington’s office vacancy rate.” It also suggests exploring “reductions” and “efficiencies” in the budget and “eliminating programmatic activities that are no longer priorities.”

Schwartz is expected to present his proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget in February, followed by County Board adoption two months later. Public engagement, work sessions and hearings will be conducted between now and final adoption.

FY 2024 county budget timeline (via Arlington County)

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