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Board approves $1.55 billion budget, holds property tax rate steady and boosts member pay

Arlington County Board meeting on April 22, 2023 (via Arlington County/YouTube)

The Arlington County Board has approved a budget that hikes the salaries of county employees — as well as Board members themselves.

The $1.55 billion budget is a 3.3% increase over the current fiscal year’s $1.5 billion budget, funded in large part thanks to rising residential property assessments. The property tax rate was held steady at $1.013 per $100 of assessed value, but the average Arlington homeowner will pay around $450 more per year due to higher assessments and higher fees, including a $98 increase in the trash collection fee and $26 for higher water rates.

As proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz, the budget will raise the pay of county employees between 4.5 and 10%.

Uniformed police and sheriff’s employees will see raises on the upper end of that scale, amid continued recruiting and staffing challenges among law enforcement agencies. The Board additionally directed Schwartz to consider “any potential enhancements to the newly revised step and grade wage structures that would address compensation, recruitment, retention and pay compression challenges facing police and fire staff.”

Another addition to the budget made by the Board, as voted on during a recent work session, was to hike its own pay.

Following a $20,000 raise of Board salaries last year, the new budget adds just over $62,000 to bring Board salaries to the maximum rate set by the Board in a 2019 vote: $89,851 for members, $95,734 for the Board Chair (a position that rotates among members annually).

The Board pay increase was proposed by Libby Garvey, who said it will provide “close to a living wage for people doing this job, commensurate with the time and the skills needed.”

“There is never a good time to raise Board salaries, they’ve always been low,” she said at the work session. “So I would like to do it now.”

Takis Karantonis concurred, noting the cost of living in Arlington.

“We cannot have it so that those that bring a lot of means… are able to afford to run” for office, he said. “That is not in the long-term… interest [of the county].”

Board Chair Christian Dorsey abstained from the vote and Katie Cristol voted against it. Both are not seeking reelection this year.

Two significant focuses of the budget and Board directives were aimed at affordable housing and the opioid crisis.

The budget adds four behavioral health therapists to address substance abuse among students, while providing $95,000 to the Dept. of Parks and Recreation for improved out-of-school youth programming.

The latter was hailed by the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

“Our existing programming was well-intentioned but difficult to access by the students who might need it the most,” CCPTA President Claire Noakes said in a statement. “Not all families are fortunate enough to have an adult tackle the multiple organizational tasks needed to pre-register a child for a class, organize a family calendar, arrange for transportation at a set time each week, and find a way to pay for it. Additionally, students who are dealing with anxiety or depression may not be able to participate in programs that involve physical competition, such as sports.”

“Other students may just need a safe place to decompress when household stress becomes overwhelming,” Noakes added. “We realized that there was an unmet need for accessible, supervised, drop-in space for youth to simply hang out and connect with peers, mentors, and caring adults.”

The budget, as adopted by the Board, includes $83 million for various housing programs. On the heels of the Board’s approval of “Missing Middle” zoning changes — also dubbed Expanded Housing Options — the budget directs the County Manager to design an “Affordable EHO Homeownership Pilot Program” that could be implemented by the end of 2024.

More on the new budget and its approval is below, from a county press release.

The Arlington County Board voted unanimously Saturday, April 22, 2023, to adopt a $1.55 billion balanced Budget for Fiscal Year 2024. The adopted budget focuses on community needs as the County continues to emerge from the pandemic, including affordable housing, while also providing foundational services, such as public safety, environmental services, transportation, and schools.

The base real estate tax rate remains unchanged at $1.013 per $100 of assessed value.

“As we return to normalcy after years of prioritizing critical operations and making difficult budget decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlington is finally in a position to build much-needed capacity within its departments and in its efforts to address community priorities and needs,” said Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “The past few years impacted everyone, especially our lower-income neighbors. Adding funding to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, for example, ensures that we maintain our vital role in financing affordable housing development within Arlington. Moreover, the County Board is eager to capitalize on opportunities that may arise from the Homeownership Study, helping us further understand how to better support existing and aspiring homeowners.”

After months of study, evaluation, and community feedback on budget priorities, the County Board approved funding for the next fiscal year that makes investments in the following areas:

  • Housing Support: The Adopted Budget includes over $83 million dedicated to housing programs, with an emphasis on stabilizing housing for households in need and improving housing conditions. These investments include $14.4 million for the County’s Housing Grant program, $5.4 million for the Permanent Supportive Housing program, and $4.6 million for eviction prevention. The budget also includes $20.5 million for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, with the dedication of revenue from the Columbia Pike Tax Increment Financing District that totals $5.2 million.
  • Workforce Investment for County Employees. The County Board approved salary increases and additional benefits to help attract and retain County employees, including expanded parental leave, bereavement leave, and increased contributions for adoptions and Health Savings Accounts.
  • Commercial Resiliency: To address the high commercial vacancy rate and support economic recovery for the business community, the budget includes $1 million for the Arlington Innovation Fund and continued small business support.
  • Capital Investments: The Approved Budget includes investments that benefit the community in the areas of energy management, facilities, parks, technology, and transportation. These investments include street lighting and safety improvements, electric vehicle chargers, and playground design and replacement.
  • Schools: The FY 2024 transfer to Arlington Public Schools (APS) from the County is $608.2 million—46.8 percent of local tax revenues. This funding level is a 4 percent increase over FY 2023.

Investing in Our Future

In addition to these investments, the County Board approved funding to address emergent issues affecting the community, including behavioral health challenges and the impacts of climate change.

“This budget is also responsive to the ongoing threats to the health of our community,” added Chair Dorsey. “In collaboration with APS, we are providing four Behavioral Health Therapists for youth to help address the current opioid crisis in Arlington schools. Our commitment to our children’s livelihoods should not end there, however. As the climate crisis worsens, we must do our part now to provide them a future to look forward to. The additional staff position in the newly created Office of Climate Coordination and Policy will amplify our climate action efforts and help build a more sustainable and climate-conscious Arlington.”

The County Board approved a $98 increase in household solid waste fees due to increased costs from driver shortages, labor costs, and equipment pricing. The Board also approved an increase in water-sewer rates, which are estimated to impact a median residential customer $26 per year, or 3.5%, based on increases to both the volumetric and base charges.

The Board held public budget and tax rate hearings in March 2023 with opportunities for public comment. Since January, the County Board has received phone calls, emails, and letters regarding different areas of the budget and has considered them as part of their deliberations. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2023.

Guidance to the County Manager

In adopting the budget, the County Board also included guidance to the County Manager to:

  • Bring forward in November 2023—at the time of FY 2023 closeout—options for allocating one-time close-out money to the total Notice of Funding Available for Human and Community Services currently being developed by the County Manager’s Office.
  • Offer an implementation schedule, potential program guidelines, and recommended funding levels for launching an Affordable EHO Homeownership Pilot Program by the end of 2024.
  • Ensure that additional capacity and backbone support through a new full-time position is provided to the Department of Human Services for the implementation of the Childcare Initiative Action Plan and other existing plans.
  • Consider, in consultation with union representatives, any potential enhancements to the newly revised step and grade wage structures that would address compensation, recruitment, retention and pay compression challenges facing police and fire staff.

Learn more about the FY 2024 Budget on the County website, including staff reports and the County Manager’s Proposed Budget presentation.

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