Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Coronavirus in Arlington has increased ninefold in just ten days. This is all with extremely limited testing resources. We need more tests and we needed them last week.

America just hit the highest number of individuals filing for unemployment in history. Unemployment insurance filings in Virginia jumped from just 2,706 last week to 46,885 this week — a 17-fold increase. People are losing their jobs and they’re losing them quickly.

The response of our community during this unprecedented health crisis has been heartening, however.

Virginia Hospital Center’s (VHC) COVID-19 testing site has gained national attention. President Obama shared the work of the Maywood Community Association’s effort to help the elderly and at-risk neighbors. Some restaurants like Good Stuff Eatery, Bayou Bakery, Medium Rare, and Good Company Doughnuts and Cafe are offering free meals to school-age kids or at-risk seniors. Arlington was the first in Northern Virginia to encourage bars/businesses to close prior to St, Patrick’s Day and encouraged the Governor to make a statewide announcement, apparently facing opposition from leadership in Fairfax County.

While our spirit remains resilient, our new normal has not yet appeared. Arlington has the second-largest coronavirus infections reported in Virginia. Virginia received 44,000 new filings for unemployment last week, and small businesses and restaurants are having to make hard decisions about their future. VHC’s drive-through testing requires a doctor’s note, which is difficult for those who are recently unemployed, uninsured, and particularly service workers who unknowingly interacted with infected patrons. Local doctors have reported turning away hundreds of patients who needed testing due to lack of tests.

My fear is that our reporting of infected persons is being vastly underreported due to a reluctance of doctors to issue a note for recommended testing because of limited testing resources.

Short Term Response: Safety

Ensuring the safety of our community always comes first. We have heard from VHC and other hospitals in the region that we don’t have enough testing.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 2:15 p.m.) Tax and budget season is upon us. County Manager Mark Schwartz has released a recommended budget of $1.396 billion, including increased tax revenues from increased assessments and increased county expenditures.

While I will not go into specifics of this year’s budget, I would like to begin a dialogue about systemic changes that the County Board should consider in the long-run about how we levy taxes.

Have Commissioner of Revenue Assess and Collect All Taxes

Currently, the county assesses and collects taxes on real estate and the Commissioner of Revenue assesses and collects every other tax including vehicular, personal property, and business license taxes. Two-thirds of our revenues come from real estate and one-third from everything else. This means a vast majority of the tax revenue is based on assessments that their own employees determine, rather than the elected independent Commissioner of Revenue, Ingrid Morroy.

In almost every election, Commissioner Morroy has advocated for this power. The argument is that having the same people setting the budget responsible for assessments is an inherent conflict of interest, and the move would provide better transparency and customer service for those who believe they’ve been overassessed.

The Virginia Code also says that the County government should only administer assessors if the Commissioner of Revenue will not consent to doing assessments, which is obviously not the case (note: I am obviously not a lawyer, but this seems to be the intention). This is used in almost every Virginia jurisdiction as a best practice when a Commissioner of Revenue exists.

Incentivize Lower Vacancy Rates

I would encourage consideration of a vacancy tax on office and storefront retail properties. For the last several years we have made it a goal to reduce commercial real estate and office vacancy. This is prioritized because when space remains vacant, the property is assessed at a lower value and we receive less tax revenue, making it harder to provide the services that our community expects. Each percentage of vacancy represents $3.4 million in lost revenue.

Intuition might tell you that if you cannot fill a space, owners would lower their rent to attract more tenants. Oftentimes this is not the case. Property owners will intentionally leave office and retail space vacant for a number of reasons. One is to wait for a large tenant to anchor the building, and avoid the build-out costs associated with leasing to smaller businesses along with the higher overhead needed to piecemeal tenants together. Another is that vacant space means lower taxes because of their low assessment.

Together this leaves very little pressure for owners of office and retail space to lower rents to the benefit of small businesses or fill vacant space to the benefit of the county’s tax revenue.

Other jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have developed a version of their own vacancy taxes. The intention of each is different, for example, San Francisco’s vacancy tax is only on storefront retail to maintain street-level vibrancy, and Washington D.C.’s vacancy tax is on office, retail, and residential, but based on the class of real estate to prevent general blight. Our real estate vacancy problems are unique to us and should be considered by our own stakeholders to frame a solution that prevents unintended consequences.

There has been some debate on whether Arlington has the authority to levy this type of tax. I would argue that there is precedent based on the tax exemption programs that we currently provide. If this is still deemed an unavailable tool in our toolbox based on state law, it might be worth restructuring the incentive in the form of a fine that we do have authority to enforce or for our government affairs team to push for this authority in the next General Assembly session.

Having the Commissioner of Revenue begin assessing taxes would likely save homeowners and commercial building owners in taxes, but would likely decrease overall county revenues. Levying a vacancy tax would benefit small businesses looking for office space, create a better restaurant and retail vibrancy, and increase county revenues, but would likely adversely impact commercial property owners. My hope is that further dialogue on these topics will benefit homeowners, small businesses, and on balance, our entire community.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 2:45 p.m.) Mental health wellness is something that has unfortunately been a scapegoat or justification for a number of policy issues to become “unfixable.”

From gun violence and suicide prevention, to long-term healthcare, to test taking and education, a binding thread is a need to focus on mental health. Without the ability to change our national system, what is it that we are doing here, and what are opportunities for improvement?

At the last Civic Federation meeting, there was a panel that focused specifically on adolescent mental health. To prepare the panel, Public Safety Chair Jackie Snelling and President Sandy Newton visited over 50 people from departments and nonprofits in the county to get a comprehensive understanding of the issue.

This included Health and Human Services, Police Crisis Intervention Team, Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, Northern Virginia Alliance on Mental Illness, school counselors, in-school and out-of-school social workers, student resource officers (SROs), and students.

In-School Resources

Right now APS has an initiative to have “one trusted adult” in each student’s life. This is undeniably important, but not all trusted adults know what to do when a child is in crisis or suffering. In-school resources are imperative to connecting services to those in need. There is an interesting dichotomy that presented itself in this discussion that came from the student on the panel.

Often teachers and SROs refer students to their counselors for help. School counselors are writing your college recommendations and recommending your coursework rigor. Students seem to feel they are not a fully trusted outlet to discuss mental health struggles because of that inherent conflict of interest.

Social workers and psychologists are generally seen as more confidential, but our ratios of students to those kind of staff are very high at 1:905, and 1:1123 in high school. While school counselor ratios are expected to be decreased to 1:350 by law via HB 1508, it will not have the same impact on social workers/psychologists, which I believe to be the bigger asset for mental health assistance in our school system. It might even be helpful to rename counselors “academic advisors” and make social workers and psychologists “counselors” to properly define their roles.

Not Enough Adolescent Beds

For those in crisis, there are not enough beds for kids (or adults for that matter). There are only 99 inpatient beds including 48 beds provided by the state for adolescents in all of Virginia. Each facility is wildly over capacity and individuals in crisis often have to wait for a bed and drive far lengths to receive services.

As we look at the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) this year, it would be worth considering mental health beds and/or facilities as a public infrastructure need. Perhaps a one-stop-shop specifically for mental health to reduce barriers to getting help.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As we head into Crossover (learn what that means here) in the General Assembly, I have a sense of pride about the great legislation that will likely become law during this session. I also maintain a massive fire of anger about a continued ambivalence towards ethics reform.

No substantive ethics reform will take place in the general assembly this year. At least one of our own Arlington legislators voted against every campaign finance reform measure presented to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, leading to its death in committee, including campaign contribution limits of $20,000 (SB 488), and prohibiting contributions from a public service corporations such as Dominion Energy or Washington Gas (SB 25). In the House, all four campaign finance bills (HB 111, HB 851, HB 895, HB 848) died by not being voted on in Committee.

My State Senate campaign and other primary campaigns across the Commonwealth almost had ethics at the forefront of our campaigns. That seems to have fallen on deaf ears. I bang my head against a wall knowing that the “Virginia Way” will prevail as we continue in a system that is set up for ethics failures.

I believe this to be true due in large part to the part-time nature of the legislative body. Session is less than two months long and the pay for Delegates is $17,640 and for Senators is $18,000. I could say the same for local offices such as Arlington County Board and School Board offices that are truly full-time jobs with Board meetings year-round, including weekends, and salaries of $55,147, significantly under the average individual income for north and south Arlington.

As much as we may give grief to these elected officials, you must acknowledge the financial decision these officeholders have taken in order to serve the community that they care so much for.

For this same reason, it is difficult for us not to follow the money. In the legislature, with the glorified stipend you are given, most electeds must work another job. While they are doing that other job, the full time lobby shops in Richmond that make a majority of incumbent donations and send dozens of mailers for their GOTV reelection efforts, are shaping legislation for the next session as soon this February is over.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington is a beautiful community with so much to be proud of.

For my last column of the year, here are some things that have been special to me, that I recommend, or that I want to acknowledge.

Arlington Heros

For 37 years Kip was a staple in thousands of Arlington student’s lives. In athletics he ran the Patriot Girls Hoops Summer Camp, coached Yorktown girls basketball, boys baseball, and the Special Olympics unified track and basketball teams.

More notably, he was a good friend. I don’t think many people knew his actual job, but as I have grown older I realized how important it was to have a non-parent adult at APS that you could always go to without judgement, and Kip was that person. Happy retirement, Kip.

Arlington County Police said goodbye to one really good boy this year. Koda was one of the best bomb sniffers in the region and spent time with his SRO handler welcoming students. Rest in peace and thank you for your service, Koda.

Civic Organizations

A powerful and consistent voice for our tree canopy. Arlington’s trees are what make us less of a concrete urban jungle and more of a livable, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing community to live in.

  • Black Parents of Arlington

If you didn’t read their Washington Post Op-Ed, I highly recommend it: Why black parents of Arlington are joining forces 

Date Ideas

Make sure you or the person you are with knows how to tie a figure 8 knot and belay! Rock climbing is a great way to cheer someone on, overcome failure, and get your endorphins running.

  • Neighborhood events

Local organizations provide great events like Fridays at the Fountain in Crystal City, Rosslyn Movies in the park, and more. Find a full list for your neighborhood: Ballston BID, Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, Crystal City BID, Lee Highway Alliance, and Rosslyn BID,

Artists

Music

A Grateful Dead sound and some killer guitar solos. Having played with Junior Marvin of the Wailers these native Arlington twins are sure to get you grooving. Next local concert: Jan. 21 7:30pm @ Jammin’ Java.

With over 1 million Spotify streams on their hit, Tired Boy, this local rap group of Arlingtonians is truly a group to keep an eye on.

Paint

You can see this Arlington local’s work at the newly opened Open Road Grill in Rosslyn with his district vibrant portraits of Ryan Zimmerman and Bruce Springstein.

Queen of the “polka daub” you can see her art at local gift boutique, Covet.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

‘Tis the season for holiday parties — and the season of wine and beer bottles, sauce jars, you name it.

It is somewhat of a misconception that Arlington recently stopped recycling glass. We really have just started recycling glass in a different and more efficient way.

This year I am thankful that the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to join forces with the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Prince William County to make our glass recycling more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective. Loudoun County voted this week to pilot the program.

There are two ways to properly dispose of glass since the change:

Preferred: Bring glass to the “Purple Bins”

In this process our glass is broken down and turned into pavement for Northern Virginia roads, bedding for drainage and stormwater pipes, and new glass materials, among other sustainable resources. This process is done at Fairfax County’s glass processing machine “Big Blue,” where 20 tons of glass can be crushed per hour to various grades of sand and gravel.

There are five Purple Bin locations to drop off glass for Arlington residents and businesses:

  1. Quincy Park (Orange/Silver Line Metro corridor accessible)
  2. Trades Center (Shirlington/Four Mile Run area accessible)
  3. Aurora Hills Community Center (Blue/Yellow Line Metro corridor accessible)
  4. Cherrydale Library (East Lee Highway area accessible)
  5. Lee Community Center (West Lee Highway area accessible)

Pro Tip: At the Trader Joe’s checkout there are dozens of wine boxes that you can take home with you, and at other grocery stores you can ask for a box for free. This will help you store glass safely and separately without anything breaking before your next trip to the Purple Bin. You can also keep a separate reusable grocery bag dedicated just to glass.

Put Glass in Your Curbside Trash Bin

Before the policy change, when you “recycled” your glass it was sorted out of the recycling facility and taken to the trash facility. By putting glass directly in the trash you save the county money by skipping the step of going through the recycle facility just to be transported by diesel truck to the trash facility it could have been at if you put it in the trash in the first place.

At the facility your glass is melted, mixed with combusted ash, and put in a landfill. In a bit of irony, if you do not take your glass to a Purple Bin it is better to put it in the curbside trash than in the blue recycle bin.

I am excited about this new program for two reasons:

  1. It exemplifies the best of what is possible in a green economy. It produces materials that are carbon intensive and generally used in public works or construction projects. The process also currently pays for itself making it cost neutral and potentially cost positive
  2. Our region worked together to create an economy of scale to the benefit of us all. Northern Virginia in the past year or two has begun partnering on everything from economic development and housing to waste disposal. Our continued coordination in various sectors will result in a more resilient region.

So far, the Big Blue glass recycling machine has processed 1,400 tons (2.8 million pounds) of glass, and Arlington has delivered 200 of those tons through our Purple Bins. I challenge our community to become a bigger percentage of that glass in the new year, and why not start with your holiday parties. Putting out that new wine box or reusable bag to collect your glass is the first step to start new habits, so try it out!

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What’s Next is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) “There was a single light on that I couldn’t turn off. I didn’t sleep while I was there.”

Below I will detail a discussion I had with someone, who for the purpose of this column I will refer to as “Alex,” about their time three years ago in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, located in Alexandria. The facility houses children and adolescents from Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church.

Alex was sent to the Juvenile Detention Center after two run-ins with the law. First, they were caught possessing less than an ounce of weed, and then another incident where they blew a .05 on a breathalyzer after being pulled over while on probation.

I will not go through the merits of Alex’s admittance to the facility, but rather detail the torturous conditions that Alex and hundreds of other Arlington children and teens have endured.

“After I got in the building through two cages with wire fencing, I was stripped, showered, and searched. My cell was completely concrete on all four sides and probably the size of a walk in closet. My thin mattress was built on concrete too and almost touched the joined toilet and sink. There was a slit of a window, but it was so high I couldn’t see out of it at all. There was a closed slit on the door that the guards gave me food through.”

For comparison purposes, in federal maximum security prison ADX Florence, also known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” inmates have more amenities than this facility. They are able to see out of a window facing outside, have a door window, as well as a personal radio, television, and the Bible. ADX holds Al-Qaeda terrorists, the Boston Marathon bomber, organized crime members, and mass murders. The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center holds children who sell weed and have “juvenile DUIs”.

“We had one hour of recreation where I played basketball and one hour in a social area where they gave us lemonade. The rest of the time was spent back in the cell. Since the walls are thick concrete you couldn’t knock or talk to neighbors. I was very isolated. The guard barely walked by. If I had a health problem it wouldn’t have been good because they couldn’t even see in.”

If you are doing the math in your head, that is 22 hours in a cell alone. We define solitary confinement as being in a cell for 22 or more hours without human contact.

Now imagine being in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison while being tortured with a light that doesn’t turn off. This year Arlington kids collectively spent 2,893 days in this facility between January and September.

Luckily, the City of Alexandria has proposed a study to regionalize our juvenile detention facilities — but not for the reasons that you might think. This study was not started because of the torturous conditions, but rather, that it isn’t being filled. The study is called the Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Use of the Northern Virginia Regional Juvenile Detention Center and Alternatives.

There is a public meeting TONIGHT from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Arlington Central Library auditorium (1015 N. Quincy Street). There is also an online survey you can take here.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow. 

Antiquated Prohibition-era laws are still alive and well in Virginia.

These regulations have become a burden on restaurants and entertainment-oriented businesses operating in the Commonwealth. For Arlington and Northern Virginia at large, this means lost business opportunities to competitors in Washington, D.C. that don’t have to abide by such outdated regulations.

Democrats this past session passed a law that allows restaurants to merely advertise happy hour but opposed numerous other reforms. For example, the Virginia Alcoholic and Beverage Commission, or ABC, requires that 45% of total gross sales at restaurant establishments be comprised of food and nonalcoholic beverages while alcohol purchases should not exceed more than 55% of sales.

Senate Minority Leader, Dick Saslaw, has said,  “If you can’t meet that ratio, you ain’t running a restaurant, you are flat running a bar. If you want saloons in Virginia, say so.”

So, here I am, saying so. We would like not only saloons, but restaurant wedding venues, music and dance venues, cigar lounges, cocktail bars, bottomless mimosas, and the like. A few examples of overburdensome regulations in Virginia that I hope Democrats will support overturning or reforming include:

Food to Alcohol Ratio

Virginia ABC’s 45/55% ratio rule should be overturned. The whole concept of having such a ratio to avoid drunkenness in our community is laughable. If you want to have a drink at a restaurant, you can have a drink. We are no longer in Prohibition. Bartenders are required to cut patrons off if they’ve had too much, but none are going to tell customers “sorry we’ve hit our food to drink ratio, so we’re going to have to stop serving you.”

What this really does is stifle certain business models like music venues (think: U Street Music Hall or 9:30 Club), cocktail bars (think: The Gibson or Left Door), art museums (think: Artechouse), and more. While I think we should wash the ratio altogether, Democrats have actually opposed even a reduction of the ratio, which seems irrational.

Open Bars for Events in Restaurants

Restaurants are also banned from allowing open bars for private parties. Want to host a corporate or conference event and provide an open bar? Head to D.C. Want to have your wedding reception at a local restaurant? Tough luck.

Wonder why Arlington’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are barely worth the cost, and make a large market of customers cross the river every December 31st for unlimited drink passes? Taking away this regulation would allow for a potentially large revenue generator and perhaps even help reduce the number of ARLnow articles we see about restaurant closings. This is silly, let’s scrap it.

Drink Specials

Drink specials such as bottomless or “2 for 1” deals are banned in Virginia. These regulations are essentially obsolete because they do allow for sort of bottomless where you pay a fixed price for your meal and as little as a penny for each drink. This rule has no tangible benefits and unnecessarily hinders restaurants from marketing competitively.

These regulations seem like one of those things that we will look back on one day and think to ourselves about how silly things used to be. During the next legislative session, I encourage our delegation to think about these issues in a new light and finally overturn these antiquated laws 86 years after Prohibition ended.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

My name is Nicole Merlene and I’d like to welcome you to my new column, What’s Next with Nicole. Thank you to the ARLnow team for inviting me to write this regular opinion column.

I plan to write about a wide range of topics that impact our community. My hope is to not only provide a forward-thinking perspective on current policy considerations, but also to shed light on less publicized topics.

A bit about me: I am a 27-year-old Arlington native. I grew up in the Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood, where I attended Glebe Elementary School, A.T.S., Swanson Middle School, and Yorktown High School. Currently, I am a renter living in a “market-rate affordable” garden apartment in Virginia Square.

This spring I ran for Virginia State Senate in the 31st district to represent areas of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties. I have also served as the Vice President for both the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, and currently serve on the Arlington Economic Development Commission. Prior to my run for office, I was Policy Director for the international trade association, Invest in the USA.

Arlington has one of the most educated populations in the country and I relish the opportunity to productively advance our public discourse in a new way. This column will focus on providing solutions rather than simply presenting problems, and while the solutions presented may not always be perfect, the goal is to bring thoughtfulness and a forward-looking perspective to local issues.

It is a wonderful thing that in contrast to what is happening on the national stage, our local community is able to have respectful conversations on substantive policy topics. I’m honored to be writing this column for ARLnow and look forward to kicking off my first full piece next week.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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