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New Audit Finds No Cause for Alarm Over APS Construction Costs

Arlington may spend slightly more on school construction than some of the county’s peers around the D.C. region, but a long-awaited audit report suggests that the school system has done a decent job holding costs down in recent years.

Prepared by an independent firm for the School Board’s internal auditor and released today (Monday), the new analysis commends Arlington Public Schools for matching other dense urban areas like Alexandria and D.C. when it comes to the cost of new school construction. The audit found that the county does tend to spend more on architectural and engineering work than some of its neighbors, but analysts chalked up that discrepancy to Arlington’s challenges finding space for new schools.

APS has earned plenty of criticism for its spending on construction projects in recent years, particularly after a state analysis showed that the school system spent significantly more on the new Wakefield High School than other counties around the state did on comparable projects. The Board hired an internal auditor, John Mickevice, in 2014 as debate raged across the county about the costs of major construction efforts of all sorts, and he commissioned this review of costs last October.

In general, the audit found that the school system is hardly perfect when it comes to managing big projects — for instance, the analysts note that Arlington’s lengthy public engagement process does inevitably tend to drive costs up — and includes some suggestions about how APS might streamline some of its design and acquisition practices. But it also does not contain any sweeping indictment of the school system’s methods, finding that Arlington has often paid less per seat for its elementary and high schools than its neighbors.

“Even with our challenges, this shows we’re still in the ballpark with everyone else,” School Board member Barbara Kanninen, the chair of the Board’s audit committee, told ARLnow. “This idea that somehow we’re too extravagant is simply not confirmed… and it is a little bit validating.”

In all, the audit found that the county’s high schools cost less to build than nine of the 14 other schools around the region that analysts examined. The firm, Bethesda-based O’Connor Construction Management, primarily focused on schools in Loudoun County, Fairfax County, D.C., Alexandria and Montgomery County, Maryland.

For instance, the group found that the new Wakefield High School, opened in 2013, cost a total of $118.6 million, or about $60,500 per seat. Meanwhile, the new Wilson building (set to open next year and house the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs) will cost around $101 million, or $130,300 per seat.

For comparison, similarly sized high schools in D.C. ranged in cost from $129,000 per seat to $248,000 per seat. High schools in Montgomery County ranged from costs close to $51,900 per seat to $76,500 per seat, while Loudoun’s cost hovered between $51,800 and $59,800 per seat.

Fairfax County had the lowest costs of the bunch, with prices ranging from $33,100 per seat to $40,400 for new high schools.

The audit found similar trends in elementary school construction costs.

Arlington paid about $64,000 per seat at the new Discovery Elementary School, and is set to finish the new Alice West Fleet Elementary at a cost of $62,500 per seat. D.C. schools ranged in cost from $100,000 to $124,000 per seat, while Montgomery came in at $41,400 to $65,100 per seat. Loudoun’s schools ranged from $27,900 to $34,300 per seat.

But the analysts noted that Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery all benefited from working with considerably more open space than similar projects in Arlington or D.C. Not only has that forced the county to pay significantly more to build underground parking structures at some schools, but APS can’t simply replicate the same school designs at each site.

“APS does not have the luxury of developing uniform design specifications, due to the dense urban location of its schools,” the analysts wrote. “Thus, each school is designed to meet the particular needs of the community’s students.”

As Kanninen puts it, the school system can’t simply take a design “off the shelf” and use it over again the exact same way — the audit estimates the additional design work can bump up the costs of Arlington’s projects by as much as 1.5 percent of the total construction cost, compared to the county’s neighbors.

That being said, the analysts found that “the increased staff involvement — in time and resources — during the community engagement process” does also tend to edge the county’s costs a bit higher. But they also awarded APS high marks for its energy efficiency standards, which should help generate savings in the long term.

The report recommends a whole host of new contracting practices for APS to adopt, and suggests that the school system tweak some of its methods for buying things like school furniture.

Kanninen says the Board plans to take a close look at all of those recommendations, particularly one suggesting that APS emphasize “value engineering” throughout the design process to keep costs down. She added that the Board specifically asked the analysts to include those recommendations for changes in the report, which delayed its release slightly.

School leaders had initially hoped to have the audit in hand this summer, prompting some grumbling about the report’s delay, but Kanninen wants to assure the community that were no ulterior motives at play.

“People think we were trying to figure out how to pitch this story, but that was not the case at all,” Kanninen said.

Kanninen, the Board’s lone member up for re-election this year, said she is acutely aware that the subject of school costs has become a hot-button political issue. Even though she expects the report won’t quiet all the school system’s critics, she hopes it reassures taxpayers that their money is being well spent.

“There are always going to be people who believe we’re spending too much… but I think it’s going to lend some confidence to the community that we’re spending wisely,” Kanninen said. “The School Board took this proactive step to look into this and it’s a positive thing. There’s a lot to be proud of here.”

Now, county and school leaders are trying to schedule a joint meeting of their respective audit committees to discuss the report in more detail, according to County Board member John Vihstadt. As co-chair of the county’s audit committee, he hopes to use that gathering to gain “a collective understanding of the audit findings and look to collaborative next steps to address them.”

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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County Auditor Plans to Review Economic Development Incentives, Purchasing Practices

Arlington’s independent auditor is planning new reviews of how the county incentivizes businesses to move here, how it oversees its Business Improvement Districts and how it buys goods and services.

County Auditor Chris Horton unveiled his proposed work plan for fiscal year 2019 on Friday (June 8), after taking in public feedback and conducting a “risk assessment” of the county government.

Though Horton reports to the Board, and was appointed by its members, the auditor is charged with acting as an independent watchdog in the county to make Arlington’s government more efficient, most recently releasing a report on operations at the county’s 911 call center.

This year, Horton plans to study Arlington’s procurement practices and “analyze root causes of any identified inefficiencies,” according to a news release.

He also wants to examine how the county’s economic development officials use “incentive funds” to lure businesses to the area, particularly as leaders fret about how to reduce the office vacancy rate in neighborhoods like Rosslyn and Crystal City.

“As the county works to reduce its office vacancy rate, it is important that our incentive practices are efficient and effective,” Horton said in a statement.

Finally, Horton is planning on examining how the county manages its financial relationship with the Business Improvement Districts in Rosslyn, Ballston and Crystal City.

Horton is also mulling two additional areas of focus: the county’s Neighborhood Conservation program, which is set to see steep cuts in County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan, and the site plan benefits negotiated between the county and developers. However, he’ll only pursue those reviews if he has enough time to do so.

The auditor will present his proposal to the County Board for approval on June 19.

File photo

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Morning Notes

State Budget With Medicaid Expansion Passes — “After months of inaction, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a budget Wednesday that expands Medicaid to around 300,000 low-income Virginians. The House voted 67-31 Wednesday night to send the two-year budget bill to the governor, and 68-30 to send the ‘caboose’ bill to the governor that the Senate approved earlier in the day.” [WTOP, Richmond Times-Dispatch]

County Auditor Gearing Up for New Projects — “Arlington County Board members and the general public soon will be able to see what topics the government’s internal auditor plans to study over the coming year.” [InsideNova]

Citizen’s Police Academy Accepting Applications — “The Arlington County Police Department is now accepting applications for the fall Citizen’s Police Academy. The 22nd Citizen’s Police Academy will begin on Thursday, September 6, 2018. The Academy will consist of 12 sessions that meet on Thursdays from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at police headquarters located at 1425 North Courthouse Road, Arlington, Virginia.” [Arlington County]

Journalist Death Hoax Has Arlington Tie — The staged death of journalist and Vladimir Putin foe Arkady Babchenko has a local connection, revolving around a photo that supposedly showed Babchenko shot to death in his Ukraine apartment: “Yevhen Lauer, the reporter who published the photo… has worked for various Ukrainian media outlets in the past [and] more recently been affiliated with Trident Group LLC… based in the Washington suburb of Arlington.” [RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Twitter (Caution: Graphic and NSFW)]

Nearby: Unique Show at State Theatre — The State Theatre in Falls Church is hosting a Joss Whedon-themed burlesque show Friday. It will feature a puppet playing the role of Whedon, a writer and director of cult TV shows and films, as well as burlesque performers from as far away as Dallas. [State Theatre, Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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Morning Notes

County HQ Renovation Vote Delayed — The Arlington County Board last night agreed to defer consideration of renovations to county government headquarters until April. The Board will discuss the “‘opportunity costs’ for the $10 million in rent abatements that will fund part of the renovation project,” in the context of the current county budget discussions, according to Board Chair Katie Cristol. [Twitter]

Arlington Declines Amazon FOIA Request — A Freedom of Information Act request for more information about the county’s Amazon HQ2 bid, sent from the Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell, was denied on the grounds that the information was “exempt from disclosure.” At the County Board meeting this past weekend, several speakers called on the county to release more information about what it has offered Amazon. [Twitter, WTOP]

Letter: APS Should Revise Gym Shorts Policy — Eighth-grade students wrote a letter to the editor encouraging Arlington Public Schools to revise its policy on girls’ gym shorts. Per the letter: “The shorts we are required to wear by the school system cause many of us embarrassment because the wide, open legs allow others to see our undergarments, especially during floor exercises. Additionally, the current gym shorts are too big for petite girls.” [InsideNova]

Arlington TV Now in HD — “You can now watch Arlington TV (ATV), the County’s government cable channel, in high definition (HD) on Comcast Xfinity. From live County Board meetings to original programming about Arlington, viewers with HD sets can now watch the same programming on Channel 1085 on Comcast Xfinity’s HD tier.” [Arlington County]

Auditor Releases Report on ECC Overtime — Arlington County Auditor Chris Horton has released a report on overtime incurred by the county’s Emergency Communications Center, which handles 911 calls and dispatches first responders. The ECC’s overtime costs were about $1.4 million last year. Horton found that “a more efficient training process could result in greater staffing efficiency, and potentially reduce overtime expenses.” [Arlington County]

Four Phases of Snow Removal — For those who need a reminder after this anemic winter, a YouTube video explains the county’s four-stage snow removal process. [YouTube]

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Independent Auditor Seeks Suggestions of Things to Audit

(Updated at 2:50 p.m.) Arlington County’s independent auditor is soliciting suggestions for potential government audits from residents.

Chris Horton, who has been in the job since Nov. 2016 after his predecessor, Jessica Tucker, decamped for California, wants residents to chime in with ideas for transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness measures that should be undertaken. The goal is to uncover suggested audit topics for his 2018 work plan that result in “a broad community impact, a significant financial impact or both.”

“Primarily, we want to find out if there are things that the members of the public, members of the community, are aware of that haven’t necessarily bubbled up to my level or to the board level,” said Horton, noting that having a formal, written process was preferred to individual phone calls.

The previous public call, under Tucker, resulted in approximately 81 submissions. Public comments can be submitted on the county website over the next 30 days, although it may be extended depending on feedback volume. There are no limitations on suggested topics, but anonymous submissions are not accepted and it is recommended that each submission only address one audit topic.

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Morning Notes

Arlington Murder Suspect Arrested — Jason Allen Johnson, wanted for the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Michael Gray at an Arlington house party in February, has been arrested. Fox 5 reports that Johnson was arrested in New York on unrelated charges. [Fox 5]

County Threatens Eminent Domain for Bus Parking Lot — Arlington County is threatening to use the power of eminent domain to acquire a property it is currently leasing for bus parking along I-395 near Shirlington. The County Board last night authorized an offer to buy the property, which is assessed at $20.5 million, but also authorized use of eminent domain to acquire the property if its purchase offer is unsuccessful. [Arlington County]

Auditor Plans to Tackle School Construction Costs — “The Arlington School Board’s internal auditor plans to take a crack at a vexing question: Why does it cost so much more to build a school in Arlington than elsewhere? Or does really cost that much more, after all?” [InsideNova]

ACPD Greets All-Law Enforcement Honor Flight — Officers from the Arlington County Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies often greet honor flights arriving at Reagan National Airport. Yesterday they greeted the first-ever honor flight of veterans who all later served as law enforcement officers. [Twitter, Twitter]

Endorsements for Gutshall, McCullough — Democratic Arlington County Board candidate Erik Gutshall has picked up the endorsement of the Sun Gazette newspaper. Independent progressive candidate Charles McCullough, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the Working Families Party. [InsideNova, InsideNova]

Flickr pool photo by Ameschen

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Arlington Hires New Auditor, Launches Public Fraud and Abuse Hotline

Money (file photo)Arlington County is launching a Financial Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline hotline to the public.

The hotline, which launches on Tuesday, Nov. 15, “will offer a confidential and secure way to report suspected incidents of financial fraud, waste and abuse.” It expands on a similar hotline for County employees to report activity that negatively impacts County operations.

“Ethics are at the core of what we do as public stewards,” Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. “Our employees, by and large, do the right thing every day. We successfully launched an employee financial waste, fraud and abuse hotline in May of 2015. We are pleased to expand this hotline to the public, as another easy way for anyone to report suspected instances of financial fraud, waste and abuse.”

The hotline, operated by third-party provider Ethical Advocate, can be reached via phone at 866-565-9206 or online at arlingtonva.ethicaladvocate.com. Tipsters can opt to remain anonymous.

Complaints will be examined by a “Review Committee” that will then “determine appropriate action,” including potential review by the Arlington County Police Department.

Dr. Chris Horton (photo courtesy Arlington County)Separately, the Arlington County Board announced at its Wednesday meeting that it had hired a new County Auditor, after the county’s first independent auditor left the job in July.

The new auditor, Dr. Chris Horton, previously served as audit manager for the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Office of Auditor General.

More about the hire from a county press release, after the jump.

The Arlington County Board announced today that it has hired Dr. Chris Horton as the County Auditor. Horton, who served as the audit manager for the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Office of Auditor General, will report directly to the Board. He will be responsible for developing work plans to review County programs.

“We welcome Dr. Horton to the County’s already strong financial management team,” said Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey. “Dr. Horton will play a key role in our continuing efforts to strengthen County operations and ensure that public funds are spent responsibly, efficiently and in a transparent manner.”

Dr. Horton’s work will augment the County’s existing internal audit function within the Department of Management and Finance. Under the direction of the Audit Committee, Horton will undertake independent program and operational audits and reviews of County departments, operations and County-funded programs. His priorities will be program efficiency, effectiveness and transparency.

The Board voted unanimously to approve Dr. Horton’s contract. He will take up his duties Nov. 21.

Dr. Horton has more than 15 years of audit experience. In his role as audit manager for Fairfax County Public Schools’ Office of Auditor General, he has helped build the office’s performance auditing capability. He also has performed audits within a wide variety of business units and has advised the Audit Committee on the structure of the audit function.

Earlier in his career, Dr. Horton served five years as an audit supervisor with the City and County of Denver. He assisted the city auditor in implementing a robust performance audit function.

Dr. Horton began his audit career with Arizona state government, primarily working in the Performance Audit Division of the Arizona Auditor General’s Office. He also helped start the compliance audit function for the Telecommunications Program Office (now called Enterprise Infrastructure & Communications) in the Department of Administration.

Chris Horton began his audit career with Arizona state government, primarily working in the Performance Audit Division of the Arizona Auditor General’s Office. Dr. Horton also helped to start the compliance audit function for the Telecommunications Program Office (now called Enterprise Infrastructure & Communications) in the Department of Administration.

Dr. Horton serves on the Association of Local Government Auditors Board of Directors (ALGA), where he has helped lead the development of a Corporate Associates Program. Previously, he was the chairman of the ALGA Education Committee. Under his leadership, the committee significantly expanded the number and variety of educational offerings, such as webinars and regional training conferences, and created the ALGA mentorship program. In addition to his service in ALGA, Dr. Horton is a member of the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), and holds four certifications through the IIA.

Dr. Horton completed his B.A. in Political Science and History, and an M.A. in History, both from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He completed his Ph.D. in Public Administration from Arizona State University.

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Arlington County’s New Auditor Is Leaving the Job

Jessica TuckerArlington is searching for a new auditor, the county announced this afternoon.

Jessica Tucker, the county’s first independent auditor to report directly to the County Board, is resigning as of July 8 and taking a new job in California.

Tucker’s tenure at the county started on Jan. 25, and seemed to be going well. She announced that she was seeking audit suggestions from residents last month.

The county released the following press release about Tucker’s resignation and the search for a new auditor.

Arlington County will launch a broad search for a new County Auditor, following the resignation of County Auditor Jessica A. Tucker, who has accepted a position in California. Tucker was the first auditor for Arlington County to report directly to the County Board.

“We wish Ms. Tucker success in her new endeavor,” said Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey. “During her short tenure with the County, she laid the groundwork for a successor to quickly move forward with the Audit Committee’s work plan. At the same time, the work of the County’s internal auditor continues.”

Tucker will end her tenure with the County on July 8. She was named auditor in December, 2015. The County Auditor conducts independent program and operation audits and reviews of County departments, operations and/or County-funded programs, focusing on program efficiency, effectiveness and transparency. The County Auditor augments the County’s internal audit function within the Department of Management and Finance.

In March, The County’s Audit Committee, composed of two Board members, the County Manager, the Acting Director of the County’s Department of Management and Finance and three residents, developed a work plan for the County Auditor, reaching a consensus on the first three assignments:

  • Site Plan Process
  • Jail Medical Services
  • Emergency Medical Transportation (Ambulance) Fee, from a list of 33 audit suggestions provided by the County’s Advisory Commission, the County Manager and the County Auditor.
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Arlington County Auditor Seeks Resident Suggestions, Concerns

Jessica TuckerArlington County’s new independent auditor, Jessica Tucker, is seeking suggestions from residents.

In a press release, below, the county says it has set up a form for resident suggestions of programs or services that should be reviewed — or ideas for improving county government efficiency, transparency and accountability.

The form asks how the suggestion would benefit the county, with the following options:

  • Cost savings
  • Improved service delivery
  • Revenue enhancement
  • Increased efficiency
  • Transparency and accountability
  • Risk mitigation

From the press release:

County Auditor Jessica A. Tucker is calling on residents with specific concerns to use the newly created online Audit Suggestion Form for potential reviews of County programs and services — or just to suggest improvements in County efficiency, transparency and accountability.

The County Board created the Auditor post last year to bolster existing County internal audit functions. Tucker operates independently of departments and reports directly to the Board.

“The suggestion form is a new initiative and we would like the input of as many people as possible,” Tucker says. “We are looking for ideas that will help improve service delivery, identify cost savings and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the County’s programs and services.”

Tucker adds that providing contact information on the form is strictly optional.

To help develop the Auditor’s annual work plan, the Board also established an Audit Committeemade up of two Board members, three citizen members, the County Manager and the Director of the Department of Management and Finance. That panel held its first meeting in March.

The Audit Suggestion Form can be found on the County website along with Audit Committee meeting materials and details on Tucker’s background.

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County Board Set to Hire Independent Auditor

The Arlington County Board marks up the budget, April 16, 2015Update at 11:45 p.m. — The County Board has approved the hiring of auditor Jessica Tucker by a vote of 4-1, with retiring Board member Walter Tejada voting no. Tucker is Deputy Auditor for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The Arlington County Board is set to hire its first independent auditor, six months after voting 4-1 to create the position.

At its meeting this afternoon, the Board is expected to approve a contract with an auditor named Jessica Tucker, to serve as Arlington’s Independent County Auditor. If approved, Tucker’s employment will begin Jan. 25.

Tucker will be responsible for conducting ” independent audits of County programs and operations, focused on program efficiency and effectiveness, often with the accompanying goal of increasing revenue or reducing expenditures,” according to a charge approved by the Board earlier this year.

The contract sets Tucker’s annual base salary at $125,000.

Tucker will serve at the pleasure of the Board and may be terminated by a majority vote of the Board. The position is considered independent because Tucker reports to the elected Board, as opposed to an existing internal county auditing function that reports to the appointed County Manager.

(The County Manager is the executive in charge of the vast majority of the county workforce. The County Board oversees only the hiring of the County Manager, County Clerk, County Attorney and now the Independent Auditor.)

The existing internal audit function is performed by 1.5 full-time-equivalent county employees within the Dept. of Management and Finance, along with external consultants, and is focused on “systematic core financial and compliance audits and internal controls reviews.”

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County Board to Start County Auditor Hiring Process

The Arlington County Board at its March 17 meetingThe County Board is about to begin the process of hiring a new independent county auditor.

The Board is expected to charge Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz with the creation of an independent county auditor position during its recessed meeting next Tuesday.

Once the Board approves guidance to the manager, Schwartz and officials from the Department of Management and Finance will begin recruiting and screening candidates, with the final hiring t0 be done by the County Board.

The auditor will report to the Board rather than the manager, who is county government’s top executive and oversees the county workforce.

“The County Auditor will serve at the pleasure of the County Board, annual performance reviews will be conducted by the full County Board with written input from the County Manager,” according to the County Board’s charge.

The new auditor will work a new Board-appointed audit committee to review the county’s programs for efficiency and effectiveness, as well as any policy concerns, according to the County Board’s charge. The committee will consist of two members from the County Board, the county manager or deputy county manager, the director of the Department of Management and Finance and up to three members from the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission or members of the public.

The new audit committee and auditor will be separate from the existing internal audit function inside of the Department of Management and Finance, which reports to the county manager.

“The County Board intends that the County Auditor and the Internal Audit group will collaborate and cooperate in furthering their respective missions, including meeting and exchanging information and materials as appropriate,” the charge says.

The County has designated $200,000 for the creation of the new position in its 2016 budget. After that, it’s hoped that it will begin paying for itself by finding cost savings and efficiencies in county government.

The Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill allowing for the creation of a county auditor position in Arlington last February. County Board member John Vihstadt has pushed for an independent auditor while on the Board and the campaign trail.

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