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Arlington County Mark Schwartz (file photo by Jay Westcott)

Predicting a potential $35-million deficit in the 2023-24 fiscal year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz recommends putting nearly all of the unspent funds from last fiscal year toward balancing that budget.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the Arlington County Board approved the close of the 2021-22 budget with nearly $26.9 million in unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds leftover. In the same meeting, county staff briefed the Board on its grim predictions for the 2023-24 budget, planning for which is already underway.

The county attributes the $26.9 million surplus to a better-than-projected tax year and fewer expenses than anticipated.

“This was primarily the result of a slowdown in departmental operations due to COVID coupled with retention and staff hiring challenges,” per a county report. “In addition, Countywide health care costs were less than anticipated.”

The 2022 closeout funds represent 2.4% of the county budget (excluding Arlington Public Schools expenditures) and mark an increase from last year, when the county ended the 2021 fiscal year with $20.4 million — or 2.2% of the budget — leftover.

Those closeout funds, coupled with federal funding, went to pandemic recovery, childcare, criminal justice reform and other equity initiatives. But now, Schwartz says the county needs the 2022 closeout funds for balancing the budget.

“Given the pressures that we’re facing in fiscal year ’24… my recommendation is that the discretionary balance of [$26.9] million that is available in closeout be set aside so that the board can consider it for potential use as part of the fiscal ’24 budget process,” Schwartz said on Tuesday afternoon during an Arlington County Board meeting.

Arlington County Budget Director Richard Stephenson said the projections are not uniformly bad news.

“It’s a good news, and not-so-good news, story,” he said. “County revenue that we’re projecting for 2024 is positive. Unfortunately, as we’re looking ahead, the expenditure side of the equation is going to outpace the revenue growth we’re projecting.”

Total tax growth is projected to be up 3.4% before sharing revenue with Arlington Public Schools. That is driven by increases in real estate assessments as well as taxes on personal property, Business, Professional and Occupational Licenses, sales and meals.

Budget assumptions for 2023-24 (via Arlington County)

Another bright spot, Stephenson said, is that sales and meals taxes have not only bounced back from the pandemic, but they have also surpassed pre-pandemic levels. He said the county expects the hotel tax will eventually catch up, too.

Sales and meals taxes have bounced back from the pandemic, and hotel taxes are not far behind (via Arlington County)

Still, Stephenson said, said the county has a number of “self-evident” concerns at the start of budget planning for the 2023-24 budget: inflation and wage growth, the transition from one-time federal funding — from sources such as the American Rescue Plan — to ongoing local funding for some projects, and the impact of interest rates.

Climbing interest rates and office vacancy rates, however, are threatening a “significant portion” of Arlington’s General Fund budget, or revenue from commercial real estate tax, Stephenson says.

Climbing interest rates and office vacancy rates comprise two hits to tax revenue (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said this information “gives a good bit of context” to Schwartz’s recommendation to lean on unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds next year.

“For my part, I do think this is an easy decision to carry the fiscal ’22 closeout to fiscal ’24, and that may be the last time the term ‘easy decision’ is used in the same sentence as ‘fiscal ’24 budget,'” she said.

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The School Board reviews the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee report at a work session (screenshot via Arlington County)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) An advisory group meant to guide facilities planning has several concerns with Arlington Public Schools’ proposed capital spending plan, namely the cost of a new Arlington Career Center.

APS would only be able to construct the Career Center by nearly maxing out its debt capacity, according to a Joint Facilities Advisory Committee report published June 7.

The county and APS cap debt repayments at 10% of their projected budgets. Under the School Board’s proposed CIP budget, the debt service is expected to remain around 9.8% from fiscal year 2027 to fiscal year 2032, according to JFAC’s report, leaving little wiggle room for maintenance projects and unforeseen needs.

At the same time, the CIP contains “discrepancies in the accounting for available bonding capacity for APS,” JFAC says.

The group Arlington Parents for Education explained in a newsletter today:

APS shares bond capacity with the county. This week, it was revealed that the county has a very different idea of how much APS has available in bond capacity; the County’s CIP has only $78 million in available bond capacity for APS. This is a discrepancy of $242 million.

“The main concern of JFAC is this CIP in the broader context all the known facility and infrastructure needs of APS and ACG,” JFAC’s chair and vice chair wrote in a recent letter. “It presently does not transparently demonstrate long-term financial viability for short term projects and expenditures or demonstrate that long-range planning processes for land use or capital projects have been fully considered.”

The lack of transparency “makes it harder for the public to recognize the planning commitments APS is making in this CIP,” the committee report stated.

However, APS believes it is being fiscally prudent.

“I don’t think we have anyone on this School Board or anyone on the staff is recommending that in the out years, we bump our CIP up to the maximum 9.8% target that we used to come up with that bonding capacity. It was just to show that there is room available in the out years for other projects that will come in those next CIPs,” said Assistant Superintendent Leslie Peterson during a work session reviewing the committee report.

The proposed CIP was also vague on the details of how the capital projects would be funded, the JFAC report said. The proposed budget did not set a specific amount of funding for long-range plans to renovate existing facilities, nor did it account for their cost estimates in setting its desired bond capacity, according to the report.

The School Board and county government projections for bond capacity are also at odds, with the School Board budgeting $242 million more than the county.

School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen said bond capacity may open up if the county — and, by extension, APS — receives more revenue than what was projected, allowing the board to carry out all the identified projects. If that doesn’t happen, the School Board would then discuss how to best handle new capital spending needs.

“If that’s the way it is, we’re gonna have that conversation then, there’s no pre-having that conversation,” she said.

The proposed CIP estimates the new Career Center building, which would be the most expensive project the school system has ever undertaken, would cost around $174 million. It would be funded by about $136 million from a 2022 bond referendum, as well as $37.4 million in past bond funding.

The JFAC report expressed concern at this decision since the School Board would be asking for a large sum of money at “a time of high inflation and financial uncertainty.”

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Arlington County staff present the details of County Manager Mark Schwartz’s $3.9 billion CIP for 2023-32 (via Arlington County)

From a new Columbia Pike library to a dedicated pickleball court, County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 10-year $3.9 billion capital improvement plan would fund projects across Arlington.

The first 10-year plan for capital projects in four years would budget for infrastructure projects between 2023 and 2032. The CIP proposal, slated for adoption in July, is a 40% increase from the plan approved four years ago, Schwartz said in his presentation to the County Board Tuesday.

“This CIP proposal aims to address current and future capital needs in Arlington County as we emerge from the financial setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schwartz said in a statement. “We want to focus on key planned investments in addition to following through on commitments from prior plans to benefit county residents and businesses long-term.”

Stormwater projects would receive $331.3 million in funding, including $77 million for Spout Run, $14.7 million for Torreyson Run, $28.5 million for Crossman Run and $49.5 million for Lubber Run — all flood mitigation efforts. Streams and water quality funding is proposed at $52.1 million and maintenance at $50.2 million.

A slideshow outlining what Arlington’s investment in environmental goals looks like in the 2023-32 CIP (via Arlington County)

While Metro remains one of the largest investments in the CIP, at $356.4 million, the proposal also outlines $1.8 billion in non-Metro transportation funding. This includes $16 million for Vision Zero street safety improvements program, $64 million for bridge replacements and renovations, and $89 million for bike and walk programs.

Other highlights include:

The proposed CIP includes new park programs that focus on emerging needs and natural resiliency, a new fire station on the west end of Columbia Pike, and facilities consolidation to enable remote work for county staff.

Schwartz said the needs of the county have changed since the last 10-year CIP, as the county is in “a world shaped by the pandemic where we do our business differently.”

Michelle Cowan, deputy county manager overseeing the Department of Management and Finance, noted during the presentation that the finance department works entirely remotely now, potentially a harbinger of a money-saving reduction in the county’s office footprint.

“We have reduced our footprint which… allows us then to do some really strategic consolidations that you’ll hear about in other county buildings that could get us out of some aging assets,” Cowan said.

The CIP will continue to fund debt service obligations for the investment in housing at Barcroft Apartments, construction of Fire Station 8, which is scheduled to be completed in fall 2023, and the design and planning process for the proposed Arlington boathouse.

Preliminary construction funding for the lower boathouse site is included in the later years of the CIP.

This CIP returns funding levels for the Arlington Neighborhoods Program, formerly the Neighborhood Conservation Program, which are projects identified by individual neighborhoods and include street improvements, streetlights, parks, beautification and sidewalks. The program had steep cuts in previous CIPs.

The 2023-32 CIP proposal would provide $85.2 million in funding to the program. That includes $4 million of funding for projects in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, and would increase to $9 million in 2030 and 2031, Director of Management and Finance Maria Meredith said.

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Arlington School Board members clap after approving the final budget for the 2022-23 school year (via Arlington Public Schools)

The Arlington School Board unanimously approved a $749.9 million budget for the 2022-23 school year during its meeting Thursday night.

Revenue for the Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes a $563.8 million ongoing transfer from the county, a one-time transfer of $20.5 million, $3.5 million in carry-over funds from the 2021-22 school year, state and federal funding, and the use of $21.3 million in reserves.

The budget process, Chair Barbara Kanninen noted, went well. It was the first time in four years that the School Board was presented a balanced budget — as opposed to recent years when the superintendent proposed spending more than was anticipated in revenue.

Similar to the county budget, school system funding in the upcoming year emphasizes compensation for staff.

“We want to support our students as much as possible but a big part of that is recruiting and retaining that outstanding staff,” Kanninen said.

The budget will allow the school system to begin implementing its new compensation plan, which will update salary scales, provide consistent step increases and catch up from missed missed step increases in the past. On average, teachers, principals and administrators will see a 6.8% pay increase, while support staff will see an average of a 9.5% increase.

School Board members Mary Kadera and Cristina Diaz-Torres said when they first heard the proposed compensation increases, they thought it would be a “moonshot.”

The budget reduces class size by two students at the elementary level and one student at the high school level, funds additional school-based equity and excellence coordinators and an equity data dashboard, and adds more resources for English learners.

Adjustments to school bell times, which were also approved at the meeting, are expected to result in nearly $2 million in savings for the school system. The changes reduce the number of school start and end times from eight across APS to five, thus streamlining school bus routes and schedules.

The School Board added to Superintendent Francisco Durán’s proposed budget, including funding for four psychologists and social workers, trauma-informed professional learning, the National Board Certified Teacher program, a partnership coordinator, and a math curriculum supervisor.

A chart noting the School Board’s additions to the superintendent’s proposed budget (via Arlington Public Schools)

Other updates to the budget included $147,871 in funding to open the planetarium in October or November 2022 and hire a director, $391,484 for four high school math coaches and $628,000 for a year of tutoring for grades 6-12.

A few public commenters noted the disparities in minority students’ test scores and the need for more funding to compensate for lost learning during the pandemic.

“We took a first step, we have more steps to go until we see each and every one of our students be successful and right now we have a lot of students that are still having some academic and social emotional needs,” Durán said in response.

The Virginia General Assembly still has not adopted a budget for the Commonwealth, so the School Board will likely have to amend the budget to account for any state revenue changes. If there’s a shortfall, the superintendent proposes to fund them with reserves.

Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)

The School Board also kicked off its Capital Improvement Plan process, as Durán put forward his proposal, which totals $388.23 million between 2023 and 2032.

The CIP will be the first 10-year plan since 2018. The school system has only budgeted three years in advance since, in part due to budgetary uncertainty during the pandemic, but can return to the longer range planning now that APS is in a better place fiscally, Durán said.

All proposed project funding includes money set aside for escalation and inflation, as well as contingency.

While about 45% of the CIP will go toward the Arlington Career Center project, Durán said his proposal incorporates many other improvements. He proposed the larger of the two concept options for the career center, which could accommodate 1,795 students. The center is the county’s only career and technical education center.

“This is a major part of our CIP, certainly, but not the only one,” Durán said.

A pie chart in a slideshow depicts that 45% of the 2023-32 Capital Improvement Plan is budgeted for the Arlington Career Center (via Arlington Public Schools)

His presentation to the board also highlighted kitchen upgrades, security vestibules at schools, athletic field replacements and accessibility enhancements.

The first school renovation would have a target fall 2026 start — but the school system hasn’t determined which school will be upgraded.

In the proposal, new synthetic turf would be installed at Wakefield High School in fiscal year 2023, at Washington-Liberty High and Williamsburg Middle School in fiscal year 2024, and at Greenbrier  Park (Yorktown High School) in fiscal year 2025. Kenmore’s field will also be converted but costs will be shared with the county, Durán said.

An HVAC replacement at Barcroft Elementary School is under design and Randolph Elementary’s roof replacement will go to bid this fall.

Other items included in the proposal were upgrades to finance and HR staff software, known as STARS, replacing lock and key systems, and PA system replacements at six schools.

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Decal design competition presentation in 2018 (file photo)

Arlington County has not required a tax decal on cars since 2019, but that has not ended the annual $33 per-vehicle decal fee — yet.

Also known as a “motor vehicle license fee,” the yearly charge is assessed for all cars kept in Arlington regardless of their value, unlike another annual vehicle expense, the Vehicle Personal Property Tax. But the former is now on the way out.

The County Board is set to vote Saturday to eliminate the $33 fee, following the approval of the new Fiscal Year 2023 budget last month. The lost revenue is being offset by “a portion of the additional personal property tax revenue projected due to rising vehicle assessments,” according to a report to the Board.

More from the report:

The MVL fee was originally known as the decal fee due to the previous requirement to display a decal on the windshield of all vehicles having situs in Arlington County as proof of payment of the annual MVL fee. The fee was intended to help cover the cost of compliance efforts related to the filing and payment of vehicle personal property taxes. In FY 2008, the initial fee of $25 was increased to $33, the maximum amount allowed per Virginia Code. Due to the automation of compliance efforts in FY 2019, the decal requirement was repealed and the fee remained payable with vehicle personal property tax bills due each year on October 5th.

“Since this flat fee of $33 ($18 for motorcycles) is applied to all vehicles each year, households with cheaper and older cars are burdened the same as affluent households owning more expensive vehicles,” the report goes on to say. “The removal of this fee, with revenue offset by the more progressive tax (personal property tax), continues the County’s priority of more equitable tax burden in our community.”

Currently, Falls Church, Fairfax County and Prince William County each collect a $33 annual license fee, like Arlington, while Alexandria does not collect the fee.

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Arlington Public Library is getting more than a half a million dollars to add 12,000 more titles to its collection, mostly in the form of ebooks.

Last month, the County Board adopted a budget that included a one-time allocation of $543,000 to the county library system for the purpose of adding to its collection. That money will kick in at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.

“The additional funds will allow us to get more books into more hands, more quickly,” said Library Director Diane Kresh in a press release. “A well-stocked, diverse collection benefits the entire community.”

Notably, the money will go towards increasing the library’s collection of electronic titles. The demand for both of these are at an “all-time high,” according to Arlington Public Library, with check-outs increasing by 210% for eAudio titles and 98.5% for eBooks since 2019.

The hope is that the extra funds will help “drastically reduce” how long patrons are waiting for popular titles.

“The lion’s share of the one-time funding will go towards bringing down those wait times by adding more copies of ebook/eaudiobooks with high holds to the collection,” Peter Petruski, who is in charge of the library’s collections, told ARLnow via email.

A smaller portion of the funding will go to more copies of print books, since demand isn’t as high as it is for electronic versions. Print books cost less than their electronic equivalents, Petruski noted.

“The growth in the e-material formats has been the biggest change in recent history,” Petruski writes. “This funding will allow us to continue to provide a broad collection for every reader’s interest while bringing wait times down.”

The library will also expand its catalog of Spanish language books with some of the funding.

The County Board approved its $1.5 billion annual budget last month. In it, Arlington Public Library was allocated a total of about $16 million — an increase of close to 6% from the previous year’s budget.

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The Arlington County Board discusses the budget at a meeting (via Arlington County)

In addition to approving a new county budget Tuesday night, the Arlington County Board also approved a $20,000 pay raise for each of its members.

Board Chair Katie Cristol said she’s uncomfortable voting on her own salary, but nonetheless in the approved budget her salary as this year’s Chair will increase from $63,413 to $83,413.

“I think what ultimately has persuaded me to support this idea is sort of depersonalizing it and the recognition that it’s actually not about my salary, it’s about a Board member’s salary,” she said.

Cristol and Board member Libby Garvey pointed out that the increases make the positions more competitive. Higher salaries — the salary for a Board member is increasing from $57,648 to $77,648 — will make members less dependent on high-earning spouses or other sources of supplemental income like consulting jobs.

“I’ve talked to far too many people who, I think, would make great County Board members and they tell me, ‘I simply can’t afford to do it,'” Garvey said. “So I’m hoping this is going to be a step in the right direction to make it, I think, actually more democratic, better representation.”

The set salaries remain below the cap set by the Board in 2019 — $95,734 for the Chair and $89,851 for members.

The Board can only raise the salary cap in the year that two board members are up for reelection, which will next happen in 2023, when Cristol and Christian Dorsey are up for reelection.

After a community survey a few years ago on the compensation of Board members, the Board came to the general consensus that it would be appropriate for members to earn a salary equivalent to the area median income for a one-member household, Cristol said. The pay raise just approved will not reach that level, but will get closer to it.

“I believe that was the benchmark, the idea there being that Board members ought to make not more than the average Arlingtonian, but not less either,” she said. “So this would get us I think about half of the way there. I believe this roughly shakes out to about a Board member making 80% of the area median income for a household of one.”

De Ferranti said that a seat on the Board, while originally intended as a part-time position, is effectively a full-time job and ought to be paid as such.

“My view is that for a locality that is approaching 240,000 people, the job of being a Board member is a full-time job,” he said. “There’s been some analysis in the past as to the number of hours, sometimes it’s 50 or 60 hours per week and sometimes it’s 35 but I think this is a full-time job.”

Member Takis Karantonis said he’s struggled with juggling the amount of work that comes with the County Board and his other work. He has had to excuse himself from certain votes, which can be uncomfortable, he said.

“This is really not helpful. It is not helpful for the Board as a whole, it is not helpful for the way this body works, it is not helpful for anybody,” he said.

Dorsey said he didn’t want any part of this issue when it came up while he was chair in 2019 — he was in the midst of personal financial troubles that would later lead to a bankruptcy filing and accusations of unethical behavior related to political donations. He said he supports the raise now because public servants should be valued for their work.

Dorsey thanked Garvey for “pressing the cause.”

“When we do the public’s business, we cannot do that effectively without really good public servants and, you know, for far too long, public servants compared to their private sector counterparts make sacrifices that often go underappreciated,” he said.

The pay raise will take effect with the county’s new Fiscal Year 2023 budget on July 1.

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Arlington County Board adopts FY 2023 budget on April 26, 2022 (via Arlington County)

The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a balanced $1.5 billion annual budget on Tuesday night.

The FY 2023 budget represents a 7.6% revenue and spending increase over the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

The new budget follows County Manager Mark Schwartz’s recommendation to hold the real estate tax rate steady at $1.013 per $100 of value, which is an effective tax hike of 5.3% on homeowners given a steep rise in assessments amid a hot local real estate market.

Weakness in commercial property values, given the pandemic and work-at-home trends leading to elevated office vacancy rates, put pressure on the revenue side of the budget. Assessments were flat for commercial property, which makes up more than a third of the county’s property tax base.

“Although I am glad that we could hold to our property tax rate… among the lowest in the region, I know that we all would prefer to be in the situation of our peer jurisdictions who are less dependent on commercial revenue sources and are therefore entertaining rate cuts this year,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said at the meeting.

She continued: “But by investing in our people, specifically investing in retention and recruitment for the positions and divisions where quality of service is most threatened” — including law enforcement and the fire department — “and prioritizing the urgent as well as important issues of housing equity and climate, I am optimistic that this budget will be one that doesn’t just bridge the pandemic but begins our journey on the other side.”

Increased costs attributable to inflation, meanwhile, while not mentioned in the county press release (below), will likely put pressure on the expense side of the budget.

The new budget represents a 50% increase in spending over the FY 2012 budget approved 11 years ago, when the county budget first hit the $1 billion mark. During that time, the U.S. has seen inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, of 29%, while the county has seen a population increase of roughly 15%.

The FY 2023 budget largely follows Schwartz’s proposed budget. It includes pay hikes for county employees, and even steeper pay increases for the police department, Sheriff’s Office and fire department.

Other local priorities targeted for increased spending include affordable housing and the environment, with the budget funding a new “Office of Climate Coordination and Policy.”

The climate office will be run out of the County Manager’s office and will “focus on advancing key climate policies and strengthen[ing] interdepartmental coordination across government.”

While many will see a tax hike given rising property values, vehicle owners will see a bit of relief with the new budget.

“The budget also includes vehicle tax relief by adjusting the assessment tax ratio to 88 percent of a car’s value and the elimination of the regressive $33 Motor Vehicle Fee for Arlington residents,” notes a county press release. “These changes are in response to a surge in vehicle valuations, directly related to supply chain issues and rising market prices impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

More details about the budget, from the press release, are below.

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The Arlington School Board during its April 7, 2022 meeting (via Arlington Public Schools)

Arlington Public Schools is adding funding to its proposed budget to fund positions supporting student mental health and safety.

The revised budget includes about $800,000 to add the equivalent of 5.5 full-time school safety coordinators and restore four psychologist and social worker positions, which were initially cut due to lower enrollment projections.

“I’m really glad to see our budget is paying attention to mental health, which we know is a significant concern locally and nationally,” School Board member Mary Kadera said during the School Board meeting Thursday night.

Members of the School Board unanimously approved several changes to the proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, but the budget is not yet set in stone — final approvals are slated for May.

The additional safety and mental health expenses come as many schools — particularly the middle schools — are seeing an uptick in fights and instances of students either bringing, or threatening to bring, weapons to school, as ARLnow previously reported. School administrators say they are stepping up their focus on social-emotional learning in response.

Last week week, Arlington police investigated text messages referencing potential violence at Swanson and Dorothy Hamm middle schools, but concluded there was no active or ongoing threat, Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. The week before last, a Swanson student brought a taser to school, according to an email to families.

Additionally, in response to students filming peers in the restroom, teachers have started monitoring bathrooms and confiscating students’ phones during bathroom breaks, Fox 5 reported.

Responding to concerns from Swanson staff and parents, administrators said in a School Talk email, provided to ARLnow, that there will be increased monitoring, more mental health and social-emotional learning and improved communication with families and staff when incidents arise.

This year, APS has leaned on specialized school safety staff after removing sworn ACPD School Resource Officers from its buildings last summer.

None of the newly budgeted “school safety coordinators” will go to Swanson, but they will go to Gunston Middle School, the Langston High School Continuation Program and New Directions programs, and the newly renovated education center building that will serve Washington-Liberty High School. There will also be two substitutes.

The coordinators add to an existing 28.5 full-time-equivalent school safety staff members, who once were called “security resource assistants.” APS aims to have at least one coordinator per middle and high school building, with an additional coordinator per 500 students beyond that. Roaming coordinators support multiple elementary schools.

These staff monitor hallways, watch for student behavior during arrival and dismissal and during night time events and activities, ensure searches of students are performed correctly and conduct drills, Director of Safety, Security, Risk and Emergency Management Zach Pope said during a budget work session last month.

They are required to complete more than 60 hours of training, including compulsory minimum training through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, schools spokesman Frank Bellavia tells ARLnow.

“APS has been engaging in conversations since 2018 with Arlington County public safety agencies about the best way to adjust these positions and provide maximum level support to the safety, security and wellbeing of our communities,” he said.

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Gulf Branch Nature Center (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are pushing to expand the hours of Arlington nature centers, as the 2023 county budget proposes to keep hours at pandemic levels.

In a letter to the community last week, Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center president Duke Banks took issue with the County Manager’s proposed budget, which would keep the county’s two nature centers open only three days a week. That’s in contrast with the centers’ six day a week schedule prior to the pandemic.

The reasons for the cuts are due to safety and practicality.

A new Department of Parks and Recreation directive, as director Jane Rudolph noted in a budget work session earlier this month, is that two staff members are now required to open a county facility when previously only one was needed. That policy was put in place in response to a sexual assault that occurred at the Barcroft Recreation Center in 2019.

The other is that with more virtual programs — and school field trips still restricted, in part due to a bus driver shortage — nature center staff are more often going into schools instead of students coming to the facilities themselves.

Banks says that his organization understands the challenges, but believes it’s important to hire a few extra employees to keep the nature centers open as often as possible.

“Friends of GBNC understands the need for safety, and we laud nature center staff members on their flexibility in continuing to provide programs during COVID — both to the public and schools. However, these emergency initiatives don’t justify closing Arlington’s remaining nature centers three days a week,” Banks says in the letter. “Our nature centers anchor the creative new programming, providing essential facilities like exhibits, restrooms and shelter (during storms) and serving as a physical focal point that makes nature accessible to everyone, young or old, rich or poor.”

As Rudolph brought up at the work session, staffing and hiring remains a challenge across the department (as well as in the county as a whole). She noted that the department is making an effort to “meet people where they are” by taking nature center programming out of the facilities and into community centers, as well as schools.

“There is nature center programming happening, it just isn’t always happening in the nature center,” Rudolph said at the work session.

Banks and Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center disagreed with the approach, saying that structured programming shouldn’t be a driver of when the nature centers should be open.

“Many folks visit nature centers without attending a program and thus would be denied access to the nature centers at a time when the public’s visits to our parks have significantly increased during COVID,” Banks said in the letter. “With our highly urbanized environment and the pandemic-related fallout, children need the respite of enjoying nature now more than ever.”

The two county-run nature centers, Gulf Branch and Long Branch, averaged about 21,000 visitors annually in 2018 and 2019, according to a county report.

Rudolph made a point to say that the operational changes may not be permanent. The department is currently evaluating not just how many days the nature centers should be open, but their hours as well.

The centers are currently open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with no evening hours, but Rudolph said that there’s a possibility of using some money to keep the centers open later this year, after kids are out of school and parents return from work. This could make centers more accessible without opening on additional days, officials said.

Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center is not the only organization advocating for bring nature centers hours back to pre-pandemic levels. During the work session, representatives from the county’s Park and Recreation and Forestry and Natural Resources commissions also expressed a desire to have the nature centers open longer.

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are asking those who agree with them to send an email to the County Board and County Manager expressing “how important it is to keep our nature centers accessible to the public and how disappointed you are by the proposed cuts to the nature centers’ public hours.”

The full letter from the organization is below.

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Arlington County firefighters rescue a window washer dangling in a safety harness in the 1500 block of Wilson Blvd last year (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Arlington firefighters union says the county’s proposed 2022-23 budget underfunds the fire department and puts residents in unnecessary danger, but county officials dispute the characterization.

The union wants the budget to support having someone with Advanced Life Support training on each fire department vehicle, something that county officials say is not necessary. ALS providers are certified to treat critically ill patients with life-saving drugs or intravenous medicines, among other training that goes beyond basic emergency medical care, also called Basic Life Support.

Currently, Arlington has a mix of ALS and BLS medic units on duty at any given time.

The budget also does not include premium pay for the Swift Water Rescue Team to reflect the riskier work they do, while wages have stagnated for rank-and-file members, according to the union.

IAFF 2800, which represents more than 300 firefighters, proposes adding $8.5 million to the 2022-23 budget to address these issues.

Budgeting decisions regarding wages “have led to diminished emergency services at the risk of potential harm to the citizens, businesses and visitors of Arlington,” the union said in a letter to the Arlington County Board and County Manager Mark Schwartz. “It is with this in mind that we bring these issues to the forefront before it escalates to a point that causes unnecessary harm to the community we serve.”

The $8.5 million would provide a 7% raise to keep up with inflation, make firefighters whole for missed pay increases since 2018, provide premium pay for responders who took on more work due to labor shortages, and increase compensation for the Swift Water Rescue Team, IAFF says.

County Manager Mark Schwartz says the union’s account is inaccurate and the county has not been cutting costs.

“All County residents should know that there is no ‘unnecessarily hazardous situation’ and that each resident can rely on a strong and well-trained workforce to respond to their needs,” he said in response.

Specifically, ACFD has stepped up its medical care without “over-resourcing” every call through mobile diagnoses, on-site treatments and new technologies that give patients more options, he said, adding that “not every patient needs an Advanced Life Support provider.”

Schwartz says the Swift Water Rescue Team does not receive premium pay, but he is committed to adding compensation for the team in addition to funding that addresses stagnant wages.

Employee compensation is the chief focus of the 2022-23 budget, which is currently being hammered out. Schwartz proposes 6.5% salary increases for public safety employees and a $2.2 million increase for the fire department over the 2022 budget, according to a recent presentation.

The summary of the 2022-23 budget for the fire department (via Arlington County)

Among other changes, the increase would fund the implementation of the Kelly Day, which will reduce each firefighter’s average work week from 56 to 50 hours, improving work-life balance and reducing attrition, the county says. The county hired nearly 40 additional firefighters over four years to instate the Kelly Day.

Today, the department is close to full staffing and is experiencing vacancies comparable to Arlington’s historical average, Schwartz said. ACFD loses about two employees a month, and there are currently 15 uniform vacancies.

“I hope that the historic investments we have made over the past four years in a reduced work week and exemplary practices will continue to attract the best staff in the nation,” he said.

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