Arlington, VA

Morning Notes

Local Coronavirus Test Results Delayed — “When we talked to an Arlington man Tuesday, it was approaching 11 days since he’d been tested for COVID-19, and he still hadn’t received his results. ‘It’s just so frustrating,’ Daniel Miller told us via FaceTime. ‘I just want my results back. I want to be able to know what I have. I want to know if this is COVID or not.'” [WJLA]

APS to Rethink Budget Proposal — “Arlington School Board members have given Superintendent Cintia Johnson direction to start battening the hatches as the school system – like the county, state and nation – move into rough economic waters. ‘We’re going to have to look at potential tough budget times’ and ‘figure out a way to move forward,’ School Board Vice Chairman Monique O’Grady said.” [InsideNova]

Window Smashed at Rhodeside Grill — Someone smashed one of the large front windows at Rhodeside Grill in Rosslyn, which is currently shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. [Twitter]

Local Restaurant Owner Still Optimistic — The outbreak has been devastating for the restaurant business, but some local owners are making the most of it. Amir Mostafavi, founder of the South Block juice chain, is giving away free fruit to kids in need during the crisis. “We’re going to come out of this as stronger people, as stronger businesses,” Mostafavi told NBC 4. [LinkedIn]

Bayou Bakery Closing Its Takeout Service — “Having persevered for three weeks through the limitations of the current public health situation, Arlington’s Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery is temporarily closing its doors to ‘Call-In, Carry Out’ service on April 1, 2020. Chef/owner David Guas will continue his mission to provide the community and underserved kids and families with free, grab-and-go meals.” [Press Release]

Shuttle Bus Company Helps Collect Food — “FLARE, an amenity electric shuttle service, along with the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, collected and delivered over 800 lbs. of food donations from the Crystal City area for the Arlington Food Assistance Center on Saturday, March 21, and announced that food collection efforts will continue in the Crystal City area starting today.” [Press Release]

Photo courtesy Allison Bredbenner

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Like other nearby localities, Arlington has entered the community transmission phase of coronavirus outbreak.

As of noon Monday, the number of known coronavirus cases in Arlington again increased — to 34 cases from 26 cases on Sunday and 17 on Friday, according to the Virginia Dept. of Health. Some of those are suspected cases of community transmission, which cannot be traced back to travel abroad or contact with a person known to be infected.

At the Arlington County Board meeting on Saturday, Arlington County Health Director Dr. Reuben Varghese provided an update on the county’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have cases in Arlington, as well as in the region… there is now evidence for local transmission, community transmission,” said Varghese. “[These are] cases where you can’t find a known source related to travel… The cases in Georgetown were a known cause, but we now have evidence without being able to find a known source of transmission.”

Varghese said that this was completely expected and the work being done now on social distancing will help reduce the spread.

“With that evidence of community spread in Northern Virginia we want to remind everyone: infectious diseases don’t respect boundaries and all localities should be vigilant in helping to slow the spread of the virus,” Varghese said.

Varghese advised people to wash their hands frequently and to cover their faces when coughing, complimenting someone else in the room mid-speech with having “good technique” as they started to cough.

Statewide in Virginia, there are now 254 known coronavirus cases, including 38 hospitalizations and 6 deaths. Nearly 3,700 people have been tested, according to the state health department. Fairfax County now has the highest number of cases among individual jurisdictions in the Commonwealth: 43.

Meanwhile, the county is scrapping its previous budget.

“We’re doing the best to get a new budget proposal by April 1,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said. “It will be a very small document with increased demands in certain areas and less revenue.”

Schwartz said that, as the county did after the 9/11 terror attacks, all capital projects will be reprioritized to divert resources to essential needs. Budget work sessions have been temporarily suspended.

“We expect occupancy tax and meals tax to be low,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that occupancy rates at Arlington hotels are currently around 2-3% with one closing that week.

Image via Arlington County

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While reducing the human toll of the coronavirus outbreak is a top priority, Arlington officials are also trying to determine its impact on the upcoming county budget.

Given that the length and depth of the economic fallout from the outbreak is unknown at this point, county leaders are not sure how exactly it will affect the budget, which has to be approved before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

“Right now I don’t know,” said Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey, when asked what changes would be made to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s recommended budget. “I’d tell you something but it probably will change… I haven’t had a day go the way I thought it would go for weeks now.”

Garvey said three things about the budget thus far are true:

  1. “We need a budget by July 1.”
  2. “We don’t know what our revenues will be.”
  3. “We don’t know what our expenses will be.”

“Somehow we need a budget by then,” she said. “Clearly the process of getting there will change… it’s very difficult to create a budget when you don’t know what your revenues will be and what your expenses will be.”

Changes to the process include changes to work sessions and public hearings — one work session was cancelled earlier this week — and perhaps a later adoption date while details are worked out.

On the revenue side, the coronavirus outbreak will likely reduce what the county receives from meals, business and sales taxes, while hardship from the outbreak could prompt County Board members to lower the property tax rate. (Under its advertised tax rate, the rate cannot be raised.)

The county is, however, hoping for additional state and federal aid.

On the expense side, the budget will likely prompt more social safety net spending, among other urgent needs.

Ironically, this year’s budget was originally touted as a “good news budget,” with strong expected tax revenue allowing the county to painlessly tackle a number of priorities, from increases in employee compensation to elimination of library fines.

Now, such decisions will get more difficult.

Garvey said Schwartz has tasked departments with finding areas where current full time positions could be re-tasked and shifted to more urgent needs in the post-outbreak world. Another possibility: delayed openings for the under-construction Lubber Run Community Center and Long Bridge Park Aquatics Center, to save on the expanse of staffing and programming both facilities.

“The world has changed, and it’s about to be very clear how it changed,” Garvey said.

In a phone interview with ARLnow Thursday morning, Garvey urged residents to continue practicing social distancing.

“Stay home as much as you can,” wash your hands frequently, and “if you go out, don’t go near people,” she said. She noted, however, that “having people go out for a walk, a bike ride, is great… being outside and getting exercise is good for you.”

Garvey was critical of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam only setting a 10-person capacity at public gatherings and establishments like restaurants and gyms, rather than — as the county would prefer — closing them to completely to everything but food takeout and delivery. Not only does it not go far enough, she said, but it’s difficult to enforce.

According to Garvey, it takes local governments three consecutive visits of both a police officer and a public health official to be able to shut a non-compliant restaurant down — and police officers and public health personnel are currently needed for higher priorities.

Also, Garvey said, it’s impossible for Arlington County Board meetings to be held in compliance with all laws. There are 10 people, including Board members, county employees and security, needed at County Board meetings, thus reaching the limit for public gatherings. But public access laws require Board meeting to also be open to the public.

“We need good leadership from Richmond and we need it now,” Garvey said. “Can we please, please use common sense. We need the rule of law, yes, but we also need common sense.”

The Board Chair thanked local businesses that have followed the County Board’s lead and closed up shop or gone takeout- and delivery-only.

“I do want to give a heartfelt expression of gratitude to those who have done the responsible thing,” she said. “It’s not easy for them and we very much appreciate it.”

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(Updated at noon) Arlington’s Lee Community and Senior Center, at 5722 Lee Highway, is set to close after the end of the year.

The center — the portion of the building operated by the Dept. of Parks and Recreation — was flagged for review in last year’s budget process.

“This facility is aging and in need of significant capital investment,” wrote Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz, at the time. “In addition, existing programming at the Lee Center could be evaluated for movement to other locations or programs.”

Schwartz’s latest budget proposal includes six months of funding to keep the center open through the end of the year, before DPR programs move out.

“As part of the County Manager’s proposed FY 2021 Budget that was unveiled last Tuesday, DPR will no longer have a presence at Lee Community Center starting in January 2021,” parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish tells ARLnow. “DPR will be moving all of its existing programs out of Lee to Langston-Brown, the new Lubber Run and Madison Community Centers.”

The move will not affect the Lee Arts Center in the building, which is proposed to remain funded in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, according to county spokeswoman Erika Moore.

“The County has not determined next steps for the building and the Lee Arts Center,” Kalish said.

The following specific changes are planned for programming currently at the Lee Highway facility, per DPR:

  • “Lee 55+ programs will be relocated to Lubber Run, Langston-Brown and Madison Community Centers. 55+ programs will begin transitioning out of Lee in fall 2020; all programs will be moved by the end of December 2020.”
  • “The Lee Cooperative Playgroup will finish its programming next December and will reopen in nearby Langston-Brown in January 2021. The Langston-Brown playgroup area will be refreshed and better outfitted to meet the needs of the program. Current families enrolled in the Lee playgroup will have first priority for playgroup space at Langston-Brown and will be able to tour the new space in November 2020.”
  • “Enjoy Arlington classes will be relocated by summer 2020 to other locations.”

The Langston-Brown Community Center is located a mile east of the Lee Community Center.

“While we understand change is difficult, we believe that this change will allow us to provide the best programs and services we can to our community,” Kalish said of the community center’s closure. “Over the course of the year we will be connecting with community stakeholders about the move so that prior to December, everyone knows about the change and will know where to go to get the programs and services they value.”

Photo via Arlington County

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Arlington County may have opted to keep the tax rate steady, or even cut it, but the Arlington Public Schools (APS) says it still needs to find a way to bridge at least a portion of a $27.6 million budget gap.

In total, Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson’s budget comes out to $725.9 million in expenditures and only $698.4 million in revenue, assuming the transfer from the county to the school system remains as proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Budget gaps are nothing new for APS, but the difference has often been covered by tax hikes that the off the table for this year. The familiar pattern prompted some cynicism at a budget work session last night from School Board member Nancy Van Doren, who said she’d been through the budget dance six times and hoped that maybe this year would be different.

“Maybe I’ve just done this too many times but I know the process we’re about to go through,” Van Doren said. “We have a greater need than the money allocated to us by the county. They have proposed their tax rate and it’s not going to be enough for us to cover our budget. Therefore we’re going to them and asking them for more money. They’re going to decide how much they give us and we’re going to adjust our budget.”

“That will involve a lot of community angst,” she added.

Van Doren proposed, at some point in the budget process, meeting with the County Board formally before the School Board prepares its final budget.

“There’s a script to this that we all go through, and it’s exhausting,” Van Doren said. “I’m wondering if we might write a letter to the county and say ‘we have a 27 million shortfall, how much are you going to help us with’ so we can cut to the chase and find out what we have to close.”

She faces a similar veteran of budget gaps, County Manager Mark Schwartz, who in his budget presentation to the County Board said he fully expected APS to request more funding, but that the $17.7 million more than last year that the school is receiving should be enough to account for the increase in students.

Johnson’s budget presentation cited a 4% increase in enrollment and rising costs for students with special needs, transportation services, substitutes, ADA accommodations and health insurance as factors in the gap. Enrollment growth accounted for $12.8 million, but that was not the largest new cost in the budget.

The largest cost increase in Johnson’s budget is a step increase for school employees and a 1.6% cost of living adjustment, totaling to $18 million. There are also $10.3 million in one-time and ongoing costs for opening five new schools and programs, according to a press release from APS.

The budget also proposes 84 new special education and special needs positions throughout the school system — at an annual cost of $6.56 million — and around 35 new full-time English Learner teachers, at an annual cost of $3.89 million, to comply with a settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

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The Arlington County Board voted yesterday to advertise a maximum tax rate that will, at most, keep the current rate steady.

The action comes amid rising property assessments that will buoy county coffers and help support County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 2.9% increase in spending without a rate hike.

Arlington’s rosier financial picture, with the ongoing arrival of Amazon’s HQ2, was enough to have Schwartz smiling during a recent budget presentation, touting “a good budget year.” And it might be enough to even support a tax cut.

Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey pointedly floated the idea of bringing down the current $1.013 per $100 rate in her remarks yesterday.

“This year’s higher assessments mean that even without an increase in the tax rate, most homeowners still would see the biggest jump in their real estate taxes since 2016,” said Garvey, who’s facing a primary challenge this year. “Facing that reality, we will certainly be looking for ways to adopt a lower rate than what we have advertised today when we finalize the budget in April.”

The rise in assessments — 4.3% for residential properties and 4.9% for commercial properties — means more tax revenue, but also a higher tax burden on property owners.

“With no increase in the property tax rate, the County expects $51.1 million in additional ongoing revenue,” a county press release noted. “Should the Board adopt the current tax rate and other proposed fee increases, the average Arlington homeowner would see their fees and taxes increase by $376 from what they paid in FY 2020, based on a home value of $686,300.”

Last year, amid budget pressures, the County Board voted for a 2 cent tax rate increase.

Among neighboring jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, Alexandria and Prince William have both proposed 2 cent property tax rate increases this year, Loudoun has proposed a 1 cent reduction, and Fairfax County just proposed a 3 cent hike. Arlington’s rate is currently the lowest of the group.

Despite Fairfax’s proposed 3 cent hike, the increase in taxes on the average homeowner would actually be lower than that in Arlington with no tax rate change here — $376 vs. $346. Residential property assessments in Fairfax rose an average of 2.65% this year.

As part of the annual budget process, the Arlington County Board will now hold a series of work sessions and public hearings, before a final vote on the FY 2021 budget on Saturday, April 18.

More on the Board’s tax rate advertisement vote, via the county press release, below after the jump.

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Amazon is moving in at a quickening clip and Arlington County’s budget-makers are breathing a sigh of relief.

After a few years of tight budgets, involving tax rate hikes and a handful of county staff layoffs, “this is a good budget year,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said today, ahead of presenting his proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget to the Arlington County Board.

That means a lack of hard choices: under the proposal, the $1.013 per $100 property tax rate remains steady, county staff — particularly public safety personnel — are getting raises, and library fines are being eliminated.

“We’ve gone through some lean years where we’ve been challenged on the revenue side,” Schwartz told reporters. “This is a good news budget, based on the fact that… we have a revenue infusion that has allowed us to do some things we just weren’t able to do before.”

In all, the $1.4 billion budget increases spending by 2.9% and anticipates a 4.6% increase in tax revenue, thanks in part to rising property assessments and a boost in business taxes paid to the county.

The average homeowner can expect to pay an extra $376 in property taxes, even with the rate holding steady. Arlington’s tax rate is lower than that of Alexandria ($1.130), Fairfax ($1.150) and Loudoun ($1.045).

After years of budget pressures caused by increases in health costs and Metro funding, among other rising expenses amid slowly-growing revenue, Schwartz struck a decidedly upbeat tone this year. He predicted future revenue growth as Amazon continues to grow its presence and other businesses flock to the county.

“The past few years we have seen the effects of a record-high commercial vacancy rate,” Schwartz said in a statement. “Now we are beginning to see the results of our commitment to economic development and spending realignments. This budget represents an investment in the cornerstones of County government with an eye toward an innovative future in Arlington.”

“We’re coming out of the trough,” Schwartz added.

Perhaps the biggest source of budget friction this year will be with Arlington Public Schools.

Schwartz is taking pains in his presentation to emphasize that Arlington County has been increasing the percentage of tax revenue it sends to the school system, a separate governmental entity. This year, under Schwartz’s budget, APS is slated to receive $550 million, up from $500 million two years ago.

Schwartz says he expects APS, with its ever-rising student enrollment, to ask for more. But the extra $17.7 million the schools are receiving this year should be more than adequate to account for the increase in students, he said.

The budget presentation notes that APS spends $19,921 per student, according to the Washington Area Board of Education formula — the highest per-pupil cost in the region.

Other highlights from the budget include:

  • An additional $9.1 million for affordable housing, including more for housing grants, rent assistance and affordable housing development.
  • A 3.25-3.5% increase in pay for general county employees and an approximately 6.5% increase in pay for public safety employees (to help, in part, with police and fire department recruitment.)
  • $49.3 million for Metro, a 4 percent increase from last year.
  • Creating a new “traffic enforcement and control” position inside the police department, with six new full-time staffers charged with enforcing things like scooters on sidewalks and cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Nine new positions in the fire department and funding for a second recruit class.
  • Eliminating library fines, as part of the county’s new focus on equity. The fines disproportionally are imposed on people of color who live on the western end of Columbia Pike, Schwartz said.
  • “Funding to phase in [County] Board member salary increases over a three-year period.”
  • Additional funding for sidewalk, street, and streetlight maintenance.

The budget focuses “on foundational area of County government” and “shores up investments in County infrastructure and core services,” Schwartz says in his presentation.

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Several senior Arlington County employees left the Saturday, Jan. 25, Arlington County Board meeting with renewed contracts and some notable pay bumps.

The County Manager, County Attorney, County Auditor and Clerk to the County Board all had their contracts unanimously approved in a 5-0 vote with no discussion.

County Manager Mark Schwartz got a 4.5% raise to $282,489 annually. It’s a little less than his neighbor, Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks, who earns $288,000 annually, according to the Alexandria Gazette Packet. On the other hand, it’s a little more than the $268,000 salary for Bryan Hill, who has the equivalent position in Fairfax County.

This is also the first time Schwartz’s salary has surpassed his predecessor, Barbara Donnellan, whose salary was $270,000 annually by the end of her five-year tenure. Schwartz became County Manager in 2015.

County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac, meanwhile, got a 3.5% raise to $261,933 per year — more than the $243,812 annual salary paid to Alexandria City Attorney Joanna Anderson.

County Auditor Christopher Horton got a 3.25% raise to $147,493 per year. Horton became the county auditor in 2016 and is the County’s second auditor. The first left the job after less than seven months.

Kendra Jacobs, Clerk to the County Board, had the biggest raise at 6.75%, increasing her salary to $115,749. Jacobs was appointed to the role in 2018.

The top county employees also received a raise last year; for all but Horton the raise was higher this year.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The rise in property values in Arlington is accelerating post-HQ2.

Late last week Arlington County announced that its assessments for 2020 had risen 4.6% on average — 4.9% for commercial properties and 4.3% for residential properties. That compares to an average property assessment increase of 3.5% last year.

The rise in property values will almost certainly mean a rise in property taxes for Arlington residents. The county, in its announcement, seemingly discounted the idea that tax rates — currently $1.026 for every $100 in assessed value — would come down to offset the rising assessments.

“Although the growth will result in additional revenue, the County faces continued funding choices in the coming fiscal year,” the county’s press release says in the first paragraph. In November the County Board directed County Manager Mark Schwartz to propose a budget that either keeps the tax rate steady or slightly lowers it; his budget proposal will be released in February.

The county says Amazon’s arrival is at least partially responsible for rising property values, though apartment buildings accounted for much of the commercial assessment increases.

Commercial property values were driven by a decline in the office vacancy rate, continued new construction, demand for rental properties, and Amazon-related leasing activity. Apartment property values increased by 8.9 percent, office values increased by 2.5 percent, and general commercial property (malls, retail stores, gas stations, etc.) grew by 1.8 percent.

“Arlington continues to be a place where people want to live and work,” Schwartz said in a statement Friday. “The investment we make in our community through real estate tax revenue helps us maintain the high-quality amenities and public services that make Arlington so attractive.”

The full press release is below, after the jump.

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Morning Notes

Confusing Lane Markings on I-395 — “Drivers are complaining about mis-matched lane striping on… 395 South near Shirlington.” [NBC 4, Twitter]

New Taco Restaurant Eyeing Arlington — Wild Tacoz, which recently opened in the Falls Church area, is aiming to become a local chain with future locations in Arlington and elsewhere. [Tysons Reporter]

Pedestrian Struck Near Clarendon — “A woman was just struck by a car on N. Pershing Drive at Fillmore Street in Lyon Park. Only minor injuries reported. Police and firefighters on scene.” [Twitter/@ARLnowDOTcom]

Dems Push for Higher Wages at DCA — “Delegates have signed a letter urging the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority to ensure contracted workers at Reagan National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport reach $15 per hour by 2023. Their $12.15 hourly wages are far lower than D.C.’s $15 minimum wage and many East Coast airports.” [Press Release]

Crystal City Hilton Sold — “Starwood Capital Group has made its second acquisition in the area around Amazon HQ2 this year. The Miami-based firm acquired a 393-room hotel in Crystal City from a fund affiliated with JBG Smith for $73M.” [Bisnow, Washington Business Journal]

Housing May Dominate Budget Discussion — “Board members directed, as part of their fiscal 2021 budget guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz, that budget plans include an option to increase affordable-housing funding to as much as $25 million, a 56-percent increase from the $16 million Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) funding approved for the current fiscal year…. [but] raising expectations of affordable-housing advocates could pit them against proponents of other budget priorities.” [InsideNova]

Local Defense Attorney to Serve as Fairfax Prosecutor — “Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Steve Descano… announced last Wednesday (Nov. 27) that he intends to have Terry Adams, a private defense attorney in Arlington, take on the role of Chief Deputy, lauding his 14 years working on criminal and civil cases in Virginia.” [Tysons Reporter]

ACFD Assists With School Project — “Tower 104 assisted students [at] Science Focus School today with their annual egg drop. The students were able to collect some data & a good time was had by all.” [Twitter/@ArlingtonVaFD]

Photo courtesy Dave Statter

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(Updated at 12:05 p.m.) The Arlington County Board is asking the County Manager for a budget that contains no property tax rate hike and maybe even a rate cut.

Members gave their Fiscal Year 2021 guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz at last night’s recessed Board meeting.

The guidance for reducing the tax rate or keeping it steady will likely not, however, result in lower tax bills, as property assessments are expected to continue to rise in the wake of Amazon’s arrival. The average real estate assessment is expected to jump 4-6 percent next year.

A budget forecast paints a rosy picture of Arlington’s post-HQ2 economy, with business tax revenue expected to grow as well, though budget pressures of Metro, county employee compensation, needed stormwater improvements and flood mitigation, and a growing school population remain.

The Board also took action last night on the affordable housing front, asking the manager for options that could hike the county’s annual Affordable Housing Investment Fund contribution to as high as $25 million from the current $16 million. Additionally, the Board largely accepted Schwartz’s recommendation to carryover unspent funds from the last budget to the new budget and to reserve funds, but set aside $500,000 for emergency housing assistance.

“The Board understands that anticipated increases in property assessments could have a real impact on residents,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said in a statement. “We want the Manager to come back to us with a proposed budget with no increase in property tax rates and to consider a reduction in the tax rate if possible. Our guidance to the Manager also emphasizes the need to invest more in preserving and creating affordable housing in Arlington, including housing affordable to extremely low-income families.”

The manager will present his proposed FY 2021 budget in February, after a months-long public budget process, which will then continue through the Board’s budget adoption in April.

More from an Arlington County press release, after the jump.

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