The Arlington County Fire Department’s overtime crisis is having a ripple effect on other programs, leaving training and logistics to take a hit.
Between the 2016 and 2018 fiscal years, the department exceeded its overtime budget every year.
At a meeting yesterday (Thursday) at county government headquarters, County Auditor Chris Horton met with Arlington officials and ACFD staff to review the recent audit of the department’s chronic overtime usage and suggestions to fix it.
One area where all involved parties agreed was that the overtime was the main source of the department’s fiscal troubles.
“Overtime use in the fire department has caused budget management challenges in 2016-2018 fiscal years,” Horton said. “What we did here was to look and see if there was actual, clear evidence mathematically that it was overtime driving the overages in the budget. What we’re seeing is strongly indicative that the callback overtime — that is increasing the overruns with total personnel costs — is increasing the overruns with total department costs.”
There were several issues cited as contributing factors to the overtime overuse, but one of the main problems is insufficient staffing. According to the audit:
At the core of the budget management issues are staffing challenges ACFD experiences throughout the department, including significant attrition in ACFD Operations. ACFD has been operating with decreases in staffing that continue to result in an average loss of more than two employees per month. With the rigorous screening processes and training required for new recruits, it takes almost 12 months and costs almost $100,000 per recruit to recruit, hire and train firefighters… Therefore, ACFD continues to face struggles with deploying adequate staffing even with recent budget increases to fund additional recruit classes.
Horton and fire department officials explained that staffing is required to be maintained at certain levels, and if there aren’t enough staff on hand to meet those levels, off-duty firefighters are either called back or asked to stay past their shift to meet those staffing levels. This callback overtime — as opposed to discretionary overtime — has exceeded its budget every year the audit studied.
“It’s very difficult to be fully staffed in public safety,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz. “We have to call people back and they come back. It’s not a healthy cycle for anyone involved. Over the last three of four years, the things that haven’t been done are as much training — that’s the main thing — and logistics. The department tries to get in under budget overall but there are things that get lost in that process.”
The audit notes that cuts had to be made in expenditure categories such as training and equipment to cover overtime costs.
“To stay within our budget, sometimes we have to throttle back stuff that’s not mission-critical,” Capt. Ben O’Bryant, a spokesman for ACFD, told ARLnow. “Training we’d like to send four people to maybe we’d send three, or equipment that we’d like to put in service, maybe we hold back on that. Nothing that’s mission critical for delivery of services… but sometimes we have to adjust our activities. Anything required to provide services to the county, we get that, but sometimes we don’t send as many people to elective training as we’d like to or we hold off on getting equipment.”
A new report found the Arlington County Fire Department has been regularly exceeding its overtime budget while putting firefighters at risk of fatigue and injury.
County Auditor Chris Horton blamed staffing shortages and a lack of payroll controls for the department exceeding both its overtime budget and personnel budget over the last three years. He noted that the overtime costs ranged from $5.2 million to $6.2 million per year, despite being budgeted at $3.2-3.4 million.
Officials are expected to discuss the 40-page report during the County’s Audit Committee public meeting tonight (Thursday) at 5 p.m. in Room 311 in county government headquarters (2100 Clarendon Blvd.)
The department requires that firefighters work no longer than 60 hours in a single shift, and must take at least a six-hour break before starting new shift. However, the audit found that supervisors could override that requirement.
“The purpose of hours worked restrictions is to reduce responder fatigue, and improve safety, performance, and quality of life,” read the report. Horton recommended the department stick to its hours — as well as study whether firefighters may require more rest time between shifts.
“The commute for some personnel could be one or two hours each way,” wrote the report, noting that many firefighters live well outside the area. The report also noted a high level of sick leave could be caused by firefighters using their paid time off to catch up on sleep.
The audit issued 23 recommendations to address the time off and overtime problems, including that the create an “overarching departmental policy” on how to better monitor time off.
ACFD responded that they agreed with 20 of the recommendations. When it came to commission a staffing study, establishing better interagency communication, and budgeting for more overtime, Fire Chief David Povlitz disagreed with the need for additional resources, writing that ACFD could address those needs internally.
One reason the audit found for the unexpected overtimes expense was a lack of controls and efficient systems for payroll, which Horton noted, “creates cumbersome and inefficient processes and impairs overtime management.”
The department was within its overall $59.8 million budget during the last fiscal year, but the audit found that the unexpected overtime expenses caused the department to exceed its overall budget in fiscal year 2016 and 2017.
Horton said ACFD’s high attrition rate and recruiting struggles have contributed to the high overtime costs.
“At the core of the budget management issues are staffing challenges ACFD experiences through the department, including significant attrition in ACFD Operations,” he said. “ACFD continues to face struggles with deploying adequate staffing even with recent budget increases to fund additional recruit classes.”
Last year, firefighters joined police officers in protesting low wages, some saying the low starting pays made it impossible to live in Arlington with its rising cost of living. The county has responded to the demands by awarding 6 percent budget increases to ACFD for the last two years to raise wages and fund recruiting, but retention remains a problem: Horton noted the department loses an average of two employees every month.
Now, the county is aiming to hire 36 more firefighter and EMTs by 2022 to alleviate the workload of the department’s remaining employees.
Three months ago, Horton also found that the Arlington County Police Department had exceeded its overtime budget for the last three years. The auditor found that ACPD reported $5.46 million in overtime last year — twice the amount allocated in the department’s budget.
Povlitz noted that because “there are some similar findings between the Police and Fire Department Overtime Audits, all public safety agencies are planning process changes by utilizing a newly staff public safety time and attendance administrator position.”
County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement today (Thursday) that “the real message here is that we need a better and updated financial system.”
Table via Arlington County
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
If you are having trouble scrubbing the family budget enough to help pay for the rising tax rates here in Arlington, try this solution: just raise your salary.
That is apparently what the Arlington County Board plans to do this month.
This is not just any old cost-of-living adjustment mind you, but a raise that could be more than 40%. Libby Garvey speculated the pay could rise from around $57,000 to $82,000.
To put $25,000 into perspective, it would take this year’s tax increase on roughly 60 average homeowners to fund one Board Member’s pay raise. It would take more than 300 homeowners to fund the raises for the entire Board.
One could reasonably argue that from time to time the County Board should adjust its pay upward to reflect the hours they work and inflation. This post is not necessarily about what is reasonable, though $25,000 seems clearly beyond reasonable for what is supposed to be a part-time Board. Instead, it addresses the dishonesty of the arguments from our elected officials and the timing of the vote.
Let’s go back all the way to January. That is when Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey said about a pay raise, “I don’t actually think it’s appropriate this year.” The comments came in the context of the so-called “tight budget times” that the Board claimed necessitated a 5% tax increase on homeowners for 2019.
Dorsey’s words were clearly designed to make Arlingtonians think he and the Board wouldn’t dream of considering a raise as they were asking taxpayers to fork over more of their hard-earned money to the five spendthrifts. And the Board proceeded to go through the annual budget process without discussing a pay raise as part of that package.
It is clear what Chairman Dorsey actually meant was, the right time to vote on a pay raise is after the deadline for candidates to get on the November ballot. Pushing the pay raise consideration till late June was presumably aimed at avoiding the looming threat of a John Vihstadt run.
The willingness to even consider the pay raise proves that any claim that Arlington is struggling with “tight budget times” is a complete and total sham. If the 6.3% budget increase passed in April didn’t convince you, the County Board’s willingness to turn around and vote themselves a pay raise as high as 44% should.
If the Board wanted a pay raise, the honest, accountable and transparent thing to do would have been to put it in the annual budget. Let the public weigh in on balancing priorities between a pay raise for the Board and cuts to arts funding, transportation needs or additional school spending.
The County Board is emboldened. They clearly believe you have written them a blank check to do absolutely anything they want with no electoral consequences.
Chairman Dorsey should go back and revisit his own words. It is not the right time to consider a massive pay raise. The Chairman should publicly commit not to put it on the June agenda. Otherwise, taxpayers may need to think about rallying around a challenger to defeat him.
Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
Arlington County Board members announced they were considering giving themselves a raise in the coming year, pending input from residents.
Vice Board Chair Libby Garvey broached the topic during the Tuesday night meeting, saying she’s “concerned increasingly about the level of salary” that the county currently offers to Board members, and she intends to ask the public what they think.
Garvey highlighted the dozens of local and regional group meetings that members attend, saying, “I talk to people about how we’re a five-member basketball team with no back-ups so we have to play the entire game all the time.”
Serving on the County Board is intended to be a part-time position, though in practicality the schedules of Board members leave little time for other jobs.
County Board members currently earn $55,147 annually, while the Board Chair earns $60,662. Garvey noted that was lower than the county’s actual salary cap of $57,337 for members and $63,071 for the Chair.
“At some point we’ll publicize very soon some mechanism to collect feedback from our community about raising County Board member salaries,” said Board Chair Christian Dorsey.
Board member Matt de Ferranti supported the idea. “To have a great community you need the ability for everyone to serve and it shouldn’t be that some folks can serve and others cannot,” he said, referencing current salary levels in relation to the local cost of living.
“It kind of boils down to what kind of County Board we should have,” said Garvey.
Garvey said Board members are required to wait to raise their pay caps until at least two members are running for re-election. This means members would have decide by July 1 of this year whether to give themselves a raise, or otherwise wait another four years.
During her presentation Tuesday night, Garvey shared a graph comparing County Board’s salaries with other neighboring jurisdictions.
Her graph stated that D.C. Council members earn the most in the area at $140,161 annually, but recent records indicate council members actually earn $141,282 and are currently allowed to work additional jobs, although recent scandals mean some are reconsidering that provision. The Council Chairman currently earns $210,000 annually.
The second highest pay rate is for Montgomery Council members, who earn between $139,119 and $153,031 a year, according to the most recent 2018 data.
Next is Fairfax County, where Board members earn $95,000, while the Chairman earns $100,000.
Garvey noted that Loudoun County and Alexandria both pay their local legislators less than Arlington.
Alexandria recently bumped City Council member’s pay from $27,500 to $37,500, and Loudoun increased pay two years ago to $50,000 for the Chair of the Board of Supervisors, $45,320 for the Vice Chair, and $41,200 for the other members, with more raises promised in 2020.
“It’s an uncomfortable thing, that we are the only ones who can increase Board member salaries,” said Board member Katie Cristol, who described asking the public about a salary bump as a “slightly awkward consideration.”
“Short of putting this formally to a vote of every single one of our 230,000 bosses, I think at least asking for folks’ input is an excellent idea,” she said.
The Arlington School Board unanimously passed a $669.5 million budget Thursday night.
The budget includes funding for Arlington’s continually expanding school enrollment, with 1,000 more students expected to attend class in the county next year alone. Members also approved a $10.7 million pay increase for Arlington Public Schools staff and funded a study to evaluate salary structure ideas for the future, such as using cost-of-living adjustments instead of discretionary “step” increases.
Arlington Education Association President Ingrid Gant, whose organization represents APS employees, pushed for the increase during a Board hearing on Tuesday, telling members, “it is embarrassing, it is appalling, it is downright disrespectful that members of the School Board want educators to give their all… yet we only give them crumbs come budget time.”
The School Board had previously marked up their own version of a draft APS budget. On April 12, all members, save Barbara Kanninen who abstained, approved a $669.3 million APS budget. Board members hailed the newly-approved final budget and thanked the County Board for a tax hike that will provide additional revenue for the school system.
“It’s clear that this community cares deeply about education and the future of our schools, and we thank the families, students and employees who participated,” Board Chair Reid Goldstein said of the many budget meetings over the last two months.
Goldstein said the County Board, which unanimously passed a budget that includes a two-cent property tax rate hike, helped APS close $6.7 million budget gap that School Board members originally said they couldn’t close without making unpopular cuts. The gap was smaller than the $43 million gap County Manager Mark Schwartz initially feared APS would face come fiscal year 2020.
Arlington County has a new budget and a higher real estate tax rate.
The County Board unanimously approved a $1.4 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020, avoiding the most controversial of its proposed cuts while hiking the taxes paid by the average homeowner to $9,023, an increase of $281.
Arlington property owners will now pay an additional two cents for every $100 in assessed property value, on top of increasing property values. Most of the additional revenue will go to Arlington Public Schools, which is set to receive $532.3 million in local tax dollars, which will help it also avoid some proposed, controversial cuts.
County Board members characterized the budget as fiscal prudence, despite the tax hike. They noted that it includes $4.8 million in county budget reductions, trimming 27.5 full-time staff positions deemed to be no longer necessary due to declines in demand for certain services.
The cuts range from a 5 percent reduction in funding for community radio and public access TV operator Arlington Independent Media to cutting Arlington Transit bus service on a route that records as few as 3 riders per hour.
“I would think about this not as government getting smaller, but as government getting smarter,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.
Board member Erik Gutshall said county leaders went over the budget with a “fine tooth comb” and the result is a budget without “an ounce of fat.”
“We certainly would prefer not to raise rates at all but this is a budget we can be proud of as thoughtful, progressive, and sound,” said Board member Matt de Ferranti.
While the Board restored a pair of arts positions — cuts that would have affected theater programs in the county — it asked the County Manager to study those positions and the county’s arts programs in general prior to the next annual budget. Vice Chair Libby Garvey said that libraries should also be studied.
“[I’m] hoping in this next year… we take kind of a holistic view of libraries, and what we want libraries to be in our community, what role we want them to play,” she said.
There was hopeful talk on the dais about the effects of Amazon’s new Arlington presence.
“Happily the commercial vacancy rate is getting a little better,” Garvey said, adding that “obviously Amazon helps that a lot.”
In Arlington, roughly half of county revenue comes from commercial real estate and businesses.
The FY 2020 budget helps to shape a community “that a company like Amazon wants to come to,” said Gutshall. “And when they come they help our commercial [real estate] assessments that did the most of the work in bridging the gap this year.”
The full Arlington County press release on the budget’s passage, after the jump.
A new makerspace has arrived in Arlington — in a library.
Arlington Public Library announced today (Tuesday) that their new makerspace is now open in the Ballston Central Library on 1015 N. Quincy Street.
Called “The Shop,” the free makerspace comes equipped with wood working tools, soldering irons, circuit parts and Raspberry Pi for coding projects, Wacom tablets and pens, 3D printers, Cameo cutters, sewing machines, tools for sewing, among other tools.
“The Shop provides access to tools and software and is staffed with Maker mentors to help you get your project off the ground,” said Library Director Diane Kresh, who added that APL is “excited to promote the Maker movement and offer collaborative spaces to meet the evolving needs of our community.”
The Shop is divided between a workshop and tables where attendees can take classes. This week, makers will be teach participants how to upcycle jewelry and preserve movies on 8mm or VHS tapes. The Shop at least partially fills a gap created by the closure of Techshop in Crystal City in 2017.
Hours are Mondays through Thursdays from 2-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. with extended openings and children’s classes planned for the summer, staff say.
APL joins several a nationwide trend of libraries investing crafting spaces. D.C. Public Libraries offer three multi-media and fabrication labs.
“Libraries have a long history of reinventing themselves in order to stay relevant,” APL spokesman Henrik Sundqvist told ARLnow. “I think the maker movement is a perfect example of just that. to kind of encourage, play, experimentation and encourage critical thinking.”
APL previously announced plans to build a mobile lab later this year, to travel to different parts of the county.
“We’re going to ready in the fall,” Sundqvist said today. He noted the library wasn’t able to release details on the project yet.
The Shop was funded with part of the budget the County Board allocated for renovations at the Central Library, Sundqvist said.
Images from Library website.
The Arlington School Board has advanced a $669,314,705 million proposed budget — a budget that features a gap of over $6 million.
The Board voted 4-0 to approve its proposal for the school system’s next fiscal year budget. One member, Barbara Kanninen, abstained. Final budget approval is set for May.
Voting stretched late into Thursday night as members weighed five amendments detailing how funds could be cut to reduce the $6.7 million budget shortfall.
Members approved four amendments that together shaved $1,163,330 off the budget by proposing to:
- Eliminate an anonymous reporting hotline
- Eliminate APS HR’s budget for computer replacements
- Eliminate two Technology Support Positions, one Foreign Language in elementary schools position, one full time HR position, and two assistant director positions in assessment and transportation
- Reduce funding for postage, evaluations, and clerical substitutes
- Reduce printed report cards
- Reduce Foreign Languages at Key School
- Reduce travel reimbursements, and increase student parking fees
Another approved reduction was for the fund that provides employee service awards and special events — hours after the School Board celebrated 168 teachers in front of the dais for their decades of work in APS.
Arlington’s cybersecurity division is staffing up and training county employees in preparation for a growing wave of cyber attacks.
The Security, Privacy, Records and Regulatory Affairs division of the county’s Department of Technology Services reportedly blocked 90,000 virus and malware attacks last year, according to next year’s budget proposal.
The department said the number of attacks is expected to rise to 150,000 this year and continue to 200,000 by next year.
“The increase in viruses and malware blocked is due to increased detection efforts by additional security platforms… and an overall increase in security attacks,” the document read.
“We’re in a risk-reduction activity,” Richard Archambault, who helms the division, told ARLnow in a phone interview this week, “We’re not in a risk-elimination activity. We can’t prevent these things from happening. Someday everybody gets hacked.”
The department has asked for $60,000 to train all county employees in security best practices, especially how to avoid clicking on phishing emails which can introduce malware.
“The reason this cadence [of training] is so important is that these emails get more and more sophisticated every month,” Archambault said during a March presentation at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“If we’re not constantly bringing people up to speed on where the threat actors are, we’re behind,” he added.
Archambault also added a new senior engineering role that junior staff can rise to: a bid to help with retention in an area hungry for cybersecurity professionals.
“One great part about working with a governmental entity is access to professional development across the region,” he said of Arlington’s location. “In most private sector companies, outsiders are competitors or customers. In government, there is a tremendous amount of cooperation and shared learning. This is fertile ground for growth as a cybersecurity practitioner.”
Local governments nationwide are also sharing lessons learned from a type of malware called “ransomware” that can hold data hostage until a “ransom” is paid, usually in bitcoin.
Ransomware attacks locked down Atlanta’s public computers, online bill payments, and airport wifi last year last year, and other hackers gained access to Dallas’ tornado sirens. All told, out of 2,216 security breaches found by a 2018 Verizon report, 304 affected public entities.
“Some of the basic things that they should have been doing to be prepared to recover were not done,” Archambault said of Atlanta. “In the most recent instance their backups were accessible to the hackers — so the hackers ransomed their primary data and their backups.”
Archambault said he was unable to share details about Arlington’s preparations for security reasons, and also said he was unable to comment on whether the county had ever been ransomed.
He did say the county purchases cybersecurity insurance.
After the attacks in Atlanta, Arlington’s then-chief information security officer David Jordan said “it’s going to be even more important that local governments look for the no-cost/low-cost, but start considering cybersecurity on the same level as public safety.”
“A smart local government will have fire, police and cybersecurity at the same level,” Jordan added.
County spokeswoman Shannon Whalen McDaniel said Arlington is planning awareness events in October, which is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.
In the meantime, the division offered a few security tips for residents wanting to keep their own data safe from hackers:
- “Ensure your devices are setup to automatically install software updates and security patches. You may have bad memories of patches that were recalled or rolled back by various vendors. Those mistakes are far less frequent and the additional benefits of frequent patching now outweigh the drawbacks of the occasional bad patch.”
- “Don’t place your Wi-Fi router somewhere it can be seen easily from a window. Anyone peeking in might see your network name and password and then – they’re in. Change your Wi-Fi network password from time to time, but keep using strong passwords!”
- “Use a password locker application. We often tell people not to use the same username and password across different websites, but we don’t always do a good job telling people how to keep all the resulting username and password data organized (pro tip: not on paper and not on your desk!) There are great password locker applications that will automatically memorize your passwords and even autofill password forms on web pages.”
Members of Congress are seeking $25 million to help defray costs at the county’s 9/11 memorials, including the Pentagon Memorial.
Arlington’s Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), are leading a request for $25 million they say is needed to fund the “9/11 Memorial Competitive Grants Program.”
“We made a promise in the days after 9/11 — to never forget,” Beyer told ARLnow through a spokesman. “These memorials represent that promise, to never forget the bravery, the sacrifice, and the honor we saw that day.”
The program is part of the 9/11 Memorial Act which the Senate unanimously approved last year. The bill allows the Department of Interior to award grants to 9/11 memorial sites helping cover costs like “continued operation, security, and maintenance.”
Recently, four Republicans and 15 Democratic representatives from New York and Virginia signed a letter requesting Congress allocate the $25 million needed to “fully fund” the program as part of the government’s annual budget cycle.
“The Pentagon Memorial is open 24 hours a day, and, to meet the volume and demand of visitors, the Pentagon Memorial Fund develops a wide variety of educational materials and programs,” the letter says
Pentagon Memorial spokesman Jerry Mullins said that over a million people visit the memorial each year, and staff creates resources like teacher guides and lesson plans for grades 9-12 as well as take-away materials available at the site.
He said funds are needed to develop the Visitor Education Center and expand the educational programming in general.
“It’s really for the school-age kids who really have no memory of the attacks,” he said. “It’s an opportunity once again that this country will never forget what happened that day.”
Renderings for the visitor’s center from 2016 featured a glass wall showing where Flight 77 struck the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Officials said at the time they expected the building to be open by 2020.
The memorial’s website is also asking for donations for the Center which is says will instruct generations to learn about the attacks “and the unprecedented response in the minutes, hours, weeks, and now years later.”
School Board Budget Quarrel — “Despite being blasted by colleagues for circumventing established procedures and potentially poisoning a well of goodwill, a majority of School Board members on March 28 voted to direct their chairman to tell County Board members the school system couldn’t take any further budget cuts.” [InsideNova]
Arlington Tech Succeeding in Engaging Girls — The Arlington Tech high school program “applicant pool for the 2019-20 school year has an almost equal breakdown when it comes to gender. As far as reflecting the county’s racial diversity, this public school program, which accepts students based on a blind lottery, is within a few percentage points.” [Technically DC]
Online Signup to Speak at Budget Meetings — Arlington County’s public meetings on the county budget and tax rate will be held on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Those who want to speak at the meetings can register to do so until 5 p.m. the day before the meeting. [Arlington County, Arlington County]
New Name for Nauck Elementary School — Drew Model School in Nauck is being renamed “Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School” after the Arlington School board voted last week to accept a naming committee’s recommendation. [Arlington Public Schools]
Photo courtesy of Craig Fingar