Join Club
A man runs past an ambulance on scene at 1100 Wilson Blvd. in Rosslyn (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington County’s auditor plans to take a closer look at when ambulance fees are waived to see if he can save taxpayer dollars.

The plans are part of his office’s proposed audit plan for the 2024 fiscal year, which also includes scrutinizing how the county pays for gas in government cars and medical bills for Dept. of Health and Human Services clients. The Arlington County Board unanimously approved this plan on Tuesday.

Jim Shelton, appointed auditor in January, informed Arlington County Board members on Tuesday about his office’s plans to conduct a “data-driven analysis” to determine “the systemic reasons why some [ambulance fees] are waived or written-off.”

“[The analysis] will be focused on [the county’s] revenue and where do we generate it and where do we contain costs,” Shelton said.

Arlington employs a third-party contractor that charges patients who use the county’s emergency medical services, Shelton said. It also has an agreement with surrounding jurisdictions to provide joint emergency medical services.

In March 2022, the County Board authorized the Arlington County Fire Department to raise its ambulance transportation fees to alleviate the burden on taxpayers and shift the cost of providing services to the user or medical insurance.

The county claims uninsured individuals are not denied access to emergency services, and in some cases, the fire department may choose to waive the fees if someone cannot pay.

Although Shelton did not give specific examples, he alluded to discrepancies between services rendered and bills that were not paid.

“And we would like to look at our failure to collect for whatever reason and whether it’s happening more inside the county or more outside the county,” he said.

Shelton said the audit would be conducted in the fall between Oct 1. through Dec. 31 and be primarily “data-driven,” rather than through interviews or other methods.

Newly appointed board member Tannia Talento, who was sworn in on July 15, did not attend the meeting Tuesday. A county spokesperson said she would be present at upcoming Board meetings.

Jail entrance at the Arlington County Detention Facility (file photo)

The pickleball craze could be headed to the local jail next.

Acting Sheriff Jose Quiroz, who is one of three vying for the support of local Democrats in the primary this coming Tuesday, said that one amenity he would like to add to the jail is a pickleball court.

In an interview by Arlington Independent Media (AIM), he said the court is “something different” — in addition to the existing basketball court and weight-lifting area in the jail — that deputies and inmates could use. He sees the additional court as a way to improve deputy wellness.

He also intends to add a relaxation room in the jail for deputies and to have wellness conversations with staff, facilitated by local nonprofit Center for Youth and Family Advocacy.

Those two measures are intended to stop the office from bleeding burned-out staff, a pattern in Arlington reflected nationally that sources say appears to be worsening within the Sheriff’s Office, with some deputies actively planning their departures. Already, the vacancy rate stands around 7%, up from a little greater than 3% in 2019, according to the 2024 approved budget.

“Our staffing all around is low,” Quiroz said in the interview. “We have a lot of vacancies.”

He is running against Arlington County police officer James Herring and retired sheriff deputy Wanda Younger. Early voting ends tomorrow (Saturday), while polls open for the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Quiroz’s opponents say they also have ideas for addressing what they say are morale and retention issues in the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO).

Herring says the issue stems from deputies being forced to work overtime. They will leave Arlington for jurisdictions with better schedules.

If elected, he intends to advocate for better pay and benefits and, with input from deputies, create more balanced schedules that provide career growth opportunities and mentorship.

“If you can’t hire people faster than people leave your agency, it doesn’t matter how good your recruiting is,” Herring told ARLnow. “Losing a veteran deputy means more than just losing a filled position. It means that you’re losing their years of experience, their ability to mentor younger deputies, and their established connections with those in custody and in the community.”

(Herring’s AIM interview was just posted online this morning.)

He recently picked up endorsements from Abby Raphael, a former Arlington School Board member who also served as an assistant prosecutor, and former independent County Board member John Vihstadt. Both praised his plans for also improving inmate wellbeing.

Younger suggests ending the Sheriff’s unilateral ability to hire and fire deputies without cause. She also suggests relying more on auxiliary deputies — trained civilian volunteers, certified by the state, who sometimes have military or law enforcement experience.

“Hiring is definitely an issue. Retention is a main problem as well,” Younger said in her conversation with AIM. “In order to ensure they remain, we have to increase morale. That’s one area I would focus on.”

Quiroz has the endorsement of several other current and former local and state elected officials, as well as his predecessor, Beth Arthur, who stepped down in January and appointed Quiroz as acting sheriff.

ACSO has tried to tackle the staffing crunch by appointing a sergeant to assist with recruiting — which resulted in more applications processed and a slightly faster hiring window — and budgeting $20,000 in the 2024 budget for recruiting.

The sheriff’s office serves warrants, runs the county jail and provides security at the courthouse, in addition to some other local law and traffic enforcement responsibilities. One impact of the shortages has been fewer deputies providing security in courtrooms and more civilian court security supervisors filling in.

Read More

Arlington County Board meeting on April 22, 2023 (via Arlington County/YouTube)

The Arlington County Board has approved a budget that hikes the salaries of county employees — as well as Board members themselves.

The $1.55 billion budget is a 3.3% increase over the current fiscal year’s $1.5 billion budget, funded in large part thanks to rising residential property assessments. The property tax rate was held steady at $1.013 per $100 of assessed value, but the average Arlington homeowner will pay around $450 more per year due to higher assessments and higher fees, including a $98 increase in the trash collection fee and $26 for higher water rates.

As proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz, the budget will raise the pay of county employees between 4.5 and 10%.

Uniformed police and sheriff’s employees will see raises on the upper end of that scale, amid continued recruiting and staffing challenges among law enforcement agencies. The Board additionally directed Schwartz to consider “any potential enhancements to the newly revised step and grade wage structures that would address compensation, recruitment, retention and pay compression challenges facing police and fire staff.”

Another addition to the budget made by the Board, as voted on during a recent work session, was to hike its own pay.

Following a $20,000 raise of Board salaries last year, the new budget adds just over $62,000 to bring Board salaries to the maximum rate set by the Board in a 2019 vote: $89,851 for members, $95,734 for the Board Chair (a position that rotates among members annually).

The Board pay increase was proposed by Libby Garvey, who said it will provide “close to a living wage for people doing this job, commensurate with the time and the skills needed.”

“There is never a good time to raise Board salaries, they’ve always been low,” she said at the work session. “So I would like to do it now.”

Takis Karantonis concurred, noting the cost of living in Arlington.

“We cannot have it so that those that bring a lot of means… are able to afford to run” for office, he said. “That is not in the long-term… interest [of the county].”

Board Chair Christian Dorsey abstained from the vote and Katie Cristol voted against it. Both are not seeking reelection this year.

Two significant focuses of the budget and Board directives were aimed at affordable housing and the opioid crisis.

The budget adds four behavioral health therapists to address substance abuse among students, while providing $95,000 to the Dept. of Parks and Recreation for improved out-of-school youth programming.

The latter was hailed by the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

“Our existing programming was well-intentioned but difficult to access by the students who might need it the most,” CCPTA President Claire Noakes said in a statement. “Not all families are fortunate enough to have an adult tackle the multiple organizational tasks needed to pre-register a child for a class, organize a family calendar, arrange for transportation at a set time each week, and find a way to pay for it. Additionally, students who are dealing with anxiety or depression may not be able to participate in programs that involve physical competition, such as sports.”

“Other students may just need a safe place to decompress when household stress becomes overwhelming,” Noakes added. “We realized that there was an unmet need for accessible, supervised, drop-in space for youth to simply hang out and connect with peers, mentors, and caring adults.”

The budget, as adopted by the Board, includes $83 million for various housing programs. On the heels of the Board’s approval of “Missing Middle” zoning changes — also dubbed Expanded Housing Options — the budget directs the County Manager to design an “Affordable EHO Homeownership Pilot Program” that could be implemented by the end of 2024.

More on the new budget and its approval is below, from a county press release.

The Arlington County Board voted unanimously Saturday, April 22, 2023, to adopt a $1.55 billion balanced Budget for Fiscal Year 2024. The adopted budget focuses on community needs as the County continues to emerge from the pandemic, including affordable housing, while also providing foundational services, such as public safety, environmental services, transportation, and schools.

The base real estate tax rate remains unchanged at $1.013 per $100 of assessed value.

“As we return to normalcy after years of prioritizing critical operations and making difficult budget decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlington is finally in a position to build much-needed capacity within its departments and in its efforts to address community priorities and needs,” said Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “The past few years impacted everyone, especially our lower-income neighbors. Adding funding to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, for example, ensures that we maintain our vital role in financing affordable housing development within Arlington. Moreover, the County Board is eager to capitalize on opportunities that may arise from the Homeownership Study, helping us further understand how to better support existing and aspiring homeowners.”

Read More

An ACFD ambulance drives down Wilson Blvd (file photo by Jay Westcott)

An Arlington program that lets emergency patients opt to be taken to an urgent care has only been used about a dozen times since its launch two years ago.

In April 2021, the Arlington County Fire Department implemented a new EMS model referred to as Emergency Triage, Treat, and Transport (ET3) at the behest of the Arlington County Board.

Among the changes from standard practice, the model allows patients the option to be transported to a local urgent care or specialized medical office as opposed to a hospital emergency rooms if emergency personnel deem it appropriate.

“Comparison studies show that treatment at urgent care centers can be up to 50 percent less than the cost of the same care at conventional hospitals for appropriate medical conditions,” noted a county press release at the time.

Another hope-for benefit was taking some pressure off overwhelmed local emergency rooms at the height of the pandemic.

However, in the approximately two years since it was launched countywide, only “roughly a dozen individuals” have been transported to an alternative destination, ACFD spokesperson Capt. Nate Hiner tells ARLnow.

It’s unclear why that number is so low, considering the volume of calls ACFD receives and the fact that Covid hospitalizations continued to significantly increase for nearly a year after the program’s launch.

“I want to highlight that we have offered transport to an alternative destination more than a dozen times,” Hiner said when asked to clarify that data point. “However, if a patient declines that service, the result is a transport to the hospital.”

In December 2021, ACFD launched the second phase of the ET3 program, which allowed a local patient to use telehealth technology to speak with a healthcare professional as opposed to traveling for the appointment.

The “Treatment in Place” service has been used considerably more than the transport to an alternate care facility, though it is still only being used by patients a few times per week.

“Telehealth services have been utilized over 170 times with over 102 individuals successfully treated in place,” Hiner said. “For those who were not treated in place, a wide variety of other final outcomes occurred such as transportation to an alternative destination or self-transport to the Emergency Department.”

In all, Hiner said, the ET3 program has kept “over 100 individuals” from having to go to a local hospital’s emergency department since it was launched two years ago.

Read More

2 Comment
The Arlington School Board on Thursday, March 30, 2023 (via APS)

With a few minor revisions, the Arlington School Board adopted the superintendent’s budget recommendation as its own proposed budget last week.

Their approval came with the caveat that the $803.7 million budget could change between now and the final approval, which is set for a future School Board meeting on May 11.

The changes last week added more funding for virtual tutoring and uniforms for bus drivers and reduced funding for trailers and a compensation study by a total of $300,000.

Revisions to the proposed 2024 Arlington Public Schools budget (via Arlington Public Schools)

Board Chair Reid Goldstein signaled that members have the next month to smooth over “many items that we were not able to come to a consensus on.”

“In many past years, the School Board’s proposed budget gave a good indication of what the final budget will look like. That may not be the case this year,” he said. “I cannot say there will be radical changes between this proposed and the final on May 11, but I also can’t say there will be minimal changes. I just have to say we are continuing to work on it.”

He is concerned that Superintendent Francisco Durán’s budget relies on $40 million in reserve funds, an emerging trend giving other board members and school staff pause, too.

“Besides the concern that those reserve buckets may not be able to be refilled, there’s the fact that that puts us in a $40 million hole when we start the budget process next year,” Goldstein said.

Next fiscal year, APS could use years of savings from a number of sources, including unfilled positions, to fund cost-of-living adjustments and salary increases for all staff.

Durán told the Arlington County Board on Friday this aligns APS with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed budget and makes the school system’s compensation scale more competitive with nearby districts.

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said it is “a reasonable choice to use savings in personnel on personnel that you actually have.”

“I can tell you, anecdotally, [Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Management Services] Leslie Peterson is worried, if that tells you anything,” Board Vice-Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres replied.

“This has been an ongoing discussion for many, many years, in the sense that we have had a habit of needing to use reserves in order to cover for core instruction in the past,” she added, noting the proposal leaves APS with $17 million in reserves “to sustain us for any ongoing overages for next year.”

Durán pointed out more than 55% of the reserves used comes from compensation reserves, which are replenished annually with savings from unfilled positions or new hires, who earn less than the longer-tenured staff they replaced. That money is earmarked for future compensation spending.

“It’s been a practice for us to separate that out and show the public and show our staff that all the money coming from lapse and turnover at closeout is going to be dedicated toward compensation reserves,” he said.

Read More

Crime scene tape at shooting in Arlington (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Is crime on the rise in Arlington? It depends on which Arlington County official you ask.

Police Chief Andy Penn told the County Board last Thursday that crime rates rose in 2022, driven by upticks in theft — of cars and from cars — and assaults, largely in Arlington’s most populated neighborhoods. He noted that ACPD is seeing more crimes where a weapon is used.

Arlington started 2023 with a rise in carjackings and student overdoses, and this early data indicates that it ended 2022 with a nearly 23% increase in property crimes over 2021 with, specifically, a 27.4% increase in larcenies. In addition, there has been a nearly 32% increase in vehicle thefts and a 14% increase in thefts from vehicles, especially with unlocked cars or those with keys left inside.

There has also been a 16% increase in crimes against people, such as assault, and a 21.5% decrease in crimes against society, such as drug violations.

Penn noted officers are seeing “more guns than what’s normal,” as officers seized 147 firearms in 2022 — an increase from 126 in 2021 and 104 in 2020. Of the seizures in 2022, 15 were ghost guns.

Data on ‘Group A’ offenses, including crimes against people, property and society from 2018-2022 (via Arlington County)

ACPD does not typically report arrest numbers — as opposed to offense numbers, which are released annually — for the most common group of offenses, which span everything from burglary to murder. A department spokeswoman told ARLnow that that would have to be requested through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The department noted its 2021 annual report, released last summer, that people officers have arrested for these “Group A” crimes are “frequently responsible for multiple cases within Arlington or regionally.”

The question of whether crime is rising in Arlington has implications for the race to determine the upcoming Commonwealth’s Attorney race. Josh Katcher, who used to work for the incumbent top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, has made his campaign about acknowledging that crime is rising and criticizing his opponent for, he says, not admitting this.

“We can’t begin to address these issues until we are willing to acknowledge and face them head on,” he said in a statement to ARLnow. “Arlington County deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney who is transparent with those that they are elected to serve. My opponent has repeatedly and publicly stated that crime has not been rising, starting in November of last year.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who won in 2019 on a platform of criminal justice reform, has maintained her position despite crime concerns from some residents and members of ACPD. In a statement to ARLnow in response, Dehghani-Tafti called Katcher’s rhetoric fear-mongering.

“Real leaders don’t engage in right wing fear mongering propaganda, particularly when Arlington remains one of the safest communities in the country,” she said. “Real leaders also don’t use right wing attack lines that prosecutors are responsible for temporary rise or decline in crime. While some categories of assaults have been on the rise since 2018, serious crimes such as homicides have declined in Arlington at the same time as jurisdictions nationwide have seen an increase.”

She noted that Arlington had zero homicides for nearly 18 months — one in February 2022 and none since then.

“Our job is to build on that success to continue to keep our community safe. That’s what I intend to do,” Dehghani-Tafti said.

Read More

2 Comment
Drone seen flying near former Key Bridge Marriott this morning (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Public safety in Arlington County is poised to be increasingly automated and unmanned, with more traffic enforcement cameras and drones potentially coming soon.

The updates came during a work session on County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget, attended by County Board members and heads of public safety departments yesterday (Thursday).

Installing new speed cameras and adding more red-light cameras are part of the county’s Vision Zero initiative to reduce serious injury and fatal crashes, as well as a recommended way to reduce potentially adverse interactions between officers and civilians during traffic stops.

Cameras and drones could also help the Arlington County Police Department work more efficiently with fewer officers, as ACPD has had to scale back services amid ongoing challenges with recruiting and retaining officers.

More than a year ago, the County Board approved the installation of speed cameras in school and work areas to reduce speed-related crashes in these areas as part of the Vision Zero campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries. Now, according to Police Chief Andy Penn, a contract with a speed camera vendor could be ready this spring.

Last fall, the county told ARLnow that there would be more signs of progress, including camera installation and community messaging, once a contract is finalized this spring. Penn told the County Board yesterday that a request for proposal for both speed cameras and more red-light cameras will close next week.

“My hope is that we’ll have a contract for both of those in the next couple of months,” Penn said.

Meanwhile, the police department is working with the Virginia Dept. of Transportation to expand locations with red-light cameras, according to Penn.

“We’re almost at the finish line with VDOT on the PhotoRED expansions, there’s a couple intersections… we should be there soon,” he said.

There are nine intersections that currently use PhotoRED cameras, according to the county’s website. These intersections are located along major corridors including Columbia Pike, Route 1, Glebe Road and Langston Blvd.

A map of intersections with red-light cameras (via Arlington County)

Arlington is also considering deploying drones, which could be a safety tool for both police and fire departments. Penn and Fire Chief Dave Povlitz told the Board they are focused on improving employee safety and wellbeing, which could bolster staffing levels.

“While we’re on equipment, drones? Are we thinking about drones?” asked Board Vice-Chair Libby Garvey. “It’d be a lot safer to send a drone in than a person into a burning building.”

After working with other jurisdictions in the region and conducting a survey, a comprehensive proposal on drones could be ready for Board review in “the next couple of months,” according to County Manager Mark Schwartz.

“They are fantastic additions to any fleet,” he said. “We absolutely would, in many cases, prefer — not just for fire but police and also for our building inspections — to have the ability to have drones.”

Police may already be using drones locally in some cases. One could be seen flying near the former Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn this morning as part of a large public safety agency presence at the aging building, which the county condemned amid the continued presence of squatters.

Two hurdles to greater drone use could be privacy and flight regulations governing drones in the region, Schwartz said.

“We want to make sure we address the privacy concerns, which I think have been successfully handled in other jurisdictions,” he said.

Unmanned aircraft flights, including drones, are heavily restricted within a 30-mile radius of Reagan National Airport, according to rules the Federal Aviation Administration put in place after 9/11. Drones need FAA authorization and have to operate under certain restrictions.

Arlington County Board members and Dept. of Parks and Recreation staff during a March 16, 2023 work session (via Arlington County)

Arlington County’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation says it has a surfeit of programs for teens — but not enough teens to fill them.

Between July 2021 and June 2022, DPR logged 6,350 visits to its teen programs, down from 46,500 visits during the same span of months across 2018 and 2019. The dramatic drop was caused by the cancellation of programs during the 2021 fiscal year, according to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget.

That year, DPR logged a low of 3,286 check-ins to teen programs. Now, the parks department is aiming to get those kids involved in activities once again. It projects 24,000 visits to teen programs in the next fiscal year.

“I think that, during the pandemic, a lot of teens reverted to their phones, to their rooms, and really didn’t get out into parks and into our centers,” Jane Rudolph, the director of the parks department, told Board members during a budget work session last week. “I look forward to working with our partners to get them back.”

The Arlington County Board is also motivated to see higher participation in these programs, which are geared toward preventing risky behavior and increasing physical activity, among other goals.

County Board members indicated they would like to see these programs figure into the county-wide effort to tackle the mental health and substance abuse epidemics affecting Arlington youth. Member Takis Karantonis kicked off a round of questions for Rudolph about how her department plans to boost offerings for teens and tweens.

“It’s not so much expanding the offerings but getting people into the programs we offer. That’s where we see our biggest challenges,” Rudolph said. “Where we need to do better, to be honest, is getting word out more about our programs, working better with schools so kids understand where they can come to us.”

Before the work session, ARLnow had asked DPR to share its offerings for teens and tweens. It provided a long list of offerings, including:

  • “Out of School Time” programs daily at Gunston and Thomas Jefferson Community Centers
  • More than 100 summer camps from exploring outdoors to coding, as well as volunteer and employment opportunities through other camps
  • Esports, flag football and basketball leagues
  • An annual soccer tournament in partnership with the Arlington County Police Department Gang Prevention Task Force
  • DJ and music production classes

Recent community meetings on opioid use, however, encapsulate the gulf between what is offered and what the community actually knows about.

When a group of Latino parents convened the same week 14-year-old Wakefield High School student Sergio Flores died from an overdose, many parents did not know what options were available but seemed desperate for after-school programs and open recreation time at the school gyms, meeting organizers told ARLnow.

In another meeting ARLnow attended a few weeks later, at Kenmore Middle School, a representative from Arlington County Police Department asked the audience to guess how many programs the county has for youth. The answer was more than 300, but one parent challenged how helpful sheer volume if there is a lack of awareness and enrollment is a challenge.

Read More

School Board member David Priddy holds a copy of the proposed 2023-24 budget for Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán has proposed an $803.3 million budget — an increase of more than 7% over the current budget.

And the messaging around the budget picks up on some themes, including the mental and physical health of students and more support for teachers, which arose from major events this school year, including a series of student deaths and drug overdoses.

“This budget reflects our commitment to supporting continued success for every APS student through investments in both academic and mental health support,” Durán said in a statement.

“We are also continuing our focus on compensation for our teachers and staff to ensure we remain a highly competitive employer at a vital time for public schools, while further strengthening division-wide safety and security measures,” he added.

Durán writes that the budget process for the 2023-2024 school year began with “a large deficit” after APS used some $41 million — partially from reserves — last year to avoid significant reductions.

“This deficit was also driven by the need to provide staff with a step increase as well as a cost of living adjustment next year in order to partially mitigate rising inflation,” he said.

Like last year, APS is once more drawing from its well of reserves, spending $41.2 million in addition to the county transfer of $607.6 million. This transfer, $23 million larger than last year, comprises three-quarters of the school system’s revenue.

Both enrollment and cost-per-pupil are on the rise, per the budget. Next year, APS projects enrollment to increase by 710 students, according to a six-page budget explainer, while per-pupil expenditures to reach $24,560.

APS enrollment projections compared to cost-per-pupil (via APS)

It also projects a rising number of students receiving special education services and learning English.

Population projections for students with disabilities and English language learners (via APS)

When it comes to school staff, the budget includes $25.6 million for step increases for eligible employees and a 3% cost of living adjustment for all employees. The average pay increase will be a little over 5% for teachers, administrators and professionals and more than 6% for support staff.

“Anything less than a step plus 6% doesn’t beat the current cost of inflation,” said June Prakash, the president of the Arlington Education Association, the local teachers union, in a statement. “How can you expect us to give 100% of ourselves to APS when many employees must have second (or even third) jobs to make ends meet? Our staff will continue to struggle with housing, food, and furthering the education of their own children.”

She said employees are still paid less than colleagues in surrounding districts.

Teacher salaries in Arlington and neighboring Virginia jurisdictions, per Virginia Education Association data (created by ARLnow)

In response to staffing shortages, Durán proposes $2 million for a Summer School bonus for teachers and assistants and increased substitute teacher pay rates and substitute coverage pay for teachers. APS has taken this approach before.

The substitute teacher shortage is not new nor unique to Arlington. About 77% of school systems nationwide report substitute shortages, as teachers retire or quit in higher numbers, a trend some media outlets and research have linked to the pandemic.

Read More

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz presents his proposed budget on Feb. 18, 2023 (via Arlington County/YouTube)

(Updated at 4:20 p.m.) Arlington’s property tax rate will not be going up in the new county budget, but it looks unlikely to come down, either.

The County Board voted unanimously last night (Tuesday) to advertise a property tax rate of $1.013 per $100 in assessed value. That sets a cap on the real estate tax rate, locking in the county to a rate that’s flat or lower than last year.

But homeowners would still see their taxes go up significantly even with the rate unchanged, owing to a 4.5% rise in residential property assessments. Between taxes and fees, the average Arlington homeowner would be paying $454 more to the county compared to the previous year, a 4% increase.

That includes a $100 hike in the annual trash collection fee paid by homeowners — from $308 to $409 — which county officials attributed to a “significant increase to contractual costs due to driver shortages, current labor costs, and equipment pricing.”

FY 2024 proposed county budget slide (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz’s budget proposes keeping the current $1.013 real estate tax rate, despite a better-than-expected revenue outlook.

“The facts have changed since November and December,” Schwartz said, referencing what was then predicted to be a $35 million budget gap. “We’ve seen higher than anticipated real estate assessment growth. I think a number of people saw that when they received their residential real estate assessments in January.”

“On the commercial side, we had anticipated a drop in overall assessments, and there was a very small drop in the commercial assessments, but when you factor in the new commercial buildings the numbers were actually up,” the County Manager continued. “And also, our other taxes… are doing quite well.”

The county is seeing a 10.7%, 15.4% and 33.3% rise in sales, meals and hotel tax revenue, respectively, according to Schwartz’s presentation to the Board on Saturday. After a brutal couple of years for Arlington’s hospitality industry, hotel taxes are now about back to pre-pandemic levels, he noted.

FY 2024 proposed county budget slide (via Arlington County)

Schwartz’s $1.54 billion budget — up 2.8% over last year’s adopted budget — also includes a number of proposed cuts,

Just over 20 vacant positions would be eliminated, including an auditor position in the County Board office, and other savings would be found from initiatives like paperless billing of property and business taxes. In all, the cuts would save $5.6 million.

While the county is no longer benefiting from the firehose of Covid relief funds from the federal government, it will save $2.6 million thanks to energy credits stemming from its 2020 solar power agreement with Amazon.

In the expense side of the budget, however, the picture is less rosy.

Schwartz said the county is still facing a “very competitive environment in terms of workforce,” making it hard to hire for certain positions and driving up wages. The budget proposal includes a $2,000 bonus for qualified county staffers and 4.5-10% salary increases, including:

  • General Employees — 4.5%
  • Uniformed Fire — 4.5%
  • Service/Labor/Trades — 4.5%
  • Uniformed Sheriff — 8.5%
  • Uniformed Police — 10%

“We are still having challenges in hiring vacancies,” Schwartz said.

FY 2024 proposed county budget slide (via Arlington County)

Other initiatives in the budget include purchasing 22 electric vehicles for the county fleet, part of an ongoing transition, and a community engagement effort focused on libraries. The latter will “review the operating model (locations, hours) considering where we’ve seen growth in the County and how that overlaps with service demands.”

However unlikely, there could be flexibility for a slight decrease in the property tax rate. Schwartz left $4.5 million in his budget unallocated, for consideration by the Board.

Starting next week the county will start a series of in-depth work sessions focused on individual departments and offices, followed by public hearings at the end of March and a County Board vote on the final Fiscal Year 2024 budget on April 22.

FY 2024 proposed county budget slide (via Arlington County)

More from an Arlington County press release, below.

Read More

Arlington County Mark Schwartz (file photo by Jay Westcott)

The upcoming Arlington County budget process will be tough, albeit not the toughest, according to County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz made the remark at the end of Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting, as the Board discussed its guidance to the manager as he starts work on a proposed 2023-2024 budget.

The backdrop is an economy that may or may not be heading into a recession in 2023, while inflation puts upward pressure on costs — and higher mortgage and office vacancy rates put downward pressure on county revenue.

According to Schwartz and a budget presentation given by staff last month, the county is expecting overall revenue to rise more than $40 million, or 3.4% in the next fiscal year. But inflation, wage growth and other factors are expected to lead to a $35 million gap between expected revenue and county expenditures if current service levels and tax rates are held steady.

That’s on top of the flow of federal Covid relief dollars, which bolstered county finances over the past two years, largely shutting off.

“The revenue picture is tough,” Schwartz told the Board.

Chart showing rising mortgage rates and office vacancy rates, putting downward pressure on Arlington County property tax revenue (via Arlington County)

The county is currently expecting a modest 1.9% rise in residential property assessments, which will be mailed out to homeowners in mid-January. And with office vacancies rising, commercial assessments are expected to remain flat.

The office vacancy issue could get even worse over the next few years, Schwartz warned, as long-term leases expire. Office building owners are struggling to fill vacant space amid work-from-home trends, he said, and that will likely result in falling commercial property assessments for much of the decade.

Schwartz said he has “a lot of faith in the long-term resiliency of the economy,” but that it may be rough seas for awhile.

“We’re still transitioning,” he said of the local economy. “We don’t know where we’re transitioning to.”

At the Saturday meeting, the Board adopted budget guidance for Schwartz, outlining priorities including:

  • A balanced budget
  • Preserving the county’s AAA bond rating
  • Budget decisions made with equity in mind
  • Funding for collective bargaining with county employee groups
  • Continuing to invest in affordable housing, eviction prevention, mental health and environmental priorities
  • Maintain ongoing funding of the county’s affordable housing fund

The guidance calls for “actionable strategies for economic development that fully recognize and respond to the impacts of the work-from-home paradigm shift on Arlington’s office vacancy rate.” It also suggests exploring “reductions” and “efficiencies” in the budget and “eliminating programmatic activities that are no longer priorities.”

Schwartz is expected to present his proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget in February, followed by County Board adoption two months later. Public engagement, work sessions and hearings will be conducted between now and final adoption.

FY 2024 county budget timeline (via Arlington County)

Subscribe to our mailing list