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County Manager Proposes Rolling Over Most Unspent Funds from Last Budget

Facing a combined budget gap of up to $75 million, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz is eschewing the usual divvying up of leftover funds from the last fiscal year and instead proposing to roll them over with an eye on next year’s budget.

Schwartz will recommend at Saturday’s County Board meeting that the $21.9 million in unspent funds available to the county remain primarily unallocated, with $16.5 million being set aside to give the Board more options going into the next budget process.

“Difficult choices will be required to balance the FY 2020 budget and will likely include service reductions, and consideration of a real estate tax increase,” says a county staff report. “Setting aside $16.5 million in undesignated funds from the close-out of FY 2018 will give the County Board some flexibility when weighing these choices.”

Schwartz is also recommending the county allocate $3.4 million (along with $3 million from Arlington Public School) to increase its General Fund Operating Reserve — important for maintaining the county’s triple-AAA bond rating — and $2 million for use by the County Manager “to address unforeseen needs that arise during the fiscal year without reprioritizing or cutting other programs.”

The county has funds left in its coffers at the end of almost every fiscal year, thanks to conservative budgeting practices intended to maintain the triple-AAA rating.

Often, the budget “close-out” process ends up funding a grab bag of county priorities, from law enforcement needs to affordable housing. Asked about that this week, Schwartz said his recommendation does not mean that affordable housing is being deprioritized.

“It doesn’t mean that some of that money going forward couldn’t be used for affordable housing,” Schwartz said at the town hall meeting. “I just think, given the hole we have to fill, I didn’t want to preordain what my priorities would be. We’ll see how the Board receives that.”

A number of civic activists have been pushing the county to reform the budget close-out process, which they see as a boondoggle meant to fund pet projects with minimal public scrutiny or discussion.

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Tax Hikes and Service Cuts Look Increasingly Likely Next Year, County Leaders Warn

Arlington officials expect a mix of across-the-board service cuts and tax rate increases is the surest way for the county to tackle its widening budget gap next year.

With a funding gap that could ballon as large as $78 million for fiscal year 2020, County Manager Mark Schwartz has repeatedly warned that some tough times are ahead for the county government. He repeated those gloomy projections at a budget-focused town hall with community leaders last night (Wednesday), noting that factors ranging from swelling school enrollment levels to dwindling county revenues to increasing Metro funding obligations will all squeeze county coffers once more.

The question Schwartz (and soon enough, the County Board) is looking to answer is: how should Arlington balance cuts with new tax increases? The answer will set the tenor of the Board’s upcoming budget deliberations, particularly when considering that the county has avoided tax increases in recent years.

“New tax increases are certainly a tool we should be looking at this year,” Schwartz told the group. “It depends on what the Board gives me as guidance, but I’m hoping that they carve out some room for tax increases.”

That’s not to say that Schwartz is only looking at jacking up tax rates — he says he’s asked all of his department heads to sketch out what an 8 percent budget reduction would look like for them, even though he tends to “hate across-the-board cuts” and would much rather “apply a set of principles to choose among departments and decide where to spend our marginal dollars.”

Nevertheless, Schwartz believes the county’s funding squeeze is such that simply slashing expenses can’t be the only answer. In addition to opening three new schools in the coming year and digging deep to cope with money pulled away from the county as part of the new Metro funding deal, Schwartz says the county needs to get creative to address the new costs of public safety pay increases the Board approved last year and new expenses associated with the state’s Medicaid expansion.

“People really have a problem finding something in the budget to get rid of or do less of,” Schwartz said. “It’s not a complaint, but in many cases, we’ve not had a really hard conversation about what we don’t want to do. And at a certain point, efficiencies won’t cut it, and this is one year where it won’t.”

He suggested that both the real estate and personal property tax rates could go up to address those budget concerns, though it’s difficult to know by how much just yet. A great deal depends on the budget the school system delivers to the county, considering that initial estimates suggest a $43 million budget gap from Arlington Public Schools alone — Schwartz encouraged the School Board to consider the hard question of bumping up class sizes and formulating a “revenue-based budget versus a needs-based one,” but the final decision will rest with APS leaders.

Eventually, Schwartz expects that the county’s office vacancy rate will shrink to a point where Arlington isn’t constantly facing such pressures. He noted that the rate has shrunk from 20.8 percent in 2015 to 18 percent as of last month, and as “outdated buildings” in neighborhoods like Crystal City are increasingly refreshed or converted into apartments, he expects the county will soon enough be back on sound financial footing.

In the meantime, however, he urged a focus on more than “nibbling a little bit here and there” and a real focus on “looking at how we do things” to bolster the county’s financial picture.

While the sentiment among county taxpayers is another story entirely, the town hall participants, at least, seemed broadly receptive to paying a bit more to avoid drastic cuts.

“I’m a old, retired coot living on a fixed salary… but Arlington has absolutely fantastic programs for everybody,” said Bill Braswell, a member of the county’s Neighborhood Complete Streets Commission. “I’m ready, willing and able to support a tax increase, because I’m getting far more than I pay in tax increases, and I enjoy it.”

Photo via Facebook

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Morning Notes

County Manager Warns of Tough Upcoming Budget — “Arlington County faces an estimated budget gap of $20-35 million for its 2020 fiscal year, which could require cuts to County services, increased taxes and fees, or a combination of the two. County Manager Mark Schwartz… said that County revenues are forecast to grow by a modest 1.5 percent, while expenditures for the County’s current set of programs are anticipated to grow twice as fast.” [Arlington County, Washington Post]

GW Parkway Rebuild Coming — “Much of the George Washington Parkway will see a complete rebuild in the next few years — and though it’ll surely result in smoother pavement and longer acceleration lanes, good things on the road only come after lengthy closures. An $150 million overhaul of the George Washington Parkway, including a rework of the interchange with Virginia Route 123, is moving forward.” [WTOP]

County: Report Suspicious Activity — Despite some recent pushback on questionable calls to law enforcement, Arlington County is still encouraging citizens to “See Something, Say Something.” Per the county: “Security is a shared responsibility so if you see something out of place, say something by reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement. Arlington County is safer when everyone is engaged and alert.” [Arlington County]

Cops Called on Food Vendor — Someone called police to report a pickup truck that was selling food without a permit on S. Scott Street near Columbia Pike Tuesday morning. The truck may have been delivering food to construction workers. [Twitter]

Crash on Memorial Bridge — A crash blocked two inbound lanes of the Memorial Bridge during this morning’s rush hour, prompting delays for commuters. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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School Board Warns of More Budget Challenges Ahead

The School Board is warning of more tough budget times ahead for the county’s school system.

In a memo to Superintendent Patrick Murphy to be discussed at the group’s meeting tonight (Thursday), the Board urges Murphy to be wary of the fact that the county’s planned revenue transfer to Arlington Public Schools “is not sufficient to meet our critical needs” as “cost pressures” for the system only continue to increase.

The school system only narrowly avoided class-size increases as it set its last budget, thanks to the County Board finding some additional money to keep classes at their current levels. But as APS gears up to start the budget process for fiscal year 2020, the Board expects that, as the school system opens five new schools and programs over the next two years, the change will “increase baseline operating costs significantly.”

“We anticipate that, as budget deliberations continue, additional funding for APS’s critical needs will be a top funding priority,” members wrote.

As Murphy works up his new budget, the Board is also directing him to “if possible” avoid additional class size increases, and find funding for other cuts the school system was prepared to make if the county hadn’t come through with the additional revenue last year.

“No new, major initiatives should be presented,” the Board wrote.

The Board expects that its decision this year to cut back on devices offered to second graders will save some money, and it’s also directing Murphy to “explore longer-term strategies for efficiencies, such as collaboration with the county on swimming pools reimbursement and Transportation Demand Management funding.”

County Board members have frequently spoken about their commitment to finding more money for schools, yet the county’s own tight budget picture, brought about by complications stemming from the Metro funding deal and persistently high office vacancy rates, will likely complicate the debate. County Manager Mark Schwartz has repeatedly warned that more tax hikes will likely be on the table in 2020 and beyond.

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County Board Contenders Call for Boost in Arts Grants, Differ on Private Sector’s Role

Both contenders for the lone County Board seat on the ballot this fall say they want to see more money go toward grants for local artists, though they differ a bit on the exact logistics.

In a forum focused on the county’s arts scene, hosted by Embracing Arlington Arts and Arlington Independent Media earlier this month, both independent incumbent John Vihstadt and Democratic nominee Matt de Ferranti emphasized that the arts have such a vital role to play in the county’s cultural and economic health that the county needs to subsidize local programs.

Furthermore, both candidates want to see the county restore the $30,000 the Board slashed from the new year’s budget in funding for “Challenge Grants,” which provide some matching funds for artists who attract private donations. Vihstadt and de Ferranti both advocated for even increasing the amount offered through the program in future budget cycles, even with the county facing an uncertain financial future due to Metro funding obligations and a persistently high office vacancy rate.

Though the forum was light on stark disagreements between the two, Vihstadt painted the private sector as having an especially large role to play in supporting the arts. Though he remains confident the county will be able to eventually increase grant funding, he cautioned that Arlington’s “economic headwinds” will inevitably limit what the county can do.

“The arts are going to have to step up to the plate a bit, maybe to a greater degree than the art community has, in terms of really leveraging those private sector resources,” Vihstadt said. “The government can be a catalyst, it can help with climate change of a sort, but the government can’t do it all.”

He pointed out that the Board already took one step in the direction of encouraging artists to embrace the private sector when it restored $70,000 in funding for AIM originally set to be cut from the fiscal 2019 budget, which came with the condition that the organization pursue matching funding from donors.

“That was controversial, but I felt it was the right thing to do to encourage and really make sure that AIM would further reach out into that community and bring in those private sector dollars,” Vihstadt said.

De Ferranti says he was certainly glad to see those AIM cuts reversed, calling them “short sighted,” but he was more willing to see a role for direct county spending, connecting the success of Arlington’s arts scene to its economic prosperity.

“If we view this as a zero-sum game, then Arlington will lose in the long term,” de Ferranti said. “We have to see it as how we can grow together and have the vision to find the right investments to move us forward so the budget isn’t so tight… We have to think about, how do we create an environment where millenials don’t want to go to the Wharf and the Anthem, but want to stay in Crystal City, or at least consider it.”

Beyond direct subsidies, de Ferranti also expects the county can do more to help artists afford to live in Arlington. For instance, he pointed to the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust in Richmond as a model for the sort of program the county could experiment with to make home ownership more affordable — the nonprofit acquires single-family homes to sell to qualified buyers at affordable prices, but maintains ownership of the land itself. That helps the nonprofit reap the benefit of any increase in market value when owners decide to sell, which it uses to keep prices affordable going forward.

De Ferranti foresees the county creating a similar system matching artists, or even groups of artists in co-op communities, with affordable homes.

“Artists desperately want to live here… but in Arlington, being middle class is not easy,” de Ferranti said. “We need to make sure we’re caring for folks who need the chance to get up that economic ladder.”

Yet Vihstadt and de Ferranti both expressed confidence that space in the Four Mile Run valley in Nauck will someday be home to more affordable studio space for artists of all stripes. Though the creation of an “arts district” in the area has at times stirred controversy throughout a lengthy planning process for the valley, both candidates say they feel such a solution is the right fit for its future.

“We will have an arts district in harmony with the other uses around that park area, and we’ll have that synergy,” Vihstadt said.

Photo via YouTube

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Podcast: Democratic County Board Nominee Matt de Ferranti

Fresh off a commanding primary win, Democrat Matt de Ferranti has the next four months to make his case to Arlington voters about why they should oust incumbent County Board member John Vihstadt in his favor.

De Ferranti, a lawyer and local political activist, has the benefit of running as a Democrat in deep blue Arlington, particularly in a midterm cycle that’s shaping up to be quite favorable to Democrats at the top of the ticket. But Vihstadt, the Board’s lone independent, won his seat in another midterm year, back in 2014, and has incumbency to lean on as he campaigns for another term.

De Ferranti spoke with ARLnow about his vision for the county’s economy, how he sees the Amazon HQ2 debate, how he thinks he can beat Vihstadt, and much more.

Listen below or subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher or TuneIn.

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Neighborhood Conservation Supporters Beg County Board to Reconsider Deep Cuts

Supporters of Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation program are warning county leaders that the steep budget cuts they’re contemplating could effectively kill it.

County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing slashing $24 million from the program’s funding over the next 10 years as part of his new Capital Improvement Plan, dropping its coffers down to $36 million through 2028.

Neighborhood Conservation has long helped dole out money for modest community improvements, like new sidewalks or landscaping, yet the county’s grim budget picture convinced Schwartz to target it for some hefty cuts. That prompted several community activists and managers of the program to lobby the County Board to restore that funding at a public hearing last Wednesday (June 27).

“This is almost a death knell for Neighborhood Conservation,” said Bill Braswell, a former chair of the county’s Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee. “All the interest in it will dissipate, and it will take forever to get started again.”

County staff say that these proposed cuts would mean that projects already in line for funding will still move ahead, but any new applications from neighborhoods will go on the back burner. Accordingly, Phil Klingelhofer, deputy vice chair of the program’s advisory committee, believes that such a delay would mean that any “neighborhood with a recently proposed project should expect to wait 15 to 30 years for a project to come to the top for current funding.”

“If you decide to accept this… we recognize this is really the end of the program, and at that point, you should take the final step and end the program permanently,” Klingelhofer said.

For some in the community, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Some activists have started arguing that the program has outlived its usefulness, including columnist Peter Rousselot, who points out that it can already take five or 10 years for a project to move through the Neighborhood Conservation process.

County Board member John Vihstadt has similar concerns about the program’s efficacy, noting that those delays are often driven by “quality control or monitoring issues” with the county switching contractors for some projects two or three times each. That’s why he sees this CIP process has a chance to reform the program, and “mend it, not end it.”

“Things are not good right now, and we’re looking at what we’re going to do,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “If we’re going to fund the program, it needs to be modified and reformed.”

Braswell and Klingelhofer both told the Board at the hearing that they’d be willing to study ways to make the program run more efficiently, particularly if the alternative is steep funding cuts.

For his part, Rousselot proposed shifting its functions to the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation or using the county’s “Complete Streets” program to fund such improvements. He believes those changes would make the process more equitable, as he feels the program currently is skewed toward neighborhoods with active civic associations that have the time and manpower to incessantly lobby county staff.

But Sarah McKinley, president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association, argued that the whole point of the Neighborhood Conservation program is to provide communities with a direct line to the county when it comes to these infrastructure projects. Should the Board follow Rousselot’s recommendations, McKinley expects people will quickly become disconnected from plans for construction in their neighborhoods.

“You’re going to bear the brunt of all the citizen outrage over the county digging up their azaleas to put in a sidewalk,” McKinley told the Board. “That’s why it was created: to allow a process for fulsome civic engagement.”

The Board will review the CIP, including the Neighborhood Conservation cuts, once more on July 10, then vote on the plan on July 14.

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Extended Parking Meter Hours, Rate Hikes Take Effect Today

Keep an eye on the meter if you’re parking on the street in Arlington today — some changes to county meters just took effect.

You’ll now need to feed the meter from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, a two-hour extension of the old meter timeframe.

Prices are also jumping up a bit. Rates at meters set aside for short-term parking, or any parking less than four hours, is going up a quarter to $1.75 per hour. Any parking for more than four hours will now run you $1.50 per hour, up from $1.25.

Parking ticket fines will also rise a bit, jumping from $35 to $40 per offense.

The County Board signed off on these changes as part of its budget for fiscal year 2019, which meant they officially took effect yesterday (July 1), even though meters don’t run on Sundays.

In all, the county hopes to raise an additional $4 million each year through these changes, in order to help offset some of the financial pressure Arlington is feeling at the moment. County staff also envision these tweaks bringing the county a bit more in line with the higher parking prices of neighboring jurisdictions, as well as increasing parking turnover in high-demand corridors.

This change marks the first increase in Arlington’s parking meter fees since 2015.

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School Board Weighs Draining Reserves to Meet Some Parent Demands at Career Center

(Updated at 3:25 p.m.) There may be a way to satisfy parent demands for equitable amenities at a new high school program near Columbia Pike — but it comes at a cost.

The School Board is nearing a vote on a new Capital Improvement Plan, which will guide the next 10 years of school construction, and that means time is running out for officials to tinker with plans for the Arlington Career Center. The site will eventually be home to an additional 1,050 high school students, but the Board has yet to settle on just how it will move forward with building on the property.

Parents in the nearby Arlington Heights neighborhood, in particular, have expressed concerns about how many athletic fields and parking options will be available at the Career Center, particularly when compared to the county’s other high schools.

Under the version of the CIP the Board reviewed at its meeting last Thursday (June 7), the school system would build an underground parking lot at the site with a synthetic field on top — but that will only happen in 2026, two years after space for 800 students is set to open up at the Career Center.

For some parents, such a delay seemed worrisome, particularly as students search for open field space for sports. Accordingly, the Board reviewed a plan at a work session Tuesday (June 12) that would ensure the garage and field get built by 2023, pushing off the 800-seat expansion, and simultaneous construction of a performing arts wing, until 2025.

“The community really needs us to define what wrap-around supports we’re going to provide there to make it an equitable experience for high school students,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren.

The plan would also address some of the Board’s funding concerns. Initially, Arlington Public Schools was set to pay for all this construction using bonds, a process that would’ve piled up more debt than school budget minders are usually comfortable with. This revised proposal calls for APS to shell out $24 million from its capital reserve fund to help pay for the Career Center work, cutting down a bit on the school system’s debt load and shifting the reserve money from future elementary and middle school projects.

Board members did express some consternation about drawing down a reserve fund so substantially — Vice Chair Reid Goldstein suggested he had plenty of “heartburn” over the prospect that the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum could jack up construction costs in the future, meaning those reserves could come in handy down the line. Yet most expressed a willingness to embrace the proposal, all the same.

“I see the tradeoffs,” Van Doren said. “But we need to fund as many seats as possible out of our own pocket right now.”

That’s because the County Board has its own money troubles to worry about, and likely won’t be able to help APS fund additional school construction.

Leslie Peterson, assistant superintendent of finance and management service, noted that the school system’s original CIP proposal calls for about $19 million more in spending than the county is currently expecting to send the school system. The revised school proposal, with its reliance on reserve money, would greatly close that gap, Peterson told the Board.

“It is not a given, as we sit here tonight, that what we vote on as our plan will be fully funded,” said Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “We really do have to understand that.”

Yet even this newly retooled plan for the Career Center is unlikely to answer all the concerns of parents living nearby, some of whom have formed an advocacy group to fight for additional amenities at the site, particularly should it someday become a school serving only students living nearby. They’re even mulling legal action should the Board not meet their demands.

The Board is set to sign off on a final version of its CIP at its meeting next Thursday (June 21).

Photo via Google Maps

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County Manager Pledges Not to Abandon Planned Construction Projects, Even Amid Community Grumbles

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Despite mounting financial challenges, top Arlington officials say they don’t plan to walk away from some major construction projects that are already in the works — even if that stance ruffles a few feathers in the community.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has stressed repeatedly that his newly unveiled proposal for the next decade of Arlington construction projects, known as the Capital Improvement Plan, will maintain the county’s standing commitments to several major facilities around Arlington, even as he’s forced to make painful cuts elsewhere.

With the county sending more money to the Metro system, all while dealing with declining commercial tax revenues and rising public school enrollments, Schwartz is adamant that projects like the Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center and the new Lubber Run Community Center won’t be affected.

But the large price tag of those projects already has some community activists asking: why not change things up?

“We’re spending millions on synthetic fields and a new swimming palace… and 600 or 700 kids are moving into the county schools each year,” civic activist Suzanne Sundburg said at a town hall meeting Wednesday night (May 30) that was also broadcast via live Facebook video. “I understand people want to finish what they start, but at what point do we start re-evaluating priorities and reprioritizing?”

Schwartz said the question was a valid one, and will likely spark plenty of debate among County Board members as they evaluate his CIP proposal over the coming weeks. But he also warned that the risks of spurning these projects, particularly after the county has already awarded design and construction contracts, could far outweigh the benefits of saving some money.

“There are some things that are settled that we have to move on,” Schwartz said. “There are obligations on the books that crowd out our ability to do new things, and that is the situation we face.”

Schwartz was particularly concerned that people in the community might see abandoning the Long Bridge Park project as a viable option, even if they blanch at its $60 million price tag. Not only does he believe it would be a “breach of faith” with the community, following roughly two decades of discussions on the project, but he pointed out that a contractor has already spent the last five months working on it.

“If we back out on that, nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years,” Schwartz said. “We’d probably not only be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company], but we probably wouldn’t be able to do as much as we want to do, and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”

Such an outcome would be particularly problematic as the county and APS eye a future full of new school construction; Schwartz noted that contractors tend not to see much of a difference between the county government and its school system.

Schwartz’s proposed CIP does come with some cuts likely to upset some people across the county, which could push the County Board to ignore the manager’s warnings. For instance, county transportation director Dennis Leach noted that initiatives like the Complete Streets program, Walk Arlington and Bike Arlington “did not get eliminated, but they were trimmed.”

The county’s Neighborhood Conservation Program, meanwhile, will also lose $24 million in funding over the 10-year plan, and Schwartz expects that there will “not be an adequate amount of money to keep pace with the program” in county coffers.

“This is a matter of making choices,” Schwartz said. “There isn’t extra money that’s laying around.”

The Board will hold a series of CIP work sessions over the month of June, with a planned final vote on the proposal on July 14.

File photo

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Morning Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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Proposed 10-Year Capital Plan Rolls Back Transportation, Neighborhood Improvement Projects

With Metro expenses climbing and tax revenue growth slowing, the county’s top executive is calling for a rollback in new construction on some transportation improvements and other neighborhood infrastructure projects.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz unveiled his proposed Capital Improvement Plan in a presentation to the County Board Tuesday (May 22), detailing the $2.7 billion in construction projects he wants to see Arlington take on over the next 10 years, and he did not have much in the way of good news for county officials.

Schwartz’s proposal does not call for the county to stop work on any existing construction efforts, or cancel some of Arlington’s major new facilities projects. For instance, Schwartz noted that his CIP still has full funding for things like the Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center, the new Lubber Run Community Center and a replacement for Fire Station 8 on Lee Highway.

However, he believes the roughly $90 million in additional bond funding the county will need to put towards Metro, under the terms of the dedicated funding deal hammered out by state lawmakers earlier this year, will seriously squeeze Arlington’s ability to take on major new projects over the next 10 years. When combined with rising school costs, and the Metro funding deal’s cuts to regional transportation funding available through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Schwartz feels there’s every reason to believe Arlington will be under some serious budget pressure for the next few years.

“This is not one of the better CIPs I’ve ever worked on,” Schwartz told reporters Tuesday. “You’re not going to find anything new in here… but I’ve proposed a CIP that sticks to what we’re committed to doing. Even still, I think there are things we should be doing that will have to be postponed.”

One of the largest changes Schwartz is proposing is to the county’s Neighborhood Conservation program, which funds modest community improvements like sidewalks, signs and landscaping. The county originally planned to spend $60 million on the program over the next 10 years; the new CIP would slash that to $36 million.

“We’ll be able to catch up on our backlog of projects already in the pipeline, and do some planning for future programs, but not much else,” said Michelle Cowan, the deputy county manager.

Schwartz’s plan also does not include any money for buying land for new parks; the county’s last CIP two years ago included $15 million for that purpose. However, his proposal does include $18 million for the first phase of redevelopment at Jennie Dean Park in Nauck, after the County Board just approved a new policy framework for the Four Mile Run valley.

Transportation projects on “arterial roads,” such as S. Walter Reed Drive or S. George Mason Drive, could also get pushed back under Schwartz’s proposal. He noted that the county still will devote $91 million over 10 years to improvements along Columbia Pike, largely aimed at beefing up bus service in the corridor to help compensate for the death of the controversial streetcar, but he also emphasized that Arlington’s “number one priority” with its transportation money is meeting its Metro obligation.

Even still, Schwartz echoed the warning by some county leaders that the county will likely have to abandon or severely delay plans to add second entrances at the Crystal City, Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations. The county expected to use regional funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to pay for the combined $230 million in costs — now, NVTA leaders warn that they’ll likely have less money to dole out under a hotly debated provision of the Metro funding deal, and Schwartz told officials that he “can’t tell you a way to come up with the funds for those” projects without NVTA money.

Schwartz added that the CIP does include about $3 million for development at the Buck property along N. Quincy Street and $1.5 million for improvements at parcels along Carlin Springs Road. However, Schwartz noted that the county was originally planning on moving forward with ambitious new projects at those sites, which it will now largely have to put on hold.

In all, the county’s financial picture is so strained that Schwartz believes Arlington’s county government and school system are spending about as much on debt payments each year as they can “in good conscience.” That will likely come as bad news to School Board members, who have been hoping the county would help the school system take on a bit more debt to fund expensive high school projects at the Arlington Career Center and Education Center sites.

“If we’re going to put more money toward schools, something has to go away,” Schwartz said. “And I’d be hard pressed to figure out what it would be.”

Board member John Vihstadt echoed that point once Schwartz’s presentation was finished, even as he noted that the lack of money for new park land was “very disappointing.”

Schwartz and some Board members expressed some optimism that the 2019 elections could change the outlook in the General Assembly, particularly as some Northern Virginia Democrats agitate for a chance to re-do the Metro funding deal that’s so squeezed localities.

But, for now, the county is stuck with a gloomy financial forecast. Schwartz even concluded his presentation by noting that he expects to propose tax rate increases in his next budget, an outcome the Board managed to avoid this year.

The Board will now hold a series of work sessions on the CIP over the next month, and is set to approve it by July 14.

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With Budget Cuts on the Way, Arlington Libraries Looking for Feedback on Services to Save

(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) Arlington’s public libraries are bracing for impending budget cuts — including a 17 percent cut to its collections budget — and they’re asking for your input on what services staff should protect from those spending slashes.

The county’s public library system is currently running a survey on its website, looking for feedback on “what collections we will provide and maintain” moving forward. The survey will stay open through June 8, and staff wrote that the results will help guide their decision-making on how library services change going forward.

Arlington’s Department of Libraries has a roughly $14.5 million budget in fiscal year 2019, and county budget documents show that the department is set to lose out on $250,000 in one-time funding for library materials in the new budget year. The department is also set to lose one full-time library assistant, as the county grapples with an increasingly tight budget overall.

We’re really just trying to get feedback from the community and hear what they value,” Peter Petruski, the department’s division chief for materials management, told ARLnow.

The survey’s questions say that some library collections — including bestselling books, DVDs and children’s books — will remain unchanged, even with the new budget pressure. However, the survey does ask respondents to rank how much they value some categories of materials that the department could roll back, like online encyclopedias or new CD audiobooks.

The questionnaire also asks participants to rank how much they value online resources county libraries currently offer, such as access to Ancestry.com or ConsumerReports.org, as well as how much they might be interested in services the department is considering offering, but has yet to provide to patrons.

Henrik Sundqvist, a spokesman for the library, added that no decisions have been made yet on what to cut. He added that the library system has already received more than 11,000 responses to the survey.

“It just really speaks to the library department being at the heart of this community,” Sundqvist said.

The department is also set to lose $19,000 in funding to run a “pop-up” library in Crystal City, which opened in 2016. Sundqvist said the County Board has yet to make that change official, or decide what it will mean for the location, and plans to review the matter at its June 16 meeting.

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Morning Notes

DES Wants to Reunite Stuffed Bunny With Owner — The Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services is searching for the owner of a stuffed animal believed to have been accidentally thrown away during Taste of Arlington on Sunday. “Let us know if someone is missing a good friend,” DES tweeted. [Twitter]

APS to Keep German, Japanese Classes — “Superintendent Patrick Murphy on May 17 confirmed the decision to keep German I, II and III and Japanese I, II and III, which had been slated for elimination due to low enrollment. The turnaround came after students and parents complained.” [InsideNova]

Flanagan-Watson Get Promotion — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has appointed Shannon Flanagan-Watson as deputy county manager, effective May 21, with oversight responsibility for Arlington Economic Development, Arlington Public Libraries, and a portion of the Department of Environmental Services, one of the County’s largest departments.” Flanagan-Watson has served as the county’s business ombudsman, working to help solve regulatory problems for Arlington businesses. [Arlington County]

Risk Warrant Bill Fails — A bill introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48) to create risk warrants — allowing law enforcement to confiscate the guns of troubled individuals if a court order is granted — failed in the Virginia legislature this session. [WVTF]

Patriots Win District Baseball Title — The Yorktown Patriots baseball team won the Liberty District high school tournament and title for the first time since 2012. [InsideNova]

Get Ready for Memorial Bridge Work — Major work to rehabilitate the aging Memorial Bridge is set to begin in September and will cause significant traffic impacts. The work “will require long-term lane closures and short-term detours, which will be disruptive to traffic and likely send vehicles to other Potomac River spans, tying those up more than usual, per the NPS. One of the sidewalks will also be closed ‘during much of the construction period.'” [Washington Business Journal]

Budget Limits May Limit New HS Amenities — “Those who descended on Saturday’s County Board meeting hoping to win support for more rather than fewer amenities in a potential fourth Arlington high school came away with no promises from board members. If anything, those elected officials who addressed the subject did so in an effort to – delicately – tamp down expectations.” [InsideNova]

Wrong-Way Crash in Pentagon City — A driver reportedly hopped a curb, drove the wrong way down Army Navy Drive and smashed into two vehicles in Pentagon City around noon yesterday. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Arlington Police Rolling Back Traffic Enforcement, Community Outreach in Restructuring Effort

Arlington County Police will soon spend less time handing out traffic tickets, investigating minor offenses and attending community events, as the department moves ahead with a major restructuring effort.

The department announced Tuesday that it plans to start re-allocating its resources on Sunday (May 13) in order to compensate for the county’s struggles in hiring enough officers.

Police Chief M. Jay Farr first revealed some of these restructuring plans in an internal memo this February, noting that the department was 50 officers short of the 370 it’s authorized to employ to maintain current service levels. In a video released by the department Tuesday to detail the coming changes, Farr stressed that county police are “not moving away from the core, fundamental agreements we have with the community” and won’t be making any cuts to services like 911 response or investigations of serious crimes.

Farr did say, however, that the department will likely need to divert some of its officers away from traffic enforcement efforts — including the investigation of traffic-related complaints from residents — and investigations of smaller crimes, such as larcenies, minor hit and runs and other misdemeanors.

“We are not abandoning how we police,” Farr said. “We’re trimming it for a while, and we intend to do this on a temporary basis.”

Farr stressed that each incident’s “solvability factor” will impact just how quickly the department pursues investigations of more minor offenses, with violent crimes taking priority. He added that his officers might not be able to devote quite as much time to avoiding arrests related to public drunkenness in neighborhoods like Clarendon, where police have generally favored preventing major disruptions over simply arresting every person they can.

“We want to maintain that contact with the community and we don’t want the arrests to be the solution, but that requires people,” Farr said. “It actually requires more effort in prevention work and coordinated efforts with our partners.”

Additionally, Farr plans to consolidate the department’s outreach efforts into a single “community resources section.” The department previously divided Arlington into three “districts,” with officers assigned to each one to address community concerns.

That means county officers will no longer attend regular meetings with each civic association throughout Arlington; rather, Farr says the department will organize quarterly meetings for communities in the northern and southern halves of the county, respectively. Farr is also calling off the department’s annual block party, and he plans to reduce the frequency of other outreach events like “Coffee with a Cop.”

“It’ll be a little less contact, a little less people,” Farr said.

Farr stressed that the department is “very aggressively” pursuing new recruits to ensure that these changes don’t become permanent — notably, the County Board recently agreed to increase police salaries in its new budget, following persistent complaints by the police union that pay rates in the county helped precipitate the current staffing squeeze.

But Farr also noted that the new hires will take time to train and get out on the streets, so he’s asking for patience as these changes take effect.

“We’re going to keep exploring this over the next few months,” Farr said. “We’re going to see where we go with it, we’re going to keep working on it.”

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