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Morning Notes

Housing and the County Budget — A new Greater Greater Washington article explores ways to add new housing at a time when Arlington County is facing a serious budget gap. [GGW]

Trails Treacherous for Cyclists — Despite efforts to plow local trails, many stretches in Arlington were still icy or snow-covered yesterday. [Twitter]

Police Warn About Phone Scam — “The Arlington County Police Department is warning the public about a fundraising phone scam targeting County residents. Residents have contacted the police department after receiving unsolicited phone calls from individual(s) claiming to be with the Arlington County Police Department and requesting donations to benefit the disabled and underprivileged children.” [Arlington County]

Fraser Among Those Called By Scammers — Arlington resident and local media personality Sarah Fraser was among those to be called by the scammers posing as ACPD. [Twitter]

A Modest Proposal for Stop Signs — “Close observation of local driving practices confirms the view that stop signs have become irrelevant, since no one obeys them. The closest drivers come is to slow and then slide through the intersection. It would be a cost-saving measure if Arlington County were to remove all its stop signs and replace them with ‘Yield’ signs.” [InsideNova]

Va. 8th District Has Most Federal Workers — “The House member with the most federal workers in his or her district is Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, whose Virginia district includes 86,900 federal workers. (Among districts with no military bases, Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly’s neighboring Virginia district has the highest number of federal workers.)” [Pew Research h/t Patricia Sullivan]

Stuck School Bus in Maywood — “#ArlingtonVA school bus stuck this am on N Fillmore St & 23rd St. N 3 days *AFTER* the snow! This hill on Fillmore is NEVER timely plowed or cleared. Do not put children at risk! Can @ArlingtonVA please clear this street.” [Twitter]

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County Plans Two New Events to Lend a Hand to Furloughed Workers

As the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history continues without an end in sight, Arlington officials are continuing to offer help to federal government workers missing out on paychecks.

Two events scheduled for later this week are meant to reduce financial burdens facing furloughed workers.

The Arlington Public Library system plans to host a workshop on Thursday (Jan. 17) to help furloughed federal employees with their budgets and access county resources.

Entitled “Finding Help During Difficult Financial Times,” the workshop will provide how-to’s on the following:

After the presentation, Latrice Robinson, a financial coach and contractor who is a part of the CFPB Financial Coaching Program, will be on hand to answer any questions, along with AFAC Client Services Manager Lily Duran and outreach staff from the Public Assistance Division in DHS.

The workshop will take place from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the Barbara M. Donnellan Auditorium in the Central Library (1015 N. Quincy Street).

Arlington Public Schools also announced today (Tuesday) that it will hold a job fair on Friday (Jan. 18) for federal employees interested in substitute teaching.

The job fair will run from noon to 4 p.m. at the Syphax Education Center (2110 Washington Blvd). Participants should bring two forms of identification to the job fair and are encouraged to submit their application beforehand.

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As Shutdown Drags On, County Offers More Assistance for Furloughed Workers

Now that this latest government shutdown has become the longest in the nation’s history, Arlington officials are taking some new steps to lend a hand to furloughed workers missing out on paychecks.

The county already announced plans last week to arrange payment plans for utility bills, should any of Arlington’s thousands of federal employees need help keeping afloat while the shutdown continues. Now, it also plans to offer tax relief and waive some fees as well, per a press release.

Anyone with concerns about meeting a tax deadline can call the county treasurer’s office at 703-228-4000 to work out a payment deal through the county’s “Taxpayer Assistance Program.”

Furloughed workers can also apply for the Department of Parks and Recreation’s “fee reduction policy” if they have trouble paying fees to use county facilities or programs. The county’s library system is also waiving overdue fees for some federal employees; people can call 703-228-5940 or visit a library and provide a federal ID to see if they qualify.

Arlington Economic Development hopes to offer resources for small businesses impacted by the slowdown in spending stemming from the shutdown. Any business owners “seeking assistance on how to restructure your business, financing or to discuss changes to your business strategy” can contact the agency’s “BizLaunch” office.

“I am hopeful that our efforts as a county will make a difference, but the longer this goes on, the more difficulty we’re going to be facing,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. “Until this shutdown is over, I am asking every Arlington resident and business-owner to be on the lookout for opportunities to help those who might be in need.”

As local businesses suffer due to the shutdown, so too could county tax revenues. Economists estimate that the shutdown costs the entire region about $119 million a day, and the county says it previously saw a “decline in sales, meals and hotel tax revenues due to drops in government-related business travel to the area” during the last extended shutdown in 2013.

“An absence of federal workers in key business districts on weekdays also brought less spending at restaurants, dry cleaners and other local businesses,” county staff wrote. “The county maintains reserve funds specifically to address such unexpected events and shortfalls in revenue.”

The county doesn’t expect to lose much direct revenue from the federal government as a result of the shutdown, though it will “monitor the status of these programs for any potential disruptions,” but any drop in tax revenues could prove to be quite troublesome as officials turn to an already-challenging budget for the new fiscal year.

Arlington’s persistently high office vacancy rate has already squeezed county coffers, and the County Board could soon be grappling with a budget deficit as high as $78 million, even before any impact from the shutdown.

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Arlington Chamber Urges County Board to Avoid Tax Hikes, Despite Looming Budget Deficit

As Arlington leaders gear up to confront a yawning budget deficit in the new fiscal year, the county’s business community is delivering a message to officials holding the purse strings: cut spending, but don’t raise taxes.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce recently staked out a series of local policy positions as 2019 gets rolling, and one of its biggest asks this year is that the “county government seek and adopt additional savings and economies of scale before considering any increase in the real estate tax burden.”

Such a request may well be a futile one — the County Board has already asked County Manager Mark Schwartz for proposals on what various tax rate hikes might look like for fiscal year 2020. Schwartz has also warned that a mix of service cuts, layoffs and tax increases will likely be necessary to cope with a budget deficit that could prove to be as large as $78 million, as Arlington anxiously awaits Amazon and its projected boost to county coffers.

But the chamber is, perhaps predictably, urging the Board to instead embrace its strategy from a year ago, when members opted to avoid any tax rate increase in favor of some targeted cuts.

The business group is even asking the Board to conduct “a local study of comparative tax rates between Arlington and surrounding jurisdictions to discover specific tax rates and impact fees that put the county at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining certain segments of the business community,” which could prompt additional rate and fee cuts.

The chamber would much rather see the Board focus on attracting more businesses to boost revenues instead, urging leaders to make economic development the Board’s “chief policy priority” this year.

That means the business group wants the county to continue its use of “competitive incentives, tied to strong benchmarks, both to attract and to retain businesses” — Arlington officials long disdained such measures, but the county’s soaring office vacancy rate has convinced leaders to use incentives to lure companies from Amazon to Nestle in recent years.

Naturally, the chamber says it also backs the county’s proposed incentive package for Amazon itself, set to include a mix of investments in transportation improvements around the new headquarters and a chunk of the new tax revenues generated by the company’s arrival in the area. The chamber previously backed the county’s pursuit of Amazon even before the exact details around the incentives became public in November; the Board will formally vote on the deal this winter, as will the General Assembly.

With Amazon on the way, the group also urged the Board to embrace the “addition of mass transit systems (bus-rapid transit or similar) in the Crystal City/Potomac Yard and Columbia Pike corridors.” The county is set to extend the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway to Pentagon City in the coming years, while the idea of bus-rapid transit for the Pike has been batted around ever since the notorious streetcar’s cancellation.

Other transit projects on the chamber’s wishlist include “second entrances at the Crystal City and Ballston Metro stations, and a new Rosslyn tunnel.” The Crystal City second entrance is set to be constructed as part of the Amazon improvements; the Ballston and Rosslyn projects will require a considerably more tricky funding lift from the county.

And when it comes to ways to beef up the county’s supply of affordable housing to cope with Amazon’s projected impact on home prices, the chamber stressed that “providing developers and property owners with incentives is the best, perhaps only, way to obtain substantial additional units that are affordable to a broad part of the community and to preserve existing housing stock.”

The chamber also did not pass by another opportunity to lament the “ill-advised” nature of the county’s development of new “housing conservation districts” in 2017.

Some property owners felt ambushed by the county’s work to freeze the redevelopment of affordable homes, and the chamber is pushing for a more “open process that includes suggestions and comments from the business community” as the Board charts out the next phase of policies governing the districts.

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As County Board Picks New Leadership, Officials Pledge Focus on Equity in Managing Amazon’s Arrival

With newly reshuffled leadership on the Arlington County Board, local officials are pledging a focus on equity as Amazon arrives this year, particularly when it comes to housing in the county.

The Board’s annual organizational meeting came with little in the way of procedural surprises last night (Wednesday). Vice Chair Christian Dorsey earned unanimous approval take the chair’s gavel, replacing outgoing Chair Katie Cristol, while Libby Garvey was elevated to take his place.

But the meeting still represented a major turning of the page in the county. Not only was the gathering the Board’s first since Matt de Ferranti’s swearing in, returning the Board to unified Democratic control for the first time since 2014, but it was a chance for Board members to sketch out a vision for how they plan to confront what looks to be a difficult year.

Naturally, Amazon proved to be the elephant in the room as officials delivered their annual New Year’s remarks. In kicking off the Board speeches, Dorsey framed his upcoming year-long chairmanship as one that will have “an emphasis on equity,” especially when it comes time to “expertly manage” Amazon’s growth.

Dorsey noted right away that he’s “only the third person who looks like me to ever serve as chair” of the Board — he joins Charles Monroe and William Newman, now the chief judge of Arlington Circuit Court, as the only black men to hold the gavel in the county’s history.

Accordingly, he said that history will guide his focus on “ensuring that Amazon’s gradual growth here benefits our entire community,” especially as the county prepares to confront some tough budget years while it awaits a projected revenue boom from the tech giant’s presence.

“Taken together, budget gaps today, and significant investment and commercial growth in the near term, present us with the dual responsibility of ensuring that today’s austerity doesn’t disproportionately burden the marginalized and most vulnerable, and that better times don’t leave those same people behind,” Dorsey said.

Board members agreed that a key area focus for leaders on that front will have to be changes to the county’s zoning code, as officials work to allow different types of reasonably priced homes to proliferate around Arlington. Cristol and Board member Erik Gutshall both praised the Board’s past work on housing conservation districts as a good first step, but both emphasized that the county needs to do more to meet its own goals for creating new affordable homes each year.

“Amazon’s arrival has focused our community energy on protecting our middle class from being priced out permanently,” Cristol said. “We can’t squander the opportunity to tackle this hard and important zoning reform work in the year ahead.”

De Ferranti agreed that the county should be fighting for a “significant public and private investment in affordable homeownership and rental housing” as it finalizes its incentive package to bring Amazon to Arlington.

But he and Gutshall also emphasized that a commitment to environmental equity should guide the county’s negotiations with Amazon, arguing that officials should work with the tech company to ensure its new campus in Crystal City and Pentagon City is “net-zero energy,” meaning that Amazon’s buildings generate as much energy as they consume. Gutshall even went a step further, proposing that the county join the growing calls for a “Green New Deal” from some of the newest Democrats heading to Congress, arguing that the “trade-off between the environment or the economy is a false one.”

Yet Board members pledged to keep a more local focus as well, particularly when it comes to Amazon’s impacts on the county’s already crowded classrooms.

Officials are hopeful that county schools will able to handle the gradual arrival of Amazon employees and their families, but Gutshall and Cristol both called for renewed long-range planning efforts for new school buildings.

De Ferranti was even more specific, saying the Board should build future budgets to “put the county in a position to fund the building of another high school” — the School Board is currently in the midst of hashing out plans for new high school seats at the Arlington Career Center, but whether or not that facility will provide the equivalent of a fourth comprehensive high school for county students remains an open question.

Through all of these difficult discussions, however, Garvey urged everyone — from local officials to activists — to strike embrace “civility.” The year-long debate over Amazon has already promoted plenty of tense meetings and raised voices, and the new vice chair argued that “Arlington Way has gotten rather frayed around the edges” in recent months.

“People sometimes jump to the assumption that intent is nefarious, or are all too quick to take offense when no offense was intended,” Garvey said. “We have to set some basic standards, and then follow through by not allowing people to violate those standards and stay in the discussion, or at least not to dominate the discussion so that everyone else decides to leave.”

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Morning Notes

Chamber Backs Amazon Incentives — “The Arlington Chamber of Commerce has provided its formal stamp of approval, supporting the planned Arlington County government incentive package for Amazon. The package ‘will have positive benefits for the Arlington community as a whole,’ the business organization said.” [InsideNova]

New County Finance Director Appointed — “Maria Meredith has been named Arlington County’s new Director of the Department of Management and Finance (DMF), effective January 14, 2019. She will be responsible for approximately 50 staff involved in the County’s financial operations, including management and budget, accounting, purchasing and real estate assessment.” [Arlington County]

Arlington Road Project Recognized — “We’re ready to announce the winners of our highest honor of the year — the 2018 Streetsie Award for Best Urban Street Redesign. Our readers weighed in and chose… Arlington, which received more than 1,000 votes for its road diet/protected bike lane project on Veitch Street.” [StreetsBlog]

Local Startup Struggling to Pay Bills — “Trustify, the Arlington company that provides private investigation services through digital platforms, has had trouble making payroll since October and is in arrears to its landlord and several other vendors, according to at least five employees who recently left the company.” [Washington Business Journal]

Button for Filing Air Noise Complaints — Residents in Maryland, Northwest D.C. and elsewhere have a new tool for filing complaints about noise from Reagan National Airport air traffic: a converted Amazon Dash button that does the heavy lifting of filing complaints with aviation authorities. [Washington Post]

‘Floss-Cutting’ Ceremony for Dental Clinic — “The Arlington Free Clinic recently celebrated completion of a $1.5 million fund-raising drive to support construction and outfitting of a dental facility to support those in need across Arlington. The capital campaign, which was launched by support from longtime volunteer and donor Mary Mellon (whose father died of a tooth infection he could not afford to treat when she was a teen), will allow the clinic to triple the number of dental patients it can serve.” [InsideNova]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Cristol Joins Effort Calling on General Assembly to Step Up Education Funding

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol is joining a statewide push for more education funding, calling on the General Assembly to send more cash to local school systems.

Cristol, a Democrat, is standing with leaders from 10 other Virginia localities in supporting the “March for More,” a demonstration in Richmond set for this Saturday (Dec. 8). Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) is coordinating the effort and has made school funding a key focus of his administration.

The march is primarily focused on convincing state legislators to reverse cuts to K-12 education funding they made at the height of the Great Recession. Its supporters argue that the state’s failure to restore those funds and keep pace with rising enrollment levels have put a huge strain on local governments, which bear the burden of funding their school systems.

“As a locality that receives the smallest percentage of funds from the state for K-12 education, we’ve watched funding dwindle since the start of the recession in 2009,” Cristol wrote in a statement. “Shifting such a disproportionate burden of educating young Virginians on to the commonwealth’s localities is as inequitable as it is unsustainable.”

For fiscal year 2019, state funds accounted for about 12 percent of the roughly $640 million that Arlington Public Schools took in in revenue, while the county accounted for about 78 percent of that amount. However, there are plenty of factors accounting for Arlington’s small share of state funding — officials dole out money based on each locality’s “ability to pay,” a statistic that the state calculates by evaluating factors like property values, income levels and taxable retail sales. The county performs quite well relative to other Virginia localities on all of those measures.

But the “March for More” advocates point out that state law obligates the General Assembly to fund 55 percent of the costs of meeting the state’s “Standards of Quality,” which govern everything from class sizes to facility maintenance schedules, but Richmond has fallen far short of meeting that standard. As of 2017, the state combined to meet just 43 percent of school funding needs statewide.

Similarly, research from the left-leaning Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis suggests that state funding is down 9.1 percent per student compared to pre-recession levels.

Arlington officials are particularly interested in a little budget relief, given the county’s current fiscal challenges.

County leaders are considering everything from tax increases to staff layoffs to help meet a projected $78 million budget gap, which is driven in part by a $43 million deficit that the school system is facing. The school system only narrowly avoided increasing class sizes in this year’s budget, and may have to consider such a measure again in fiscal year 2020.

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County Plans Hiring ‘Slowdown’ to Cope With Mounting Budget Pressures

County Manager Mark Schwartz is calling for a “hiring slowdown” for Arlington’s government, choosing to leave dozens of positions vacant while county officials mull how to cope with a yawning budget deficit.

Schwartz told the County Board last Tuesday (Nov. 27) that he isn’t planning a full hiring freeze for the county workforce, but he will nonetheless direct 10 department heads to hold off on hiring across 45 different positions for the foreseeable future.

The county’s budget picture for fiscal year 2020 is still coming into focus, but Schwartz projects that the county and its school system could combine to face a $78 million budget gap next year. That means that some mix of tax increases, staff layoffs and program cuts are likely in the offing, after the Board declined to raise taxes this year, and Schwartz is working to get ahead of some of those unpleasant measures with this slowdown.

“It may not be immediately noticeable to people, but we will see increased caseloads for some employees,” Schwartz told the Board. “It’s not something that, unless you’re going around and really trying to appreciate it, you’d notice.”

Schwartz said that the positions left unfilled include roles like librarians, code enforcement and housing inspectors and cultural affairs staffers with Arlington Economic Development. He added that the county generally has roughly 200 positions left unfilled at any given time, out of its workforce of about 3,500 employees, and he’d like to leave some spots open in case the Board does indeed pursue layoffs.

“We want to keep some positions vacant for some employees who might be affected by any reduction in force,” Schwartz said.

At the same meeting, the Board did direct Schwartz to present it with options for both layoffs and tax increases as he develops a proposal for the new budget. Even with Amazon’s impending arrival, and the tax windfall the company’s expected to generate for the county, Arlington leaders are gearing up for what Board member Libby Garvey termed “the toughest budget I’ve had to deal with in my 24 years in elected office.”

“We are looking at a path toward a resolution for a long-term structural budget deficit… so our outlook is so much better than it was even just a few weeks ago,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “But this will still probably be one of largest gaps between revenues and needs we’ve seen since the Great Recession.”

The county is indeed projecting that Amazon won’t generate substantial new tax revenues for several years yet, leaving Arlington officials with some lean budgets in the meantime. Schwartz projects that new expenses associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion, to the tune of about $1.2 million a year, and rising costs to fund Metro service, with expenses nearing an additional $10 million this year, will put a particular strain on county coffers.

“This is just a different situation than the county has faced before,” Garvey said.

Schwartz is set to present his first budget proposal to the Board in February.

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With Budget Gap Looming, County Board Set to Ask for Proposals on Tax Increases and Staff Layoffs

Arlington leaders now say they’re ready to start studying unpleasant budget measures from tax increases to staff layoffs, as they gear up to confront next year’s hefty budget gap.

The County Board is set to sign off today (Tuesday) on new budget guidance for County Manager Mark Schwartz, as he gets to work on a new spending plan for fiscal year 2020. The memo directs Schwartz to develop a range of possible options for the Board to evaluate next year, including “a range of potential tax increases” and “proposals for program and personnel reductions or eliminations” if Schwartz can’t develop a balanced budget while relying on the existing tax rates.

The Board made a handful of spending cuts in the budget for fiscal year 2019, but opted not to raise any of the county’s tax rates.

Since then, Schwartz has frequently called for the Board to give him the flexibility to pursue such budget measures, given the county’s gloomy near-term financial prospects. Though Amazon’s arrival in Arlington could well pour millions in new revenue into county coffers, officials project that their budget challenges won’t vanish overnight. In all, the county’s combined budget deficit could be as large as $78 million next year.

All on its own, Schwartz expects that the county will need to close a gap of anywhere from $20 million to $35 million, a gap driven by factors including Metro’s increasing expenses, the new raises for public safety workers the Board approved in the 2019 budget and new spending associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion.

But the county school system could tack on another $43 million in unmet needs, as it works feverishly to build new schools and keep pace with the county’s influx of new students. Without any tax rate hikes, staff currently projects that the county will be able to send about $7.7 million to Arlington Public Schools than it did last year. But that increase, driven by rising real estate assessments, likely won’t be enough to solve all of the school system’s funding woes — the School Board only narrowly avoided class size increases last year, and will face similar challenges this time around.

The Board’s budget guidance does identify one program that it hopes Schwartz will be able to protect from budget cuts: the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize the construction of reasonably priced homes. The memo to the manager suggests that Schwartz craft a proposal to maintain the $14.3 million in funding the Board sent to the fund last year, and recommends making more of the funding “ongoing” rather than subject to the Board’s appropriation process each year.

The latter change was one championed by Board member John Vihstadt in his losing bid for re-election this year, and the entire Board has emphasized the importance of funding affordable housing programs to prepare for Amazon’s projected impacts on the housing market. As part of its deal to land the tech giant, the county even committed to directing about a third of the money it spends on affordable housing each year to specifically serve the areas around Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City.

The Board is set to vote to approve the new budget guidance today, setting the stage for Schwartz to deliver his proposal to the Board in February. The County Board and School Board are also set to hold a joint work session next Tuesday (Dec. 4) to kick off their initial budget deliberations.

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De Ferranti Pledges to End Child Hunger in Arlington By 2022, Prompting Major Policy Questions

Democrat Matt de Ferranti wants to end child hunger in Arlington if he wins a spot on the County Board next week, and he says he can achieve that goal in the next four years.

In debates, campaign mailers, and his official platform, de Ferranti has pledged to ensure that no child in the county goes hungry by the time his first term on the Board would be up in 2022.

It’s a target that some observers think Arlington can meet, but gives others pause. And, crucially, it’s a key area of difference between de Ferranti and the man he’s hoping to unseat: independent John Vihstadt, the first non-Democrat to sit on the Board since 1999.

Both of the contenders for the lone Board seat on the ballot this fall want to reduce hunger in the county, of course. Yet the pair differs on how to achieve that goal, and how much the Board should prioritize it in the first place, providing a clear contrast between candidates who otherwise broadly agree on many of the pressing issues facing the county.

“The differences between me and my opponent are not always in votes, they’re often in agenda and focus,” de Ferranti told ARLnow. “I think we have to call Arlingtonians to be committed to this equity and be a caring, compassionate community on hunger in ways that we haven’t been called to until this point.”

Vihstadt and de Ferranti agree that the county could use more data on hunger and food insecurity in Arlington, and say they’d support a new study of the matter. The Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) teamed up with Virginia Tech to release a paper on the matter back in 2012, and both Board contenders are eager for an update to that document.

Yet the incumbent admits to being a bit puzzled that de Ferranti is bringing up the issue so frequently in the first place, and would much rather wait for more information before acting.

“He is the only one who’s talking about critical gaps in child hunger,” Vihstadt said. “I haven’t heard an explanation of why we’re doing this by 2022 and why we’re only talking about child hunger versus senior hunger. He’s raised a good issue, but I would want to see more analysis on this.”

De Ferranti says he’s so focused on child hunger, specifically, because research links food insecurity to stunted development among children, and suggests that kids learn less if they come to school hungry. But he’s also relying on data from AFAC, the most prominent Arlington nonprofit focusing on hunger, claiming the numbers demand urgent attention to child hunger.

Charlie Meng, the executive director of AFAC, says de Ferranti is right to do so, and notes that he’s raised the issue with the County Board. In data Meng provided to ARLnow, AFAC has indeed seen a steady increase in the number of people requesting meals through the center, and an increase in the number of children served, specifically.

The numbers show that, in fiscal year 2014, AFAC served meals to 3,034 children. That number crept slowly upward over the years, and AFAC served 4,349 children in fiscal year 2018, an increase of about 43.3 percent over those four years.

“The question to the county is always: what’re your priorities?” Meng said. “It’s not always the government’s responsibility, but better support and coordination would go a long way to solving this issue.”

Meng believes that de Ferranti is absolutely correct that the county could effectively cut the number of hungry kids to zero within the next few years, “especially if the coordination and the desire to is there.

On that front, Meng thinks a good place to start would be sending AFAC more money each year.

The county currently allocates about $478,000 annually to help the nonprofit stay afloat, but Meng says AFAC largely depends on private donors to afford its roughly $7.5 million yearly operating budget. For the last two years, the county tacked on an extra $50,000 in one-time funds to send to the center, but the Board declined to do so this year amid a tight budget crunch.

Meng says he hasn’t needed to cut back on any of his programs after losing out on that money, but he has had to work a bit harder to fundraise to make up the difference. He believes that restoring that money, and even sending AFAC a bit more, would make a huge difference in helping the nonprofit identify hungry kids and reach them.

“They give me $478,000, and I give them $7 million in services,” Meng said. “The deal I give these guys is crazy. If you take money away, I can make it up, but it never makes anything easy.”

De Ferranti says he strongly disagreed with the Board’s decision not to send AFAC the additional funding. Even in a challenging budget environment, he argues “we should not be cutting back when the need in terms of the number of families per month has not decreased.”

Vihstadt is sympathetic to Meng’s case, but points out that AFAC already receives more county financial support than most nonprofits in Arlington. Similarly, he said the Board decided not to tack on any more funding in this year’s budget because members trusted in Meng’s fundraising prowess.

“There are nonprofits who are struggling and who do great work: AFAC is not one of them,” Vihstadt said. “I know he used that $50,000 reduction as an opportunity to raise money. I would love to know how much he raised as a result.”

Others working on the issue of child hunger across the state wonder if a focus on services in county schools might be the surer way for Arlington to reach de Ferranti’s goal.

Claire Mansfield, the director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, says her organization largely focuses on making sure schools offer “healthy, nutritious” meals for breakfast and lunch, as that’s generally the easiest way to reach kids who might not know where their next meal is coming from at home.

She’s particularly interested in making sure that schools not only serve a healthy breakfast, but do so as part of the regular school day, which can “remove the stigma” around students looking for a free or reduced price meal.

Mansfield points out that some, but not all of Arlington’s schools offer breakfast in the classroom — Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia says Randolph Elementary, Oakridge and Hoffman-Boston all do so, though Randolph only offers it to preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Mansfield says expanding such programs can have a huge impact, and that Oakridge has already seen a difference since starting breakfast in the classroom. According to her data, only 24 percent of students at the school eligible for free and reduced lunch ate breakfast in the 2014-15 school year; by last year, that number was up to 85 percent.

She added that schools can be key destinations for hungry kids looking to receive meals over the summer. Bellavia said the school system set up nine such “summer meal sites” this year, and Mansfield believes such options are a key way to fill in “gaps” in reaching families in need.

However, she’s a bit more hesitant than Meng to declare that simply following her prescriptions could definitively end child hunger in the county.

“I’m not one to put a timeline on that per se; if I could do it tomorrow I would do it tomorrow,” Mansfield said. “It’s just a case of making a commitment and saying, ‘We know how to solve this and we’re going to do what it takes.'”

Meng says he’s more than willing to do more work with county schools — in fact, one of his priorities is to expand AFAC’s “summer backpack program,” partnering with schools to reach hungry kids when class isn’t in session.

But to do so, he needs more money, and he says that’s where the County Board’s leadership matters on this question.

“We hear all the time, ‘Where are these people who need food?'” Meng said. “All you have to do is look around. Where do you think these people come from who are washing your dishes, doing your laundry, getting paid $7.25 an hour? We have them in this community. But we may not very long.”

Photo via @NottinghamSCA

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Metro Wants to Increase Service Next Year, But Arlington Leaders See Major Legal, Financial Challenges

(Updated Thursday at 3 p.m.) Metro leaders are hoping to increase service during the morning and evening rush hours next year, but they could well face an uphill battle in convincing Arlington officials to help fund the change.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld proposed a budget for the new fiscal year that doesn’t include any fare increases, but does call for rush hour service to extend to 10 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. to better serve commuters. The budget, set to be reviewed for the first time by Metro’s Board of Directors tomorrow (Thursday), also beefs up service on the Yellow and Red lines and expands all trains to a maximum eight cars as part of a broader bid to win back riders for the struggling rail service.

The catch, of course, is that such service increases won’t come without a steep price tag. Even though Metro expects to bring in some new revenue with the added service, Wiedefeld expects that he’ll need an extra $20 million from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia to afford those changes.

Virginia relies on individual localities like Arlington to chip in for WMATA each year, and that means Wiedefeld’s proposed changes would increase the county’s annual funding obligation to Metro from $75 million each year to $83 million. That works out to a 9.8 percent increase, a number that is giving Arlington officials some real pause.

“It’s not that it’s a bad idea,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “It’s a question of, where does the money come from?”

Christian Dorsey, the County Board’s vice chair and Arlington’s representative on the Metro Board of Directors, agrees that he’d love to see some service increases, particularly as Metro wrestles with a thorny internal debate about how to boost ridership. Yet he’s concerned that Arlington won’t be able to afford all of Wiedefeld’s changes, at least all at once.

The county is already dealing with an intense funding squeeze, driven in part by falling revenues but also by the deal struck by state lawmakers to provide dedicated funding to Metro, which already put a larger burden on Arlington’s budget. This latest funding increase could make the county’s already grim financial picture even gloomier, Dorsey said.

“That’s a challenge, and there’s not the ability for any jurisdiction to just say, ‘Let’s take this budget and adopt it as is,'” Dorsey said. “I’ll be honest with you, this surprised me… I can’t quite come up with a rational reason why these service enhancement proposals were developed in this way.”

As Dorsey puts it, “something’s got to give, and something’s got to shift” in Wiedefeld’s proposal. He expects that some of the proposed changes to boost ridership “might need to wait until later,” due not only to Arlington’s specific budget challenges but one specific issue affecting all of Virginia’s localities.

A provision included in the dedicated funding deal prohibits the state from increasing its funding level to Metro by more than 3 percent each year, as part of a bid to control costs. Yet Wiedefeld’s proposal calls for an increase closer to 16 percent for the entire state, though that is largely driven by new construction costs for the second phase of the Silver Line, borne primarily by Loudoun County.

To Cristol, who doubles as the secretary-treasurer of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and argued forcefully for the dedicated funding legislation last year, fighting to exceed that 3 percent cap seems like a perilous decision for Metro.

She notes that the General Assembly included that cap in the funding bill as a way to control costs, and it became an essential way to justify the legislation to lawmakers skeptical of Metro’s management over the years. Cristol believes that the state exceeding that 3 percent cap so soon “flies in the face of” the spirit of what the funding bill was designed to achieve.

“The NVTC has talked a lot about demonstrating that Northern Virginia and the Metro jurisdictions are taking this piece of legislation and, the accountability parts of it, very seriously,” Cristol said. “This is not sending a good signal… and we have to remember that the dedicated funding resolution is still new. It’s fragile.”

Metro spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how Wiedefeld plans to manage the challenge of the 3 percent cap. But, according to documents prepared for the Metro board, he seems set to argue that an exception to the cap would allow Metro ask for more money from the Virginia jurisdictions. The law does allow WMATA to ask localities for more cash, but only if it’s to afford an increase in service above and beyond what Metro is obligated to provide.

Yet Cristol points out that Metro is not the sole authority on interpreting Virginia law, meaning that any discussion of upping funding to pay for service increases is essentially “a legal question and not just a policy question.”

Dorsey agrees that the cap “could become a problem,” but he’s waiting to hear Wiedefeld’s pitch before becoming more definitive on the matter. Cristol suggested that Metro might be better served by putting more of the funding burden on D.C. and Maryland to avoid Virginia’s strictures.

But, even if Wiedefeld can find a way to surpass this legal hurdle, Dorsey wonders whether Wiedefeld’s focus on increasing service around the morning and evening rush hours is misplaced.

While Metro ridership has fallen across the board in recent years, he points out that the declines have been steepest during off-peak times and on weekends, when riders might encounter waits of 20 minutes or more for a train. For instance, numbers set to be presented to the NVTC Thursday show that average weekend Metro ridership in Arlington dropped by 15.3 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Wiedefeld’s budget does call for implementing a $2 flat fare for weekend trips, but Dorsey doesn’t expect that will do much to reverse the ridership slide.

“From everything we’ve seen, at least anecdotally, it’s not price sensitivity driving people away, it’s the lack of frequency of service driving people away,” Dorsey said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it is not. But, uncoupled with the ability to deliver increased service, I’m not sure we’re achieving what we need to here.”

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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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