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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.

File photo

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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.”

File photo

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School Board Avoids Class Size Increases in New Budget, But Warns of Trouble Ahead

The Arlington School Board managed to avoid class size increases in its new budget, but the county’s worsening financial outlook has school leaders warning that future spending plans could include additional painful cuts.

The School Board voted unanimously Thursday to approve a roughly $637 million budget for fiscal year 2019, though board members expressed plenty of trepidation about the document.

“This was a very difficult year, and I think we’re going to have a few more difficult years,” said board member Tannia Talento. “The things we were able to save this year, we may not be able to save next year. We just need to be aware of that reality.”

Just as the County Board has been wrestling with challenges associated with a shrinking commercial tax base and ballooning Metro expenses, Arlington Public Schools officials have been forced to start doing some belt tightening as well. Superintendent Patrick Murphy proposed about $10 million in spending cuts in the budget he sent to the board, targeting areas like employee benefits and planned hires, and he warned that the rapid pace of student enrollment is likely to only make budget pressures more acute in the coming years.

However, the School Board was able to push off the impact of this year’s budget squeeze in some select areas, thanks to an extra $3.2 million in one-time funding the County Board opted to send to the school system as it finalized its budget on April 22.

The School Board decided Thursday to use the bulk of that money — roughly $2.6 million — to delay a bump in class sizes across every grade level for one year, saving 28 jobs from the chopping block in the process. Murphy had originally proposed upping average elementary school class sizes by one student each, with average increases of .75 pupils in each middle school class and .5 students in high school classes.

But using that money to avoid class size increases was not without controversy; it passed on a 3-2 vote, with Vice Chair Reid Goldstein and board member Monique O’Grady dissenting. While neither board member expressed any great satisfaction with those votes, both stressed that they’d rather see the school system save up now to prepare for choppy financial waters ahead.

“I don’t like taking cuts, but the reality is we must do so,” Goldstein said. “Tightening the belt means things are not going to be perfect all the way around.”

Yet board members like Chair Barbara Kanninen argued that keeping class sizes small is “a hallmark of our school system,” justifying the extra spending. Furthermore, she reasoned that the board could use the county’s one-time funding to support such a change because APS wouldn’t be adding any new positions with the money, merely supporting existing employees.

That sort of thinking informed the board’s decision to spend another $305,000 in county money to fund the hiring of several new social workers and psychologists — Murphy originally proposed adding one part-time employee and one full timer, but the board unanimously voted to increase that to five full-time positions in total.

Talento originally proposed using about $855,000 to hire a total of 11 new social workers and psychologists instead, but some board members bristled at the prospect of using quite so much one-time money to support employees that APS will have to pay for years to come.

Kanninen also proposed using $250,000 to let APS offer one week of paid parental leave to its employees — the school system has offered two weeks of that leave to staffers for the last two years, but Murphy proposed axing that benefit in its entirety. But Kanninen was the only board member to support that motion, leaving it out of the budget.

While board members were pleased that the spending plan will still support many of their priorities — including roughly $12 million in employee pay raises — they also stressed that it was far from ideal.

“In the same way the county’s growing, our budget needs to grow,” said board member Nancy Van Doren. “I fully expect to be requesting more money for our budget next year.”

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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County Budget Nixes Some Proposed Cuts, Boosts First Responder Pay

The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously passed a $1.276 billion balanced budget that includes a number of fee increases but no real estate tax rate hike.

The FY 2019 budget notably restores $70,000 in funding for Arlington Independent Media — County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting about $90,000 in county funds for the community TV and radio broadcaster — after AIM collected more than 1,300 online petition signatures against the cut. The Board also boosted first responder pay, particularly starting pay which police and firefighter associations say is low and hurting recruitment, by $1.6 million above the manager’s recommendation, which already included a pay boost.

Funding the increased spending is the reallocation of $2.5 million from proposed renovations to the county government headquarters in Courthouse and the freezing of 16 vacant public safety positions.

Per the manager’s recommendations, the budget also increases parking meter rates and extends metered hours until 8 p.m., while increasing utility taxes, household waste fees and various departmental fees.

“The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget,” notes a county press release, below. County Board Chair Katie Cristol called the adopted budget “sustainably progressive.”

County funding for Arlington Public Schools will top the $500 million mark, as the school system continues to face pressures from enrollment growth and the opening of new schools. Metro, meanwhile, will receive a 3 percent increase in funding, receiving $73.1 million from the county’s coffers and state transit aid earmarked for Arlington.

In addition to AIM and first responders, the Board nixed the following cuts proposed by Schwartz, according to the markup record:

  • $620,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund
  • $365,000 for Lee Highway planning and $25,000 for the Lee Highway Alliance
  • $40,000 for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which serves immigrants
  • $200,000 for a body scanner at the county jail
  • $50,000 for the Arlington County Fair
  • $20,000 for community shredding events
  • $40,000 for the Arlington Neighborhood College program
  • $184,000 for a youth mental health therapist

Among the proposed cuts not restored: the elimination of the printed Citizen newsletter, the elimination of two ART bus routes, the elimination of Arlington’s poet laureate and a $555,000 cut to the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program.

The latter drew some pushback from Board members.

“The cuts that we’re doing this year to AIRE — nobody’s going to die, there’s nothing fundamentally that any of us are going to lose sleep over or should be ashamed of,” said Erik Gutshall. “But while people don’t die, our planet is dying, its ability to sustain our life at least.”

“In future budgets, while we’re going to continue to make tough choices, we’re not going to let our commitment to the environment fall behind,” he added.

Despite the disagreements, the Board was unanimous in its vote on the budget, which Board members praised for prioritizing key areas while avoiding a tax rate increase. (The tax burden on the average homeowner will still increase by $296.)

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said in a statement. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

“I see this budget really as a transition from the way we’ve been doing things to the way we’ll need to do things going forward,” said Libby Garvey. “This community has pretty much gotten used to having as much money as we need to do what we want to do. This year it’s starting to change. It’s likely to be even harder in the future with the stresses we have moving forward. I think it’s a good transition to what we’ll be doing moving forward.”

“What I think we’ve done is really weatherize our fiscal house for the inclement weather ahead,” echoed John Vihstadt. “It’s only going to get tougher as we move forward, but we took some important steps here that, while not greeted uniformly favorably, were necessary to be done.”

Arlington Independent Media and public safety associations, meanwhile, expressed gratitude for the additional funding.

Arlington County’s press release about the budget, after the jump.

The Arlington County Board today adopted a $1.276 billion balanced General Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that includes no increase in the real estate tax rate.

The Board voted 5 to 0 to adopt the budget and 5 to 0 to set the real estate tax rate at $1.006 per $100 of assessed value (including the stormwater tax). The Board’s action culminated months of reviews with the County Manager, departments, commissions and stakeholders. The Board also considered more than 1,000 comments from residents and other stakeholders.

Calling the budget “sustainably progressive,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said that “with projected growth in community needs — schools, Metro, debt service — outpacing projected growth in assessed property values in coming years, the Board chose to slow the growth in expenditures and close a $20 million budget gap without raising the tax rate.

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget.

“Over the next several years, we will face continued gaps between revenues and expenditures requiring more tough choices,” Cristol said. “As we begin deliberations on the Capital Improvement Plan, and next fall, as we start the Fiscal Year 2020 budget process, we will continue to work closely with our community to establish clear priorities.”

The 3.9 percent increase in residential property assessments in 2018 means that although the real estate tax rate will not rise, the average homeowner will see an increase in taxes and fees from $8,446 to 8,742, a $296 or 3.5 percent increase.

To read the staff reports on the budget,  view the agenda for the April 21, 2018 Regular County Board Meeting. (Item No. 47 A-V).

Utility tax, parking meter rates, other fees increasing

  • Utility taxes: 5 percent increase in commercial rates. Up to a $3 per month increase per utility for residential rates. Revenues to go to affordable housing and Schools.
  • Parking meter rates, hours and fines: $0.25 /hr increase in rates. Hours extend from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fines increase to $40.
  • DPR, ACFD, DES, CPHD fees to increase at various rates, to begin to achieve full cost recovery.
  • Household Solid Waste fees increased $2/year (full cost recovery). The increase will bring the Household Solid Waste fee to $316.16 per year.

Funding public schools

“Arlington’s public schools are among the best in the nation, and the County Board is committed to the School Board’s efforts to maintain that status,” Cristol said. “That is why the Board cut $2.5 million from the budget for much-needed renovations to the Government Center to add to Schools funding. This difficult de-allocation recognizes the challenges facing APS as it expands existing schools and adds new ones to accommodate ever more students.”

The County’s funding for Schools in FY 2019 will increase by $10.6 million, to $500.8 million. The additional funding will help address budget pressures from continuing enrollment increases.

Funding Metro

The Board approved an increase of 3 percent for Metro, from local sources and the County’s share of state transit aid. The increase will bring the County’s total operating support for Metro to $73.1 million in FY 2019.

“It is a watershed action that the General Assembly provided a dedicated source of funding for Metro,” Cristol said. “But that funding is coming from existing revenues, not new revenues. The General Assembly’s package requires Arlington to shift $12 million  a year from our Capital Improvement Plan to fund Metro. The package also shifts $102 million a year from regional transportation funding to Metro funding. That means Arlington will be competing with other jurisdictions for a smaller pot of regional transportation funding.”

Funding affordable housing

The Board slightly increased funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, the County’s primary funding sources for the creation and preservation of affordable housing. It also increased the percentage of ongoing AHIF funding. Total County funding for AHIF in Fiscal Year 2019 will be $14 .3 million.

Investing in the workforce

The Board provided $1.595 million more in public safety compensation beyond what the Manager had proposed in February, citing the need to compete in an increasingly tight labor market to attract and retain police officers, firefighters and sheriff deputies.

The Board also approved a 3.25 percent increase in merit-based compensation for non-public safety employees.

Restoring proposed cuts

The Board restored funding in several areas that the Manager had proposed reducing. Among the restored cuts:

  • Funding for Arlington Independent Media – the Board restored $70,000 in one-time funding for Arlington Independent Media, the community non-profit broadcasting organization. “AIM is a valued community resource,” Cristol said. “It has trained thousands of Arlingtonians in video production and radio broadcasting, and is an independent voice on cultural, political and social issues in our community. “The Board wants to give AIM more time to work toward economic self-sufficiency.” Noting the decline in cable franchise revenues that for decades have funded Arlington’s Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Channel coupled with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the Board directed the Manager to examine the current structure of the PEG channels and radio station, compare how other nearby localities provide PEG services, and provide options for cuts in funding by December 2018.
  • Funding for Lee Highway long-range planning – The Board restored $365,500 in funding the Manager had proposed cutting for long-range planning along the Lee Highway corridor.
  • Neighborhood College – The Board restored $40,000 in one-time funding to pay for outside facilitators for the County’s popular Neighborhood College program, noting that the facilitators are the linchpin of a program successfully attracts economically, socially and ethnically diverse “students” and trains them to effectively advocate for their neighborhoods with County government.
  • Preserving the County’s free paper shredding service – the Board restored $20,000 in one-time funding for the County’s free paper-shredding service that the Manager had recommended eliminating.
  • Continuing funding for immigrants – the Board approved $40,000 in one-time funding for the Legal Justice Service, to provide legal services to immigrants.
  • Funding a body scanner for the County jail – the Board approved $200,000 to purchase a body scanner for the County jail.
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Morning Notes

First Responders Say Starting Pay Is Too Low — “Patrick Gorman was just beginning to enjoy his job as an Arlington, Va., police officer when he decided to quit. His wife was pregnant with twins, and they already had a 2-year-old. Even with both working full time, he said, they couldn’t afford to live in the area. Two months out of training, he left the department in February and moved to North Carolina.” [Washington Post]

Large Arlington Contingent for Boston Marathon — Some 77 runners from Arlington are set to compete in the prestigious Boston Marathon a week from today. [InsideNova]

Public Safety Personnel Recognized for Crisis Interventions — “Four Arlington County police officers, two sheriff’s deputies, and a 9-1-1 dispatcher were honored this week for their exemplary work in responding to people in a mental health crisis when on a call or on the job.” [Arlington County]

Spotted: Michael Irvin — Former Dallas Cowboys great Michael Irvin was spotted hanging out at Champps on Pentagon Row over the weekend. [Twitter]

Rosslyn Hotel Opening Brings Up HQ2 — It’s difficult to find an economic development event in Northern Virginia these days that doesn’t spark discussions of Amazon’s HQ2. At an opening for the new Homewood Suites hotel in Rosslyn, Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins remarked that “you’d have to build, like, 10 more of these” if Amazon were to come to Arlington. [Washington Business Journal]

ARLnow Doesn’t Have a Wikipedia Page — Did you know that despite being around for more than eight years, and being cited as a source in plenty of Wikipedia pages, ARLnow does not have its own page? With Facebook now starting to use Wikipedia as a signaling mechanism for trustworthiness, now would be a great time for someone to finally give ARLnow its own Wikipedia entry. Pretty please?

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Arlington’s First Responders Ask for Better Pay

Police and fire officials flooded last night’s (April 3) budget hearing to speak out against stagnant wages.

Public safety personnel say that police and fire wages are too low to allow them to live in Arlington long-term. Many are joining up, but soon realizing that their pay is insufficient to live in the county and raise a family.

The starting salary for a firefighter in Arlington is $48,000, while an entry-level police officer makes just under $53,000, according to organizers of last night’s demonstration.

A recent study found that single Arlingtonians can live comfortably on just over $56,000 a year; a couple with two children can live comfortably with just under $114,000 per year.

The proposed 2019 budget includes a four percent raise for ACFD but only a two-and-a-half percent raise for ACPD.

A “strategic restructuring” is in the works at the Arlington County Police Department, as its functional strength falls well below its authorized force. Recruiting has been a challenge, officials say.

Matthew Martin, the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association president, said that the department currently operating with 44 officers below full strength. That’s about two full patrol squads, according to the association.

‘Your police department is in trouble,” said Martin. “We can’t recruit and retain the high-quality officers that we need.”

The high turnover itself is a financial problem, as the department must then pay for recruiting and training the short-time officers, forcing the county to advertise job opportunities on billboards as far away as suburban Pittsburgh.

Ashley Savage, the police department spokeswoman, told the Tribune-Review that the billboard campaign “eventually will cover territory from Youngstown, Ohio, to Cleveland and from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.”

Matt Quinn, a financial crimes unit detective who has been on the force for 12 years, said that since there are not enough officers for core services it’s hard even for those who don’t leave the department to move up.

“We have to focus on our core services, which is patrol, which means we have to make sure that that’s taken care of before people start looking at the detective bureau or other assignments within the bureau,” Quinn said.

Arlington County will not raise property tax rates this year, but fees are set to rise for several county services and amenities while other programs are seeing their budgets cut.

IAFF Local 2800, which represents Arlington’s professional firefighters and paramedics, noted that ACFD is paid as much as 20 percent less than their nearby counterparts.

So even if the demands are met, and a four percent increase is achieved, it’s just a start in the eyes of several fire and police officials.

“I think it’s a start for the department as a whole… but definitely over the next couple years we have to work at compressing the pay scale and increasing the starting pay to attract more good candidates,” Quinn explained, saying it would be a good start in a multi-year process.

The County Board room, at capacity, was closed off shortly after opening as dozens of people — many in support of other causes, like nixing a proposed cut for Arlington Independent Media — poured in. The overflow crowd was allowed to watch and listen from the hall.

“We brought the fire department here, I think we’ll be fine,” one officer joked after the room was instructed to squeeze in to fit more people in the seats.

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County Budget Proposal Includes New Parking Meter Rate Hikes

The county manager’s proposed 2019 budget includes new parking meter rate hikes.

Short term parking, defined as less than four hours, would go up a quarter to $1.75 per hour. Long term parking, more than four hours, would also go up a quarter to $1.50 per hour.

Currently, drivers only have to feed the meter in Arlington between 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Under the proposed budget, the times would change to 8 a.m.-8 p.m., or an additional two hours of metering for a total of 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The increase would add about $3.775 million per year to the county’s coffers, with $1.575 million in anticipated revenue from the rate increase alone and an additional $2.2 million for the hours extension.

In a budget document, county staff note that the increase would “encourage more frequent turnover in parking space during hours of greatest demand” and would be “more consistent with other rates and hours in the region.” It would also, of course, raise revenue at a time when the county is facing a significant budget gap.

The proposal comes less than three years after the County Board approved parking meter rate increases, which raised rates a quarter across the board. In 2011, a rate hike brought the long-term parking cost per hour up to $1.

Parking ticket fines will also rise, from $35 to $40 per offense, leading to just over $236,000 in revenue per year.

File photo

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