(Updated at 5:05 p.m.) Parents and Arlington Public Schools are at odds over funding high school crew, and whether the sport should be left to sink among system-wide budget cuts.
Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s $662.7 million budget proposal for the school’s next fiscal year budget proposes $8.9 million in cuts, though those cuts could be scaled back should the county increase its funding transfer to the school system.
Among the proposed cuts is eliminating money for high school rowing teams, a decision sparking criticism from parents who argue the sport helps their children’s development.
School spokesman Frank Bellavia told ARLnow today (Friday) that APS did not want to propose any cuts, and continues to hope the county will find to “fully fund” the school’s budget. The county would save $120,000 by cutting crew, according to Murphy’s budget.
In the event that cuts have to happen, Bellavia said the Superintendent’s Office chose to prioritize “our instructional programs and the critical support provided to schools, students and families.”
A petition asking APS to keep funding crew has gained over 1,300 signatures in the last five days.
The petition argues that teams at Wakefield, Yorktown, and the recently-renamed Washington-Liberty, promote “wellness” and “reduce stress and anxiety.” The petition states that “in the current climate where we see an uptick in anxiety and depression among kids and an increase in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, we should not be cutting support for programs that help improve students’ lives.”
Many parents that signed touted the benefits of physical fitness and mental tenacity the sport gave their children, with several noting that crew offers equal opportunities to girls and boys.
“My daughter is short stature, she physically can’t participate in high school sports such as softball or lacrosse because it’s too dangerous. Her short stature is embraced as a coxswain,” one petition signer wrote on Wednesday.
W-L crew coach Wilson DeSousa also signed the petition, writing that in his years teaching the sport to APS high schoolers he’s seen it has “changed their lives and made them stronger young adults. Readied then for life through the hard work and challenges of being part of a team.”
Former crew members, several of them APS alumni, also signed the petition and shared what the sport meant to them.
“This is a wonderful sport which was THE best part of my high school experience,” a W-L alum wrote on Thursday. “Please keep supporting crew for kids who need it!”
County officials originally warned APS could be facing a $43 million budget gap next year, which Murphy said would have been the largest budget deficit for the school system in its entire history. County Manager Mark Schwartz later revised the estimate thanks to unexpected real estate assessment growth and lower-than-expected employee healthcare costs.
However, the increases are not enough to offset APS deficit, meaning some spending cuts are still needed. Murphy said earlier this month he expects to cut 23 staff positions due to the budget cuts, which will increase class sizes slightly next year. The budget also eliminates funding for some local travel, field trip travel, and laboratory collaboration.
“There’s a very clear reason we’re in this situation: more families are moving here, more businesses are moving here,” Murphy said at the time. “We must be doing something right.”
The Arlington School Board is set to vote on the final APS budget on April 11.
The full statement on cutting crew from Superintendent Patrick Murphy is below.
The Superintendent and APS does not want to take any of the proposed budget reductions. To present a proposed budget that was balanced, however, $8.9 million in reductions had to be proposed. Staff focused on preserving our instructional programs and the critical support provided to schools, students and families, but many difficult decisions had to be made about possible reductions. We continue to hope that the APS budget will be fully funded by Arlington County Government through funding strategies including an increase in the tax rate.
Photo via Yorktown Crew
Metro is moving forward with its new budget, proposing sweeping service increases to bolster ridership with the need for a modest budget increase from Arlington.
The WMATA Board of Directors gave initial approval for the transit agency’s draft $3.5 billion, FY2020 budget during a meeting today (Thursday). The budget paves the way to start running Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt and Red Line trains all the way to Glenmont, eliminating the Silver Spring turn-back.
The budget asks Arlington to contribute $77.6 million to the agency’s operating budget, a $2.6 million increase from last year.
“Yellow and Red extensions help any Arlingtonians heading to those end points and expand the commute/travel shed into Arlington to accommodate growth in Pentagon City and Crystal City,” Metro Board member and Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey told ARLnow after Thursday’s meeting.
“Better service helps us all,” said Dorsey.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed $45.6 million in the county’s next budget to be allocated to Metro’s operating budget, a $5 million increase from budget adopted last fiscal year. The remainder of the county’s $77.6 million in funding is from a small increase in the portion of the county’s capital improvement program (CIP) funds set aside for Metro.
Arlington County Board members advertised a 2.75-cent bump to the real estate tax in Arlington’s next fiscal budget, in part, to cover rising expenses at Metro.
The idea was Dorsey’s, who said the increased funds to Metro allowed the transit agency’s budget “to do more service, reduce the price of some fare pass products including on bus where ridership is cratering while having no fare increases and staying within legislatively mandated caps.”
The budget also included a small, $1 million proposal provide $3 subsidies for late-night rideshare trips that area workers take, now that Metrorail’s own late-night service is no more.
One uncertainty the transit agency’s budget continues to face is its ridership rates, which have now plummeted to a 20-year low. The budget banks on that number stabilizing this year, a result WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld hopes to achieve with the increased service.
Wiedefeld initially proposed even more sweeping service increases, including an expansion of rush-hour service, but the expense prompted consternation from county officials. Those proposals were ultimately stripped from the budget.
The budget proposal Board members approved Thursday did not include service cuts or fare increases.
Metro Board member Corbett Price, representing D.C., thanked Dorsey at the end of the meeting for his “political leadership” in assembling the budget, reported WTOP.
“My only hope is people say such things about me when I’m dead,” joked Dorsey.
Metro Board members will convene again this month for a final vote on the budget, which goes into effect in June.
(Updated at 4:45 p.m.) Once Amazon starts to move into Arlington, the company could take advantage of a little-used county incentive program for tech firms to substantially slash its local tax burden.
Documents released in late January show that Arlington officials explicitly pitched the tech giant on the prospect of scoring major tax savings through the county’s “Technology Zone” program, back when they were still wooing Amazon last year. Created in 2001 and last updated in 2014, the program was designed to provide incentives for high-tech businesses to move to Arlington by offering significantly reduced rates for the county’s “Business, Professional and Occupational License” tax in certain neighborhoods.
Amazon wouldn’t be eligible to apply for the tax break until it actually sets up shop at its planned destinations in Crystal City and Pentagon City. One of the county’s “Technology Zones” runs along the “Jefferson Davis Corridor,” including the neighborhoods near Route 1 that the tech firm hopes to someday call home.
Once it arrives, however, the company could use the program to shrink its BPOL rate by as much as 72 percent for the next decade.
The potential tax break was not described in the memorandum of understanding laying out the county’s promised incentives to the company signed by both parties on Nov. 9, 2018, nor was it mentioned in any subsequent announcement of Arlington’s plans for Amazon.
Yet the county did advertise the program in documents dated Oct. 11, 2018, recently posted on the county’s website, outlining Arlington’s pitch to Amazon.
“Based on the jobs Amazon creates, if the company is eligible for tech zone benefits, it would apply each year for that BPOL credit,” said Cara O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Arlington Economic Development, which helped broker the Amazon deal. “It’s a standard part of our proposals to technology-related companies and each one is handled individually.”
Critics of the deal see this potential tax saving as part of a pattern for Amazon, however.
Amazon is already set to receive $750 million in state incentives designed to defray its state tax burden, and Arlington officials have insisted that the company’s massive expansion plans could have a transformative impact on the county’s flagging tax revenues. Yet this BPOL tax break could result in Arlington losing out on a hefty chunk of cash from Amazon — the county collected $65.6 million in BPOL revenue in the last fiscal year, its third largest source of tax dollars behind the real estate and personal property levies.
“Their track record is clear — they try to do everything they can not to pay taxes,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition opposing the company’s Arlington plans. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking for every possible loophole.”
The company has drawn criticism before for successfully avoiding paying any federal taxes for the last two years, largely by leveraging a mix of tax breaks and credits.
But O’Donnell stressed that county officials “have not factored BPOL into any of our revenue projections” associated with the company’s arrival. The county has long expected to see about $342 million in tax revenues from Amazon as it develops the new headquarters over the next 16 years.
O’Donnell added that the company would have to apply for the program like any other business.
Without the “Technology Zone” tax break, Amazon would also be responsible for paying $0.36 for every $100 of its gross receipts as part of the BPOL tax. Should it earn eligibility for that program, the company could see the rate cut in half if it can prove it employs up to 499 people in “business units with a primary function in the creation, design and/or research and development of technology hardware or software,” according to county documents.
If Amazon can show it employs up to 999 people for those purposes, it could pay a rate of $0.14 per $100 of receipts. If the company exceeds 1,000 employees, it would pay $0.10 for every $100.
The company hasn’t settled on the exact mix of job functions for the 25,000 to 38,000 employees who could someday call the Arlington headquarters home — Holly Sullivan, the company’s worldwide head of economic development, said at an event in Arlington last week that she anticipates a “50-50” split between tech workers and other staff on the campus, making it a pretty safe bet that Amazon could meet the program’s standards.
The potential size of the company’s tax savings also remains a bit murky. County documents estimated that the “Technology Zone” savings “are equivalent to approximately $2 to $3 per square foot in building occupancy costs annually.”
Kasia Tarczynska, a research analyst with Good Jobs First, an advocacy group studying the Amazon deal, says that the savings are difficult to estimate, but she suspects it would work out to “a lot of money because of the size of the project.”
And Tarczynska adds that this is the first she’s heard of Amazon being eligible for the tax break. The head of Good Jobs First, vocal Amazon critic Greg LeRoy, agreed with her assessment.
Many of Amazon’s local opponents were similarly surprised to hear the news that the company could reap the tax savings, particularly given the frequent assurances from county leaders that Amazon would help relieve the recent strain on Arlington’s finances.
“In all of the numerous meetings I’ve been to with the [County Board], they have never once mentioned the tech zone incentive,” said Roshan Abraham, an anti-Amazon organizer with Our Revolution Arlington.
Tarczynska says that such a tax break “is a common subsidy in the region” — neighboring Fairfax County has a similar program — yet Arlington has regularly seen anemic participation in the program.
When ARLnow last investigated the program in 2015, just eight businesses were currently taking advantage of it. These days, O’Donnell says the county has recorded approximately 70 businesses participating in the program since it began.
The County Board is moving closer to approving the first increase in the Arlington Public Library’s (APL) collections budget since 2014.
The proposal is part of the FY2020 budget sketched out by County Manager Mark Schwartz, which allocates $300,000 to APL’s budget for books and other materials for rent. The Board expressed broad support for beefing up the library’s budget during a work session Tuesday.
APL’s chief materials manager Peter Petruski presented that increasing the budget would help reduce the e-book hold times which have been “climbing precipitously.”
Together with APL Director Diane Kesh, Petruski told the Board that currently average hold times for an e-book are 38 weeks, but they are confident they can knock that down to 28 weeks.
“That’s a significant jump,” noted Board member Matt de Ferranti. “Is there any particular reason that we’re able to make that transition to pull that all the way down?”
“If we directly go towards the most in-demand titles, more copies of them, into people’s hands… that’s how we getting that 10-week that drop,” replied Petruski.
Director Kesh shared that the hold times for print books hover between 18 and 19 weeks, and that APL is “very hopeful” that the six-figure budget increase will help reduce that as well. Kesh also said the library would like to use the funding to buy extra copies of hot items, like Michelle Obama’s biography, which still has 300 holds.
APL also wants to use the funds to roll out a new movie and documentary streaming service called “Kanopy” currently used in Alexandria and D.C. public libraries. The last fiscal year budget cut 17 percent from the collections budget — leading the library to remove free digital services like its audiobook streaming service and investment research tool in July.
Schwartz previously forecasted up to $30 million more in county budget cuts this year, but proposed only $5.2 million due to some unexpected growth in real estate revenues and lower-than-expected employee healthcare costs. In a February letter about the proposed FY2020 budget Schwartz recommended using the county’s fortuitous finances to increase APL’s collection budget.
“This really goes a long way towards addressing where we’ve been in the past and we’re very, very grateful for the support,” Kresh said to the Board Tuesday afternoon.
“Since 2014, not only has the collection budget not increased as costs have escalated but the use of e-books and other digital platforms have become increasingly popular,” wrote Schwartz in February. “The library’s ability to provide popular materials to patrons in a timely manner, in either digital or print format, has eroded significantly.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Board members Katie Cristol and Eric Gutshall seemed to signal support for the budget increase by commending the library for its goals to reduce hold times and increase collections.
Board Chair Christian Dorsey said, “It’s remarkable when you think about it even though we’re having a budget discussion, libraries serve as any and everything for people in our community. Safe spaces for kids, productive spaces for teens, ways to combat social isolation for seniors and everything in between.”
The County Board will have until late April to amend the proposed county budget for the next fiscal year and is scheduled to vote on the final version on April 23.
Arlington officials have, at last, unveiled a detailed version of the county’s proposed incentive package designed to bring Amazon to the county.
A draft copy of the county’s “Economic Development Incentive Grant Agreement” posted online for the first time today (Tuesday) sketches out the exact amount of office space Amazon will need to occupy in Arlington in order to win $23 million in incentive cash over the next 15 years.
The agreement also reveals additional details about how the county plans to work with the company to add infrastructure improvements in the Crystal City and Pentagon City neighborhoods, which Amazon hopes to soon call home, and lays out the procedure for either side canceling the incentive arrangement.
County staff are unveiling the incentives agreement 11 days before the County Board is set to vote on the deal, the last hurdle for the company to clear before it can start to officially set up shop in Arlington. Gov. Ralph Northam signed off on $750 million in state incentives for the company last month, amid persistent complaints from critics on both sides of the political aisle that government officials shouldn’t dole out grants to a company run by the world’s richest man — proponents of the deal argue that the incentives are well worth it, given Amazon’s potential to send hundreds of millions to county coffers in tax revenues.
Notably, Amazon has agreed to only use the incentive money to build its new Arlington facilities, including any expenses associated with “construction,” and “furniture, fixtures and equipment.”
Under the terms of the proposed deal, Amazon will need to lease 60,000 square feet of space in the county by June 30, 2020 to start qualifying for the cash. Arlington plans to draw the money from an expected increase in revenue from a tax on hotel stays, with Amazon’s arrival projected to juice hotel tax revenues in the area.
That office space occupancy target jumps to more than 567,000 square feet by 2021, and regularly creeps upward from there. By 2026, when the company expects to have new buildings built near Metropolitan Park in Pentagon City, Amazon will need to occupy about 1.8 million square feet of space. By 2028, when its new buildings at the former “PenPlace” site are set to be ready, it will need to hit a 2.69 million-square-foot target.
The timeline included in the incentive agreement tops out with a 6 million-square-foot target in 2035. The company has said it intends to build and lease a minimum of 4 million square feet in the county, and could reach 8 million square feet by the time it reaches its peak of roughly 38,000 employees stationed at the new headquarters.
The proposed deal stipulates that Amazon will earn 15 percent of any increase in hotel tax revenues generated over the next 15 years or so, as long as it meets all those occupancy goals. If it can meet anywhere between 50 percent and 90 percent of those office space goals, the company is eligible to get some portion of the incentive cash; if it falls below 50 percent, it could lose out on all of the grant money.
The draft agreement also provides more details on how the county plans to spend cash collected through a special tax levy on Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard properties. The County Board created the “Tax Increment Financing Area” to finance infrastructure improvements across those neighborhoods, and county officials expect to devote a quarter of all the tax money collected through that levy on projects “in and around the Amazon Arlington facility.”
State officials have already agreed to millions in spending on transportation projects designed to make the Crystal City and Pentagon City areas more desirable to Amazon, like a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro station and the realignment of Route 1. But the county is also committing to its own spending through this program, on projects specifically identified as desirable by Amazon.
The agreement states that county staff members from a variety of departments will meet annually starting in October 2022 to provide “a forum for Amazon to offer insights on the company’s transportation, open space and other public infrastructure needs and for the county to discuss development within and around the Amazon Arlington facility and to provide information on county infrastructure projects, priorities and processes.”
Amazon executive Holly Sullivan revealed last week that the company was planning such regular meetings with the county, dubbing such a group a “steering committee.”
The company will also “periodically engage with the County Board and county manager to advise on Arlington’s economic development strategies, such as highlighting important industry trends and/or business development opportunities, (e.g. target companies or projects) that Amazon may wish to pursue,” according to the agreement.
Much like the hotel tax revenue, Amazon will be responsible for hitting office space goals to guarantee the county’s spending on infrastructure projects. Should it miss those targets, it can still earn proportional amounts of local improvements.
The proposed deal requires Amazon to regularly release tax data to the county, but Arlington will be barred from releasing that information publicly, except as part of “composite” statistics. Arlington will be able to release other information that company submits to county officials in response to Freedom of Information Act requests — however, the company will receive a two-day heads up about any information before its released “to allow Amazon to take such steps as it deems appropriate.” The company extracted a similar concession from state officials, and such a procedure is not unusual for major employers in states across the country.
If either side wants to walk away from this deal, as Amazon just did in New York City, the agreement can only be terminated with 30 days notice, and the cancellation process has to start before the end of each given fiscal year.
Arlington has yet to release additional details beyond the draft agreement, such as a staff report offering a recommendation on the proposal, but plans to do so as March 16 approaches.
Arlington arts advocates are sounding the alarm about planned cuts in the county’s new budget, arguing that they’ll disproportionately impact the government’s already modest arts programs.
County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in spending slashes for fiscal year 2020, in tandem with a tax increase to meet some of the county’s financial challenges. About $500,000 of those cuts will targets arts-focused programs specifically, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Embracing Arlington Arts.
“We all have to sacrifice when budgets are tough,” Embracing Arlington Arts Chair Janet Kopenhaver wrote in a statement. “However, we remain stunned at the very high proportion the small arts budget is being asked to shoulder.”
Schwartz plans to close the Costume Lab and Scenic Studio Program located at the Gunston Community Center (2700 S. Lang Street), which provide scenery construction space and costume rentals for local arts groups. That will involving laying off two employees who staff the programs, a savings of about $180,000 each year.
The manager also expects to cut funding for its arts grant program by a third, dropping it from about $216,000 to $146,000 annually. The program provides some matching funds to support local artists, and both County Board contenders last year pressed for increases to the fund.
Kopenhaver group says that would make the county’s budget for the grant program “the lowest in the region.”
The county would also ditch the use of its mobile performance stage, which is available for rent, under Schwartz’s proposal.
The Cultural Affairs Division of the county’s economic development arm would also lose an audio production specialist who worked on county events, and the facility manager and facility technology services director working at the county’s arts studio at 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive. Schwartz expects existing staff could absorb the responsibilities of those employees, who are responsible for managing the space as a variety of different arts groups make use of it.
Finally, Kopenhaver’s group is also concerned about the proposed layoff of a supervisor of after-hours building engineers, who supervises building maintenance workers. Many county arts groups rely on county facilities after normal business hours for performance space.
In all, the arts advocates estimate that cultural affairs and arts program take up about one tenth of one percent of the county’s budget — Schwartz’s proposed cuts are much larger than that for arts-related services.
“In the end, the tiny arts program is being held accountable for a share of this year’s budget shortfall that is 62.5 times greater than its share of the fiscal year 2019 county budget,” Kopenhaver wrote. “If the cuts were proportional to the actual budget, then the cuts to the arts would be only $8,000.”
Embracing Arlington Arts notes that a recent study found that the arts generate $18 million in economic activity for the county, meaning that cuts to the arts budget could well have an impact on the county’s tax revenue.
The Board will evaluate Schwartz’s proposal over the next few months, while also keeping a close eye on school needs as well — Superintendent Patrick Murphy is already warning that the school system will face painful cuts unless the Board approves a substantial tax hike.
Officials are scheduled to finalize the budget in late April.
Photo via Arlington Arts
(Updated at 10 a.m.) Arlington schools will likely face class size increases and could see some staff layoffs next year under terms laid out in Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year.
Murphy delivered his first draft of a new spending plan for fiscal year 2020 to the School Board last night (Thursday), arguing that even the tax increases proposed by the County Board won’t be enough to help the school system avoid some spending cuts. The school system is preparing to open three new schools next year to cope with persistently rising enrollment levels, which Murphy expects will create another challenging budget year for county schools.
Much like the county government’s own financial picture, sketched out in earnest by County Manager Mark Schwartz late last week, Arlington Public Schools’ budget picture is still a bit more promising than it appeared this fall. School officials initially warned that they could be facing a $43 million budget gap next year, a deficit that Murphy says could’ve been the largest one for APS in the last 30 years, if not the school system’s history.
However, rising real estate assessments filled county coffers a bit more than officials anticipated, easing some concerns. And Murphy was glad to see, too, that Schwartz proposed 1.5-cent real estate tax increase largely designed to meet school needs, and the superintendent built his budget using that increase as a base.
But even if the County Board approves that tax hike, Murphy says the school system will face cuts. He built a series of spending trims into his plans, most notably the reduction of 23 staff positions, bumping up class sizes slightly.
“It’s a tough year, there’s a lot of things happening,” Murphy told a group of reporters and school leaders in a budget briefing Thursday. “But given where we are and the things that are happening, I thought that was prudent.”
Plans call for grades four through five seeing the largest increase of an estimated one student per class. Middle schools will see a .75 pupil per class increase, and high schools will see a .5 student per class increase.
The School Board narrowly avoided that outcome last year, thanks largely to some one-time funding from the county. But Murphy says he fully expects the county’s own money troubles, driven by a still-high office vacancy rate and rising Metro expenses, means that the school system might not be so lucky this time around.
The proposed cuts total about $10.1 million in all. That will include moving $5.28 million in one-time money to cover construction and maintenance funding, rather than using ongoing funds.
Murphy says he may need to make another $8.9 million in cuts to balance the budget, if the County Board doesn’t approve a tax increase over and above Schwartz’s proposal. He did not say, however, just how of large of a tax hike would meet the school system’s needs.
The Board signed off on advertising a 2.75-cent increase last weekend, setting the ceiling for any potential tax rate it may adopt throughout the budget process. Officials can always lower the rate beyond the one advertised, but can’t raise it.
Board members agreed to that higher rate largely over concerns that schools would need more cash, and Murphy says those concerns were well founded. Without more cash from the county, Murphy expects that cuts to APS central office staff would be necessary, in addition to some transportation and benefit changes, the introduction of new and increased fees and delays to student support programs.
“I hope we don’t have to go there,” Murphy said.
And should the Board decline to raise taxes at all, rejecting Schwartz’s proposed increase, Murphy says he’ll need to make an additional $11.1 in cuts, prompting even more layoffs. However, he said he’s “optimistic” that the Board will avoid that outcome.
Depending on the county’s budget, Murphy also warned that the school system could tinker with its plans for bumping up employee pay rates this year.
Currently, Murphy hopes to order a fifth straight “step increase,” moving eligible employees up the school system’s pay scale commensurate with experience. But he also wants to follow through on long-held plans to raise pay for instructional assistants, bus drivers and bus attendants, arguing that the changes are necessary to keep APS “competitive in the region.”
“It’s a competitive environment out there,” Murphy said.
Those changes will cost APS $12.9 million in all, though Murphy cautioned that “whether we build in that direction this year, or build there in the future” will be dependent on how much money the county sends the school system.
One budget line that will remain unchanged, Murphy says, is the $10.1 million the school system will spend to afford both one-time and ongoing costs associated with opening three new schools next year and repurposing two others.
Alice West Fleet Elementary, Dororthy Hamm Middle and The Heights Building (housing the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs) will all open next year. APS will also move the Montessori program currently at Drew Model School into its own building (formerly Patrick Henry Elementary) and convert Drew into a full neighborhood school.
APS will also need to keep up with an expected enrollment bump of about 1,059 students next year, roughly the same level of enrollment growth the school system has seen over the last decade. That will require about $8.73 million in spending to manage, and the addition of 83 employees.
“There’s a very clear reason we’re in this situation: more families are moving here, more businesses are moving here,” Murphy said. “We must be doing something right.”
The County and School Boards will now spend the next several weeks debating their competing budgets.
The School Board will finalize its proposed budget to send on to the county by April 11, then the County Board will pass its budget by the end of the month. The School Board will then adopt its final budget by May 9.
Arlington officials plan to cut funding for the county’s independent TV and radio stations next year, as part of a gradual effort to wean the nonprofit that operates the stations off government funding.
In all, the county plans to send the nonprofit about $415,000 to support its operations under the new budget proposed by Schwartz late last week. Established in 1982 as Arlington Community Television, AIM operates a public access TV channel and the WERA radio station and offers training in all manner of media technologies.
Schwartz proposed a much larger cut to the county’s support for the community broadcaster last year, with plans to slash about $90,000 in ongoing funding for AIM as the county sought to cope with a tough fiscal picture without raising taxes. But in the face of outcry from AIM employees and its viewers, the County Board ultimately decided to restore $70,000 in funding to the group on a one-time basis.
The county manager’s proposal for the coming fiscal year maintains that $70,000 in the budget, once again on a one-time basis, but Schwartz is warning that the county will likely need to start rolling back its support of the nonprofit moving forward. In a message attached to his proposed budget, Schwartz suggested that he’d like to slash AIM’s funding by 5 percent for the next three years, as well.
AIM has faced a precarious financial situation ever since the county signed a new franchise agreement with Comcast in late 2016. The cable provider traditionally chipped in cash to support the nonprofit media company, but the county’s new deal allowing Comcast to operate in Arlington removed all dedicated funding for AIM.
That has forced the county to provide a bit more funding on its own for AIM, which otherwise relies on member contributions to stay afloat. But Schwartz cautioned in his message to the Board that the county likely won’t be able to continue backstopping the nonprofit, and he noted that a recent study of AIM’s operations suggested that it will likely need to more aggressively fundraise to support itself going forward.
“As the county continues to support AIM in their transitional period, AIM must work to diversify their revenue streams and re-evaluate their position in the ever-changing media industry,” Schwartz wrote. “To help with this, consistent with the findings of the independent study, the county strongly encourages AIM to develop a set of performance metrics that can help demonstrate its community impact and contributions, which could help it attract new strategic funding partners or like-minded community nonprofits with which it might share staffing or other resources.”
Schwartz added that the study of AIM also examined “Arlington TV,” the county-run cable network, and recommended moving some of its functions to the county’s existing communications and public engagement office to save a bit of cash.
The Board will have the final say on all these budget changes as it reviews the spending plan over the course of the next few weeks. It’s scheduled to adopt a new budget in April.
Arlington Transit could soon roll back some of its bus service on two different routes, with county officials arguing that ridership isn’t robust enough on the routes to justify keep them going.
County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing the service reductions in his first draft of a new county budget for fiscal year 2020, which he forwarded on to the County Board for consideration last week.
The service cuts would primarily affect ART Route 53, running from the Ballston Metro up to the Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood in North Arlington and then down to East falls Church and Westover.
Schwartz is proposing eliminating midday service on that route, noting that it’s currently averaging about 7.4 riders per hour on buses along the route during the day — the bus service has a “minimum service standard” of 15 passengers per hour, according to documents forward along by Schwartz to the Board.
The manager is also calling for the elimination of rush-hour service to Westover on the route, as that section of the route is averaging just three riders per hour. Buses currently stop there near the intersection of Washington Blvd and Patrick Henry Drive.
Schwartz estimates that the changes would save the county about $244,000 each year, though staff also wrote that the elimination of that service “significantly impacts neighborhoods in the northernmost portion of the county that will lose all midday bus service.”
The buses currently provide service adjacent to five county elementary and middle schools north of Lee Highway, and staff estimate that the changes would leave the following neighborhoods without midday service:
- N. Sycamore Street between 26th Street N. and Williamsburg Blvd
- Williamsburg Blvd between N. Sycamore Street and N. Glebe Road
- N. Glebe Road between Williamsburg Blvd and Military Road
- Military Road/Quincy Street between N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive
However, Schwartz does point out in his message to the Board that Metrobus routes 2A, 23B and 23T also partially cover the area, as do ART routes 52, 55 and 72.
He’s also proposing cutting weekend service along ART Route 43, which runs between Courthouse and Crystal City.
With an average of four riders per hour, Schwartz argues that it isn’t coming close to meeting ART’s minimum ridership numbers, though weekday service remains robust and would remain under his current plans. That move could save the county nearly $196,000 each year.
These latest service reductions would follow persistent ridership declines for the bus service, as part of a broader decline in bus ridership nationwide. Schwartz also proposed eliminating two ART bus routes last year, and the Board ultimately agreed to those reductions in a budget defined by some difficult spending cuts.
Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in cuts this year, paired with a tax increase, though he has not proposed the sort of drastic spending slashes he initially feared. The Board will spend the new few weeks tinkering with the spending plan, with plans to adopt the final budget (perhaps including the ART service cuts) in April.
Arlington officials now hope to use some of the county’s fiber optic network to jumpstart a “digital equity initiative,” though questions still linger about the future of the troubled “ConnectArlington” program.
County Manager Mark Schwartz envisions the county setting aside $250,000 for a new grant program, allowing nonprofits and healthcare providers apply for cash to build connections to the county’s “dark fiber” network. Everyone from senior citizens to patients would then be able use that high-speed internet connection to access county services remotely, taking advantage of the county’s own broadband network.
Schwartz is proposing the new initiative as part of his first crack at drafting a new budget for fiscal year 2020, but county officials have been discussing ConnectArlington’s future for some time now.
The county initially built out its broadband network to link its own facilities together. Then, four years ago, the County Board shelled out $4.1 million to build another 10 miles of the network, with plans to allow local businesses and internet service providers lease the fiber and get cheaper access to blazing-fast internet service.
However, the network has since gone almost entirely unused, and a committee of experts convened by the county is urging officials to change their strategies for managing the network, which they believe have scared off any businesses from using it.
Schwartz is still drafting up recommendations on how to meet those goals, and get some return on the county’s investment in the project. But, in the meantime, county officials see this “digital equity” investment as a small way to start using some of its capacity right away.
“ConnectArlington is obviously a valuable asset to the community, and we want to continue to work on maximizing that value,” Deputy County Manager Jim Schwartz, who oversees Arlington’s technology efforts, told ARLnow. “This is using it, but it’s not the maximal use we would hope for.”
Under the county manager’s proposal, the grant money could enable new telemedicine services at a local doctor’s office or hospital, or perhaps connect people in need with county services remotely.
Though the county has yet to strike an agreement with a specific nonprofit, Schwartz used Culpepper Garden, a senior living facility operated by the Arlington Retirement Housing Corporation, as an example of a building that could hook up to ConnectArlington.
Schwartz said that the nonprofit could use the grant money to construct a “lateral,” hooking up to the fiber network — one of the key problems experts identified with ConnectArlington was its lack of such laterals, with one critic comparing the network to “an interstate with no on-ramps or off-ramps.”
Culpepper Garden could then use that network connection to set up a secure video-conferencing service with county staff, perhaps at Arlington’s Department of Human Services, Schwartz said.
“It might just be a resident who needs to access human services, not even necessarily health-related,” Schwartz said. “But instead of going over there to Sequoia Plaza, there might be a place within Culpepper Gardens where they could go and converse with staff.”
Schwartz notes that the county would need to set up a software platform to enable that connection, which it hasn’t done yet, but officials are intrigued by the possibility, nonetheless.
“Making the fiber connection is the easiest part of this,” Schwartz said. “We’re thinking about, what sort of platform could enable access to the services we’re talking about?
The manager’s proposal also calls for setting aside $50,000 in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund for similar projects at affordable housing developments. The county previously worked with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to use the network to provide free Wi-Fi service at the group’s Arlington Mill apartment complex, though Schwartz says the county would specifically use ConnectArlington to provide access to services, not for internet access generally.
Schwartz added that the county could also use ConnectArlington to better link county-owned facilities. For instance, the county could upgrade the connection between the Department of Human Services and its Residential Program Center (an emergency shelter and jail diversion facility) to set up secure video conferencing.
The group that evaluated ConnectArlington for the county, the Broadband Advisory Committee, is broadly “supportive” of these uses for the network, Schwartz said. But he added that the manager is still thinking through the best ways to meet the bulk of the group’s recommendations.
The Board will consider its “digital equity” proposal as part of its budget deliberations, which are set to last for the next few weeks and conclude in early April.
Flickr photo via Arlington Dept. Environmental Services
Though the opening of the ever-controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center is still a ways off, county officials are gearing up to hire two new staffers set to work at the facility.
County Manager Mark Schwartz set aside $110,000 for the newly created positions as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. He forwarded along his first draft of the new spending plan to the County Board late last week.
Schwartz is recommending that the Board act now to start the recruitment and hiring process for a general manager and a maintenance technician for the facility, currently expected to open sometime in “early 2021.”
“Hiring these two positions prior to the facility opening will allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop standard operating procedures; ensure mastery of all building systems, including specialized aquatics equipment; procure inventory; and develop staff training plans,” Schwartz wrote in a message attached to the budget proposal.
The manager expects that the county will be able to afford the new hires largely through some staff reductions elsewhere across the department. In all, Schwartz is recommending $5.2 million in cuts in his budget, affecting 29 full-time positions and one-part time position across the county government. He’s also proposing a tax hike to meet some of the county’s growing expenses, though the Board opted to explore an even larger tax increase than he originally recommended.
Construction has continued apace on the $60 million Long Bridge project ever since it finally broke ground last summer, following years of debate over its scope and cost. Schwartz added in his budget proposal that he “remains committed” to somehow striking a naming rights deal for the facility to defray some of its costs — the Board decided last year to hire a marketing firm to help the county search for potential sponsors.
“As the project moves closer to completion, we remain optimistic that our efforts will be successful,” Schwartz wrote.
County officials also expect to finalize a fee structure for anyone hoping to use the facility’s pools and gym as part of the upcoming budget process. A working group on the subject recently wrapped up its deliberations and will deliver a proposal with potential fees to the Board in the coming weeks.
According to a Jan. 31 presentation from the group, daily passes for county residents would range from $9 for adults to $5 for children. An annual pass for adults would cost $630 and $350 for kids.
Non-residents would pay a 25 percent premium on daily passes and a 30 percent premium on all other passes, under the working group’s proposal.
Arlington dog owners could soon be able to pay for lifetime licenses for their four-legged friends.
Currently, the county sells one-year or three-year licenses for Arlington’s furriest residents. But a new proposal advanced by the County Board Saturday (Feb. 23) would create a one-time, $30 fee for a lifetime license for local dogs.
If adopted later this year, the new license structure would take effect on July 1. Any dog owners who already have their pets licensed wouldn’t need to pay for the new license right away, however, but the county would only sell lifetime licenses after that date.
County staff argue that the change would eliminate the inconvenience of repeated license renewals, saving time for both the county treasurer’s office and pet owners, and that it would reduce “the amount of dog license taxes paid by dog owners over the course of their pet’s lifetime.”
Staffers proposed the change after state lawmakers passed legislation in 2017 to allow localities to issue lifetime licenses at costs of up to $50, and they noted in a report for the Board that Charlottesville and Hanover, Henrico and Stafford counties have already made the change.
“Arlington County benefits from reduced staff, printing and other costs associated with dog license renewals,” staff wrote about the advantages of making the change.
However, the proposal initially earned some pushback from local animal advocates and even some on the County Board, who feared that removing the yearly license renewal process would mean that dog owners wouldn’t have the same regular reminder to re-up their pet’s rabies vaccines.
The county’s proposal would require that owners prove their dog has received the vaccine in order to earn a lifetime license, but it doesn’t include any additional reminders about new vaccines. Staff reasoned in the report that keeping a pet’s vaccinations current is “something that responsible dog owners do as a matter of course.”
The Board merely authorized a public hearing on the license change for April 4, so members could yet vote down the proposal. If it does make it into law, staff expect a “long term” decrease in revenue from dog license fees, but they note that the program only brings in about $70,000 annually.
Some, including former Board member John Vihstadt, have proposed in the past that the county take the opposite approach and increase dog license fees in order to fund county dog parks.
Growing expenses from the county school system and Metro have convinced Arlington officials to propose a substantial tax increase for the new year’s budget, with leaders advancing a tax hike that’s even larger than the one initially proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz.
The County Board voted 4-1 to advertise a 2.75-cent bump to the county’s real estate tax rate at its meeting Saturday, nearly double the 1.5-cent increase included in Schwartz’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. Board member Katie Cristol cast the lone dissenting vote.
That change would raise the real estate rate to $1.0205 per $100 of assessed value, generating about $21.4 million for the county in all. The average homeowner would pay an extra $360 or so if the rate goes into effect, though most other county tax rates will remain unchanged.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Board will end up approving that exact tax bump — the advertised rate merely represents the upper limit of the rate officials can ultimately approve by the time the budget process ends in April, and they can always bring the rate back down if they so choose.
Most Board members said Saturday that they hope to eventually to do just that, but with the exact size of the budget challenges that the county will face still uncertain, leaders opted to post the higher rate to afford themselves some extra flexibility this spring.
“I don’t want to be in the position of erring because of a box we set ourselves in early,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “I’m comfortable having that [higher rate] to allow us the proper flexibility to make sure that, at the end of this budget season, we don’t end up with regrets.”
The Board was bracing for Schwartz himself to propose a similarly sizable tax hike in his first draft of the budget, given his warnings this fall that the county would need to close a budget gap of anywhere between $20 million to $35 million, without taking the schools’ needs into account.
But a larger-than-expected rise in property values filled up county coffers a bit, prompting Schwartz to propose the 1.5 cent tax increase and $5.2 million in cuts to balance the budget. Yet Schwartz also cautioned that he had no way of knowing quite yet just how much money the school system or Metro will ultimately need, convincing officials of the need for some extra wiggle room.
The extra quarter of a cent on the tax rate above Schwartz’s proposal would be set aside for Metro’s needs, a move championed by Dorsey, who also serves on WMATA’s Board of Directors. The transit system will set its new budget next month, and there’s no telling just how much cash that could demand from localities like Arlington — General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is proposing major service increases designed to increase ridership, but county officials have thrown cold water on some of those proposals.
As for the school system, Superintendent Pat Murphy will present his opening budget proposal to the School Board later this week, but he’s previously estimated that a flood of new students (and the opening of new schools to accommodate them) could put Arlington Public Schools in a budget hole of as much as $43 million.
Accordingly, Board members hoped to add an extra penny to the tax rate beyond Schwartz’s proposal, generating an extra $7.8 million to dedicate specifically to schools.
Board member Erik Gutshall says school leaders have been especially keen on a larger tax increase recently, particularly after the Board decided to hold the tax rate flat last year. Many around the school system felt that the Board promised them that they’d work to address school needs this year instead, and they’re looking to see officials deliver on that pledge.
Josh Folb, a leader of the Arlington Education Association, even argued that a 3-cent tax increase would be the most appropriate step for the Board to take.
“Without that flexibility, the Board will not be able to negotiate in good faith with the schools when they present their budget of needs in the coming days,” Folb said.
Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey, a former School Board member herself, said she’d have favored advertising the full 3-cent increase, but acknowledged she wouldn’t have the votes with her to make that happen.
Indeed, Cristol argued instead for the Board to advertise a 2-cent tax hike. She pointed out that the Board managed to find some extra money for both schools and Metro without raising taxes in last year’s budget, and worried that even advertising the 2.75-cent tax hike would send a poor message to local homeowners.
“Raising it any further undermines our commitment, or way of framing, we have taken to this community, this idea we’ve had softness in the office market and we were committed to doing everything we needed to do to raise that, rather than just balance the cost of our increasing needs on the backs of our residential taxpayers,” said Cristol, who’s up for re-election this fall. “I think that’s really penetrated and allowed us to have much a healthier conversation with most quarters of our community about Amazon’s arrival and why it’s necessary.”
But Cristol was the only Board member to support that proposal, with others arguing that last year’s budget cuts were painful enough that leaders aren’t eager to repeat that process this time around.
“If there’s fat to be found [in the budget], we’ve crossed that bridge already,” Gutshall said. “Last year, we hopefully didn’t cut to bone, but we came very, very close in some particular areas.”
As part of his proposal, Schwartz included an extra $3.4 million in potential cuts that the Board could consider if it doesn’t want to raise taxes at all. Those changes would affect another 19 county staffers, and involve changes like the elimination of library services at the Crystal City Connection and Glencarlyn Library, reductions in county transportation and human services staffing and cuts to some police department programs.
But Schwartz pointedly did not endorse those changes, urging the Board to opt for the tax hikes instead.
The Board will now hold a series of work sessions and public hearings on the budget and tax rates, with a final vote on the new spending plan set for April 23.
High Wind Warning Today — Arlington is now under a High Wind Warning until 6 p.m. today. Gusty winds knocked out power in a number of areas overnight. As of 8 a.m., more than 250 Dominion customers in Arlington were still without power. [Twitter, Weather.gov]
American Legion Project Approved — “The Arlington County Board today approved a redevelopment plan to replace the aging American Legion Post 39 at 3445 Washington Blvd. with a seven-story building that will include 160 affordable units atop a new Post 139. In a related action, the Board allocated a $5.79 million loan from the County’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund to help build the project.” [Arlington County]
Amazon Development Boom Likely — “Arlington County could see the number of major development plans triple with the arrival of Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters. At least, that’s what County Manager Mark Schwartz wants to be ready for.” [Washington Business Journal]
Next Step for Child Care Initiative — “The Arlington County Board today ratified advertisements of public hearings on proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance and local child care Codes aimed at improving the availability, accessibility, affordability and quality of child care in Arlington.” [Arlington County]
Overturned Vehicle on Residential Street — The driver of a Subaru somehow flipped the vehicle on the 2100 block of N. Quantico Street, in the Highland Park-Overlee Knolls neighborhood, Sunday morning. Another vehicle was damaged in the crash, according to photos sent by a passerby. The driver was extricated by firefighters but uninjured. [Twitter]
County Budget Includes Theater Cuts — “The spending plan calls for the closure of the Scenic Studio program and Costume Lab at Gunston… Remarks range from ‘unbelievable’ and ‘terrible,’ to ‘this is very disturbing that Arlington County may actually be killing local arts programs.'” [WTOP]
Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick
Arlington’s top executive is calling for a real estate tax hike and some select staff cuts to meet rising expenses passed along by county schools.
However, County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year is not quite as unpalatable as he’d initially feared.
Schwartz offered a first glimpse at his budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 to the County Board at a work session today (Thursday). The headline number: a 1.5-cent tax increase.
Unlike last year, when the Board opted to keep the tax rate level, Schwartz is envisioning bumping the base real estate rate to $1.008 per $100 of assessed value.
That’s a 4 percent jump from last year, factoring in the increase in real estate assessments, generating an extra $11.7 million for the county on an annual basis and costing the average homeowner an extra $277 annually. Schwartz plans to leave most other tax rates and fee schedules untouched.
In all, the annual tax burden on the average homeowner would reach $8,890, including car taxes and fees, trash collection charges, and water and sewer fees.
Neighboring Fairfax County, meanwhile, is considering holding its tax rate level at $1.15 per $100, while Alexandria’s rate is also likely to be held steady at $1.13.
Schwartz hopes to save $5.2 million by slashing a total of 29 full-time staff positions and one part-time role from the budget. Eleven of those positions are currently unfilled, and Schwartz is characterizing those cuts as ways to reform inefficient programs rather than as painful losses for the county.
The county manager had originally projected doom and gloom for the new year’s budget, predicting that the county would need to close a gap of anywhere between $20-35 million on its own, with the school system tacking on a $43 million deficit too. But Schwartz told reporters today that the county’s budget picture has improved substantially since those initial estimates in the fall, giving him a bit more room to maneuver.
“This budget been a little bit more of a meandering trail than a straight line,” Schwartz said. “I thought I’d be coming to the community proposing a budget with reductions to fundamental services in the county. We’d be doing less maintenance, we’d have fewer programs. That’s not really the case.”
Schwartz chalks up the sudden change partially to property values ticking up a bit more than the county anticipated — assessments saw a 3.5 percent increase this year, while Schwartz says the county projected a 2 percent jump.
That’s not to say that the county is out of the woods, fiscally speaking.
Schwartz says he’s still not sure just how large the school system’s budget gap might be, and the extra $24.8 million he plans to send to Arlington Public Schools next year still likely won’t be enough to meet all their needs. APS is opening three new schools next year, prompting plenty of new expenses, and persistently rising enrollment projections means that the school system will need to keep adding new buildings going forward.
“They still have something of a gap that will require cuts,” Schwartz said. “I can’t really quantify what those cuts would be, but I’m sure we’ll hear from the schools community and the School Board when the [County Board] has to decide what to advertise that my penny [on the tax rate] for them wasn’t enough.”
That tone toward the school system could set off yet another round of wrangling between the county and the School Board, which has repeatedly argued for more cash to fund school construction. School leaders narrowly avoided class size increases last year, but the Board is already warning that they may not be able to do so this time around.
Another potential spot of trouble for the county is Metro. Schwartz plans to spend an additional $45.6 million to support the transit service in FY2020, with only a 3 percent increase in expenses to fund Metro operations specifically. That’s a key figure because the deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro mandates that Virginia localities can’t increase spending on the transit service by more than 3 percent each year, but WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is courting a bit of a dispute on the issue.
He’s proposing a Metro budget that calls for substantial changes aimed at boosting ridership, which would require localities to blow past that 3 percent spending cap. Wiedefeld argues that he’s crafted a way to avoid violating that stricture — Arlington officials disagree, and Schwartz said he had no desire to push the envelope on this front.
“We had a deal, this is the deal and to the extent that there’s more [money] that has to be added, we can talk about it,” Schwartz said. “But I wasn’t prepared to make the choices on my own right now to defund a county program in order to do something I think might be questionable.”
Aside from Metro, the rest of the budget includes raises of 3.25-3.5 percent for all county employees, including pay bumps of up to 5.5 percent for Arlington first responders, a key part of last year’s budget deliberations.
Schwartz also hopes to add four new staff positions geared around adapting to Amazon’s growing “HQ2” presence, assuming the Board signs off on an incentive package next month to bring the tech giant’s new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City.
Most of those staffers will be dedicated to handling the surge in development activity the county is expecting to see related to Amazon’s arrival, even though the tech company itself will only have limited development demands. For instance, Schwartz pointed out that the county is planning on receiving three times as many applications for site-plan developments as they do in the average year, a clear sign of interest in major mixed-use development.
“There’s a whole bunch of other plans I’m assuming people have had on their shelves that they want to dust off, based on what they perceive as new economic circumstances,” Schwartz said. “And that’s a lot of what they’ll be be available to address.”
Schwartz is projecting that the fees attached to those extra development applications will generate an extra $1 million or so each year. He’s leaving that money untouched in his budget projections, giving the Board the full discretion to spend it “to address any other impacts from Amazon that they think are appropriate.”
Given expected new rent pressure from Amazon’s planned 25,000 local employees, Schwartz is also putting an emphasis on new money for affordable housing.
He hopes to send an extra $500,000 to the county’s housing grants program, which hands out cash to low-income and disabled renters to help them afford homes in the county. Schwartz is also planning another $200,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to help spur the construction of reasonably priced homes in the county.
He also wants to make more of the cash the county sends to that fund each year “ongoing,” instead of being subject to yearly appropriations from the Board. Under the budget proposal, $8.7 million of the $14.5 million AHIF contribution would stay in the county’s budget going forward — an increase of about $1.5 million in ongoing cash.
That’s a change desired by several Board members, and Schwartz added that he also hopes to move away from the Board’s tradition of using leftover “closeout” funds at the end of each budget year to fund the program.
“That’s not a sustainable way of doing it, so year over year, we’re chipping away at it,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying we’ve solved the affordable housing issue, but we’re doing more than we’ve ever done before, and we need to do more than that.”
The Board will now vote Saturday (Feb. 23) on an “advertised” tax rate — that will then become the highest rate the Board could ultimately set, though it could opt for a lower tax rate.
Schwartz says he has prepared options for the Board should they opt not to raise the tax rate, but he expects the cuts that would entail would not be palatable to Board members.
Final budget adoption is scheduled for April 23.