Artisphere hosted its final performances this past weekend, as it prepares to close for good at the end of the month. Supporters decry the closure as the county government prioritizing penny pinching over the arts. But Artisphere’s financial losses may have been secondary to another problem: lack of community engagement.
The cultural center in Rosslyn spent more than $1 million on marketing over four and a half years, largely targeting D.C. area arts aficionados with newspaper ads. The strategy paid off with sold-out niche concerts and events, but failed to attract the loyalty of many Arlington residents who have a more casual appreciation for the arts.
Instead of the original vision of a hub for local arts groups and a community hangout, complete with a WiFi cafe, Artisphere became more of a regional draw for one-off performances. Some 75 percent of its audience came from outside Arlington and 83 percent of its artists from outside Virginia, according to a 2014 report.
After hastily opening on the novelty date of 10/10/10, before an executive director or a marketing director could even be hired, Artisphere’s finances proved to be a fiasco. Wildly over-optimistic expectations gave way to the realization that the center would only make a quarter of its projected visitor revenue in the first year. That, in turn, sparked community criticism, set off backtracking by policymakers and led to a series of changes that watered down community participation.
It didn’t help that Artisphere’s multitude of performance venues were small and, as officials figured out after opening, couldn’t host simultaneous events due to noise bleed.
The relative lack of participation from taxpaying Arlington residents and artists, in the end, may have been Artisphere’s biggest downfall. When Artisphere hit the chopping block, few residents showed up at County Board meetings to speak in its defense.
“That’s exactly part of the issue,” said retiring Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan, in a May interview. “At some levels, it wasn’t reaching our community in such a way that won their support.”
Donnellan and the County Board faced criticism in the local arts world for the decision, with letters to the editor, the chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts and even a Washington City Paper cover story implying that the Board was naive in closing Artisphere just because it was losing money.
“Artisphere’s closure is symptomatic of a much larger political view of culture in which the arts are important to community building, but funding them is not,” the City Paper wrote. It along with the Washington Post were the beneficiaries of 55 percent of Artisphere’s marketing budget.
But there was more that went into the decision to close than just dollars and cents. Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes said Artisphere was “able to create some wonderful shows” after “‘we got some of the right programming people in place,” but “there was a struggle in terms of what type of place [Artisphere] was going to be.”
“Within our Cultural Affairs department there was a real desire to be cutting edge and to fill a niche they perceived in the D.C. arts scene,” Hynes said. “So people on the way up” were booked, but “those are people who who are developing an audience, not those who have an audience.”
There was discussion of hosting “community Saturdays” — with performances from school groups and other community-driven activities — “where we get people familiar with coming here because their kid is performing here.”
“But that didn’t fit with the image of what people thought of as [Artisphere],” Hynes said. “So I do think that audience was pretty constrained in terms of all of Arlington.”
“In the end we collectively didn’t see as much of an opportunity for full community participation here than we see in some other things we do,” Hynes said of the decision to close Artisphere and send about half of its budget back into other arts programming around Arlington. “When a locality is putting its tax money into helping the production of art, we have some obligation to consider how we give as many people in our community as possible the opportunity to consume good art.”
(Updated at 1:20 p.m.) The Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn will close and Arlington’s property tax rate will stay the same under the new Fiscal Year 2016 budget approved unanimously by the Arlington County Board last night.
The $1.16 billion budget will provide Arlington Public Schools with the extra $6.2 million it sought to deal with rising enrollment.
It also will fund a new internal auditor position, a campaign promise of County Board member John Vihstadt.
Other budget highlights include:
- An additional $1.4 million for economic development efforts, including an extra $200,000 for TandemNSI, $200,000 for tourism promotion and an extra $100,000 for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization
- Five new sheriff deputy positions
- Salary supplement for the public defender’s office
- Additional jail-based mental health services
- An additional animal control officer for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington
- Funding for Affordable Housing Investment Fund remains steady at $12.5 million
- An additional $1 million for housing grants, for a total of $8.9 in housing grant funding
- The county manager’s proposed cuts to BikeArlington were eliminated. Funding for county bike and pedestrian programs remains at $812,121.
- A merit compentation increase for employees
- Funding restored to the “Live Where You Work” program for county employees
Under the budget, Arlington’s real estate tax rate will stay at $0.996 per $100 in assessed value. However, due to the 4.9 percent rise in residential property assessments and a 1.8 percent increase in the water-sewer rate, the average Arlington homeowners’ tax and fee burden will rise about $281 a year, to a total of $7,567, a 4 percent increase.
“Arlington’s real estate tax rate remains the lowest in the region,” a county press release noted.
County government spending will increase 1.1 percent and Arlington Public Schools spending will increase 4.5 percent compared to the previous fiscal year.
Under the budget, the per-pupil cost of Arlington Public Schools to taxpayers will drop to $18,558 per student from $19,040 per student during FY 2015.
The internal auditor position sought by Vihstadt will require $200,000 of funding. The auditor will be independent, reporting to the County Board as opposed to existing internal auditing programs that report to the County Manager.
“The auditor, and an advisory committee, will report directly to the County Board and will focus on tightening financial oversight and deepening program performance review,” according to the press release.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill this year giving the Board the authority to hire an auditor. The only other positions the Board can hire directly are the County Attorney, the County Clerk and the County Manager.
County officials say they were able to balance the budget without a tax increase and find additional funding for schools and other priorities by making budget cuts elsewhere, including Artisphere.
“The Board’s most significant cut was its decision to close Artisphere, a move that will save $2.3 million in net taxpayer support for the County’s critically acclaimed arts and cultural center,” said the press release. “The County has said that the center’s failure to consistently attract a large enough audience and its ongoing need for substantial County funding put too great a burden on strained County finances. The County is redirecting $496,000 of the money saved to fund alternative arts and cultural programming across the County.”
Artisphere is set to close June 30.
The tax rate will likely remain at $0.996 cents of $100 of assessed value, which will result in an average property tax bill increase of $281 per year for Arlington households. The County Board had advertised a rate 1.5 cents higher than it passed, but ultimately decided to make budget cuts instead.
“Every member of this Board is acutely aware of the tax burden on our residents,” County Board Chair Mary Hynes said. “We felt strongly that we did not want to add to that burden.”
The tax rate was one of the key decisions the County Board made during its final budget work session yesterday evening. It will vote on the Calendar Year 2016 tax rate and its FY 2016 budget next Tuesday.
In addition, the County Board vowed to fully fund Arlington Public Schools, allotting $6.2 million above County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed budget. The combination of the flat tax rate and additional money for public schools meant the Board had to slash $2.8 million from their previous budgets.
The biggest of those cuts will come from closing Artisphere, effective June 30. The county still has a lease on the property and there are outside parties that would like to turn it into a tech incubator and conference space, but no formal proposal has yet been made on that front. Closing the center, converting the Metrobus 3A route to ART service and foregoing expansion of urban agricultural offerings were enough to fund a balanced budget.
The Board also acquiesced to other budget requests, including funding a new animal control officer for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, providing pay increases to the Public Defender’s office and injecting $900,000 into Arlington Economic Development’s budget.
“This budget fully funds Schools, maintains core services and the social safety net, values our employees by providing a modest step increase, and invests more in the critical areas of economic development and public safety,” Hynes said in a press release. “I am confident that next week, we will adopt a budget that continues this County’s long track record of wisely managing taxpayer money while making strategic investments in infrastructure and environmental and economic sustainability.”
Today is Tax Day across the nation. Meanwhile, next week, the Arlington County Board will set the Fiscal Year 2016 real estate tax rate.
Last year, in advance of the Board’s FY 2015 budget vote, we asked what you think about the county’s tax rate.
Only 6.5 percent of respondents said the tax rate should be raised, while 27 percent said the tax rate should be held steady and 66.5 percent said it should be lowered.
(The Board ultimately lowered the rate from $1.006 per $100 in value to $0.996.)
This year, the Board advertised a tax rate of $1.011, giving itself the flexibility to raise the rate by up to 1.5 cents. Such a tax hike could be used to help fully fund schools, which are facing a $6.2 million funding gap.
On the other hand, because of higher residential assessments this year, the Board may consider lowering the rate to ease the increasing tax burden on homeowners.
What do you think should be done this year?
(Updated at 11:15 a.m.) The Arlington School Board has approved a proposed $555.9 million budget for the 2015-2016 school year, requesting $6.18 million more than County Manager Barbara Donnellan proposed in her budget.
The School Board’s approved cuts of $7.4 million from Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s budget, unveiled in February. Some of those savings have come from updated revenue figures, but others have come from slashing Murphy’s budget, including cuts to the Arlington Public Schools central office staff.
Other savings came from moving money around, funding replacement buses and new technology with one-time funds from last year’s closeout budget as opposed to ongoing funding.
“We have now shrunk by $6.2 million, and that’s been a lot of hard work,” School Board member Abby Raphael said at the decisive meeting last week. “Everyone was asked to really scrub their budgets and make changes, so we’re making some hard cuts and some hard choices … I think it is very reasonable, very responsible.”
The Arlington County Board will vote on its budget next week, and in the process it could either approve the School Board’s budget, or force APS to make further cuts. If the School Board is not granted the $6.2 million, the next cuts to make would be step increases for staff, eliminating early release from the four elementary schools who still have it. APS could also increase class size by one, which would cut 55 jobs.
If the County Board approves the Board’s adopted budget, all early release programs at Arlington elementary schools would be a thing of the past, paving the way for broader implementation of the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program.
The adopted budget would mean a cost-per-pupil of $18,558, APS’ lowest since FY 2012 and third-lowest since FY 2008. The Board and staff managed to reduce the cost from Murphy’s budget by $131, while adding new positions along the way.
“We’ve worked well together and stuck to our common values, which is what’s important,” School Board member Barbara Kanninen said. “The changes we’ve made, every one has been careful and deliberate with thought to the taxpayers dollars. When we made a new addition, it’s because we need it.”
Some of Murphy’s proposed cuts the School Board elected to restore, including the World Languages distance learning courses, and its six associated positions. The Board also added three facilities and operations positions to help with the ever-continuing school construction.
The Board also made community outreach a priority, adding a full-time family and community engagement coordinator and allocating $67,000 for “communications support” for the Board.
Public Defender Decries Pay Gap — Arlington’s deputy public defenders can make up to $33,000 less than their counterparts at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. Chief Public Defender Matthew Foley said the gap creates an unfair balance, one that allows the deputy Commonwealth’s attorney to grow their salaries on the job and talented public defenders — whose wages are locked in — are leaving the office. He called it “an unfair game going on with people whose liberties are at stake” at the Arlington County Board’s budget public hearing. [Connection Newspapers]
Fairfax Car Chase Result of Arlington Warrants — Updated at 1:05 p.m. — A car chase that broke out at the same time as yesterday’s manhunt was also the end result of Arlington police work. Lakisha Tracy was apprehended in Fairfax County yesterday morning after leading police on a high-speed chase that ended on Fairfax County Parkway in Lorton. Tracy was arrested on outstanding warrants for credit card and identity theft in Arlington County. [Washington Post]
Behind Arlington’s Meals on Wheels Program — Our Man in Arlington columnist Charlie Clarks goes behind the volunteers and beneficiaries of the Meals on Wheels charity, which was started in the county 44 years ago. Those receiving the meals, which are prepared by inmates at the Arlington County Detention Center, can range from the poor to, as one volunteer put it, “one four-star general dressed in a tie.” [Falls Church News-Press]
AFAC Sets 100,000 Meal Goal in April — With continuing record demand, the Arlington Food Assistance Center is hoping to receive 100,000 donated meals this month to distribute to Arlington families in need. AFAC expects to exceed its food budget by $150,000 for the second straight year, and Executive Director Charles Meng has said the nonprofit serves 100 new families a month. [InsideNova]
Arlington’s fire stations have been understaffed for too long, Arlington’s fire union says, and after one of the deadliest years from house fires in some time, firefighters are pushing harder than ever for help.
In the past 12 months, five people in Arlington have died from three separate fires. After an early-morning fire in Douglas Park last June, two firefighters had to be sent to the hospital, and a fire in January might have been fatal had the residents of the house in the Old Glebe neighborhood not had an escape plan and working smoke detectors.
Rescue 109, a truck serving the Pentagon City and Columbia Pike area, that transports firefighters to emergency scenes, responded to most, if not all, of those fires. It, along with Tower 104 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, has been operating with three staffers, one less than the national standard for safe operating.
“There is no doubt that without safe staffing levels on ACFD firetrucks, we will continue to see tragedies occur in Arlington County,” the Local 2800 says on its website.
Last year, Local 2800 issued a similar statement, asking for more staffing. At the time, the Arlington County Board had directed County Manager Barbara Donnellan to conduct a review of public safety staffing and incorporate recommendations into her FY 2016 budget. According to ACFD Chief Jim Schwartz, the study is still ongoing.
There are no new firefighters proposed in Donnellan’s FY 2016 budget. Turning Tower 104 and Rescue 109 into four-person trucks would require adding eight full-time equivalent positions, or $1.3 million, the Local 2800 says.
“The staffing study turned out to be a larger project than I think anyone envisioned,” Schwartz told ARLnow.com today. “I am the one who has been pushing the four-person staffing issue for many, many years. It has been a very, very high priority for us. We’ve been through tough budget times that has made it difficult to add fire staff.”
To try to cover the vacancies, the ACFD has applied for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant. The grant would pay for the positions for two full years, after which Schwartz says the County Board has pledged to assume the ongoing costs.
The ACFD last received a SAFER grant in 2007, and has been denied that last two times it applied. Schwartz said he feels the last two rejections “gives us a leg up this year,” considering the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which awards the grants, likes to “spread the money around.” Schwartz expects to receive a decision on the grant at the end of the summer.
The Local 2800 has been meeting with County Board members this week, proposing it adds between $500,000 and $600,000 to the FY 2016 budget to cover overtime costs and staff the two undermanned trucks.
“This is much cheaper than the 8 FTE option of $1.3 million because it would utilize existing employees and would not incur additional benefits or pension costs,” the Local 2800 leadership told ARLnow.com in a joint statement.
Schwartz said he does not support the Local 2800’s proposal, and added he is already concerned about the amount of overtime his firefighters have been working. The ACFD must have at least 73 people working at all times, and is already forced to keep firefighters for overtime beyond the 56 hours a week they each work.
“On more occasions that I am comfortable with, we have to hold someone on a mandatory basis because we cannot get someone voluntarily to fill the 73 [required on-duty positions],” he said. “I’m concerned about the effect [more overtime] would have on safety. I have great concern about the stress, and the effect extra hours has on performance.”
According to the fire union, the lack of sufficient fire personnel has already led to a hazardous situation. During last March’s house fire in Nauck, the Local 2800 says “a firefighter assigned to Rescue 109 attempted a heroic rescue of two civilians trapped on the second floor of a house fire. While searching for the trapped residents, the firefighter suffered major burns to his body and respiratory tract, requiring a multiple day stay at the Washington Hospital Burn Unit and several months away from work recovering.
“In this situation, only having three firefighters created a difficult, if not impossible task to effect the rescue of the two trapped civilians,” the union leadership continued. “Additionally, had the burned firefighter not been able to self-extricate the house via a ladder, only one other member of Rescue 109 was available to help get him out.”
Schwartz denied that the lack of staffing was to blame for the two deaths in Nauck, saying “I would argue any suggestion that a fourth person on that company would have in any way changed the outcome either to the victims or the firefighter.”
On top of the two understaffed trucks, Schwartz told ARLnow.com ACFD currently has 14 vacancies, from retirements and firefighters leaving the department, that it is looking to fill in the near future.
Photo, top, via @IAFF2800
Murphy’s proposal, which he will present to the Arlington School Board tonight (Thursday), calls for a total of $561.1 million of spending, a $21.7 million or 4 percent increase over FY 2015.
With a projected enrollment bump of 1,413 students next fall, Murphy’s budget calls for a $14.6 million spending increase just to handle the increased capacity, plus another $3.2 million to open Discovery Elementary School in north Arlington. Murphy also included $8.1 million in teacher step pay increases, a directive from the School Board.
“There’s nothing new in this budget,” Murphy told ARLnow.com this morning. “The emphasis is around instruction, efficiencies, compensation package among our employees and addressing enrollment to date.”
Murphy’s budget includes eliminating early release on Wednesday for the four schools that still have it: Arlington Traditional School, Arlington Science Focus, Long Branch and Taylor Elementary schools. The change costs $2.1 million, Murphy said, and necessitates adding 20.5 full-time equivalent positions. The elimination of early release also clears the way for APS to implement a broader foreign language in elementary schools (FLES) program.
APS projects its per-pupil cost in Murphy’s budget at $18,689, the lowest level since FY 2013.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed budget, also announced today, includes an additional $13.2 million over the county’s contribution last year, still leaving a gap of $13.6 million. Murphy provides a plan to cut the $13.6 million deficit — assuming the county doesn’t allocate more funding in its deliberations — in three tiers.
- Tier One: Saving $4.7 million
- Central Office reductions, including cutting six language positions and converting some world language classes to online, laying off four maintenance workers, and restructuring the library services department
- Add more one-time funding from FY 2014 closeout funds into general budget
- Fund replacement buses and technology with one-time funds
- Tier Two: Saving $5.2 million
- Increase class size by one, saving $4.1 million and cutting 55 positions
- Defer the elimination of early release in two schools
- Tier Three: Saving $3.7 million
- Implement the step pay increase one-third of the way through the fiscal year, saving $2.7 million
- Defer the elimination of early release in the other two schools
“I don’t support this,” Murphy said of the tier two cuts, particularly increasing class size, “but this is one of the strategies we’ve had to take.”
The cuts are divided into tiers in case the County Board elects to provide only partial funding toward closing the budget deficit.
The budget also includes $1.7 million for purchasing and outfitting 14 new relocatable classrooms, a number that APS staff anticipates changing before the final budget is approved. Revised enrollment projections for the 2015-2016 school year are expected to be released next month, prompting readjustments across the board in the proposed budget.
Relocatable classrooms, or trailers, as they’re also known, are just one piece of the puzzle for APS in solving its capacity crisis. Murphy said there are no additional measures in his proposal to help relieve south Arlington elementary school overcrowding; that’s a Capital Improvement Plan discussion, he said, which won’t be updated until 2016.
Instead, Murphy said there’s constant discussion about finding space efficiencies with what’s already in place, including changing the way space is used or moving county-wide programs to different buildings. Montessori classes and pre-K programs have already been shifted for capacity reasons, Murphy said.
“There’s been a strong message from my office about how we use our existing capacity, redefining space in buildings,” Murphy said. “We’ve made accommodations for [overcrowded] schools either with relocatables or redesigned space within those buildings.”
The budget keeps the county’s current real estate tax rate — of $0.996 per $100 in value — the same, but would result in a net tax hike for homeowners thanks to property assessment increases.
The county’s real estate tax base has increased 3.4 percent, thanks largely to a 4.9 percent increase in single family home assessments and a 4.7 percent increase in apartment building assessments. (New construction added over 0.7 percent to the base.)
The average Arlington homeowner will pay $7,567 — an extra $23 per month, or $281 per year — in total county taxes and fees under the proposed budget.
For owners of Arlington office buildings, which have experienced record levels of vacancies thanks in part to BRAC, taxes will go down. Office assessments decreased 4.5 percent, while hotel assessments decreased 4.7 percent.
Donnellan says she was able to balance the budget and close a forecasted $4 million budget gap without making any formal cuts. Healthcare and retirement costs were lower than expected and some “efficiencies” were found in the budget, she said.
“I think Arlington have been really fortunate,” Donnellan said of the budget, which she was able to balance without significant cuts despite the high office vacancies.
No changes to personal property, stormwater, business improvement district or business license taxes have been proposed. While there’s no change proposed in the household solid waste rate, Donnellan does propose a 1.8 percent increase in the water/sewer rate. Some parks and recreation fee changes have been proposed, including reductions in the rates for aquatics and gymnastics programs.
While not in her base budget, Donnellan included an optional slate of cuts for the Board to consider. The “budget reduction options” include $4.1 million in cuts and savings in various parts of the budget, including:
- Closing Artisphere, but reinvesting half of the $900,000 in annual savings into the county’s Cultural Affairs program (last year Artisphere was funded with $1.8 million in county funds, half of which were designated “one-time” funds.)
- Converting Metrobus 3A service in Arlington to less expensive ART bus service
- Consolidating an elementary after-school program with Arlington public schools
- County vehicle fleet reductions and utility savings
- Publishing one fewer Citizen newsletter per year
- Reductions to bike and pedestrian programs
- Reductions to employment services programs in the Dept. of Human Services
- Reductions to the community energy program
- Reductions to planning resources
- Reductions to tree planting
- Reductions to library materials
- Reductions to urban agriculture
- Eliminating a proposed increase in funding to courts and constitutional officers, meant to offset state cuts
Donnellan said her suggested cuts wouldn’t result in “totally outraged” community members, but would likely receive some push back from “interested parties.”
“They’re not core services in the sense of how we deliver day-to-day business,” Donnellan said of the proposals.
At $1.156 billion, Donnellan’s budget is a 0.7 percent increase over last year’s $1.15 billion adopted budget. The proposed budget includes a $710.9 operating budget for the county government. The remainder would go to Arlington Public Schools, which will see an overall funding increase of $13.2 million, or 3.1 percent.
APS Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy will proposed his Fiscal Year 2016 budget tonight.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D), who represents the westernmost part of Arlington as well as a large chunk of Fairfax County, called the state’s budget outlook “bleak” while praising Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget, which closes the projected shortfall through a series of tax changes and spending cuts. However, Howell and other Democrats say the budget doesn’t go far enough in improving the state’s K-12 education system.
“Fortunately, the Governor’s budget closes the budget gap. His budget is balanced,” Howell said in a newsletter to her constituents. “What we do not have, however, is any real ability to make investments in public education, higher education, human services, or workforce development.
“Direct aid to public education has been spared additional state cuts,” she continued. “However, unless we have a sudden, unexpected upswing in our economy, we will have to jettison a proposed and deserved salary increase. For context, in terms of per pupil general funds for public education, by FY 2016 we will be just back to FY 2008 levels on a statewide basis.”
This past summer, McAuliffe announced Virginia was projected to have a $2.4 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Much of that deficit, Howell said at a recent Arlington Democrats meeting, can be traced back to cuts from the federal budget sequestration and the layoffs at government contractors it prompted.
Additional revenue growth has since reduced the deficit, and cuts to the state prison system and elsewhere have saved millions. Del. Patrick Hope (D) says the closing of tax loopholes for some corporations — most notably coal producers — are necessary to even preserve the current level of education funding.
“There are a lot of companies in Virgina that don’t pay any taxes,” Hope told ARLnow.com yesterday. “We’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars that Virginia gives out every year to companies for job creation, and research is coming out that that’s not happening today. We need to take a hard look at what those tax credits are, and if they’re not doing what the intended purposes are, we need to pull it back.”
Hope said a state yacht tax credit should also be stripped — “I can’t look my voters in the eye if I vote for a budget” that includes that tax credit, he said — but said that the budget should become more ambitious in terms of education spending. Funding K-12 education millions of dollars less than before the recession, without accounting for inflation, isn’t enough, he said.
“There’s no reason why spending shouldn’t go in the opposite direction,” he said. “We are out of the recession now, it’s time to fill those holes back up.”
Although some form of a balanced budget is expected to pass — which may include cuts to education, according to Hope, if the Republican-controlled General Assembly balks at the loophole cuts — Howell said the realities of the budget situation don’t figure to change anytime soon, especially after the sequester’s cuts to federal defense spending.
“Growth has halted or declined in the good-paying ($77k+/year) jobs in the ‘business and professional services’ categories. Instead, we are seeing more growth in lower-paying jobs, such as health, leisure and hospitality ($45k/year on average),” Howell wrote. “Unfortunately, no one believes this situation is a temporary one.”
County Manager Barbara Donnellan and Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy, in a meeting with a few dozen residents last night, explained plans to handle the Arlington’s projected $28.4 million shortfall for next year.
“It will take cuts,” Donnellan said from a podium in Washington-Lee High School’s cafeteria. “It’s not an option. The Board may increase [spending] in some areas, but we’re going to have to cut.”
After presentations where each laid out the state of their administrations — Donnellan summarized the stagnant corporate real estate assessments, while Murphy laid out the school system’s exploding enrollment — residents broke into groups with staff members to discuss possibilities for budget improvements.
“I think there should be more sharing between the county and schools,” one resident said, telling a story about tree surveying around Thomas Jefferson Middle School. He said the county conducted a tree survey, and months later APS conducted one of its own. “There is too much duplicity and excess.”
Other resident questions and ideas posed in breakout groups, as taken down by county and APS staff, were:
- Why not use budget reserves instead of cutting services?
- Is APS looking into cutting from summer school or increasing class size?
- Will the county close Artisphere?
- Can the coordination between county permitting and APS improve for projecting student generation?
A topic that came up at multiple groups was Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, an initiative that has drawn community support and is offered in a majority of the county’s elementary schools. Multiple attendees suggested the program could be scaled back, while others, who supported its implementation, questioned the common sense of offering FLES while not allowing sixth-graders to take a language.
Donnellan and Murphy said they were gathering information before creating their proposed budgets, which will be presented to their respective boards in February.
“The residents give a lot of good insight into the tolerance for what they’re willing to live with and without,” Donnellan told ARLnow.com. “You get a lot of balance and they have a really good conversation.”
Murphy was less focused on cuts than the school system’s performance thus far and its growing needs. APS is projecting $8.7 million in this year’s budget for teacher pay step increases, and Murphy said the idea of a hiring freeze or cutting teacher pay is not a solution.
“D.C. is now offering $50,000 for an entry-level teacher,” he said. “They are stepping into the fray to make the market more competitive. We need to maintain that competitiveness.”
While many have called for more coordination between the governments, Donnellan and Murphy stressed that the two organizations work in tandem, not in opposition.
“It’s not schools vs. county,” Donnellan said after her presentation. “It’s one budget, it’s one community.”
Of that money, $203.3 million has already been allocated for FY 2015 programs, toward county reserves or spent according to county policy.
This includes $46.7 million toward Arlington Public Schools and $62.4 million toward “maintaining the operating and self-insurance reserves” required to keep the county’s current bond rating.
A significant leftover sum is present nearly every year and was accounted for in the FY 2015 budget process. This year, there’s $29.8 million in discretionary funds remaining the county can spend as they see fit.
The County Board approved in a 5-0 vote the county manager’s recommendation to allocate:
- $13 million for “FY 2016 budget issues,” including $6.3 million in capital improvements like ConnectArlington and the continued move of Department of Human Services divisions to the Sequoia Plaza along Arlington Blvd
- $8.2 million to the affordable housing investment fund for FY 2016
- $3.4 million for “employee compensation and management,” including recruiting for the Arlington County Fire Department, staffing the Emergency Communications Center and the fourth year of the county’s pay reclassification program
- $2 million for safety and technology investments, such as field training, software replacement and records retention
- $2.4 million for programs like economic development and for contingency funds
- $1.5 million to housing grants
Among the $13 million is $1.3 million for funding Artisphere. Next month, County Manager Barbara Donnellan will give the County Board a recommendation on the future of the facility, which was expected to be self-sustaining but instead requires millions of dollars in county funding per year.
Donnellan declined to give a preview of her recommendation, but said that even if the county decided to terminate its contract, it would still need to pay $1.1-1.3 million as part of its commitment to the owner of the building that houses Artisphere.
Last year, the county had a $25 million surplus and spent it on many of the same projects: Artisphere, employee compensation and affordable housing. During the County Board’s discussion on Tuesday, no Board member brought up the idea of directing funds elsewhere, including back to taxpayers.
The County Board approved its annual budget guidance to County Manager Barbara Donnellan yesterday, the framework from which Donnellan will work before she presents her proposed budget to the Board in February. As part of the direction, the Board says Arlington Public Schools should again receive 45.9 percent of county revenue, but County Board Chair Jay Fisette said that number will go up.
“The percentage share is going to change,” Fisette said. “It will end up being a percentage increase to the schools, I think. It will end up being inevitable through the process.”
The county is projecting a 3 percent growth in real estate tax revenue, but that will come entirely from a 6-8 percent increase in residential real estate assessments, according to county CFO and Finance Director Michelle Cowan. Commercial real estate assessments are “flat,” Cowan said, which, coupled with the county’s now 21.4 percent office vacancy rate, is putting “increased pressure” on commercial real estate growth.
“We’re sort of back to where we were in mid-90s,” Cowan said about tax revenue. “Back then, where we were growing was in commercial [growth]… now it’s residential.”
According to the county’s projections, expenditures will outpace revenue based on funding levels from the FY 2015 budget. On the county side, there’s projected to be a $4 million to $6 million funding gap; for Arlington Public Schools, that gap is projected at $20 million.
The chair of APS’ Budget Advisory Council, Moira Forbes, asked the county to increase its funding level to the district, if only to cover the cost of the higher-than-anticipated enrollment growth the schools are experiencing this year.
“While the county of course also is experiencing a lot of pressures and desire for public services because of population growth, the costs associated with new students are immediate, significant, and driven partially by state and federal requirements,” Forbes said. “The Budget Advisory Council suggests that the County Board either increase the revenue sharing percentage or provide a fixed amount to offset half of the $14.1 million in costs [APS is expected to incur] associated with the enrollment growth.”
To help trim costs, the Board asked Donnellan to “eliminate duplication and inefficiencies, and explore further collaborations with Arlington Public Schools as well as regional collaborations and partnerships that might lead to cost savings and efficiencies.”
The Board also directed the manager to provide an alternative option in her recommended budget that would include a 1 percent cut of operating expenditures. In the event that tax revenue exceeds the county’s projections, Donnellan is asked to look at either lowering the tax rate or providing more funding for schools, new facilities and affordable housing — or some combination of the two.
County Board member Libby Garvey suggested postponing the budget guidance until next month to allow the public to comment, but her motion ultimately failed by a 4-1 majority.
“One of the things we could improve in how we engage the public is bringing them in more at the beginning level,” Garvey said. “Having people read this through and think it through… I think that’s helpful.”
Donnellan, when asked, said she hasn’t spoken to her department heads about the FY 2016 budget, and postponing the budget process for a month would make it far more difficult to present a full budget by her February deadline. Fisette and Vice Chair Mary Hynes each said the public had ample opportunity comment on the budget and tax rate later in the process.
“I think we have a good idea of what we would hear,” Hynes said. “This is the box, not the stuff in the box. We will hear a lot from the public about what’s in the box.”
This morning, the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association (the IAFF Local 2800) issued a long, detailed statement on the need to staff Tower 104, which serves the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and Rescue 109, which serves Pentagon City and Columbia Pike, with four firefighters, as opposed to their current three-person staffs.
“Tower 104 and Rescue 109, with an ever-rising response area population, massive increase in high-rise square footage, terrorism threat, and other changing factors, require adequate staffing to safely and effectively carry out our assignments,” the Local 2800 writes. “The current staffing of three firefighters is woefully and dangerously inadequate.”
Rescue 109 was one of the first responders to the house fire in Nauck on March 15 that claimed two lives, and the firefighter who was injured fighting the blaze was on the three-person truck. He has not yet returned to duty, according to the Local 2800.
Tower 104 is a large fire truck with a ladder and “bucket” that puts firefighters into position, while Rescue 109 is a truck with no ladder that transports firefighters to emergency scenes, but comes equipped with tools for responding to car accidents and building collapses, according to Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz. Both trucks are staffed with firefighter/EMTs.
Schwartz said he has been advocating for four-person units for years, but he said budget constraints have prevented Tower 104 and Rescue 109 from joining the rest of the county’s fleet with four-person staffs.
“It’s been a longstanding position of mine and it has been advocated by the department for some time,” Schwartz told ARLnow.com this afternoon. “Obviously, the Board has to make policy decisions. I think they, too, would like to get to four-person staffing in each of the units. Sometimes the budget guidance is limiting in that regard.”
Schwartz said four-person staffing is not as simple as just hiring two more firefighters. Each additional firefighter on a truck is the equivalent of four full-time positions, to account for three eight-hour shifts a day and covering for vacation and sick leave.
“In order to achieve the safe staffing levels that we’re after, it would require us to hire eight new positions,” he said. “That’s not an insignificant budget issue. It’s doable, and I think the Board is supportive of this effort.”
Schwartz said years ago, only about half of Arlington’s fire trucks were manned by four-person crews, but the last time the county added staff to bring fire trucks up to four-person teams was in 2004.
Four-person trucks are not just the ideal position for the union, Schwartz said, but it’s also the national standard as dictated by the National Fire Protection Association and several other advocacy groups. Despite the fact that Tower 104 and Rescue 109 are assigned to some of the county’s most densely populated areas, the decision to leave specifically those two units undermanned was done after careful risk analysis.
“Almost every unit in the department is quite busy and has a level of responsibility that is not greater or lesser than any other unit in the system,” he said. “We have 14 suppression units in service every day. Twelve have four-person staffing, and those were selected based on judgments we make that have a lot to do with call activity, the kind of calls that units run. I have to make judgments based on the resources I’ve been allocated.”
Schwartz said the County Board gave County Manager Barbara Donnellan direction to “review all public safety staffing and to make a recommendation for FY 2016,” at a budget meeting last month. To the Local 2800, FY 2016 is already too late.
“It has been shown that increased staffing reduces firefighter injuries, thus reducing the amount of money paid by Arlington taxpayers to care for and backfill with overtime employees,” the union writes. “Tower 104 and Rescue109 are limited in being able to safely, quickly, and effectively perform… critical functions while understaffed with three firefighters… This is dangerous and unacceptable.”
Arlington Public Schools will receive a transfer from the county of $432.2 million, with the rest of the money coming from federal, state and other sources.
Responding to parent criticism, the School Board reversed many of the cuts proposed by Superintendent Patrick Murphy. While the school system is growing thanks to increased school enrollment, Murphy sought to offset some of the expense of that growth through cuts totaling $7.3 million and the equivalent of about 75 full-time positions.
The School Board moved more than $5.6 million in reserves for 2016 into expenditures for this coming year, adding the equivalent of 70 full-time positions to Murphy’s proposed budget. Among the proposed cuts nixed by the Board:
- Merging the Langston High School continuation program with Arlington Mill High School, located at the Arlington Career Center ($1.6 million and 19 positions)
- Eliminating library assistants at elementary schools ($1.1 million in the budget and 21 positions)
- Reduction of professional development funding from the Twice Exceptional program, for gifted special education students ($75,000 and a part-time position)
- Cutting seven of the 12 assistants from APS’ secondary school autism program (see below)
School Board Chair Abby Raphael was the only School Board member to vote against reinstating the autism assistants. The seven positions were restored with $271,859 in one-time funding.
“It’s our job to set priorities,” she said during the meeting last Thursday night. “I think as we go through that process, it’s also our job… to decide if we’re not going to have cost savings and we’re going to add things, then what are we going to cut? Primarily how we’ve funded [these programs] is taking funds from our FY 2016 reserve.”
Raphael said the reserve in the approved budget is less than $300,000 for FY 2016. In addition to restoring the autism programs, the School Board approved ending early Wednesday release and implementing FLES programs (foreign language in elementary schools) at Oakridge, Nottingham, and Tuckahoe elementary schools.
The School Board decided to quietly eliminate the superintendent’s 1:1 Initiative, which received considerable attention when it was announced this winter. The initiative would have provided APS second-graders with Apple iPads and sixth-graders with Google Chromebooks, with plans to broaden the program to other grades in future years. The initiative was slated to cost $200,000 next year, and it was part of Murphy’s broader literacy initiative, which was slashed by $600,000 in the School Board’s adopted budget.
FY 2015 will also see a decrease in capital projects funding, with the $6.9 million allotted for 2015 coming in 13.5 percent less than 2014’s $8 million in funding.
Though the budget will push Arlington’s per pupil spending to $19,244, the highest of any suburban D.C. school system, some teachers are saying — privately — that it doesn’t deliver on APS’ pledge to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The budget includes a 2 percent cost-of-living increase and $500 one-time bonus for APS employees, but no salary step increase.
“They are not giving teachers the step increases that they promise when you are hired,” one anonymous tipster told ARLnow.com. “They are giving us cost of living increases, sometimes, which help older teachers, but not younger teachers. They keep implementing new ideas and spending loads of money [on] stuff that gives teachers more work, but not actually increasing the pay to even it out.”