Join Club
Gulf Branch Nature Center (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are pushing to expand the hours of Arlington nature centers, as the 2023 county budget proposes to keep hours at pandemic levels.

In a letter to the community last week, Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center president Duke Banks took issue with the County Manager’s proposed budget, which would keep the county’s two nature centers open only three days a week. That’s in contrast with the centers’ six day a week schedule prior to the pandemic.

The reasons for the cuts are due to safety and practicality.

A new Department of Parks and Recreation directive, as director Jane Rudolph noted in a budget work session earlier this month, is that two staff members are now required to open a county facility when previously only one was needed. That policy was put in place in response to a sexual assault that occurred at the Barcroft Recreation Center in 2019.

The other is that with more virtual programs — and school field trips still restricted, in part due to a bus driver shortage — nature center staff are more often going into schools instead of students coming to the facilities themselves.

Banks says that his organization understands the challenges, but believes it’s important to hire a few extra employees to keep the nature centers open as often as possible.

“Friends of GBNC understands the need for safety, and we laud nature center staff members on their flexibility in continuing to provide programs during COVID — both to the public and schools. However, these emergency initiatives don’t justify closing Arlington’s remaining nature centers three days a week,” Banks says in the letter. “Our nature centers anchor the creative new programming, providing essential facilities like exhibits, restrooms and shelter (during storms) and serving as a physical focal point that makes nature accessible to everyone, young or old, rich or poor.”

As Rudolph brought up at the work session, staffing and hiring remains a challenge across the department (as well as in the county as a whole). She noted that the department is making an effort to “meet people where they are” by taking nature center programming out of the facilities and into community centers, as well as schools.

“There is nature center programming happening, it just isn’t always happening in the nature center,” Rudolph said at the work session.

Banks and Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center disagreed with the approach, saying that structured programming shouldn’t be a driver of when the nature centers should be open.

“Many folks visit nature centers without attending a program and thus would be denied access to the nature centers at a time when the public’s visits to our parks have significantly increased during COVID,” Banks said in the letter. “With our highly urbanized environment and the pandemic-related fallout, children need the respite of enjoying nature now more than ever.”

The two county-run nature centers, Gulf Branch and Long Branch, averaged about 21,000 visitors annually in 2018 and 2019, according to a county report.

Rudolph made a point to say that the operational changes may not be permanent. The department is currently evaluating not just how many days the nature centers should be open, but their hours as well.

The centers are currently open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with no evening hours, but Rudolph said that there’s a possibility of using some money to keep the centers open later this year, after kids are out of school and parents return from work. This could make centers more accessible without opening on additional days, officials said.

Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center is not the only organization advocating for bring nature centers hours back to pre-pandemic levels. During the work session, representatives from the county’s Park and Recreation and Forestry and Natural Resources commissions also expressed a desire to have the nature centers open longer.

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are asking those who agree with them to send an email to the County Board and County Manager expressing “how important it is to keep our nature centers accessible to the public and how disappointed you are by the proposed cuts to the nature centers’ public hours.”

The full letter from the organization is below.

Read More

0 Comments
Arlington County firefighters rescue a window washer dangling in a safety harness in the 1500 block of Wilson Blvd last year (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Arlington firefighters union says the county’s proposed 2022-23 budget underfunds the fire department and puts residents in unnecessary danger, but county officials dispute the characterization.

The union wants the budget to support having someone with Advanced Life Support training on each fire department vehicle, something that county officials say is not necessary. ALS providers are certified to treat critically ill patients with life-saving drugs or intravenous medicines, among other training that goes beyond basic emergency medical care, also called Basic Life Support.

Currently, Arlington has a mix of ALS and BLS medic units on duty at any given time.

The budget also does not include premium pay for the Swift Water Rescue Team to reflect the riskier work they do, while wages have stagnated for rank-and-file members, according to the union.

IAFF 2800, which represents more than 300 firefighters, proposes adding $8.5 million to the 2022-23 budget to address these issues.

Budgeting decisions regarding wages “have led to diminished emergency services at the risk of potential harm to the citizens, businesses and visitors of Arlington,” the union said in a letter to the Arlington County Board and County Manager Mark Schwartz. “It is with this in mind that we bring these issues to the forefront before it escalates to a point that causes unnecessary harm to the community we serve.”

The $8.5 million would provide a 7% raise to keep up with inflation, make firefighters whole for missed pay increases since 2018, provide premium pay for responders who took on more work due to labor shortages, and increase compensation for the Swift Water Rescue Team, IAFF says.

County Manager Mark Schwartz says the union’s account is inaccurate and the county has not been cutting costs.

“All County residents should know that there is no ‘unnecessarily hazardous situation’ and that each resident can rely on a strong and well-trained workforce to respond to their needs,” he said in response.

Specifically, ACFD has stepped up its medical care without “over-resourcing” every call through mobile diagnoses, on-site treatments and new technologies that give patients more options, he said, adding that “not every patient needs an Advanced Life Support provider.”

Schwartz says the Swift Water Rescue Team does not receive premium pay, but he is committed to adding compensation for the team in addition to funding that addresses stagnant wages.

Employee compensation is the chief focus of the 2022-23 budget, which is currently being hammered out. Schwartz proposes 6.5% salary increases for public safety employees and a $2.2 million increase for the fire department over the 2022 budget, according to a recent presentation.

The summary of the 2022-23 budget for the fire department (via Arlington County)

Among other changes, the increase would fund the implementation of the Kelly Day, which will reduce each firefighter’s average work week from 56 to 50 hours, improving work-life balance and reducing attrition, the county says. The county hired nearly 40 additional firefighters over four years to instate the Kelly Day.

Today, the department is close to full staffing and is experiencing vacancies comparable to Arlington’s historical average, Schwartz said. ACFD loses about two employees a month, and there are currently 15 uniform vacancies.

“I hope that the historic investments we have made over the past four years in a reduced work week and exemplary practices will continue to attract the best staff in the nation,” he said.

Read More

0 Comments
Superintendent Francisco Durán (via APS)

For the first time in four years, Arlington Public Schools presented a balanced budget for its upcoming fiscal year.

Last night (Thursday) Superintendent Francisco Durán told the School Board his proposed $746.1 million operating budget for July 2022 to June 2023 invests heavily in students with disabilities, English-language learners and other students who are struggling, while ensuring base salaries and raises for staff that are competitive and sustainable.

His proposed budget, with a 6.4% bump in spending compared to the current fiscal year, includes $51 million in new investments and about 82 new positions. These range from assistants, behavioral specialists and therapists for students with disabilities to reading and math coaches at Title 1 schools and buildings with more than 650 students.

School Board members received his budget proposal — and the big, black “zero shortfall” noted — with a great deal of optimism.

“Well, isn’t this refreshing compared to the other budgeting cycles we’ve been through,” School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said. “As a whole, I think we’re in a different and more optimistic position than we have been in recent years.”

Between 2018 and this year, the school system proposed budgets with deficits and multiple tiers of optional cuts to consider.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic exacerbated this trend — and APS walked into the 2023 planning process with a predicted $69 million deficit, driven largely by the need to use $40 million in one-time funding to balance the 2022 budget.

When December and January rolled around, APS heard promising news: Arlington County generated an additional $48.8 million for schools and former Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget provided almost $15 million in additional funding.

These numbers exceeded APS’s forecasts by $46.3 million and $12.8 million, respectively.

“We’re in a good place already,” Board Chair Barbara Kanninen said. “We should give a shout-out to our County Board friends who did a really nice job in bringing in the revenues this year, which is very helpful in terms of our optimism this year, for sure.”

Though revenue increases help cover most of the additional spending, APS would also lean on $26 million in reserves that the School Board has built up over many years. Durán says the budget uses reserves strategically and leaves $25 million untouched.

How APS has used reserves (via APS)

“We’re definitely supporting this budget with reserves,” Kanninen said. “It’s something we have to deal with over time to make sure we can maintain sustainability.”

The largest chunk, $16.7 million, comes from dedicated compensation reserves that pays for wage and salary increases as well as making staff whole for missed raises. In total, APS would spend an additional $34 million on staff compensation in Durán’s budget.

APS — by its own admission in the 2023 budget — says it needs to work on reducing its dependence on reserves and one-time funds when balancing budgets over the next three years. Otherwise, these reserve buckets will be fully depleted by the 2024 and 2025 fiscal years.

APS compensation study recommendations, which will cost $33.5 million (via APS)

“There is an increasing shortfall in FY 2024 through FY 2026 if the forecast is based on APS’s growing expenditure needs rather than balanced budgets each year,” the budget document says.

Read More

0 Comments
Arlington County Mark Schwartz (file photo by Jay Westcott)

Most homeowners will be on the hook for higher property taxes under a budget proposal by Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz’s proposed 2022-2023 budget would fund raises for county employee amid inflation and competition with other local jurisdictions. It would also provide more funding for schools and spend several million dollars on efforts intended to address climate change.

While Schwartz proposed a property tax rate that’s unchanged from 2021, a 5.8% rise in residential property assessments will result in an effective tax hike for most homeowners.

In all, the average homeowner will see a $505 rise in local taxes in fees compared to last year, including $388 in additional property taxes.

Tax and fee burden under proposed FY 2023 budget (via Arlington County)

The budget proposal focuses on attracting and retaining county employees through raises, bonuses and other actions. It includes larger raises for police, fire and other public safety employees, amid ongoing recruiting challenges.

From Schwartz’s presentation to the County Board on Saturday:

Increases to ongoing salaries:

  • 4.25% for general employees
  • 6.50% for public safety employees
  • 3.0% increase to the minimum and maximum of each grade/range

Other actions:

  • $1,600 gross one-time bonus
  • Funded job studies including administrative, parks programming, and library positions ($0.8 million)
  • $1.5 million for the first year of a multi-year effort to address pay compression
  • No premium increase for the self-insured health plan

The pay compression item is intended to address the issue of new hires sometimes making more than employees who have been with the county for awhile, due to increases in pay scales outpacing annual raises.

Other focuses of the budget include housing, climate change and schools, including:

  • An increase in funding earmarked to prevent evictions
  • $4.4 million in climate change initiatives, including up to 53 new electric vehicles for the county fleet and new EV charging infrastructure
  • A 8.7% increase in the budget transfer to Arlington Public Schools, for a total of $576 million

Under the budget proposal, Arlington’s funding for Metro will remain flat at $46.6 million. Covid-related initiatives, mostly from federal funds, include a $3.25 million tourism recovery grant.

The budget totals $1.47 million, a 5.5% increase over last year. Excluding the school transfer, the county government itself would have an operating budget of $894.1 million, a 3.6% year-over-year increase.

At $1.013 per every $100 in assessed value, Arlington’s property tax rate would be lower than the current rates for neighboring Alexandria ($1.11) and Fairfax County ($1.14). Both of those jurisdictions, which saw steeper growth in property assessments this year while the average home value remains below that of Arlington, will be selecting a new proposed tax rate over the next week or so.

Real estate tax and assessment comparisons (via Arlington County)

The County Board is set to vote on advertising a tax rate cap at its meeting tomorrow, then will hold a series of public hearings on the budget and the tax rate at the end of March before voting on a final budget and rate at its Saturday, April 23 meeting.

The full county press release about the proposed FY 2023 budget is below.

Read More

0 Comments

(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) Arlington’s property tax rate would not increase this year, under a proposal by Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz.

The County Manager’s recommendation for the advertised property tax rate was released ahead of Tuesday’s County Board meeting. The Board will vote at the meeting to advertise a rate, which sets the maximum rate that can be approved in a subsequent budget vote by the Board this spring.

A report notes that due to rises in property assessments this year, setting the same rate will be an effective tax increase on both homeowners and commercial property owners.

“The current base rate is $1.013 per $100 of real estate value,” says the report. “For FY 2023, this tax is projected to generate $852.2 million, which is 6.0 percent ($47.9 million) above FY 2022.”

“The average home value is up 5.3 percent over last year, from $724,400 to $762,700,” the report adds. “Overall, commercial property assessments increased by 0.6% over the previous year. At the current real estate rate of $1.013 plus the $0.017 rate for stormwater, the average Arlington homeowner would pay $7,856 per year in real estate taxes, a $395 or 5.3 percent increase over CY 2021.”

To generate the same property tax revenue as last year — an unlikely prospect given that the county previously referenced a “challenge in balancing the FY 2023 Budget” giving rising expenditures —  the Board would have to lower the tax rate significantly.

“The tax rate which would levy the same amount of real estate tax as last year, when multiplied by the new total assessed value of real estate with the exclusions mentioned above, would be $0.990 per $100 of assessed value,” the report says.

Among Schwartz’s other budget recommendations, the Board will consider lowering the annual Household Solid Waste rate from $318.61 to $307.89, thanks to a rise in the value of recycled material. Additionally, fees for ambulance transport services are set to be raised to between $750-1,000, depending on the level of care, which a Board report says is in line with the fees charged by other D.C. area jurisdictions.

0 Comments

Morning Notes

An artist paints inside Palette 22 in Shirlington (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fallon Sings About Pentagon Chicken — “That stroke of social media brilliance was followed by even more exposure as ‘The Tonight Show’ host Jimmy Fallon wrote a song for the bold bird. It began with the lyrics ‘Are you just a clucker or an undercover spy?’ We do not expect the Pentagon to answer.” [WTOP, Twitter, Facebook]

WBJ Calls Out Crystal City Erasure — “On Jan. 18, JBG Smith Properties announced it has started construction on a pair of multifamily towers at 2000 and 2001 S. Bell St., a block south of the Crystal City Metro station. In, I dare say, the heart of Crystal City. But in that 750-word press release, “Crystal City” does not appear. Not once. ‘National Landing,’ meanwhile, appears seven times.” [Washington Business Journal]

More on School Mask Judge — “The Arlington judge who dealt a blow Friday to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in schools is married to an Arlington teacher, but attorneys for Youngkin (R) and the school boards did not believe she should have recused herself.” [Washington Post]

More On Eyeglass Smash and Grabs — “Five men with hoods and heavy coats cased the store for about five minutes, Abbasi said, then smashed open the display cases holding Cartier, Gucci and Dior glass frames and made off with about $60,000 worth of merchandise. Surveillance video shows the five bandits rapidly shoveling the high-dollar frames into plastic bags while Abbasi is yelling at them and calling police, leaving a patina of shattered glass chunks in their wake.” [Washington Post]

‘Mental Health Crisis’ at County Jail — “Sheriff Beth Arthur said the man, Paul Thompson, should not have been there, pointing out he had no criminal history. But she admits he did suffer from mental illness like most of the county’s inmates… Of the 280 current inmates, some 170 have mental health challenges; 66 of them are serious. Even the longtime sheriff wants to know why the county is ‘dumping these people in jail when they need serious care.'” [WTOP]

Metro Budget Meeting Tonight in Courthouse — “Beginning Monday, February 7, Metro will hold the first of three public hearings for people to weigh in on Metro’s Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) budget. Hearings will be held next week and will provide for both virtual and in person public participation options.” [WMATA]

Beyer Challenger Launches Primary Bid — “An intra-party challenger to U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) kicked off her campaign Feb. 2 with a singular plea to Arlington Democrats. ‘Give me a chance,’ Victoria Virasingh asked during a kickoff speech… An Arlington native, Virasingh – who did not level any criticism at Beyer or even mention him by name in her remarks – said her goal was to create ‘a community that is rich and thriving and has opportunity for all of us.'” [Sun Gazette]

It’s Monday — A slight chance of snow and freezing rain today before 9 a.m., then a slight chance of rain and snow after that. Otherwise partly sunny, with a high near 45. Sunrise at 7:07 a.m. and sunset at 5:37 p.m. Mostly sunny tomorrow, with a high near 43. [Weather.gov]

0 Comments
Townhomes in the Green Valley neighborhood (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington is seeing another big jump in residential property assessments this year, something that should bolster the county’s finances but hit the pocketbooks of local homeowners.

While a county press release, below, described “modest” growth in Arlington’s property tax base, it was a tale of two types of property.

On one hand, commercial property like office buildings and hotels, struggling with vacancy during the pandemic, is up only 0.6%. It’s an improvement from last year, when commercial property dipped 1.4%.

In line with the rise in local home prices, on the other hand, residential real estate assessments are up 5.8%, the county announced. That’s above the 5.6% rise in residential assessments last year and the 4.3% increase the year before that.

“The increase in property values for this year shows the attractiveness of our Arlington community, even as our community continues to face challenges brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. The county’s press release notes that new construction “contributed 1 percent of the 3.4 percent overall tax base growth.”

The overall 3.4% rise in property values will mean a corresponding rise in property taxes, the county’s biggest single source of revenue.

Arlington’s revenue sources from Fiscal Year 2021 (via Arlington County)

Rising property taxes should help bolster the county’s finances as budget season gets underway. In its press release, however, the county said that rising workforce costs, Covid challenges and other pressures “will continue to be a challenge in balancing the FY 2023 Budget.”

Schwartz is set to present his recommended budget to the County Board next month.

The full press release is below.

Arlington’s overall property tax base grew modestly from 2021 due to continued residential growth, while commercial values were relatively flat.

Measured growth in residential property values buoyed the tax base, but the County continues to face challenges in balancing the FY 2023 budget due to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, the total assessed value of all residential and commercial property in Arlington increased 3.4 percent, compared to the 2.4 percent growth in 2021. Residential property values increased 5.8 percent overall, while commercial property values increased by 0.6 percent. Overall, new construction in the County contributed 1 percent of the 3.4 percent overall tax base growth.

“The increase in property values for this year shows the attractiveness of our Arlington community, even as our community continues to face challenges brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Real estate taxes provide almost 60 percent of total County revenues. The County’s real estate tax base is spilt roughly equally between residential (54%) and commercial (46%) property assessments.

The slight increase in commercial property assessments demonstrates some growth in our business market and a rebound closer to pre-pandemic levels. After experiencing double-digit decreases in 2021, hotel property values increased by 5.6 percent as occupancy and room rates gradually recover from the initial impacts of the pandemic.

Apartment property values also saw an improvement, growing 5.3 percent from the previous year. Just under half of the growth was due to new construction, reflecting continued demand for residential development.

General commercial property (malls, retail stores, gas stations, commercial condos) values decreased, reflecting continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on retail stores and restaurants. Office property values also decreased due to rising vacancy rates and changing demand for office space.

The 5.8 percent increase in residential property values increased the average single-family property from $724,400 to $762,700. For CY 2022, approximately 73 percent of residential property owners saw their assessed value increase while the rest remained unchanged or declined. Residential properties include condominiums, townhouses and detached homes.

Notice of Assessments will be mailed to Arlington property owners beginning January 14. Assessment information will be available online Friday, Jan. 14, after 11 p.m.

Read More

0 Comments
Bus drivers for Arlington Public Schools protest hours and wages along S. Arlington Mill Drive (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Starting this summer, Arlington Public Schools intends to pay its bus drivers the most of neighboring school systems in Virginia and Maryland.

Arlington’s bus drivers would receive the highest wages at all stages of their careers compared to other regional school systems, if APS leadership and the School Board stick to their pledge to improve employee compensation in the 2022-23 fiscal year budget, which is being developed.

This move comes after bus drivers have advocated for better pay and changes to their working environment during demonstrations and School Board meetings. Drivers have asked to receive the same bonuses provided to teachers who agreed to work during summer school and called attention to what they say is bullying and harassment within the transportation department.

APS leadership maintains that the summer school bonus was always just for teachers, but officials say they are taking steps to pay drivers more competitively. First, the School Board approved bonuses in November for all salaried and hourly employees. Now, the Board and APS administration are upping their wages by around $2.

“This is very important to me, to all of us, to ensure we’re properly compensating our employees,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said in a work session on the budget last week. “We’re not market-competitive right now, in many of our scales and positions.”

APS is looking to overhaul payment structures for teachers, administrators and support staff and make up for pay increases not granted in four of the last 10 years. Durán said this will require some budget tightening.

“I want to acknowledge that it’s going to be very painful for certain sectors of our community, who have been very attached to certain programs, that we are going to need to make some choices to cut,” School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said during the same meeting. “We’re going to need to make those strategic choices in order to invest in the thing we know that matters the most… our staff.”

Salary comparisons for bus drivers in Arlington and other public school systems (via Arlington Public Schools)

Compensation for bus drivers and attendants increased in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, APS says. The approved budget for this fiscal year, 2022, includes a 2% cost of living adjustment for bus drivers and pay increases based on years of service.

The planned-for raises in the 2023 fiscal year are welcome, but the devil will be in the details, according to bus driver Christina Childress.

“The starting rate continues to be displayed as $21.59,” she said in a Dec. 2 School Board meeting. “Myself nor any of my colleagues started at that number. Someone contracted for the next three years is being paid 43 cents less than that. Many work multiple jobs due to the compensation they’re not receiving at APS.”

Fellow bus driver Crystal Harris emphasized that the School Board has to act more quickly.

“2023? We don’t even know we’re going to be living in 2022, and you guys are talking about 2023,” Harris said. “Did you not forget we’re living in a world with a deadly disease taking people out on the daily?”

Read More

0 Comments

Morning Notes

Thanksgiving week in Shirlington (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

ACPD Thanksgiving Anti-DUI Event — “On Thanksgiving-eve, traditionally a time of celebrations with heavy alcohol consumption, ACPD, in partnership with WRAP, is hosting a Thanksgiving anti-drunk driving event to highlight the impact alcohol has on motor skills. This free event is open to the public and will take place on Wednesday, November 24, at N. Hudson Street and Wilson Boulevard, from 8:00-10:00 p.m.” [ACPD, Twitter]

Shirlington Apartment Employee Slashed — “An employee of the residential building discovered that the laundry room had been locked and upon opening it, discovered the unknown male suspect inside. The suspect produced a knife and struck the victim’s hand, causing a laceration. The suspect then fled the scene on foot. Arriving officers canvased the area with negative results. The victim was transported to an area hospital with non-life threatening injuries.” [ACPD]

Bus Driver Protest in Ballston — “Arlington Public Schools bus drivers are protesting again, this time in Ballston. They’re chanting and getting passing drivers to honk in favor of better pay and fair treatment.” [Twitter, WJLA]

County Seeks Budget Feedback — “Each winter, the County Manager presents a proposed operating budget to the County Board in order to plan spending for the next fiscal year. We’d like to know your thoughts on how Arlington should prioritize necessary spending in FY 2023. Help us get better insight on questions such as: How would you rate the importance of County programs and services?” [Arlington County]

Clement: Fewer Signs Stolen This Year — “In her annual election wrapup at the first Arlington County Board meeting after the votes were in, perennial protest candidate Audrey Clement told board members that she’d been able to gather up a good portion of her campaign signage from medians. ‘I recovered about 450 signs, or two-thirds of the total,’ she told board members. ‘This is a significant improvement over 2020, when two-thirds of my signs were trashed.’ Clement ran second in the four-candidate County Board race.” [Sun Gazette]

It’s Monday — A chance of showers today, mainly before 10 a.m. Cloudy, then gradually becoming mostly sunny, with a high near 52. Northwest wind 7 to 16 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph. Sunrise at 6:59 a.m. and sunset at 4:49 p.m. Sunny tomorrow, with a high near 43. Northwest wind 9 to 14 mph, with gusts as high as 23 mph. [Weather.gov]

0 Comments

County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing to use leftover money from the most recent fiscal year and federal COVID-19 relief for priorities such as employee bonuses and investments in disadvantaged communities.

He presented his plans to the Arlington County Board Tuesday night.

The county has $20.5 million in unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds from the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ended in July. Arlington also has about $17 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funding and $23 million more in expected funds for which to plan.

Some of the budget surplus will go toward employee salary adjustments and retention bonuses, while the federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will support new initiatives, some of which are one-time and some that will eventually switch to ongoing local funding.

In years past, some have scrutinized Arlington’s surplus, or “closeout” funds, as being excessive — a product of conservative budgeting that enables a de facto slush fund, divvied up outside of the normal budget process, at the end of most fiscal years. Critics have also questioned the county’s spending plans for allocating most of the surplus, rather than setting it aside to avoid tax increases.

In the 2019 budget, Schwartz noted that he had made progress on whittling down surplus funds from $21.8 million in 2015 to $11 million in 2017. It ticked back up in 2018 to $21.9 million and reached $23.2 million in 2019, falling slightly to $22.4 million in 2020.

Schwartz attributes the 2021 surplus to the moving target of planning during a pandemic: over-budgeting healthcare costs and departmental operations, which slowed down due to COVID-19, while underestimating tax revenue.

And rather than allocate most of it, this year, he’s proposing to put about $16.6 million toward the 2023 budget to address priorities such as housing and restorative justice.

He will spend nearly $2 million in retention bonuses for police and emergency services health employees, and $174,000 to match state funding for bonuses for the Sheriff’s Office. On Tuesday, the County Board changed the funding source from ARPA funding to the surplus, county spokeswoman Erika Moore said.

The retention bonuses respond to reports of police and clinicians quitting their county jobs over grueling overtime and a demanding mental health crisis response. The situation worsened over the summer when the state closed five of its eight psychiatric hospitals, which were suffering from understaffing and becoming dangerous places to work. Department leaders say employees leave for more competitive, less taxing private-sector roles, such as security jobs at Amazon and private-practice clinical work.

“I appreciate the County Board taking action tonight to allocate retention bonuses, which will include a $3,500 one-time payment for police and emergency services health employees,” Schwartz said in a county press release. “It has been extremely difficult to retain and hire qualified staff for these positions at a time when demand for services is exceptionally high with extreme risk to our community if left unfilled.

Now, the plan will go to the public for review. The Board will hold a hearing on the spending plan at its Nov. 13 meeting, followed by a vote.

In addition to the $20.5 million, the county ended the year with $284.9 million in unspent, allocated money in its coffers. The rest of the fund balance breaks down as follows:

The county’s allocation plan for the fund balance (via Arlington County)

Read More

0 Comments
Firefighters responding to smoke in the Ballston Metro station

Arlington County firefighters are sounding the alarm on a possible exodus from the department over stagnating wages.

IAFF Local 2800, which represents the county’s professional firefighters and paramedics, warned in a press release Monday that without an increase in pay or a hazard pay program, there could be “high turnover rates over the next year” in the department.

“We haven’t seen a true pay raise in years and no cost-of-living adjustments to keep pace with inflation,” Brian Lynch, president of the Arlington County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, in the release. “With the COVID-19 epidemic causing an increase in dangerous 911 calls over the past 18 months, we are doing more extremely hazardous work — and really getting paid less.”

The union is asking the county manager for a 6% cost-of-living pay increase, the reinstitution of a hazard pay program, and one year of earned merit increases.

The news comes one week after ARLnow reported that the police department is shrinking over salaries and burnout and as Arlington County begins deliberating its 2022-23 budget, including wages for county employees.

It also comes before Arlington’s public safety unions will be able to engage in collective bargaining with the county. The County Board voted to permit such negotiations this summer, but the first collective agreements are not expected to go into effect until the 2024 fiscal year.

Lynch tells ARLnow the fire department hasn’t reached the inflection point that the police department appears to be at quite yet, but he’s concerned it could. Over the last two years, pay for firefighters and paramedics has only increased by 1%, which doesn’t keep pace with inflation and cost-of-living increases. Consumer prices have gone up by 4.4% in the region over the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There was a short-term hazard pay program in place at the beginning of the pandemic but it only lasted ten weeks, he said, adding that the union never got an official explanation for why the program ended.

County officials didn’t tell ARLnow exactly why either, only saying that the program was “designed to mirror other neighboring jurisdictions’ public safety programs.”

Lynch says that re-instituting one now would show firefighters and paramedics that they are valued.

“[It would] be a token of respect towards the folks that are putting themselves and their families out there,” says Lynch. “We’ve always had a risk of dying, but COVID puts our families at risk.”

Without these concessions or merit increases, county firefighters could opt to go to other jurisdictions or get out of the industry altogether, he says.

“We’ve lost a few people already… and it could get worse,” Lynch said. “Historically, people never left fire departments once they got in. It’s a very competitive job and people stayed. What we’ve seen change is their willingness to go to other industries.”

While the county could fill these positions with new recruits, there’s a price to that as well. The union estimates that it costs the county more than $175,000 to train a single firefighter-paramedic.

County officials dispute the notion that firefighters are looking to leave the department. ACFD says the opposite is true, according to its data.

Read More

0 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list