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A drone flying overhead (Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash)

Arlington’s public safety drones are ready to fly, the county announced this morning.

The drones “are an additional tool for first responders and provide enhanced operational capability, safety, and situational awareness in support of public safety,” the county said.

Members of the police department, fire department, Sheriff’s Office and emergency management department have been trained on use of the miniature aircraft.

More on the program, below, from the county press release.

Arlington County’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) is now operational following a period of policy development and training.

UAS, commonly referred to as drones, are an additional tool for first responders and provide enhanced operational capability, safety, and situational awareness in support of public safety. The deployment of UAS will be conducted by trained members of the Arlington County Fire Department, Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, and Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management. This technology complements the existing in-car and body-worn camera systems used to document digital recordings of public safety activity.

Community Engagement

Prior to implementation, the program sought community feedback on draft Unmanned Aircraft System policies to ensure they were reflective of the Arlington Community’s values, interests, and concerns. The program strives to provide the level of service that is not only expected but reflective of this community and appreciates all who took the time to read, review, and provide feedback. All comments were reviewed and evaluated for incorporation into the policies.

For additional information on policy changes based on community feedback, visit the program webpage.

Final Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policies

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

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A packed house at a 2013 Bluemont Civic Association meeting about a proposed development (file photo)

This reporting was supported by the ARLnow Press Club. Join today to support in-depth local journalism — and get an exclusive morning preview of each day’s planned coverage.

Three years into his tenure as Penrose Neighborhood Association president, Alex Sakes can proudly say he got a grocery store to corral its shopping carts roaming Columbia Pike.

After much lobbying on his part, the grocer committed to installing GPS security locks on its carts, ending a 10-year, multi-neighborhood problem.

His other chief accomplishment is ongoing: updating how the civic association runs so it attracts more young people like Sakes, 27, who may be Arlington’s youngest association president. An early step in this process was to redesign the website.

“It was a big success that drove a lot of members to sign up and formally join our association,” said Sakes, who admits that, ironically, the website was down at the time of our interview, while he switches the domain.

Live Zoom meetings are later posted on YouTube, a pandemic-era pivot that stuck. There is an active association Facebook group. Sakes wants to organize more informal social gatherings to build the community outside of monthly meetings, with their updates on graffiti, retail vacancies, developments and yes, shopping carts.

Arlington institutions — including some 55 civic associations, their umbrella group the Arlington County Civic Federation, and the Arlington Committee of 100 — are pushing 70-100 years old. They began in an era when the Rotary Club relied on men using their lunch hour to attend meetings and Parent-Teacher Associations recruited from ranks of stay-at-home moms.

The world looks different today, muses County Board Chair Libby Garvey.

“Those organizations arose to meet the need and social structure then, but they’re still here and they don’t fit so well,” she said. “How do they fit 21st-century needs and schedules?”

Leaders acknowledge their membership ranks skew toward older homeowners but their long-term survival depends on attracting younger people. The Committee of 100 is rethinking its events and forging new partnerships to diversify its ranks. Civic associations are having to change their outreach methods and bylaws to reach apartment dwellers while CivFed is reexamining its advocacy efforts to be more effective and a better sell to potential members.

“If you join CivFed, there’s a good chance that you’ll find, in our member organizations, a number of others who feel the same way you do about issue X,” says CivFed President John Ford. “There is strength in numbers.”

Garvey sees in civic institutions another strength in numbers: community resiliency, which she is championing during her County Board victory lap this year. Should these organizations fade away, she worries the parades and pancake breakfasts, block parties and yard sales will follow.

“Civic associations are important for building community,” she said.

Fairlington Day in 2012 (file photo)

Acknowledging the issue and finding its root

Hannah Dannenfelser was 21 when she got involved in Arlington Jaycees, a volunteer organization for young professionals. It was not long before she was recruited by a youngish Committee of 100 board member to join the board.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, conceptually, for getting young professionals involved but… sometimes, a lack of understanding of what makes a Millennial feel like they belong at the table,” she said. “People just need to feel like someone they know or someone they respect is engaged. Most people just need an actual hand extended to them.”

Aside from urging members to search their contacts for recruits, the Committee of 100 swapped its $30 pre-panel dinners with $10 social hours with drinks and appetizers and, for its program on regional women’s health inequities, partnered with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and a historically Black sorority.

Both changes brought in a younger, more diverse audience, says Dannenfelser. Covid-era virtual meetings — easier for younger working professionals, especially parents, to attend — grew the organization’s email list from 250 people to north of 1,600 people.

“When people think about civic engagement, they’re intimidated by the time commitment,” she said. “We’re in Arlington… You have people in this area [who]… have an expectation of efficiency. I think that’s why virtual is working — because virtual meets that expectation of efficiency.”

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Children at a daycare (via BBC Creative/Unsplash)

An uptick in childcare centers in Arlington has made a dent in the local care shortage, according to new county data.

Since 2017, the number of childcare center slots increased by 47%, or 1,690 slots. That may be good news for tackling low availability in Arlington — which stands out among Northern Virginia neighbors for how few slots it has — but one shortage remains.

The county tells ARLnow that too few providers today accept state subsidies, affecting how many low-income families can access high-quality childcare.

“Although the county has seen a substantial increase in child care center slots and a slight increase in the number of family day care home slots in Arlington since December 2017, there has only been a modest increase in the number of child care providers accepting the Virginia Child Care Subsidy,” county spokesman Ryan Hudson said in a statement.

“This modest increase has most definitely not kept pace with the increase in the number of Virginia Child Care Subsidy Program participants during the same timeframe,” he continued.

Arlington County partially attributes the uptick in daycare centers to zoning code and review process reforms to make it easier to approve private child-care services. Those improvements, used by all county planners today, “have helped child care providers and increased child care availability in Arlington,” the county says.

But the uptick in slots pales in comparison to the number of families participating in a state subsidy program, who are vying for a small pool of slots, as not all providers accept such subsidies. Those that do typically reserve few slots for participating families.

Childcare slots in Arlington (courtesy Dept. of Human Services)

This is not a new problem for Arlington or Virginia, which recently ranked in the bottom half of American states and territories for the number of providers that accept subsidies.

Seven years ago, the county found that providers could serve half of Arlingtonians under 5 years old, with childcare centers making up half of Arlington’s overall capacity. Subsidized slots made up 2-23% of that capacity, varying by provider, compared to the 33% subsidy acceptance rate on average for home-based daycares.

That discrepancy is still true today and the providers cite several reasons for not participating.

These include “the complicated nature of reimbursement and reporting requirements, the cost of child care being much greater than the Virginia Child Care Subsidy Program’s Maximum Reimbursement Rates, and the fact that there is no operational need to accept the Virginia Child Care Subsidy when child care programs are already full and operating with waitlists,” Hudson said.

Arlington County is looking to help alleviate these concerns with a new program backed by $5 million in local funding. In December, it issued a “Notice of Funding Availability,” or NOFA, advertising $4.5 million available to applicants who bring forward “capital-oriented proposals that expand access to affordable, quality child care on a sustainable, multi-year basis.”

“Proposals should increase affordability in exchange for assistance with capital costs such as facility acquisition or expansion, buy-down of rent or mortgage costs, or investment in furniture, fixtures, or equipment,” the county said, noting the remaining half-million will provide smaller-scale assistance to providers in the future.

The application window closes at the end of this month and the county expects to select applicants in April.

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An anti-Missing Middle sign in front of a house in Westover (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated on 1/29/23) Arlington County suffered another defeat last week in the pre-trial proceedings for the Missing Middle lawsuit.

It appealed an earlier court decision that the 10 residents suing Arlington County — alleging the County Board illegally approved the Missing Middle zoning amendments — have standing to do so.

Last Thursday, Judge David Schell denied the latest motion, meaning the court proceedings will continue forward with a trial this July, according to a press release from Arlington Neighbors for Neighborhoods, the LLC funding the litigation efforts on behalf of the 10 residents.

“[The] ruling is another win for Arlington homeowners and another loss for the County, which now has brought in the big guns, hiring at Arlington taxpayers’ expense, Gentry Locke, a Roanoke law firm, to assist with the case,” said Arlington Neighbors for Neighborhoods spokesman Dan Creedon in a statement. “The judge recognized that the County’s delay tactics would harm the plaintiffs as MMH/EHO buildings would be built pending an appeal.”

Schell said that granting the county’s motion could delay the trial for two or more years, per the release. This may not be in the county’s interest, either, the judge noted, musing that, should the county lose at trial, developers may tear down EHO structures — Expanded Housing Option, another term for Missing Middle — built while the case was pending.

Two land use attorneys recently broke down the details of the lawsuit in a panel hosted by the Arlington Committee of 100 last week. They walked through the county’s alleged procedural missteps, as asserted by lawyers for the plaintiffs.

“The reason for the procedural requirements aren’t to create arbitrary processes to do these things. The processes set forth in the code are there to ensure there’s adequate public discourse on the impact of what is being proposed,” said attorney Tad Lunger.

For major zoning map amendments, such as those allowing lower-density multifamily housing in previously single-family-only zones, Lunger says Virginia code requires a public discourse on how the changes would impact transportation and infrastructure and how those costs would be borne by residents.

“These things weren’t discussed at that level in Arlington,” he said.

One Missing Middle proponent, affordable housing advocate Michelle Winters, is optimistic that, should the county lose on procedural grounds, it could re-adopt the ordinance and resume approving EHOs.

“It’s very easy to cure procedural deficiencies. You change your process and re-adopt it. This is exactly what Fairfax County did,” Winters said.

The Virginia Supreme Court struck down Fairfax County’s zoning ordinance early last year but within a couple of months, the Board of Supervisors adopted the same ordinance after fixing the procedural issues. The changes were approved in a virtual meeting in 2021, at a time when virtual meetings were only to discuss essential government functions and services.

Pointing to the ordinances in Fairfax and similar changes Alexandria adopted late last year, she said it is clear these types of changes are here to stay, come what may from a lawsuit alleging Arlington County enacted its ordinance poorly.

“In Alexandria, what is relevant is the reflection of the shift that we’re seeing in America — not only in our region but in America — that this type of change absolutely needs to happen and no matter what you do to this particular ordinance, if this ordinance isn’t in place, something like it will be in place to replace it,” Winters said.

Raighne “Renny” Delaney, an attorney with Bean, Kinney & Korman, argued the lawsuit could have more far-ranging political impacts.

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Illustration of a real estate for sale sign in Arlington (generated by DALL-E)

The value of residential properties is up in Arlington, but the torrid growth of past years has slowed.

Arlington County announced today that residential property assessments are up 3.2% for 2024. The overall property assessment growth was 2.5%, with commercial properties up 1.6%. New construction contributed significantly to the overall growth.

The announcement comes as the county starts to mail assessment notices to property owners today. Assessments will also be available online starting at 6 p.m.

Single-family home values rose more than $25,000, on average, according to the county.

“The average single-family property value increased from $798,500 to $824,700,” Arlington County said in a press release. “For 2024, approximately 70 percent of residential property owners saw their assessed value increase while the rest remained unchanged or declined.”

The 3.2% residential assessment growth this year is lower than the 4.5% reported last year, 5.8% in 2022, 5.6% in 2021 and 4.3% in 2020. Inflation last year, meanwhile, just clocked in at 3.4%.

The full press release is below.

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Crews are working to clean up a park and a trail following Monday’s house explosion in Bluemont.

Arlington County provided an update about the incident late Thursday afternoon, noting that the exact cause of the explosion — which followed a police standoff with a resident now presumed dead — remains unknown.

The blast destroyed both units of a duplex that’s next to the Bluemont Junction Trail and Field Park, which is often used by youth soccer teams. A fundraiser for the family in the adjoining duplex unit has now raised over $200,000.

The county says it’s working to remove debris from the trail but cautions that it is “a process that will take time” and “continued patience is appreciated.” The cleanup of the park, meanwhile, has prompted its closure for the rest of the winter.

Neighbors of the destroyed house on N. Burlington Street were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday night, according to the county.

More, below, from a press release.

The Arlington County Fire Department, Office of the Fire Marshal has concluded operations on the scene of the recent explosion and fire at 844 N. Burlington St. While operations at the scene have concluded, the investigation into the incident, including the cause of the explosion, is ongoing.

Residents displaced following the home explosion in the 800 block of N. Burlington Street were permitted to return home Wednesday evening.

The Bluemont Junction Trail and the Fields Park cleanup process is underway, led by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Fields Park will remain closed for the duration of the winter season.

Fencing has been installed to secure the site. The Department of Environment Services continues to clear debris, a process that will take time; continued patience is appreciated.

Arlington County staff are in communication with residents and encourage them to continue to reach out for support and resources. If any residents is in need of assistance, including medical, food, housing, or mental health assistance, please contact the Arlington County Department of Human Services at (703) 228-1300 or (703) 228-1398 (TTY).

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Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey speaks at a work session on Oct. 10 (via Arlington County/YouTube)

Arlington’s first public statement on the Israel-Hamas war came during a County Board work session Tuesday afternoon.

Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey spoke about the latest Middle East violence — which has left more than 1,000 dead on both sides of the Gaza border after starting with a surprise Hamas attack on Israeli civilians — at the start of a work session on commercial resiliency.

Dorsey’s full statement is below.

I should also note before we begin our work session this afternoon, we convene under the specter of escalating violence and war in the Middle East. We know that that is something that personally affects many in this community. And while this is not the time or the forum to get into a deeper discussion on factors that are concerning the Middle East, we can say unequivocally that we condemn all of the violence that has been targeted at non-combatants and civilians that has caused many to be kidnapped and many to be murdered, and we hope that the violence de-escalates quickly without further loss of significant life to civilian populations there. That’s all I’m prepared to say at this point, and unfortunately, there’s no great segue to talking about our subject matter today.

Last night the mayors of neighboring D.C. and Alexandria posted photos of a bridge and city hall, respectively, lit up in blue in solidarity with Israel.

Asked whether extra security measures are being put in place in light of the Middle East conflict, Arlington County police spokeswoman Ashley Savage said the department is monitoring the situation.

“There are currently no known threats in Arlington County and our officers are on duty conducting proactive patrols throughout Arlington,” Savage told ARLnow. “We have been, and will remain, in contact with Jewish faith-based communities in Arlington regarding any public safety needs or concerns they may have.”

“Our department continues to monitor the conflict and remains connected with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners on information sharing,” she continued.

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A cavernous space inside the recently-refurbished county headquarters in Courthouse could one day be filled with public art.

Arlington County has commissioned acclaimed artist Kipp Kobayashi, known for his art displays in hospitals, airports and government buildings, to suspend a public art project in the lobby of the Bozman Government Center at 2100 Clarendon Blvd.

Kobayashi is turning to Arlington residents for inspiration before he gets started. He is seeking public input via a survey to learn about the different routes residents take to get to some of their favorite places in Arlington.

“Please tell us your stories, memories, and experiences of Arlington County by sharing a special route that you currently take or have taken through Arlington County,” the survey says. “The route should be to a place that you find especially meaningful. Examples are a park, place of worship, restaurant, friend’s house, bike trail, bench, etc.”

Feedback received through Sept. 30 will help inform his designs, according to the county.

“With a background in urban design, Kobayashi’s public art method involves extensive field observation and personal interactions to identify the individual elements that together form the identity of a place,” a press release said.

Kobayashi and county staff will also be at the Arlington County Fair this week during indoor hours for people to share their experiences in Arlington directly with the artist.

In April, the county unveiled the interior renovations to its headquarters. The project began in September 2021 and cost approximately $4.8 million.

The artwork’s design, fabrication, and installation have a set budget of $200,000, county spokesman Ryan Hudson said.

The funding comes from the county’s Public Art Trust & Agency account, which is earmarked exclusively for the Courthouse area, Hudson added. The trust relies on contributions from developers rather than resident tax dollars.

According to his website, Kobayashi’s art stems from his experiences growing up as an Asian American, “leading to a lifelong interest in deconstructing preconceived notions of who and what we are to understand better unique patterns that present a more nuanced interpretation of identity and cultural belonging.”

Some of Kobayashi’s recent displays include hundreds of hand-folded paper planes, called “Collective Transitions,” at Meacham Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, and “hundreds of custom-made fishing flies swirling together in a central grouping,” called “Emergence,” in Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.

Kobayashi was selected by a committee that met several times over the course of a year to define goals for the project, review artist submissions and select an artist.

The committee will also recommend the final artwork design.

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Arlington County’s tourism arm has a new look and a new slogan.

On Thursday, the county unveiled a new marketing campaign, which officials hope will boost tourism. While Arlington remains a top destination in Virginia, it has seen a significant drop in visitors due to the pandemic.

With the assistance of a $3.25 million grant through the American Rescue Plan Act, the county hired an outside marketing agency, Fuseideas LLC, to help design a new website and slogan – “All in Arlington” – aiming to spotlight Arlington’s diverse attractions, cultural experiences, and historical landmarks to visitors outside the national capital region.

Arlington County’s new slogan is “All in Arlington” (Courtesy Arlington
Convention and Visitor Service)

“‘All in Arlington’ represents the culmination of insights reflecting a changing destination landscape and new ways that Arlington satisfies the needs and expectations of post-pandemic visitors,” the county said in a press release. “With accolades including #1 Fittest U.S. City, #4 Best Park System in America, Platinum Walk Friendly Community, and #2 Happiest Place in the U.S., Arlington and its diverse, welcoming neighborhoods combine the best of city life and urban outdoor living.”

During an event at the Long Bridge Aquatics & Fitness Center Thursday, Arlington Chamber of Commerce CEO Kate Bates told a room of county staff and elected officials that the federal stimulus funds would allow the county to “dramatically expand marketing, sales, advertising, and public relations activities through June of 2024.”

“These investments are important to all of our community. They will result in more meetings, leisure and business visitors, more spending in Arlington, and more revenues reinvested into our community,” she said.

Arlington was “one of the hardest areas hit” regions of the state, according to county staff, experiencing a 57% decline in visitor spending and a 65% decline in accommodation (hotels) spending in 2020.

Emily Cassell, director of the Arlington Convention and Visitors Service, said in a statement that before the pandemic Arlington was ranked “Virginia’s #1 county for visitor spending.”

In 2019, tourism spending in Arlington rose to $3.6 billion, topping the previous record set in 2018, and generated $97.8 million in local tax revenue.

In 2021, Cassell said tourism spending was approximately $2.8 billion and generated $114 million in local taxes. But she expressed optimism that the new branding, website and upcoming media campaign, dubbed “Go All In,” would “further accelerate our industry’s recovery toward 2019’s record performance and beyond.”

During the unveiling Thursday, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said localities have recovered much faster than expected due to the injection of federal funds into sectors such as tourism

“We’ve completely recovered all the jobs, no country in the world is recovering as quickly from the pandemic as we have. And the fact that a piece of that recovery is a new branding for Arlington tourism is a really good thing,” he said.

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The impacts from Saturday’s severe storms were so widespread that Arlington County is still assessing damage.

Power has since been restored to the more than 34,000 Dominion customers in the dark after the storms, and the GW Parkway completed its reopening yesterday after crews removed hundreds of fallen and potentially hazardous trees. But other damage to both private and county property is still being addressed in Arlington.

“The storms on Saturday, July 29, caused widespread damage, resulting in power outages (both public and private buildings) and travel disruptions (caused by fallen trees),” Arlington County spokesman Ryan Hudson recounted to ARLnow. “As staff continue to assess damage, it might be some time before the ultimate impact of the storm is known.”

“County crews continue to investigate and address the tickets submitted to the online Request for Service tool,” Hudson said. “Much of the clean-up focuses on debris blocking roadways and waterways, and tree removal.”

The scale of the damage is reminiscent of the 2012 derecho, though the latter was even more widespread. Saturday’s storms concentrated more of the damage near the river and in north-central portions of Arlington, roughly between Route 50 and Langston Blvd, including the Orange Line corridor.

Still, there remains plenty to clean up.

“The Solid Waste Bureau has collected 246 tons of brush so far since Saturday,” Peter Golkin, spokesman for ARLnow’s Dept. of Environmental Services, tells ARLnow. “The average number of scheduled brush pick-ups is about 70 per day out of a max of 150 available. They’ve hit the max for Tuesday, [Wednesday and Thursday].”

Arlington residents can schedule brush pickups online.

Hudson said Arlington’s 911 call center received a total of 1,618 calls for service on Saturday between 5 p.m. and midnight, a 225% spike in call volume. The Arlington County Emergency Communications Center received a peak volumes of nearly 500 calls between 5-6 p.m.

County employees have inspected 16 homes damaged by the storm, by some combination of strong winds and falling trees, branches, and power lines. Of those, four were determined to have major or severe damage, Hudson said.

Arlington’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation has also been busy since the storm, with lots of fallen trees and branches in local parks and along busy trails.

Storm damage closed Rocky Run Park near Courthouse until it reopened yesterday. The storm also damaged power lines at Gulf Branch Nature Center, leading to a power outage and closure today.

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Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center in 2013 (file photo)

Arlington County will soon start using an automated system developed by Amazon Web Services to answer non-emergency public safety calls.

Starting on Thursday (June 1), non-emergency callers to 703-558-2222 will go through Amazon Connect to address their issues, according to the county.

“Amazon Connect is a cloud-based contact center service that allows residents to connect with the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) for non-emergency inquiries,” says an FAQ on the county website. “When a caller dials (703) 558-2222 for non-emergency needs, Amazon Connect will answer the call and provide verbal assistance. It will provide a faster and more efficient response to non-emergency inquiries. Alternate languages will be built out in the future.”

“Personal information is not stored or shared with Amazon or the County,” the FAQ adds. “Amazon Connect is only for non-emergency calls like car towing inquiries, animal control needs, or noise complaints. For emergencies, always call 9-1-1.”

Additional capabilities, including the ability to speak languages other than English and artificial intelligence-driven functionality to address certain inquiries, are in the works, the county said.

In September 2021, WTOP reported that Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center was experiencing staffing shortages and “addressing concerns that its current setup is problematic and even potentially dangerous.”

More, below, from an Arlington County press release.

The Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) will launch Amazon Connect to handle non-emergency calls starting June 1, 2023. This cloud-based service allows anyone to contact the County quickly and easily for non-emergency issues using the non-emergency line, 703-558-2222, freeing up 9-1-1 professionals to focus on emergencies.

Amazon Connect is a secure and accessible service that allows the ECC to address non-emergency calls more efficiently while protecting caller privacy. The technology will streamline operations, improve service delivery, and reduce the burden on emergency responders.

“We are excited to continue to lead the region in implementing responsive and industry best-practice emergency communications technology,” said William Flagler, Director of the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management. “The use of Amazon Connect for non-emergency calls will allow our emergency communications staff to focus on emergencies while providing residents with faster, more efficient, and secure service for non-emergency inquiries.”

Amazon Connect is only for non-emergency calls; the current 9-1-1 system will continue to handle emergency calls.

When a caller dials 703-558-2222 (the non-emergency line), Amazon Connect will answer and provide verbal assistance. The system can answer calls and speak to the caller to provide verbal direction, providing a faster and more efficient response to non-emergency inquiries.  No personal information is stored or shared with Amazon.

In the future, the County plans to expand the system’s capabilities using artificial intelligence. The system will learn to identify and effectively address reasons for calling (e.g. towed cars, potholes, trail and park maintenance, noise complaints, County operating status), and will offer service in the County’s top five most spoken languages. The County also plans to connect the system to its online reporting form and update residents on resolving non-emergency issues they share.

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