Predicting a potential $35-million deficit in the 2023-24 fiscal year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz recommends putting nearly all of the unspent funds from last fiscal year toward balancing that budget.
Yesterday (Tuesday), the Arlington County Board approved the close of the 2021-22 budget with nearly $26.9 million in unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds leftover. In the same meeting, county staff briefed the Board on its grim predictions for the 2023-24 budget, planning for which is already underway.
The county attributes the $26.9 million surplus to a better-than-projected tax year and fewer expenses than anticipated.
“This was primarily the result of a slowdown in departmental operations due to COVID coupled with retention and staff hiring challenges,” per a county report. “In addition, Countywide health care costs were less than anticipated.”
The 2022 closeout funds represent 2.4% of the county budget (excluding Arlington Public Schools expenditures) and mark an increase from last year, when the county ended the 2021 fiscal year with $20.4 million — or 2.2% of the budget — leftover.
Those closeout funds, coupled with federal funding, went to pandemic recovery, childcare, criminal justice reform and other equity initiatives. But now, Schwartz says the county needs the 2022 closeout funds for balancing the budget.
“Given the pressures that we’re facing in fiscal year ’24… my recommendation is that the discretionary balance of [$26.9] million that is available in closeout be set aside so that the board can consider it for potential use as part of the fiscal ’24 budget process,” Schwartz said on Tuesday afternoon during an Arlington County Board meeting.
Arlington County Budget Director Richard Stephenson said the projections are not uniformly bad news.
“It’s a good news, and not-so-good news, story,” he said. “County revenue that we’re projecting for 2024 is positive. Unfortunately, as we’re looking ahead, the expenditure side of the equation is going to outpace the revenue growth we’re projecting.”
Total tax growth is projected to be up 3.4% before sharing revenue with Arlington Public Schools. That is driven by increases in real estate assessments as well as taxes on personal property, Business, Professional and Occupational Licenses, sales and meals.
Another bright spot, Stephenson said, is that sales and meals taxes have not only bounced back from the pandemic, but they have also surpassed pre-pandemic levels. He said the county expects the hotel tax will eventually catch up, too.
Still, Stephenson said, said the county has a number of “self-evident” concerns at the start of budget planning for the 2023-24 budget: inflation and wage growth, the transition from one-time federal funding — from sources such as the American Rescue Plan — to ongoing local funding for some projects, and the impact of interest rates.
Climbing interest rates and office vacancy rates, however, are threatening a “significant portion” of Arlington’s General Fund budget, or revenue from commercial real estate tax, Stephenson says.
Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said this information “gives a good bit of context” to Schwartz’s recommendation to lean on unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds next year.
“For my part, I do think this is an easy decision to carry the fiscal ’22 closeout to fiscal ’24, and that may be the last time the term ‘easy decision’ is used in the same sentence as ‘fiscal ’24 budget,'” she said.
Arlington County is shifting its restorative justice efforts to local nonprofits.
During the County Board meetings held this weekend and last night, members voted to shift nearly $200,000 to nonprofits that are set to continue Arlington’s restorative justice push.
This includes $91,029 in unspent grant money that will go back to the charitable foundations that provided it. Then, the money will be “re-awarded” to the county’s nonprofit partner, Restorative Arlington.
Additionally, $100,000 is being provided by the county as one-time funding to another locally-based nonprofit, the Center for Youth and Family Advocacy. In April 2022, a Notice of Funding Availability was distributed in the community asking relevant nonprofits “to describe innovative programming to work within Arlington County on the goal of enhancing restorative justice, racial equity, and diversion efforts.”
A review panel selected the Center for Youth and Family Advocacy due to its “multi-pronged approach.”
It was more than a year ago when the county first announced its intention to transition Arlington’s restorative justice efforts “from a government-based initiative to a community-based initiative.”
In April 2021, the County Board asked the County Manager in its Fiscal Year 2022 budget guidance to start moving its restorative justice efforts — then also called “Restorative Arlington” — to an initiative run by local nonprofits.
“This transition will also allow for a more efficient approach to leveraging grant and endowment resources,” the guidance read.
Then, in May 2022, the county launched its new “Heart of Safety” program after two years of work and planning. A program of this nature was also what Arlington’s top prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, promised during her 2019 campaign.
A month later, in June 2022, Restorative Arlington officially transitioned “from a public program rooted in the County Manager’s office to a private nonprofit,” per director Kimiko Lighty at Tuesday’s County Board meeting.
Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow late last week that this had always been the intention. The county’s role was to act as an “incubator” and “fiscal agent” with grants for a limited amount of time while the nonprofits worked to get set up and ready to take on the programs.
“As the government, the relationship with restorative justice has always been sort of unusual from the start… the goal has always been ultimately to have a community-based provider,” Cristol said. “Community-based allows this initiative and this effort to truly be centered on the needs of the individuals who were harmed and being able to bring about that restitution and reparation. That’s opposed to institutions, especially criminal justice institutions, that are always going to have interests — important [ones] — but interests other than the needs of the individual who was harmed.”
While local officials might say this was the intent all along, some feel that this is a departure from the original aim.
Brad Haywood, the county’s chief public defender, said he was a bit “surprised” by the move, particularly because they had someone from their office go to all the planning sessions, helping to build the program. Haywood feels like it’s somewhat “a change of plans” from the initial intent.
“We haven’t been told much,” he told ARLnow. “We felt like we were building momentum with Arlington leading the way.”
Nonetheless, Haywood is “optimistic” that Arlington’s restorative justice programs will continue in a manner that will benefit residents — particularly if multiple programs meeting several needs arise out of the shift to local, nonprofit partners.
“Then, that would be value-added,” he said.
Cristol noted at Tuesday’s meeting that this move does not mean the county will no longer be part of local restorative justice efforts.
“The idea of shifting the locus of restorative justice to a community-based organization, which has always been the goal, does not mean that government does not continue to play a role,” said Cristol. “We want our agencies that have been part of traditional justice to be partners in shifting towards a more restorative approach.”
Arlington has hired its first Independent Policing Auditor, though it didn’t go the exact way the county was hoping for.
The county announced today that Mummi Ibrahim, who “has a long history in supporting grassroots organizing efforts” that includes a focus on police practices, has been hired for the position. Ibrahim will serve as the professional staff to the recently-appointed Community Oversight Board, which will review use of force complaints against Arlington law enforcement.
But the hire didn’t exactly go as first envisioned. Ibrahim was hired by County Manager Mark Schwartz, the top county executive in charge of county staff and departments, including the police department.
State legislation passed that would have allowed the County Board to appoint the policing auditor, providing more independence, but that bill was vetoed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). On a party line vote, the state legislature failed to override the veto.
Nonetheless, the Arlington branch of the NAACP lauded the hire.
“One of the most essential and defining concepts of civilian oversight of law enforcement is independence,” said branch president Julius D. “JD” Spain, Sr. “After over a year of deliberations and community engagement, the NAACP Arlington Branch is pleased with the Arlington County Government’s selection of its first Independent Policing Auditor.”
“This is a step in the right direction to restore trust and confidence in the public safety system,” Spain added. “We expect a more complete, thorough, objective, and fair process moving forward.”
More from a county press release, below.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz is pleased to appoint Mummi Ibrahim as Arlington’s first Independent Policing Auditor. In this new role, Ms. Ibrahim will provide professional staff support to the newly appointed Community Oversight Board (COB). She will also be instrumental in conducting independent audits of police operations, receiving complaints from members of the public, and participating in investigations as appropriate.
About Mummi Ibrahim
Ms. Ibrahim has a long history in supporting grassroots organizing efforts focused on assessing legislation, legal remedies and policy recommendations related to police practices, as well as campaign strategies for prosecutorial accountability.
Most recently, Ms. Ibrahim served as a senior staff attorney at the Advancement Project, where her work focused on policing issues, including Section 1983 litigation trainings for lawyers seeking to represent individuals who have experienced harm due to police misconduct.
As an organizer and staff attorney at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, she ran a campaign to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. In this role, she organized a coalition comprised of hundreds of impacted community members and several social justice organizations to lobby for sentencing reform, drive a statewide legal strategy to end juvenile life without parole sentencing, and establish re-entry services.
She has also worked with the City of New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, overseeing disciplinary hearings, data collection, and policy reform within the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Earlier in her career, she served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Audrey L. Thomas of the Superior Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Ms. Ibrahim is a native of Khartoum, Sudan. She received her bachelor’s degree from Hampton University and her juris doctorate from Howard University School of Law.
In 2021, the Arlington County Board established the Community Oversight Board (COB) to improve transparency, accountability, and community trust in the Arlington County Police Department (ACPD). The COB will have the ability to independently receive, investigate, and make recommendations in response to complaints from the community. The ordinance also calls for an accompanying Independent Policing Auditor to support the work of the COB.
The Community Oversight Board, which was appointed in spring 2022, consists of seven voting members and two non-voting members with prior experience in law enforcement. All COB members are residents of Arlington, are appointed by the County Board, and reflect the demographic diversity of the County.
From a new Columbia Pike library to a dedicated pickleball court, County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 10-year $3.9 billion capital improvement plan would fund projects across Arlington.
The first 10-year plan for capital projects in four years would budget for infrastructure projects between 2023 and 2032. The CIP proposal, slated for adoption in July, is a 40% increase from the plan approved four years ago, Schwartz said in his presentation to the County Board Tuesday.
“This CIP proposal aims to address current and future capital needs in Arlington County as we emerge from the financial setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schwartz said in a statement. “We want to focus on key planned investments in addition to following through on commitments from prior plans to benefit county residents and businesses long-term.”
Stormwater projects would receive $331.3 million in funding, including $77 million for Spout Run, $14.7 million for Torreyson Run, $28.5 million for Crossman Run and $49.5 million for Lubber Run — all flood mitigation efforts. Streams and water quality funding is proposed at $52.1 million and maintenance at $50.2 million.
While Metro remains one of the largest investments in the CIP, at $356.4 million, the proposal also outlines $1.8 billion in non-Metro transportation funding. This includes $16 million for Vision Zero street safety improvements program, $64 million for bridge replacements and renovations, and $89 million for bike and walk programs.
Other highlights include:
- Columbia Pike library replacement ($31.6 million)
- Planning for future investment at the Quincy Street site ($16.4 million)
- Army Navy Country Club Trail ($4.9 million)
- Maintenance and expansion of Capital Bikeshare program ($16.8 million)
- Continued funding for Columbia Pike transportation improvements, supporting the remaining reconstruction and the Transit Station program ($117 million)
- Bridge replacements and renovations, including replacing the W. Glebe Road and Mt. Vernon (Arlington Ridge Road) bridges and design and construction of Shirlington Road Bridge ($64 million)
- Construction of new entrances to the Ballston ($147.5 million) and Crystal City ($91.4 million) Metro stations and investment in the transitway extension to Pentagon City and Potomac Avenue ($33 million)
The proposed CIP includes new park programs that focus on emerging needs and natural resiliency, a new fire station on the west end of Columbia Pike, and facilities consolidation to enable remote work for county staff.
Schwartz said the needs of the county have changed since the last 10-year CIP, as the county is in “a world shaped by the pandemic where we do our business differently.”
Michelle Cowan, deputy county manager overseeing the Department of Management and Finance, noted during the presentation that the finance department works entirely remotely now, potentially a harbinger of a money-saving reduction in the county’s office footprint.
“We have reduced our footprint which… allows us then to do some really strategic consolidations that you’ll hear about in other county buildings that could get us out of some aging assets,” Cowan said.
The CIP will continue to fund debt service obligations for the investment in housing at Barcroft Apartments, construction of Fire Station 8, which is scheduled to be completed in fall 2023, and the design and planning process for the proposed Arlington boathouse.
Preliminary construction funding for the lower boathouse site is included in the later years of the CIP.
This CIP returns funding levels for the Arlington Neighborhoods Program, formerly the Neighborhood Conservation Program, which are projects identified by individual neighborhoods and include street improvements, streetlights, parks, beautification and sidewalks. The program had steep cuts in previous CIPs.
The 2023-32 CIP proposal would provide $85.2 million in funding to the program. That includes $4 million of funding for projects in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, and would increase to $9 million in 2030 and 2031, Director of Management and Finance Maria Meredith said.
The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a balanced $1.5 billion annual budget on Tuesday night.
The FY 2023 budget represents a 7.6% revenue and spending increase over the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.
The new budget follows County Manager Mark Schwartz’s recommendation to hold the real estate tax rate steady at $1.013 per $100 of value, which is an effective tax hike of 5.3% on homeowners given a steep rise in assessments amid a hot local real estate market.
Weakness in commercial property values, given the pandemic and work-at-home trends leading to elevated office vacancy rates, put pressure on the revenue side of the budget. Assessments were flat for commercial property, which makes up more than a third of the county’s property tax base.
“Although I am glad that we could hold to our property tax rate… among the lowest in the region, I know that we all would prefer to be in the situation of our peer jurisdictions who are less dependent on commercial revenue sources and are therefore entertaining rate cuts this year,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said at the meeting.
She continued: “But by investing in our people, specifically investing in retention and recruitment for the positions and divisions where quality of service is most threatened” — including law enforcement and the fire department — “and prioritizing the urgent as well as important issues of housing equity and climate, I am optimistic that this budget will be one that doesn’t just bridge the pandemic but begins our journey on the other side.”
Increased costs attributable to inflation, meanwhile, while not mentioned in the county press release (below), will likely put pressure on the expense side of the budget.
The new budget represents a 50% increase in spending over the FY 2012 budget approved 11 years ago, when the county budget first hit the $1 billion mark. During that time, the U.S. has seen inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, of 29%, while the county has seen a population increase of roughly 15%.
The FY 2023 budget largely follows Schwartz’s proposed budget. It includes pay hikes for county employees, and even steeper pay increases for the police department, Sheriff’s Office and fire department.
Other local priorities targeted for increased spending include affordable housing and the environment, with the budget funding a new “Office of Climate Coordination and Policy.”
The climate office will be run out of the County Manager’s office and will “focus on advancing key climate policies and strengthen[ing] interdepartmental coordination across government.”
While many will see a tax hike given rising property values, vehicle owners will see a bit of relief with the new budget.
“The budget also includes vehicle tax relief by adjusting the assessment tax ratio to 88 percent of a car’s value and the elimination of the regressive $33 Motor Vehicle Fee for Arlington residents,” notes a county press release. “These changes are in response to a surge in vehicle valuations, directly related to supply chain issues and rising market prices impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
More details about the budget, from the press release, are below.
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.
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.
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.
(Updated at 5:40 p.m.) Arlington County police created a new foot pursuit policy, updated how officers use force and pursue vehicles, and began making more data and information accessible to the public.
Those are a few of the changes at the police department in response to an external report on Arlington’s policing practices publicly released on Wednesday. Some policy updates are still being finalized.
Following a study by the Police Practices Group, a work group that reviewed the police department’s policies and made more than 100 recommendations for changes, an external law enforcement and public safety consulting firm reviewed several areas of the department and made additional recommendations.
The firm, Hillard Heintze, recommended the department create a recruitment policy, better utilize data it collects, and offer training designed for those seeking promotion or special assignments, among other recommendations. They evaluated practices and policies across internal affairs, use of force, cameras, recruitment and retention, training and supervision and data/statistics.
The department has compiled responses to the findings and recommendations, creating a number of new policies, revising others and making information they already have or collect, such as internal disciplinary actions, more readily available.
County Manager Mark Schwartz said ACPD devoted hundreds of hours to providing the firm with what they needed for the study.
“As the report noted, ACPD sets a high standard for behavior and accountability for itself, which is demonstrated by how officers interact with the community,” he wrote in a letter to the community about the report. “In addition, there were suggestions for improved policies and practices which ACPD immediately embraced once identified by HH and the PPG.”
The external review took place while some changes identified were already underway to address the recommendations from the Police Practices Group, which provided its final report early in 2021. The PPG’s report guided appropriations included in the County Board’s 2022 budget, and guided the ordinance that created a Community Oversight Board.
The PPG also influenced ACPD to revise its use-of-force policies to ensure they lined up with best practices and community expectations, according to the report. The policy was updated to include “prohibiting the use of neck restraints unless immediately necessary, clarifying officer’s responsibility to intervene to prevent or stop the use of excessive force, rendering first aid when necessary, highlighting the sanctity of life, increasing focus on de-escalation and other updates.”
Since these updates were already underway, the external firm had no specific recommendations relating to the new use of force policy but did say the department should “closely scrutinize use-of-force incidents, audit use-of-force training to ensure policy is operationalized on the street and ensure it has incorporated the new requirements into training.”
“I truly believe ACPD is an exceptional police department, but recognize there is always room for improvement,” Arlington Police Chief Andy Penn said in a statement to ARLnow. “Many of the recommendations outlined in the external assessment help move us forward in our mission to reduce incidences of crime and improve quality of life and have already been acted on by ACPD.”
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.
Arlington County Professional Firefighters issued a press release warning that without salary adjustments, Arlington could see firefighter departures. https://t.co/JeJe9qUSMH @IAFFNewsDesk pic.twitter.com/AOMAAPZ1mk
— Arlington Professional Firefighters (@IAFF2800) September 20, 2021
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.
“It is the highest priority I have right now, in part because we are in a different place with vaccines,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti tells ARLnow. “This is a health and safety issue I will take responsibility for.”
AHC said it is working with county officials, Arlington’s Housing Commission and community organizations to ensure residents’ concerns are heard and addressed.
“Over the past few days, Serrano’s new management company Drucker & Falk has completed more than half of its 100% inspection of the property (except for the apartments where residents have not provided access) to document and remediate all identified issues through systemic improvements given Serrano’s age,” AHC spokeswoman Celia Slater said. “We are now moving forward with the repairs and encourage everyone to visit our website for updates about the steps we are taking to ensure that all Serrano residents have safe and healthy homes.”
Earlier this month, residents and community leaders told ARLnow about the dire state of some committed affordable apartment units at The Serrano (5535 Columbia Pike). Problems include rodents eating through food and leaving droppings, mold growing on walls and white dust permeating HVAC conductors.
Residents and advocates say they are glad the plight of those living in The Serrano is getting attention but are also frustrated at how many people and walkthroughs it took to get the county and AHC, an affordable housing nonprofit, to act.
The most recent walkthrough was last Friday, when about 40 people, including county officials, Del. Alfonso Lopez, as well as AHC and management representatives, looked at units and talked to residents.
“There were a lot of people there who were supposed to be there a long time ago,” community organizer Janeth Valenzuela said. “Finally, they could experience this with their own eyes and listen to families.”
Former School Board member Tannia Talento said she was frustrated to disrupt the lives of families once more, while not knowing if changes would actually happen.
Ashley Goff, a pastor with Arlington Presbyterian Church, was critical of AHC’s lack of responsiveness to an issue that was many months in the making.
“Look at all the people that had to turn out to get AHC to pay attention,” she said. “They were shamed into taking action, absolutely.”
(An Arlington NAACP newsletter from November, providing an update on its advocacy about conditions at the Serrano, said that the “exhausting battle by the tenants and their allies” — the NAACP and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) — had been ongoing since at least the fall of 2019.)
Conditions provoke strong reactions
The Serrano has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units. After walking through about a dozen apartments, officials said the conditions were unacceptable and needed to be fixed, quickly.
“I long ago lived in a place that had a problem with rats and no one can actually relax in their home when they’re worried that there could be mice there,” de Ferranti said.
Some problems will be more difficult, but no less essential, to solve due to the building’s age, he said.
“The medium-term solution for holding AHC accountable is getting a clear and specific schedule of what must be done at the Serrano,” he said. “I could envision taking the form of a short, specific Memorandum of Understanding. That is a step over the coming month or two that we are likely to take.”
Now the county will advertise a draft ordinance that, if approved in the summer, would outline the roles and responsibilities of this review board. Board member Takis Karantonis dissented.
“As we discuss and debate this ordinance over the next two months, we must both recognize that our community has an interest in additional accountability and transparency related to law enforcement and respect the diligent efforts of our public safety personnel,” said Matt de Ferranti, Chair of the Arlington County Board, in a statement.
What the civilian review board would look like was discussed by the Police Practices Work Group over the last year, which in February presented myriad ways to reform the police department. Some of the powers it suggested the board should have are included in the ordinance.
As written, Arlington’s civilian review board would be able to receive complaints about police conduct, review the police chief’s disciplinary decisions, as well as review finished police investigations, data, policies and the ACPD budget. It would also be able to recommend policy changes and conduct hearings and community outreach.
But it would not have the ability to independently and concurrently investigate officers, which the PPG recommends but County Manager Mark Schwartz does not.
Karantonis said last night the proposed ordinance is deficient in many ways, particularly because the authority to independently investigate a police officer is not baked in. He supported deferring the motion.
“Not a single person who testified for the advertisement of the ordinance as submitted,” he said. “In my inbox, I don’t see a single email in support.”
Fifteen PPG participants, community members and advocates told the County Board to defer action so the ordinance could be rewritten to allow for independent investigations.
“The Black and brown community is telling you that we need a civilian review board with teeth,” said community member Wilma Jones.
Minneapolis’s weak review board allowed Derek Chauvin to remain an officer despite multiple complaints of misconduct before he killed George Floyd, said Michelle Woolley, of Arlington for Justice. Meanwhile, the review board in St Louis, unable to investigate police shootings concurrently with police, had to wait more than five years to evaluate 21 shootings.
Public defender Brad Haywood said in a letter to the county that review-only models found in Virginia Beach and Fairfax are seen as “rubber stamps for police internal affairs.”
“The review bodies rarely recommend corrective action, and so far as I know they have never brought about proactive measures to address broader institutional problems, such as racial disparities in traffic enforcement or over-policing of misdemeanor conduct,” he said.
After the meeting, Julius D. Spain, Jr., the president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, told ARLnow the board needs to revise the ordinance’s “admitted defects.”
“This current version of the CRB is not equitable and will not hold up in the long term to engender trust by our community in the public safety system,” he said. “The voices of communities of color need to be centered in this conversation.”
The public can provide direct feedback throughout June and at the July meeting. After the Board votes in July, assuming the ordinance is approved and not deferred, members of the review board would be appointed in the fall.
In a report, the county articulated many reasons not to include investigative powers.
Units in the Serrano Apartments, a high-rise housing complex on Columbia Pike, have three things going for them: they are spacious, have nice views, and are affordable.
“But if you go inside those units, the reality is totally different,” said Janeth Valenzuela, who has been advocating for better living conditions for Serrano tenants for two years.
Mice and rat infestations. Balconies with broken glass and rust. Dirty HVAC units with water damage underneath. Shoddy maintenance.
These are just some of the problems inside the 280-unit apartment building at 5535 Columbia Pike, not just according to Valenzuela, but also the Arlington NAACP, immigrant and tenants’ rights group BU-GATA, interfaith clergy group VOICE Arlington, and the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement (ACE) Collaborative.
“It’s sickening,” said NAACP President Julius “JD” Spain. “This is a dereliction of duty and someone needs to be held accountable.”
Two weeks ago, Spain and the NAACP Housing Committee Chair Kellen MacBeth walked through a handful of apartment units, taking pictures of the conditions. They wrote a letter to County Manager Mark Schwartz detailing the conditions and asking Schwartz to assign staff to work with tenants, rehabilitate the units and rewrite policy so all residents have safe, decent and affordable homes.
“We observed severe problems that suggest a culture of deferred maintenance and underinvestment in the property during our walk-through,” the letter said.
The walk-through, however, was a tipping point after two years of work behind the scenes to help tenants.
“We are tired because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Valenzuela said. “It’s pure injustice.”
Under new management
The Serrano Apartments are owned by AHC Inc., an Arlington-based affordable housing developer, which acquired the building in 2014 in partnership with Arlington County. Since then, the nonprofit has spent millions of dollars making improvements. The building has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units, according to AHC.
AHC is aware of the issues raised by the community organizations and has been working hard on them “for a while now,” said spokeswoman Celia Slater. One of its most recent changes was to hire a new management company, which “is very good at customer service and has an excellent track record.”
According to county spokeswoman Erika Moore, the county required that switch based on the conditions at the property.
Elder Julio Basurto, who has worked with Valenzuela these last two years, said the management change is the result of advocacy.
“It’s not something AHC has done on their own,” he said, adding that “there are a lot of things that are still not right.”
The management company, which started in February, told AHC it will take about six months before the building’s issues get in order, she said. Already, Slater tallied 586 work orders, of which 39 had to do with pests like bugs and rodents.
“We’ve made a lot of progress since they’ve started, but we know there are still issues to address,” Slater said.
This month, 100% of the vents and convectors will be cleaned again by the end of May, she said.
“Many tenants appreciate the new management but they believe that just because there’s a new management it does not mean the root problems are solved,” said Maryam Mustafa, a community organizer with ACE.
Saul Reyes, executive director of BU-GATA, said the Serrano is an old building with lots of issues exacerbated by deferred maintenance.
“We’ve been working with residents, resolving their individual issues with management, making sure work orders get done to tenant satisfaction,” he said. “Part of the problem is that the issues are so extensive and take so long to resolve that residents get frustrated.”
While the new management company works to get things under control, Slater said AHC is working to build trust with residents. The organization established an on-site residents services office with a bilingual manager, started distributing more than 100 meals a week, and has hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic.
“We care about the people in the community and we want to do all we can to make sure their living environment is up to our standards,” Slater said.
But a big problem is communication, she said, alleging that residents are not telling AHC what is going on.