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Arlington County Launches ‘New Online Resource for Consumers’

There’s a new way for Arlington residents to complain about things.

Arlington County has launched a new “Consumer Protection Clearinghouse” website, with consumer-oriented information about everything from towing to cable TV service to food trucks. The site is a one-stop shop that puts local, state and federal resources in one place.

The new site was announced at last week’s Arlington County Board meeting.

The site also includes a “submit a complaint” feature, focused mostly on towing, cable and taxi-related issues. Submissions will be reviewed by county staff.

The site will allow the county to “better address the needs of consumers” and help facilitate a “fair marketplace,” said Jeanine Finch, who serves as the county’s Business Ombudsman and lead for consumer affairs.

County Board Chair Katie Cristol said the Board is “quite enthusiastic” about the new site.

More information from a press release:

A new Consumer Protection Clearinghouse site aims to help consumers and businesses in Arlington County by providing educational resources and a way to submit concerns.

This new site centralizes existing consumer resources from across County government, and consolidates and incorporates a variety of state and federal resources as well. It also enhances access to public information on a range of topics regulated by the County government, including:

  • Towing
  • Cable TV
  • Taxis
  • Pawn Shops
  • Food Trucks
  • Solicitation

The page also includes an easy-to-use “submit a complaint” button that appears on each page in the site.

The new resource was announced at the May 22, 2018, County Board Meeting by County Manager Mark Schwartz.

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Morning Notes

DES Wants to Reunite Stuffed Bunny With Owner — The Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services is searching for the owner of a stuffed animal believed to have been accidentally thrown away during Taste of Arlington on Sunday. “Let us know if someone is missing a good friend,” DES tweeted. [Twitter]

APS to Keep German, Japanese Classes — “Superintendent Patrick Murphy on May 17 confirmed the decision to keep German I, II and III and Japanese I, II and III, which had been slated for elimination due to low enrollment. The turnaround came after students and parents complained.” [InsideNova]

Flanagan-Watson Get Promotion — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has appointed Shannon Flanagan-Watson as deputy county manager, effective May 21, with oversight responsibility for Arlington Economic Development, Arlington Public Libraries, and a portion of the Department of Environmental Services, one of the County’s largest departments.” Flanagan-Watson has served as the county’s business ombudsman, working to help solve regulatory problems for Arlington businesses. [Arlington County]

Risk Warrant Bill Fails — A bill introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48) to create risk warrants — allowing law enforcement to confiscate the guns of troubled individuals if a court order is granted — failed in the Virginia legislature this session. [WVTF]

Patriots Win District Baseball Title — The Yorktown Patriots baseball team won the Liberty District high school tournament and title for the first time since 2012. [InsideNova]

Get Ready for Memorial Bridge Work — Major work to rehabilitate the aging Memorial Bridge is set to begin in September and will cause significant traffic impacts. The work “will require long-term lane closures and short-term detours, which will be disruptive to traffic and likely send vehicles to other Potomac River spans, tying those up more than usual, per the NPS. One of the sidewalks will also be closed ‘during much of the construction period.'” [Washington Business Journal]

Budget Limits May Limit New HS Amenities — “Those who descended on Saturday’s County Board meeting hoping to win support for more rather than fewer amenities in a potential fourth Arlington high school came away with no promises from board members. If anything, those elected officials who addressed the subject did so in an effort to – delicately – tamp down expectations.” [InsideNova]

Wrong-Way Crash in Pentagon City — A driver reportedly hopped a curb, drove the wrong way down Army Navy Drive and smashed into two vehicles in Pentagon City around noon yesterday. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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County Budget Nixes Some Proposed Cuts, Boosts First Responder Pay

The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously passed a $1.276 billion balanced budget that includes a number of fee increases but no real estate tax rate hike.

The FY 2019 budget notably restores $70,000 in funding for Arlington Independent Media — County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting about $90,000 in county funds for the community TV and radio broadcaster — after AIM collected more than 1,300 online petition signatures against the cut. The Board also boosted first responder pay, particularly starting pay which police and firefighter associations say is low and hurting recruitment, by $1.6 million above the manager’s recommendation, which already included a pay boost.

Funding the increased spending is the reallocation of $2.5 million from proposed renovations to the county government headquarters in Courthouse and the freezing of 16 vacant public safety positions.

Per the manager’s recommendations, the budget also increases parking meter rates and extends metered hours until 8 p.m., while increasing utility taxes, household waste fees and various departmental fees.

“The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget,” notes a county press release, below. County Board Chair Katie Cristol called the adopted budget “sustainably progressive.”

County funding for Arlington Public Schools will top the $500 million mark, as the school system continues to face pressures from enrollment growth and the opening of new schools. Metro, meanwhile, will receive a 3 percent increase in funding, receiving $73.1 million from the county’s coffers and state transit aid earmarked for Arlington.

In addition to AIM and first responders, the Board nixed the following cuts proposed by Schwartz, according to the markup record:

  • $620,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund
  • $365,000 for Lee Highway planning and $25,000 for the Lee Highway Alliance
  • $40,000 for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which serves immigrants
  • $200,000 for a body scanner at the county jail
  • $50,000 for the Arlington County Fair
  • $20,000 for community shredding events
  • $40,000 for the Arlington Neighborhood College program
  • $184,000 for a youth mental health therapist

Among the proposed cuts not restored: the elimination of the printed Citizen newsletter, the elimination of two ART bus routes, the elimination of Arlington’s poet laureate and a $555,000 cut to the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program.

The latter drew some pushback from Board members.

“The cuts that we’re doing this year to AIRE — nobody’s going to die, there’s nothing fundamentally that any of us are going to lose sleep over or should be ashamed of,” said Erik Gutshall. “But while people don’t die, our planet is dying, its ability to sustain our life at least.”

“In future budgets, while we’re going to continue to make tough choices, we’re not going to let our commitment to the environment fall behind,” he added.

Despite the disagreements, the Board was unanimous in its vote on the budget, which Board members praised for prioritizing key areas while avoiding a tax rate increase. (The tax burden on the average homeowner will still increase by $296.)

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said in a statement. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

“I see this budget really as a transition from the way we’ve been doing things to the way we’ll need to do things going forward,” said Libby Garvey. “This community has pretty much gotten used to having as much money as we need to do what we want to do. This year it’s starting to change. It’s likely to be even harder in the future with the stresses we have moving forward. I think it’s a good transition to what we’ll be doing moving forward.”

“What I think we’ve done is really weatherize our fiscal house for the inclement weather ahead,” echoed John Vihstadt. “It’s only going to get tougher as we move forward, but we took some important steps here that, while not greeted uniformly favorably, were necessary to be done.”

Arlington Independent Media and public safety associations, meanwhile, expressed gratitude for the additional funding.

Arlington County’s press release about the budget, after the jump.

The Arlington County Board today adopted a $1.276 billion balanced General Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that includes no increase in the real estate tax rate.

The Board voted 5 to 0 to adopt the budget and 5 to 0 to set the real estate tax rate at $1.006 per $100 of assessed value (including the stormwater tax). The Board’s action culminated months of reviews with the County Manager, departments, commissions and stakeholders. The Board also considered more than 1,000 comments from residents and other stakeholders.

Calling the budget “sustainably progressive,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said that “with projected growth in community needs — schools, Metro, debt service — outpacing projected growth in assessed property values in coming years, the Board chose to slow the growth in expenditures and close a $20 million budget gap without raising the tax rate.

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget.

“Over the next several years, we will face continued gaps between revenues and expenditures requiring more tough choices,” Cristol said. “As we begin deliberations on the Capital Improvement Plan, and next fall, as we start the Fiscal Year 2020 budget process, we will continue to work closely with our community to establish clear priorities.”

The 3.9 percent increase in residential property assessments in 2018 means that although the real estate tax rate will not rise, the average homeowner will see an increase in taxes and fees from $8,446 to 8,742, a $296 or 3.5 percent increase.

To read the staff reports on the budget,  view the agenda for the April 21, 2018 Regular County Board Meeting. (Item No. 47 A-V).

Utility tax, parking meter rates, other fees increasing

  • Utility taxes: 5 percent increase in commercial rates. Up to a $3 per month increase per utility for residential rates. Revenues to go to affordable housing and Schools.
  • Parking meter rates, hours and fines: $0.25 /hr increase in rates. Hours extend from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fines increase to $40.
  • DPR, ACFD, DES, CPHD fees to increase at various rates, to begin to achieve full cost recovery.
  • Household Solid Waste fees increased $2/year (full cost recovery). The increase will bring the Household Solid Waste fee to $316.16 per year.

Funding public schools

“Arlington’s public schools are among the best in the nation, and the County Board is committed to the School Board’s efforts to maintain that status,” Cristol said. “That is why the Board cut $2.5 million from the budget for much-needed renovations to the Government Center to add to Schools funding. This difficult de-allocation recognizes the challenges facing APS as it expands existing schools and adds new ones to accommodate ever more students.”

The County’s funding for Schools in FY 2019 will increase by $10.6 million, to $500.8 million. The additional funding will help address budget pressures from continuing enrollment increases.

Funding Metro

The Board approved an increase of 3 percent for Metro, from local sources and the County’s share of state transit aid. The increase will bring the County’s total operating support for Metro to $73.1 million in FY 2019.

“It is a watershed action that the General Assembly provided a dedicated source of funding for Metro,” Cristol said. “But that funding is coming from existing revenues, not new revenues. The General Assembly’s package requires Arlington to shift $12 million  a year from our Capital Improvement Plan to fund Metro. The package also shifts $102 million a year from regional transportation funding to Metro funding. That means Arlington will be competing with other jurisdictions for a smaller pot of regional transportation funding.”

Funding affordable housing

The Board slightly increased funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, the County’s primary funding sources for the creation and preservation of affordable housing. It also increased the percentage of ongoing AHIF funding. Total County funding for AHIF in Fiscal Year 2019 will be $14 .3 million.

Investing in the workforce

The Board provided $1.595 million more in public safety compensation beyond what the Manager had proposed in February, citing the need to compete in an increasingly tight labor market to attract and retain police officers, firefighters and sheriff deputies.

The Board also approved a 3.25 percent increase in merit-based compensation for non-public safety employees.

Restoring proposed cuts

The Board restored funding in several areas that the Manager had proposed reducing. Among the restored cuts:

  • Funding for Arlington Independent Media – the Board restored $70,000 in one-time funding for Arlington Independent Media, the community non-profit broadcasting organization. “AIM is a valued community resource,” Cristol said. “It has trained thousands of Arlingtonians in video production and radio broadcasting, and is an independent voice on cultural, political and social issues in our community. “The Board wants to give AIM more time to work toward economic self-sufficiency.” Noting the decline in cable franchise revenues that for decades have funded Arlington’s Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Channel coupled with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the Board directed the Manager to examine the current structure of the PEG channels and radio station, compare how other nearby localities provide PEG services, and provide options for cuts in funding by December 2018.
  • Funding for Lee Highway long-range planning – The Board restored $365,500 in funding the Manager had proposed cutting for long-range planning along the Lee Highway corridor.
  • Neighborhood College – The Board restored $40,000 in one-time funding to pay for outside facilitators for the County’s popular Neighborhood College program, noting that the facilitators are the linchpin of a program successfully attracts economically, socially and ethnically diverse “students” and trains them to effectively advocate for their neighborhoods with County government.
  • Preserving the County’s free paper shredding service – the Board restored $20,000 in one-time funding for the County’s free paper-shredding service that the Manager had recommended eliminating.
  • Continuing funding for immigrants – the Board approved $40,000 in one-time funding for the Legal Justice Service, to provide legal services to immigrants.
  • Funding a body scanner for the County jail – the Board approved $200,000 to purchase a body scanner for the County jail.
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County Board Approves Additional Funds for N. Lynn Street Esplanade

The Arlington County Board approved $1.4 million in additional funding for the N. Lynn Street and Lee Highway esplanade and safety enhancement project.

The Virginia Department of Transportation came to county officials with a cost estimate significantly higher than the initial $7.95 million price tag, which was approved by the Board in December 2016.

The increase is due to lengthened construction time, increased materials and labor costs since the 2016 estimate and design changes relating to traffic plans, according to the county manager’s report. Initially, the call for construction bids in March 2017 only received one bidder, which was rejected “due to previous established restriction on the bidder by VDOT,” according to the manager’s recommendation.

The project will bring pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements, such as wider sidewalks and on-street bike lanes, as well as traffic management and street beautification to the N. Lynn Street and Custis Trail area. A public arts project, the long-delayed Corridor of Light project, will also be installed, but only at the four corners of the I-66 bridge.

Safety is a significant component of the project. The intersection of Lynn Street and Lee Highway, once dubbed the “Intersection of Doom,” has been the scene of numerous vehicle vs. pedestrian crashes over the past few years, though collisions are down since interim safety improvements have been installed

The Board unanimously approved the increase in budget at its Tuesday meeting. Project construction should wrap up by May 2020.

File photos

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JUST IN: Proposed County Budget Would Trim Programs, Keep Tax Rate Steady

Community paper shredding events. Arlington’s poet laureate. The Citizen newsletter.

Those are a few of the relatively small cuts that add up to enough savingsin County Manager Mark Schwartz’s new proposed budget to bridge Arlington’s $20 million budget gap.

The proposed $1.27 billion budget, which is being presented to the County Board today (Thursday), keeps the county’s property tax rate steady — at $0.993 per $100 in assessed value, per the County Board’s earlier guidance — while generating some new revenue through slightly higher utility taxes and additional paid parking hours, rates and fines, among other measures. It includes $775.9 million for the county’s operating budget and $498 million for schools.

Schwartz says his budget cuts 50 county programs and eliminates 48 jobs, including 29 currently filled positions. It includes $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in “funding realignments.”

The cuts are necessary, in part, due to budget pressures from Metro and the need to raise employee salaries, particularly in the police and fire departments, to remain competitive with nearby jurisdictions. Arlington’s fast-rising home values, which have helped the county keep up with rising expenses, were offset this year falling commercial property values caused by higher office vacancy rates.

Among the ways the proposed budget increases county revenues:

  • Commercial utility taxes increased by 5%
  • Residential utility tax increased to $3/month per utility (revenue earmarked for schools and the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, which is proposed at $13.7 million, matching last year’s AHIF proposal)
  • Parking rates increased by $0.25/hour
  • Parking meter hours extended to 8 p.m.
  • Parking fines increased from $35 to $40
  • Household Solid Waste fee up $2/year

Among the proposed cuts and “realignments:”

  • The Citizen printed newsletter, sent to all county residents ($82,000/year)
  • Lee Highway planning process scaled back ($500,000)
  • ART routes 54 and 92 eliminated ($350,000/year)
  • Snow blower loaner program eliminated ($30,000/year)
  • Free community paper shred events eliminated ($20,000/year)
  • Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program cut ($555,000)
  • Poet laureate eliminated along with other humanities programs ($77,000)
  • Long Bridge Park Fourth of July event entertainment eliminated ($50,000)
  • County window washing reduced from twice to once per year ($48,000)
  • In-house pharmacy and lab services cut from Dept. of Human Services ($625,000)
  • Reduction in DHS employment services staffing ($825,000)
  • Eliminate the Office of Community Health in the Dept. of Parks and Recreation ($483,000)
  • Eliminate a youth boxing program ($85,000)
  • Eliminate a parks volunteer office ($197,000)
  • Reduce money earmarked for Crystal City infrastructure, originally intended for the streetcar project, as generated via Tax Increment Financing (about $1 million)
  • Reduce the parks department vehicle fleet ($52,000)
  • Cut county funding for Arlington Independent Media by 20 percent ($91,000)
  • Eliminate the county cable administrator, who receives complaints about cable service from residents ($181,000)

The budget includes raises for many county employees, and even higher raises for most public safety personnel. Police officers, from the rank of sergeant on down, will see an additional 2.5 percent increase in pay, while firefighters will get an extra 4 percent bump over other county employees. Schwartz acknowledged that the departments have been having trouble filling open positions due to competition from other jurisdictions.

Schwartz said he and the county’s economic development office are determined to reduce Arlington’s office vacancy rate, which is back to nearly 20 percent after ticking down a bit from its previous high water mark. Schwartz expects office vacancies will put pressure on the budget for the next several years.

“It remains my primary focus to work on that vacancy rate, to get it down,” he said in a budget briefing with reporters. “We need to work through this problem. We have a lot of economic projects that are coming into the county, but this is the underlying problem that is going to challenge us in coming years.”

The Arlington County Board will advertise a property tax rate on Saturday, setting a ceiling on what the rate may go up to, and will hold various budget work sessions and hearings between now and final adoption on April 21.

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Long Bridge Park to Get New Synthetic Turf

After nearly seven years of heavy use, Long Bridge Park is getting new synthetic turf.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has recommended awarding a $425,329 synthetic turf contract to GTR Turf Inc., a Canadian commercial and residential synthetic turf and artificial grass installation company.

The contract will cover the synthetic turf replacement at Long Bridge Park’s field three. Construction is expected to begin March 2018, continuing through “the second quarter of this year,” according to a County Board agenda item, scheduled to be considered at the Board’s Saturday meeting.

Arlington intends to replace two to three turf fields per year across the county as part of its capital improvement program for 2017-2026. Long Bridge Park’s two other fields are slotted for replacement in 2019.

The synthetic turf fields were installed seven years ago, when the park opened in 2011, but are “now worn and beyond reasonable repair,” according to the recommendation to the County Board.

Seven companies were listed as contract bidders, six of which were American companies bidding between $437,645 and $663,650 for the project. There is a $42,532.90 contingency for change orders built into the proposed contract.

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County Opens Up 10-Year Capital Improvement Plan for Comment

Arlington residents can now take a five minute survey sharing their thoughts for the 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), a blueprint for how officials will shape Arlington County from 2019-2028.

The plan focuses on “building, maintaining, upgrading or replacing County facilities and infrastructure” over that 10 year period, according to the County’s website. Some of those facilities include libraries, parks, community centers, and transportation infrastructure.

The deadline for public input on the CIP is March 16. In May, County Manager Mark Schwartz will release a proposed plan for public review, in which the public will again have another opportunity for comment until July. The County Board will adopt the final improvement plan this July.

The CIP for 2017-2026 totaled $3.3 billion for capital projects and infrastructure investment for both the County and schools.

The survey asks about funding for a myriad of topics ranging from schools to transportation, including:

  • Maintenance of roads (ex. paving, potholes)
  • Bicycle and pedestrian safety and connectivity projects
  • Public art projects
  • New parks and/or playgrounds, maintenance of existing parks and playgrounds
  • New or expanded libraries, maintenance of existing libraries
  • Design and/or construction of public buildings (ex. recreation/community centers)
  • New or expanded public schools to address growing enrollment, maintenance of schools
  • Arlington Transit (ART) buses, bus stops or related facilities
  • Neighborhood Conservation projects
  • Metro

Photo via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Candidates Largely Favor Land Swap — During a debate, Democratic County Board candidates generally indicated they want the county to move forward with a land swap agreement with Virginia Hospital Center. VHC has offered the county various pieces of land in exchange for a 5-acre parcel of county-owned land on N. Edison Street, just north of the VHC property. [InsideNova]

Impact of Pike Streetcar Cancellation — There’s speculation that the county’s 2014 cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar plan may have contributed to stalling revitalization efforts in the Bailey’s Crossroads area of Fairfax County. [Washington Post]

New Assistant County Manager — Arlington County has named Samia Byrd as a new assistant county manager. Byrd has more than 20 years of planning experience and will serve as a senior adviser to County Manager Mark Schwartz. [Arlington County]

Historic District Proposal — Next month the County Board will consider a proposal to designate “The Hermitage,” a home at 4025 N. Randolph Street, as a local historic district. [InsideNova]

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Morning Notes

Spring in bloom along Four Mile Run on 2/23/17

Superintendent Presents Proposed Budget — Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy presented his proposed, $617 million budget to the School Board last night. The budget includes $9.2 million for student enrollment growth and $8.7 million for teacher and staff pay increases. [Arlington Public Schools]

Wakefield Girls Advance to Regional Finals — With a semifinal win in Leesburg, the Wakefield High School girls basketball team has advanced to a regional championship game for the first time in the program’s history. They will play defending champs Edison tomorrow (Saturday) at Edison. The boys team, meanwhile, lost in the regional semifinals; both teams will also advance to the state tournament. [InsideNova, Facebook]

More on the County Budget — County Manager Mark Schwartz presented his proposed FY 2018 budget to the County Board Thursday afternoon. His budget presentation suggested that Arlington will make service delivery and customer service a priority in the upcoming fiscal year. Among the initiatives that may be coming soon: building a one-stop county permitting system and providing “virtual access to public meetings.” [PDF]

‘Blarney Blowout’ Coming to Arlington — The Shamrock Crawl bar crawl may not be coming back to Clarendon this year, but its organizers are planning a new event dubbed the Blarney Blowout. Four Clarendon and Courthouse bars are participating in the event, on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, featuring a “free all-you-can-eat breakfast Buffet, St. Paddy’s Day shenanigans, entertainment, party favors and more.” The event is “not your traditionally tame “kegs and eggs,” its website says. [Blarney Blowout]

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County Manager Proposes Spending, Tax Rate Increases

County Manager Mark Schwartz at County Board budget work session in 2016

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) A new $1.2 billion budget proposed by Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz would boost core services — road paving, streetlight maintenance, public safety, schools and Metro — while raising property taxes to the highest rate since 2001.

The proposed FY 2018 budget is being presented to the County Board this afternoon (Thursday).

Spending under Schwartz’s proposal — drafted with guidance from the County Board — would increase 4.3 percent, while the tax rate would increase by two cents, from $0.991 to $1.011 for every $100 in assessed. That would be Arlington’s highest property tax rate since 2001, when it was $1.023.

The rate increase would come on top of rising property assessments — up 2.9 percent this year. The total tax and fee burden on the average Arlington homeowner would rise by $308 to $8,613 under Schwartz’s proposal, which will now be considered by the County Board after a series of work sessions and public hearings. That’s up from $7,745 three years ago, in 2014.

Final adoption of the new budget is scheduled for April 22, while the Arlington Public Schools budget — Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy is presenting his proposed budget tonight — is scheduled to be adopted on May 4.

Last year, Schwartz proposed a half-cent property tax rate decrease, which was then adopted by the Board. This year, Schwartz says more revenue is necessary to fund the “clearly extraordinary needs of Metro and APS.”

The two-cent rate increase itself is expected to bring in an additional $14.8 million in on-going revenue. Much of that is earmarked by Schwartz for an overall $21.2 million increase in funding for Arlington Public Schools, which is experiencing a prolonged period of enrollment growth, and additional funding for Metro, which is also set to receive $22 million in bond funds from Arlington for capital projects.

“It is never easy to recommend an increase in property tax rates, but Metro and our public schools are both vitally important to our County’s continued prosperity, and both are in urgent need of additional funding,” Schwartz said in a press release.

Other areas of spending increases, as outlined in the press release and in a press briefing Thursday morning, include streetlight maintenance, road paving, facilities maintenance, land acquisition, public safety and economic development.

Schwartz said streetlight maintenance and road maintenance, in particular, were identified as top priorities in resident satisfaction surveys.

The number of county-owned streetlights has increased 40 percent over the past five years, contributing to an average repair time of 30 days for minor outages and up to 120 days for major outages. Under the proposed budget, there would be an $910,000 increase in streetlight and trail light funding, adding five new full-time positions, two vehicles, a consultant, equipment and supplies, with the goal of reducing the length of minor repairs to 3 days and major repairs to 1-2 months.

“It’s a safety issue,” Schwartz said of dark streetlights. “People want their government to do the basics before other things.”

Road paving, meanwhile, would receive a $3.3 million boost in funding, with $15.2 million budgeted by Schwartz in FY 2018. Arlington has accelerated its paving program over the past few years, with the goal of raising the county’s Pavement Condition Index to the “high 70s” on a 1-100 scale, according an official at the briefing.

Schwartz’s budget includes $3.5 million for maintenance of synthetic turf fields and other county facilities, $2 million for land acquisition, $250,000 in grants to connect businesses to the county’s ConnectArlington fiber network, a new economic development employee focused on assisting child care businesses, and a 3.25 percent merit salary increase for county employees.

Also included are seven additional sheriff’s deputies, three additional 911 call-takers three additional police officers, all funded “through reallocation of existing resources,” plus two large fire department recruit classes to make up for projected retirements and other attrition.

“[The budget] continued the multi-year-focus on the three priorities I have laid out: economic development, service delivery and transparency, and strategic budget planning and fiscal sustainability, while addressing the core service demands of the County mainly through budget reallocations,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz proposes raising a number of county fees, to “bear a reasonable relationship to the service for which the fee is imposed,” including:

  • Raising the household solid waste rate by $6.88 to $314.16 annually
  • Raising the water/sewer rate by 35 cents to $13.62 per thousand gallons, an estimated annual increase of $24.50 per household
  • New “accessory homestay” (Airbnb, etc.) permit fee of $60
  • An unspecified increase in aquatics and gymnastics program fees “to meet the increased capacity in the programs.”

The public budget and tax/fee hearings are scheduled for March 28 and 30.

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County Needs More Land for Support Services, Says County Manager

As Arlington County continues to grow in population and in services provided by the county government, the need for more land to support those services is increasing, says County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz spoke about the land needs in a county-produced video, above, which was released late last week.

He pointed out that only 12 percent of county- and school-owned land is designated for support services — maintenance yards, storage facilities, etc.

“This is not enough space,” Schwartz said.

Putting the need in perspective, Schwartz pointed out that the county last year filled 12,000 potholes over its 975 lane miles of roadway, repaired 271 water main breaks over its 525 miles of water mains, and facilitated 3.1 million rides on its 65 (soon to be 90, by 2020) ART buses.

All of that work and maintenance requires support facilities, and the county’s current facilities are getting too crowded.

Schwartz said that supporting the “needs and wants of this community” is “a real challenge with limited space,” which will require “smart and tough decisions about addressing these needs.”

Arlington County is currently considering a $30 million land acquisition near Washington-Lee High School and subsequent, proposed land swap, which would provide additional property near Shirlington in exchange for a portion of the acquired land.

Together, the two actions would add a net 7.3 acres of industrial-zoned land to county ownership.

In the video, Schwartz said the land swap proposal is “attractive,” but noted that no decisions have been made yet.

“We wanted to be transparent and release the proposal as soon as possible,” he said. At its Dec. 13 meeting, the County Board is expected to direct Schwartz to move forward with negotiations on the proposal.

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Bluemont Baseball Field Compromise Approved, County Promises Better Outreach

Revised Bluemont Park baseball field planThe Arlington County Board on Wednesday approved a compromise plan for a baseball field renovation at Bluemont Park.

The $720,000 plan to renovate Athletic Field No. 3 at the park, which would have converted a run-down baseball diamond to a fenced-in field with new dugouts, bleachers and other furnishings, was met with opposition from some local residents.

To balance the desires of the opponents, who mostly objected to the fence, and the supporters, who say that the county needs more fields for youth sports, the new plan removed about 20 percent of the fencing from around the field.

“When games aren’t in play, you’ll be able to walk through the area,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz. “There’s still space for Frisbee, picnicking and walking your dog. But when a game is in play, you’ll get a good baseball experience.. and a safe one.”

Schwartz also noted in a press release that the controversy — opponents insisted that they were blindsided by the plan even though a public meeting about it had been held and it was approved by the County Board months before opponents organized — pointed to a need to reconsider Arlington’s public outreach on such projects.

Schwartz acknowledged that the County’s engagement process in planning for the renovations, which included a community meeting and digital communications, was not successful. The concerns of those opposed to the fence became known to staff and elected officials only after the County Board approved the construction contract in July 2016.

“We are working to improve the County’s processes for engaging the community across County government,” Schwartz said. “I’ve asked our new Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement, Bryna Helfer, to report back to me in early 2017 with recommendations.”

Construction of the new field is currently underway.

The full press release about the County Board’s action, after the jump.

In response to community concerns about planned renovations to a Bluemont Park ballfield, the County will reduce the amount of proposed fencing while still bringing the ballfield up to current standards, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz said today.

“Everyone gave a little on this project, and I think we have reached a good compromise,” Schwartz said in a report to the County Board. “We’ve managed to balance the need for open space with the need for recreational facilities in this park.”

As part of its regular park maintenance cycle, Arlington’s plan is to bring the baseball diamond on Field No. 3 up to current accessibility standards, add a filter strip planted with 90 trees to reduce the stormwater runoff, and create a Safe Routes to School trail connector. The field is used mostly for youth baseball. Typically, the County fences diamond fields to improve safety and play.

The County’s original plan met with opposition from some in the community who advocated for preserving open and multi-use spaces and who objected to fencing the diamond field. The fencing, opponents protested, would cut off access to this open expanse in the park. However, players and coaches wanted the fence to enhance the feel of the game as well as improve safety. The County also needs at least a partial barrier to protect the filter strip from active play, as required by stormwater regulations.

Project compromise

The revised project will cut the amount of proposed fencing by about 20 percent, from 830 to 668 linear feet, so that people can easily walk across the field when games aren’t in play. The County also will drop the outfield fence height from 8 to 4 feet with a safety pad/cap.

“When games aren’t in play, you’ll be able to walk through the area,” Schwartz said. “There’s still space for Frisbee, picnicking and walking your dog. But when a game is in play, you’ll get a good baseball experience … and a safe one.”

Improving community engagement

Schwartz acknowledged that the County’s engagement process in planning for the renovations, which included a community meeting and digital communications, was not successful. The concerns of those opposed to the fence became known to staff and elected officials only after the County Board approved the construction contract in July 2016.

“We are working to improve the County’s processes for engaging the community across County government,” Schwartz said. “I’ve asked our new Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement, Bryna Helfer, to report back to me in early 2017 with recommendations.”

Background

The County announced the Bluemont Park — Field Renovations & Trail Connection project on its website in February 2016 and invited the community to a planning meeting March 2. After the contract was awarded, some community members expressed concerns about how the decision was made to fence the diamond field. The Department of Parks & Recreation responded by holding a public meeting Oct. 5. Preliminary work on the project began Sept. 26, but did not prohibit modifications to the proposed fence.

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Morning Notes

Food trucks near Ballston Mall

County Manager on Buck Property — County staff have “made no recommendations for any specific function” at the to-be-acquired Buck property near Washington-Lee High School, the county said in a press release this morning. Nearby residents have launched a petition against a proposal to use the property for school bus operations. Said Arlington County Manager Mark Schwarz: “Our ability to provide essential services is only as good as the facilities we have to support them. As our population continues to grow, our services will either deteriorate or cost the taxpayer more without adequate support facilities.” [Arlington County]

Fundraiser for Employee Struck By SUV — A fundraiser for a Mad Rose Tavern employee run over by an SUV raised more than $5,000 last night, the restaurant’s manager said on Facebook. Victoria Gonzalez, 34, is still in the hospital, preparing to begin rehabilitation. The next court appearance for the DUI suspect in the case is scheduled for Nov. 17. [WJLA]

Bowl’d to Introduce Breakfast — Healthy fast casual eatery Bowl’d (1028 N. Garfield Street) in Clarendon is introducing weekend breakfast service from 9 a.m. to noon, starting this Saturday. Bowl’d founder Allen Reed says the restaurant will be “giving away breakfast tacos, greek yogurt bowls and hot breakfast bowls to the first 150 people who come through our doors this weekend.”

Talento to Bring New Perspective to School Board — Democrat Tannia Talento, who’s running unopposed for Arlington School Board, says she wants to bring “the perspective of the working parent” to the Board. Another unique perspective: Talento said economic and family issues prevented her from getting a college degree. Talento says her priorities on the Board will be dealing with the growing student population, improving access to mental health services and narrowing the achievement gap. [InsideNova]

Arlington Lauded for LGBTQ Protections — “Arlington has been named one of 37 American ‘All-Star Cities‘ acclaimed for their high standard of inclusiveness toward their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer communities.” [Arlington County]

Innovative Companies in Crystal City — Business publication Bisnow says the following are “five disruptive companies establishing Crystal City as [a] nexus of innovation:” Lyft, TMSOFT, OrcaVue, Polynox Solutions and FourStay. [Bisnow]

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Morning Notes

Traffic on I-395 near Shirlington

Northern Virginia Transit Ridership Down — Amid Metro’s woes, transit ridership across Northern Virginia has dropped significantly. Metrorail ridership was down 6.7 percent for the one year period ending June 30, while Metrobus ridership is down 4.6 percent. Arlington Transit bus ridership, however, was up 13.8 percent. [InsideNova]

Arlington Family Gets Lost Cat Back — A new Arlington family whose cat jumped out of their moving van and ran away at a Michigan Welcome Center has been reunited with their wayward feline. The welcome center’s employees managed to safely trap the cat five days after it escaped. [NBC Washington]

Free Chips and Queso Today — California Tortilla restaurants are offering free chips and queso today, to commemorate the impending end of summer. Customers must say the password “easy cheesy” and make another purchase to get the free stuff. [Facebook]

CIA’s Local VC Firm Profiled — Courthouse-based In-Q-Tel, which functions as the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm, “operates in the shadows.” The firm is run as a taxpayer-funded nonprofit, investing in companies whose technology could benefit the CIA or the military. [Wall Street Journal]

Carlee Takes University Job — Former Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee, who most recently served as Charlotte, N.C.’s city manager, has taken an assistant professor position at Old Dominion University’s Strome College of Business in Norfolk. [Charlotte Observer]

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Group to Consider Changes to County’s Tax Relief Program for Seniors

For sale signIn 2015, 940 Arlington households took advantage of a tax relief program for seniors, thus avoiding $4.2 million in real estate taxes.

A new working group appointed by the County Manager will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of that program.

The program is currently offered to homeowners age 65 or older, with an annual income of up to $99,472 and household assets (excluding the home itself) up to $340,000. Depending on the income level and assets, the homeowners may qualify for a full or partial exemption. A deferral of taxes until the home changes ownership is available for any portion that’s not exempt.

The County Board included funds in the latest county budget for a review of the program.

“In conducting research for the [Affordable Housing Master Plan], the County found that many low-income senior households on fixed incomes face financial stress related to increasing condominium fee and real estate tax burdens,” said the new Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group charge. “The AHMP’s accompanying Implementation Framework included a recommendation to review the goals and guidelines of the RETR Program, and to consider redefinition of income levels, asset levels, and criteria for exemptions and deferrals.”

In the recent Arlington County Board primary, Board Chair Libby Garvey was criticized by Democratic challenger Erik Gutshall for supposedly “threatening the ability of our most vulnerable seniors to live in Arlington.”

Garvey explained that she wants to lower the eligibility barriers for the tax deferral program. She hinted, however, that the full tax exemption might be under additional scrutiny, as it can “provide quite a windfall” to a homeowner’s heirs once the home is sold.

The working group is tasked with presenting its final recommendations this winter, ahead of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget process.

The full county press release, after the jump.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz reported today to the County Board on the official charge for a Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group that will perform a comprehensive review of the County’s program.

“We all acknowledge that Arlington’s rising property values and related increase in the property tax burden is sometimes difficult for seniors on a fixed-income to deal with,” Schwartz said. “This working group will be taking a hard look at our current program and present recommendations early next year on what, if any, changes should be made to better achieve our goal of supporting residents, where we can, who wish to age in place.”

The working group, which will be appointed by the County Manager this month and report to him on its findings, is charged with:

  • Researching and reviewing best practices across the nation related to real estate tax relief.
    Engaging and informing the community and relevant stakeholders of the group’s ongoing efforts and discussions.
  • Determining if there may be Arlingtonians who qualify for real estate tax relief but are not currently participating in the program, and providing recommendations for what could be done differently to effectively reach these residents.
  • Collaborating with a consultant to conduct surveys and/or focus groups to gauge the program’s historical success in reaching eligible Arlingtonians and enabling these residents to stay in their homes, and to ascertain what changes (if any) would allow the program to better address elderly and disabled Arlingtonians’ needs.
  • Using identified best practices and survey/focus group results to inform an analysis of the current program’s approach to enabling elderly and disabled Arlingtonians to stay in their homes.
  • Providing recommendations on how to best structure and administer the program in Arlington moving forward.

Read the charge to the working group, which includes timeline and proposed members.

In Fiscal Year 2015, 911 households received a full or partial exemption and 29 households received only deferrals, resulting in a combined $4.2 million in uncollected revenue.

The County reviews criteria for the Tax Relief Program annually as part of the County budget process. The working group will conduct a broader review involving the community. One of the key recommendations of the Affordable Housing Master Plan adopted by the County Board in September 2015 was to review the goals and guidelines of the program, and to consider redefinition of income levels, asset levels and criteria for exemptions and deferrals.

Virginia localities are authorized to provide real estate tax relief to homeowners aged 65 or over, as well as to permanently disabled homeowners.

  • The current Arlington County Tax Relief Program provides an exemption or deferral from real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners whose annual household income is below $99,472, and whose household assets (excluding the value of their Arlington home) are below $340,000.
  • A household may receive a full, 50 percent or 25 percent exemption depending on income, assets and household size. For households receiving a partial exemption, the non-exempt portion of the tax may be deferred.
  • Homeowners within the income guidelines who have assets over $340,000 but below $540,000 may defer payment of their real estate taxes until their property changes ownership.
  • No interest or penalty fees are charged.

The County Manager will appoint a limited-term advisory body, the Real Estate Tax Relief Working Group, which will consist of a chair and vice-chair, along with members representing the following:

  • Commission on Aging
  • Disability Advisory Commission
  • Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission
  • Housing Commission
  • Member(s)-at-large
  • Real Estate Tax Relief Program participant(s)

The working group will produce a final report on its key findings in early 2017. The report could include recommendations for eligibility, structural, administrative and other changes to the existing program.

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