(Updated at 2:00 p.m.) More money for cops and firefighters, for economic development and for county employees — that’s the message from Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz, who presented his proposed budget to the County Board this morning.
The $1.19 billion budget benefits from a 3 percent increase in overall projected revenues, allowing Schwartz to boost funding to a number of priorities and propose a slight tax rate decrease.
The budget adds $1.6 million for the addition of 19 public safety employees. Among them: eight firefighters/EMTs, six police patrol officers, and four uniformed Sheriff’s positions.
The new firefighters will covert existing three-person fire units to the nationally-recommended staffing level of four per unit. The extra police officers will help reduce overtime and officer fatigue. The extra Sheriff’s positions will address staffing levels at the county jail.
Schwartz allocates $1.5 million in additional one-time funding for Arlington Economic Development’s efforts to bring down the county’s office vacancy rate. Another $400,000 will be used on infrastructure maintenance like streetlight repair and residential concrete maintenance.
One of the biggest proposals in terms of cost is $6.3 million to increase merit-based pay for county employees, boost the minimum wage for permanent employees to $14.50 per hour, boost the county’s Live-Where-You-Work program and replace grade and step plans with an “open range” salary plan.
Arlington Public Schools, which is dealing with a quickly-growing student population, will see an extra $13.2 million — for a total of $464.9 million — in Schwartz’s budget.
The budget includes separate proposals for an extra $6.2 million in projected revenue than originally expected. Among them is a proposal to decrease the county property tax rate by half a cent, to $0.991 per $100 in assessed value, saving taxpayers about $3.5 million — though many will face higher overall taxes thanks to rising assessments and a rising solid waste rate. Other proposals include adding an extra medic unit for the fire department, to address peak demand, and $100,000 to expand the online streaming of public meetings.
While Schwartz did not highlight any specific cuts in the budget, he did propose a “systematic evaluation of programs and services, with the goal of reducing or eliminating programs and staffing, and proposals to eliminate duplication and inefficiencies.”
Schwartz also expects to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings via a new early retirement package for county employees. In addition to saving money, the retirement incentives will serve to “renew the county workforce.”
(About 20 percent of county employees are currently of the Millennial generation, but the county workforce is expected to be majority Millennial by 2020, officials say.)
Despite a so-so macroeconomic environment, Arlington County isn’t being forced to make tough budgetary decisions this year, unlike our neighbors in Fairfax County. Schwartz credited Arlington’s business community — which makes up about half of the tax base — for helping to smooth out economic bumps.
“We’re benefitting from our 50-50 split between commercial and residential,” he said.
Schwartz will formally present his budget at the County Board’s upcoming February meeting. The Board will adopt a final Fiscal Year 2017 budget on April 17.
County Board Chair Libby Garvey said there’s still work to be done on the budget, but overall she’s pleased with the county’s direction under Schwartz, who last month was selected to be the county’s permanent County Manager.
“We’re in a good place,” Garvey said this morning. “We’re changing how we do things a bit. It’s exciting.”
Expect Early Spring, Says Groundhogs — Updated at 9:40 a.m. — Punxsutawney Phil and Potomac Phil both did not see their shadow this morning and thus have predicted an early spring. Unfortunately, the former Phil is wrong more often than he is right. [CNN, Borderstan]
New County Manager Inks Contract — The Arlington County Board last week ratified a contract with Mark Schwartz, the county’s newly-appointed county manager. (Schwartz served as interim county manager for six months before his appointment.) Under the contract, Schwartz will earn $245,000 in his first year, which is less than the $270,000 annual salary of his predecessor and former boss, Barbara Donnellan. [InsideNova]
WeWork Now Open in Crystal City — The WeWork co-working space in Crystal City officially opened yesterday. The office space is decorated with plush couches, hardwood floors and oversized light fixtures, among other design elements. [Twitter]
Online Plan Review System Up and Running — Arlington County launched its Electronic Plan Review system yesterday, allowing plans for building permits and land use to be submitted, reviewed and approved online. The system is expected to save time and money compared to the previous, in-person submissions, though those submitting plans still have to go to the county offices to pay the permit fees in person. [Arlington County]
Praise for Texas Jack’s — A food critic finds a lot to like at Texas Jack’s, the new barbecue restaurant in the former EatBar space in Lyon Park. Writes Tim Carman: “[Chef Matt Lang’s] moist brisket is A-lister stuff, thick, succulent slices with a pink smoke ring lingering just below a dark outer bark of salt, pepper, smoke and fat, all fused together in a Southern Pride smoker set low and slow.” [Washington Post]
Photo via Twitter/Scott Kelly
Schwartz was elevated to the temporary post after the retirement of former County Manager Barbara Donnellan. An Arlington resident since 1985, Schwartz previously was Arlington’s Director of Management and Finance and Chief Financial Officer before serving as Deputy County Manager under Donnellan.
The County Manager serves as the top executive in Arlington County government, managing the day-to-day operations of county government and its $943 million budget. The manager is appointed by the County Board.
The Board is slated to formally vote to approve Schwartz’s contract at its meeting on Saturday, Jan. 23.
County Board Chair Libby Garvey announced the selection of Schwartz in a memo to county employees shortly after 12:30 p.m. today.
County Employees –
I am pleased to announce that the Arlington County Board has selected Mark Schwartz as County Manager.
Mark is our unanimous choice, and we are very pleased to have him at the helm. He offers deep experience and knowledge of Arlington, but has demonstrated in the past six months an ability to look at things differently and a willingness to make changes. With Mark, we will have a tried-and-true Manager and a consummate professional able to work with this new Board to shape Arlington’s future.
We will be announcing this news to the public very shortly with a press release.
Our organization is filled with talent. Each and every one of you is critical to our success. As you know, Mark has been, and will be, a thoughtful and creative leader. Together, we will do great things and I’m excited!
Chair, Arlington County Board
The press release, after the jump.
(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) A new six-story residential building may be coming to Ballston.
The County Board is scheduled to vote Saturday on a proposal by developer Penrose Group to turn a parking lot, used car lot and Exxon gas station into a six-story mixed-use building. County staff is recommending that the Board approve the request.
If approved the new building, located at 670 N. Glebe Road — across from Ballston Common Mall and a few blocks from the Ballston Metro station — will have 173 apartments, 177 parking spaces in an underground garage and two separate retail spaces on the ground floor. The first retail area with 1,799 square feet will be located at the corner of N. Glebe Road and 7th Street N. The second area, which is 2,527 square feet, will be at the corner of N. Carlin Springs Road and N. Glebe Road.
The new mixed-use development — originally dubbed 672 Flats — will also have bike storage, two lobbies, a leasing office, mail room, gym and amenity room on its ground floor. There will be 175 parking spots for residents and two for retail uses. Typically, the county calls for at least eight retail parking spots for mixed-use buildings.
“Staff supports the applicant’s request for modification because of the small amount of retail space and the likelihood of its serving users in the immediate vicinity of the site, and the availability of parking in the Ballston area. The applicant’s proposal implements the ‘High-Medium Residential Mixed-Use’ General Land Use Plan (GLUP) designation in that it provides a transition from the high-density commercial core of Ballston to medium-density residential uses to the west,” county staff said.
Of the 173 apartments, at least seven of them will be committed affordable units (CAFs), according to Penrose Group’s proposal. The building falls under the Bluemont Civic Association.
“The applicant is proposing bonus density in exchange for achieving LEED Silver certification consistent with the County’s Green Building Density Incentive program, and is proposing an affordable housing plan including a cash contribution and seven (7) on-site committed affordable units (CAFs) consistent with Arlington County Zoning Ordinance (ACZO) requirements,” county staff said.
According to county staff, Penrose Group’s proposal for the mixed-use building fits in with the 1980 Ballston Sector Plan and the 1981 West Ballston Land Use Study.
“The proposed site plan implements a successful transition through use of architecture to the existing townhouses abutting the site to the west, including façade design, plantings, and a special paving treatment in the alley,” county staff said.
County decisions on large projects like the Columbia Pike Streetcar, aquatics center and Artisphere have reflected a certain level of distrust in government, said former County Manager Barbara Donnellan.
“I think people’s trust of government at all levels has changed,” Donnellan said, in a video interview produced by the county.
Donnellan, who served more than 30 years in the Arlington County government, including five as county manager, said she watched the county move from being more short-term focused in approaching renovations and other projects to taking on larger projects and making longer-term capital improvement plans, a shift she credits to County Board Chair Mary Hynes, who’s retiring after this year.
The Kettler Capitals Iceplex above the Ballston mall garage, which Donnellan advocated for, was one of the first large projects in a long time, she said. Since then, the county has pushed large projects like the Artisphere, the Columbia Pike streetcar and the Long Bridge Park aquatics center — but struggled in its execution and in selling the big projects to an increasingly skeptical community.
“I think the ability to spend money on high profile projects became an issue,” Donnellan said.
The streetcar debate was the first time the county had seen a large community effort against a county project, she said, adding that she had to hire a communications team to fight against misinformation being spread by streetcar opponents.
“So by giving that project up, we lost a lot of money that was going to support that project, but I believe the politicians at the time felt that it would calm the community down and build trust back by saying we’re smart enough to change course when needed,” Donnellan said.
Artisphere, which closed down over the summer, was another area where the community and government didn’t see eye to eye, she said.
“In all fairness, the Artisphere had done some great things. It really did have acclaim it was getting in the region,” Donnellan said. “But it had lost the trust and support of our elected officials and some in the community to the point where as the manager I had to make a lot of decisions.”
Donnellan said she had floated Artisphere for a couple of years but eventually had to pull the plug, a decision that upset some in the community.
“I look at it as great communities try things,” she said. “And if they don’t work, great communities pull way from things or they rethink them.”
The aquatics center in Long Bridge Park is one of the projects that the community might need to rethink, she said. Currently, the county is looking a partnership with the City of Alexandria in order to secure the funding needed to build the “state-of-the-art” facility.
“And just to clear that up, the only reason the aquatics center was not built is because the bids came in way too high,” Donnellan said.
She attributes the high bids to the inclusion of a specialized heating and air conditioning system not generally used at pools. The system is more efficient, she said, but added that ambiguity in its specifications may have made contractors increase their bids.
“So that could be tightened up and that could be something that happens in the future, as well,” she said.
Residents against the relocation of Fire Station 8 have won a small victory.
The County Board on Thursday accepted the county manager’s recommendation to create a community task force to examine possible locations for the new Fire Station 8, which includes the site it currently sits on.
“This issue has been contentious, because the parameters for the discussion to date have not accommodated the desires of the community,” said Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz in his recommendation. “The choice will be a difficult one for the Board to make, because it may mean spending more on the fire station than was anticipated at the expense of other important projects.”
The County Board originally tasked county staff with finding a site for a new Fire Station 8 that would meet size, budgetary and response time restrictions. By relocating the fire station, the county hopes to reduce response times in North Arlington to four to six minutes.
Neighbors have repeatedly argued against capping the budget for the fire station at $12 million, as it limits the possible locations to one — the salt dome at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive. Many of the residents attending community meetings on the fire station’s relocation have asked for it to stay on its current site — which county staff say would require pricy upgrades.
The County Board will hold a work session to discuss all the current data on the possible fire station locations and create a focused charge for a task force, including what should and should not be discussed.
Schwartz has recommend that a broad group of community members be appointed, including members of civic associations and other groups that represent the entire community.
In his recommendation to the Board, Schwartz asked that the task force report back in March, allowing additional funding to be included in the Capital Improvement Plan proposal.
Neighbors had repeatedly asked for a task force on Fire Station 8’s location, but their request was met with opposition from Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten, who said she could not see the purpose of a task force, she said at a Sept. 17 meeting.
“If I’m going to be honest, I don’t see what the task force would do, but I am open if someone can articulate with some specificity what a task force would do,” Mitten said earlier this month.
Many members of the community have also sent in letters to Schwartz and the County Board requesting a task force, including the presidents of the Langston and Old Dominion Civic Associations, Schwartz said.
“We must strike out on a new process that rebuilds the community’s trust while respecting the need to provide fire/EMS service at the most equitable levels possible throughout the County and recognizing the very real limitations on the supply of County land for support uses and the limitations and pressures on the county budget,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz was appointed by another Schwartz — Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz. The appointment is effective Sept. 8.
As Deputy County Manager, Schwartz will oversee the county’s public safety and emergency management agencies. ACFD Assistant Chief Joseph Reshetar will take over as the department’s acting chief after Schwartz departs.
The full Arlington County press release, after the jump.
Recycling is being made easier in county offices and facilities.
The county is starting a new program that no longer requires residents and county staff to separate different recyclable items.
Instead, the county is introducing new recycling containers for all recyclable materials, including paper, glass and plastic. The new blue bins will be placed in all county facilities and offices over the next couple of weeks.
Here is what Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz said about the new recycling changes, in a memo to employees:
Good News. We are implementing a new recycling program in all County offices and facilities. Now all your recyclable items — plastic, metal, empty food and beverage containers, paper, cardboard and glass — can be placed in one recycling container, eliminating the need to separate materials for collection.
This is good news for you and for sustaining the environment. As you may know, one of the core values listed in our vision statement is sustainability. At the end of last year, the County Board was presented with the Environmentally Preferable Practices and Purchasing Work Plan to encourage sustainable practices County-wide. This plan was put together by a team of staff from various departments and is a great example of the kind of ideas that help us do a better job.
You may have noticed blue desk-side recycling bins at various County-owned or occupied buildings. If you haven’t received a blue bin yet, you will in the coming weeks. There will also be new co-located trash and mixed recycling containers used as sorting stations in shared areas, such as hallways and break rooms.
Be on the lookout for these new containers and instructions on how to properly use them in your building. I challenge you to actively participate in the County’s recycling effort and increase the facilities’ recycling rate by the end of the year. With everyone’s participation, I am confident that County staff can continue to lead by example in the area of sustainability. For help with your conservation efforts, please contact the Solid Waste Bureau.
Thank you for your support,
P.S. Some facts on the recycling:
- The County has a recycling rate goal of 47 percent; currently County facilities only recycle around 23 percent;
- Recyclables cost less to process than trash; therefore, increasing recycling and reducing waste helps lower the County’s operating costs;
- Nearly 70 percent of the materials disposed as trash in an office can actually be recycled; and
- Recycling helps preserve natural resources and reduces greenhouse gases.
Gun Store Owner Blames Bloomberg — James Gates, the Marine Corps veteran who tried to open a gun store in Cherrydale, said that the cancellation of its lease after a neighborhood outcry was the fault of the former mayor of New York City. “When news of our planned location in Arlington became public, there were some local critics; however they enjoyed outsized influence when anti-civil rights campaigns backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg picked up their cause,” Gates said in a statement. [Washington Times]
Bee Swarm at Arlington Home — Hundreds, maybe thousands of honey bees have taken up residence in the chimney of an Arlington home. The homeowner called ABC 7 On Your Side after beekeepers wouldn’t help her out, because the chimney was too high, and after learning that it’s against the law to kill the bees with pesticides. “It seems as a homeowner the bees have more of a right to live in my home than I do,” said Alex Casiano. “While I understand honey bees are important to our environment, honey bees don’t pay my rent.” [WJLA]
Salary Boost for Acting County Manager — Three weeks into the job, Acting County County Manager Mark Schwartz is getting a modest raise. The County Board agreed to boost his $204,000 salary as a Deputy County Manager by 10 percent during his time as Acting County Manager. His predecessor, Barbara Donnellan, earned $269,742 per year. [Arlington County]
Alexandria Wants Citywide Residential Fiber — Alexandria is seeking a partner to build a citywide fiber optic network to serve homes and businesses. Alexandria’s request for fiber after Verizon abandoned plans to build out FiOS service in the city. Arlington County has built its own municipal fiber network, but it so far is only available to county government, schools and businesses. [Ars Technica]
Falls Church Paper Throws Shade at Arlington — McLean residents are stymying the City of Falls Church’s plan to renovate a city elementary that’s located in Fairfax County. That, however, is being used by a newspaper to make some serious insinuations about Arlington. “The main way the City of Falls Church pisses off its much bigger neighbors is by being successful,” writes the Falls Church News-Press in an editorial. “It really frustrates those who imagine that there could be a lot of money to be made by someone, not in Falls Church, if the City threw its hands in the air and abandoned its independence, becoming a drop-in-the-bucket neighborhood of either Fairfax or Arlington instead. People with big money who’ve spent a lot of it on cultivating political appointees or elected officials to do their bidding in the neighboring jurisdictions are angered by the fact they don’t own Falls Church officials in the same way.” [Falls Church News-Press]
Flickr pool photo by Airamangel
The County Board is about to begin the process of hiring a new independent county auditor.
The Board is expected to charge Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz with the creation of an independent county auditor position during its recessed meeting next Tuesday.
Once the Board approves guidance to the manager, Schwartz and officials from the Department of Management and Finance will begin recruiting and screening candidates, with the final hiring t0 be done by the County Board.
The auditor will report to the Board rather than the manager, who is county government’s top executive and oversees the county workforce.
“The County Auditor will serve at the pleasure of the County Board, annual performance reviews will be conducted by the full County Board with written input from the County Manager,” according to the County Board’s charge.
The new auditor will work a new Board-appointed audit committee to review the county’s programs for efficiency and effectiveness, as well as any policy concerns, according to the County Board’s charge. The committee will consist of two members from the County Board, the county manager or deputy county manager, the director of the Department of Management and Finance and up to three members from the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission or members of the public.
The new audit committee and auditor will be separate from the existing internal audit function inside of the Department of Management and Finance, which reports to the county manager.
“The County Board intends that the County Auditor and the Internal Audit group will collaborate and cooperate in furthering their respective missions, including meeting and exchanging information and materials as appropriate,” the charge says.
The County has designated $200,000 for the creation of the new position in its 2016 budget. After that, it’s hoped that it will begin paying for itself by finding cost savings and efficiencies in county government.
The Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill allowing for the creation of a county auditor position in Arlington last February. County Board member John Vihstadt has pushed for an independent auditor while on the Board and the campaign trail.
County Seeks Input for County Manager Search — Arlington County is seeking public input as it begins its search for a new county manager. “In the coming months, [executive recruiters] will be evaluating candidates for the position,” the county said in a press release. “They are seeking your input, suggestions, and comments on what will be important in the selection of a County Manager.” The county is conducting an online survey and holding a public meeting on July 20 to gather public input. [Arlington County]
Tejada Attends Trump Protest — Retiring Arlington County Board member Walter Tejada is getting a bit of national media attention after joining other local officials in a demonstration in front of Donald Trump’s under-construction hotel in D.C. The “Dump Trump” protest was held in response to the Republican presidential candidate’s inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants. [CBS News, MyFoxDC]
Bernie Sanders Speaks in Ballston — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders drew a “boisterous crowd” of nearly 500 supporters at a policy forum in Ballston last night. Sanders railed against the political influence of the “billionaire class” while calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage, expanded Social Security, guaranteed health care coverage and free public college tuition. [Washington Post]
Arlington College Student Gets Reality TV Show — Monica Ten-Kate, a 21-year-old Fairlington resident who is currently attending Penn State, has scored her own reality TV series — “Monica the Medium” — on ABC Family. Ten-Kate claims she can talk to the dead, and the “docuseries” will follow her as she balances classes and homework with her part-time profession of charging people money for “readings.” The show will premiere on Aug. 25. [Patch, ABC Family]
Signature to Launch Revamped Singing Competition — Signature Theatre in Shirlington will launch “Signature Voice,” a new singing competition, at its annual open house on Aug. 2. “The new ‘Signature Voice’ competition will replace the popular Signature Idol Competition held over the last five years,” according to a news report. “Held in Signature’s MAX Theatre, the competition will host a panel of three celebrity judges in search of the best undiscovered singers in the DC region.” [Broadway World]
Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman
Holiday Closures in Arlington — Arlington County government offices and courts will be closed Friday in observance of the Independence Day holiday. [Arlington County]
Police Seek Witnesses to Fatal Crash — Arlington County Police have officially identified the victim of a fatal pedestrian crash on Route 50 early Saturday morning. Christopher Barton, 36, was killed after being struck by “at least two vehicles.” Investigators say they are seeking witnesses to the accident. [Arlington County]
Mark Schwartz Takes the Reins — Following the retirement of Barbara Donnellan, Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz is now serving as acting county manager. In a memo to county employees, Schwartz said: “We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to bring down our historically high office vacancy rate, and to fill the empty offices of Crystal City and Rosslyn with new, vibrant businesses. Our commercial base is crucial to Arlington’s tax base, to its ability to provide high-quality services, programs and schools to our residents, and to our success.” [Arlington County]
‘Inside Edition’ Filming in Crystal City — The television show Inside Edition is scheduled to film a segment in Crystal City today. The program will be profiling Kristin Beck, a transgender former Navy SEAL who’s challenging Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in next year’s primary election. The interview is being held at the Crystal City-based 296 Project, an art-based veteran service organization.
Fourth of July, USWNT Watch Parties — Mad Rose Tavern, among other local bars and restaurants, will be hosting viewings of the Fourth of July fireworks and the U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup championship match this weekend. On Saturday those who would rather watch the fireworks on TV can do so at Mad Rose, followed by a DJ set. On Sunday the bar will be holding a viewing party for the U.S. vs. Japan World Cup final.
Flickr pool photo by David Bender
‘Hula Girl’ to Open Shirlington Restaurant — The founder of the Hula Girl food truck, which specializes in Hawaiian style food, will be opening a new brick-and-mortar restaurant in the former Aladdin’s Eatery space in Shirlington. Mikala Brennan says Shirlington is “a very friendly place for families and dogs and everyone, and I always thought it’d be a great fit for what I do.” [Eater]
Bike to Work Day is Today — Hundreds of people stopped by the half-dozen Arlington pit stops for Bike to Work Day this morning. Among them were Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and a guy on an old-timey penny farthing.
Candidates Want Manager to Live in Arlington — The candidates for Arlington County Board said they would like Arlington’s next county manager to live in Arlington. Retiring county manager Barbara Donnellan lives in Clifton, Va. [InsideNova]
Water Main Repairs Continue — Emergency water main repairs that started last night are continuing on Washington Blvd at N. Kensington Street. Drivers should expect traffic impacts, particularly during the morning rush hour. [Twitter]
Beyer Blasts Proposed Metro Cut — A U.S. House committee has released a plan to cut federal funding of Metro for maintenance and safety upgrades in half next year. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) blasted the plan, calling it “shortsighted” and saying it will “jeopardize rider safety [and] derail improvements to the system.” [NBC Washington]
Cherrydale Tea Shop Owner Profiled — Lyndsey DePalma, owner of House of Steep, is doing what she loves in running the Cherrydale tea shop. Despite the store exceeding financial expectations, however, DePalma is still “earning far less” than she did in her previous job as a human resources manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers. [Career 2.0]
County Manager Won’t Be Hired Until 2016 — The permanent successor for retiring Arlington County Board member Barbara Donnellan won’t be selected until 2016. The decision was made so that the two new, yet-to-be-elected County Board members replacing Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes have a chance to weigh in. In the meantime, Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as acting County Manager after Donnellan retires on June 30. [InsideNova]
Rothstein to Bisnow — ARLnow reporter Ethan Rothstein will be leaving the site to report on commercial real estate for Bisnow. Rothstein’s last day is May 15. [Washingtonian]
Endorsements in School Board Race — Updated at 9:10 a.m. — School Board candidate Sharon Dorsey has picked up endorsements from Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, outgoing School Board member Abby Raphael and former School Board member Noah Simon. “Sharon Dorsey’s business and technology background along with her knowledge of education issues make her the right choice,” Ferguson said in a statement. Dorsey’s opponent in the race for the Democratic School Board endorsement, Reid Goldstein, has been endorsed by School Board member Nancy Van Doren, former state Senator Mary Margaret Whipple and County Board member Jay Fisette, among others.
Arlington’s fire stations have been understaffed for too long, Arlington’s fire union says, and after one of the deadliest years from house fires in some time, firefighters are pushing harder than ever for help.
In the past 12 months, five people in Arlington have died from three separate fires. After an early-morning fire in Douglas Park last June, two firefighters had to be sent to the hospital, and a fire in January might have been fatal had the residents of the house in the Old Glebe neighborhood not had an escape plan and working smoke detectors.
Rescue 109, a truck serving the Pentagon City and Columbia Pike area, that transports firefighters to emergency scenes, responded to most, if not all, of those fires. It, along with Tower 104 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, has been operating with three staffers, one less than the national standard for safe operating.
“There is no doubt that without safe staffing levels on ACFD firetrucks, we will continue to see tragedies occur in Arlington County,” the Local 2800 says on its website.
Last year, Local 2800 issued a similar statement, asking for more staffing. At the time, the Arlington County Board had directed County Manager Barbara Donnellan to conduct a review of public safety staffing and incorporate recommendations into her FY 2016 budget. According to ACFD Chief Jim Schwartz, the study is still ongoing.
There are no new firefighters proposed in Donnellan’s FY 2016 budget. Turning Tower 104 and Rescue 109 into four-person trucks would require adding eight full-time equivalent positions, or $1.3 million, the Local 2800 says.
“The staffing study turned out to be a larger project than I think anyone envisioned,” Schwartz told ARLnow.com today. “I am the one who has been pushing the four-person staffing issue for many, many years. It has been a very, very high priority for us. We’ve been through tough budget times that has made it difficult to add fire staff.”
To try to cover the vacancies, the ACFD has applied for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant. The grant would pay for the positions for two full years, after which Schwartz says the County Board has pledged to assume the ongoing costs.
The ACFD last received a SAFER grant in 2007, and has been denied that last two times it applied. Schwartz said he feels the last two rejections “gives us a leg up this year,” considering the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which awards the grants, likes to “spread the money around.” Schwartz expects to receive a decision on the grant at the end of the summer.
The Local 2800 has been meeting with County Board members this week, proposing it adds between $500,000 and $600,000 to the FY 2016 budget to cover overtime costs and staff the two undermanned trucks.
“This is much cheaper than the 8 FTE option of $1.3 million because it would utilize existing employees and would not incur additional benefits or pension costs,” the Local 2800 leadership told ARLnow.com in a joint statement.
Schwartz said he does not support the Local 2800’s proposal, and added he is already concerned about the amount of overtime his firefighters have been working. The ACFD must have at least 73 people working at all times, and is already forced to keep firefighters for overtime beyond the 56 hours a week they each work.
“On more occasions that I am comfortable with, we have to hold someone on a mandatory basis because we cannot get someone voluntarily to fill the 73 [required on-duty positions],” he said. “I’m concerned about the effect [more overtime] would have on safety. I have great concern about the stress, and the effect extra hours has on performance.”
According to the fire union, the lack of sufficient fire personnel has already led to a hazardous situation. During last March’s house fire in Nauck, the Local 2800 says “a firefighter assigned to Rescue 109 attempted a heroic rescue of two civilians trapped on the second floor of a house fire. While searching for the trapped residents, the firefighter suffered major burns to his body and respiratory tract, requiring a multiple day stay at the Washington Hospital Burn Unit and several months away from work recovering.
“In this situation, only having three firefighters created a difficult, if not impossible task to effect the rescue of the two trapped civilians,” the union leadership continued. “Additionally, had the burned firefighter not been able to self-extricate the house via a ladder, only one other member of Rescue 109 was available to help get him out.”
Schwartz denied that the lack of staffing was to blame for the two deaths in Nauck, saying “I would argue any suggestion that a fourth person on that company would have in any way changed the outcome either to the victims or the firefighter.”
On top of the two understaffed trucks, Schwartz told ARLnow.com ACFD currently has 14 vacancies, from retirements and firefighters leaving the department, that it is looking to fill in the near future.
Photo, top, via @IAFF2800