Arlington, VA

(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Amazon is moving in at a quickening clip and Arlington County’s budget-makers are breathing a sigh of relief.

After a few years of tight budgets, involving tax rate hikes and a handful of county staff layoffs, “this is a good budget year,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said today, ahead of presenting his proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget to the Arlington County Board.

That means a lack of hard choices: under the proposal, the $1.013 per $100 property tax rate remains steady, county staff — particularly public safety personnel — are getting raises, and library fines are being eliminated.

“We’ve gone through some lean years where we’ve been challenged on the revenue side,” Schwartz told reporters. “This is a good news budget, based on the fact that… we have a revenue infusion that has allowed us to do some things we just weren’t able to do before.”

In all, the $1.4 billion budget increases spending by 2.9% and anticipates a 4.6% increase in tax revenue, thanks in part to rising property assessments and a boost in business taxes paid to the county.

The average homeowner can expect to pay an extra $376 in property taxes, even with the rate holding steady. Arlington’s tax rate is lower than that of Alexandria ($1.130), Fairfax ($1.150) and Loudoun ($1.045).

After years of budget pressures caused by increases in health costs and Metro funding, among other rising expenses amid slowly-growing revenue, Schwartz struck a decidedly upbeat tone this year. He predicted future revenue growth as Amazon continues to grow its presence and other businesses flock to the county.

“The past few years we have seen the effects of a record-high commercial vacancy rate,” Schwartz said in a statement. “Now we are beginning to see the results of our commitment to economic development and spending realignments. This budget represents an investment in the cornerstones of County government with an eye toward an innovative future in Arlington.”

“We’re coming out of the trough,” Schwartz added.

Perhaps the biggest source of budget friction this year will be with Arlington Public Schools.

Schwartz is taking pains in his presentation to emphasize that Arlington County has been increasing the percentage of tax revenue it sends to the school system, a separate governmental entity. This year, under Schwartz’s budget, APS is slated to receive $550 million, up from $500 million two years ago.

Schwartz says he expects APS, with its ever-rising student enrollment, to ask for more. But the extra $17.7 million the schools are receiving this year should be more than adequate to account for the increase in students, he said.

The budget presentation notes that APS spends $19,921 per student, according to the Washington Area Board of Education formula — the highest per-pupil cost in the region.

Other highlights from the budget include:

  • An additional $9.1 million for affordable housing, including more for housing grants, rent assistance and affordable housing development.
  • A 3.25-3.5% increase in pay for general county employees and an approximately 6.5% increase in pay for public safety employees (to help, in part, with police and fire department recruitment.)
  • $49.3 million for Metro, a 4 percent increase from last year.
  • Creating a new “traffic enforcement and control” position inside the police department, with six new full-time staffers charged with enforcing things like scooters on sidewalks and cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Nine new positions in the fire department and funding for a second recruit class.
  • Eliminating library fines, as part of the county’s new focus on equity. The fines disproportionally are imposed on people of color who live on the western end of Columbia Pike, Schwartz said.
  • “Funding to phase in [County] Board member salary increases over a three-year period.”
  • Additional funding for sidewalk, street, and streetlight maintenance.

The budget focuses “on foundational area of County government” and “shores up investments in County infrastructure and core services,” Schwartz says in his presentation.

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Though the opening of the ever-controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center is still a ways off, county officials are gearing up to hire two new staffers set to work at the facility.

County Manager Mark Schwartz set aside $110,000 for the newly created positions as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. He forwarded along his first draft of the new spending plan to the County Board late last week.

Schwartz is recommending that the Board act now to start the recruitment and hiring process for a general manager and a maintenance technician for the facility, currently expected to open sometime in “early 2021.”

“Hiring these two positions prior to the facility opening will allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop standard operating procedures; ensure mastery of all building systems, including specialized aquatics equipment; procure inventory; and develop staff training plans,” Schwartz wrote in a message attached to the budget proposal.

The manager expects that the county will be able to afford the new hires largely through some staff reductions elsewhere across the department. In all, Schwartz is recommending $5.2 million in cuts in his budget, affecting 29 full-time positions and one-part time position across the county government. He’s also proposing a tax hike to meet some of the county’s growing expenses, though the Board opted to explore an even larger tax increase than he originally recommended.

Construction has continued apace on the $60 million Long Bridge project ever since it finally broke ground last summer, following years of debate over its scope and cost. Schwartz added in his budget proposal that he “remains committed” to somehow striking a naming rights deal for the facility to defray some of its costs — the Board decided last year to hire a marketing firm to help the county search for potential sponsors.

“As the project moves closer to completion, we remain optimistic that our efforts will be successful,” Schwartz wrote.

County officials also expect to finalize a fee structure for anyone hoping to use the facility’s pools and gym as part of the upcoming budget process. A working group on the subject recently wrapped up its deliberations and will deliver a proposal with potential fees to the Board in the coming weeks.

According to a Jan. 31 presentation from the group, daily passes for county residents would range from $9 for adults to $5 for children. An annual pass for adults would cost $630 and $350 for kids.

Non-residents would pay a 25 percent premium on daily passes and a 30 percent premium on all other passes, under the working group’s proposal.

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Morning Notes

Street Smart Campaign to Start Up Next Week — “As part of the Arlington County Police Department’s overall traffic safety program, the Special Operations Section is again participating in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Fall Street Smart campaign. This region-wide public safety campaign, which runs from November 5 – December 2, 2018, aims to educate drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooter operators about existing traffic laws and how to safely share our roadways.” [Arlington County]

County Board Lauds County Staff — In a video posted on YouTube, County Board Chair Katie Cristol and Vice Chair Christian Dorsey said “thank you” to Arlington County staff for the hard work that helped propel the county to high resident satisfaction ratings. “We are really proud of you… of your commitment to excellence and the role you play in making Arlington a terrific community.” [YouTube]

Bicycling Meetups This Fall — “Fall has arrived in Arlington, leaves have started to change colors, and temperatures are dipping overnight… If you’re looking for a good excuse to ride bikes and drink coffee this fall, like I do, there are plenty of local opportunities to make that happen.” [BikeArlington]

Photo courtesy Dennis Dimick

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Almost 24 years after she answered a radio ad seeking to recruit new firefighters, Tiffanye Wesley has been selected as Arlington’s southern battalion chief.

The county’s fire department tapped her for the post Sunday (Sept. 2), making her both Arlington and Northern Virginia’s first African-American female battalion chief.

There are two battalions in the Arlington Fire Department, divided between north and south, with each encompassing five stations. Wesley is chief of the southern battalion, coordinating operations not only between the five stations but with partner agencies across Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax.

“If there is a fire call, I’m in charge of that call,” said Wesley. “My job is to ensure everyone goes home safely.”

When Wesley first joined the Arlington Fire Department, she said she walked in the door with no expectations. She’d never known any firefighters or been into a fire house, and said she failed the physical ability tests twice, but she kept training and going back to try again.

Before being selected as battalion chief, Wesley was commander of the Crystal City station, Arlington’s largest and one of its busiest stations. Wesley stepped into the battalion chief role temporarily in 2016, which she said gave her an opportunity to get to know the other stations in the battalion.

“Every station is different,” said Wesley. “My goal is to go sit down with the officers and let them know up front what [my] expectations are and to give me theirs. I believe, as long as you set up right up front what you expect, it makes it easier. The problem comes in when you don’t know what your leader expects, then you tend to fall back and do whatever you want to do.”

Currently, Wesley says the department is also awaiting news of who will replace Fire Chief James Bonzano.

“Right now, the department is looking for a new fire chief,” said Wesley. “Everyone is in a holding pattern, we’re not sure who that person will be, whether they’re from inside the department or someone totally new, we will have to learn that person; their ideals and expectations.”

As Wesley settles into her new role as battalion chief, she says the outpouring of support from friends and followers of her active social media accounts has been overwhelming. Among the most interesting was a call from a fire chief in Nigeria congratulating her on the promotion.

“My promotion was not just for me, it’s for everyone who has watched me, who has been sitting back and passed over and doubted their own self, whose doubted it would ever happen,” said Wesley. “It’s all for those people. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t give up.”

Photo courtesy Arlington Fire Department

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Arlington’s fire chief has officially stepped away from his post, leaving the department under interim leadership as a search for a permanent replacement continues.

Chief James Bonzano’s last day on the job was this past Friday (Aug. 24), fire department spokesman Ben O’Bryant told ARLnow. The county’s been searching for a new chief since early May, when Bonzano decided to bring his 34-year career to a close. He served as county fire chief for about three years in all.

O’Bryant said that Assistant Chief Joseph Reshetar will step in as acting chief while the county’s search continues. Reshetar has served in that same role before, back in 2015 when then-Fire Chief James Schwartz was appointed deputy county manager, so O’Bryant expects that “it will be a smooth transition between now and when the new chief starts.”

He added that the county’s human resources team is still interviewing candidates for the permanent post, with the ultimate goal of having a new chief leading the department “before November.”

A job listing on the county’s careers website remains active, though it notes the county will give preference to candidates who applied by June 4. It lists the annual salary range for the post as between $117,145.60 and $224,806.40.

File photo

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Arlington Fire Chief James Bonzano is retiring in a few months, ARLnow.com has confirmed.

The county will formally announce Bonzano’s retirement this afternoon. A job posting, seeking his replacement, was recently published on the county careers website.

Bonzano will have served as chief for about three years when he retires, capping a 34-year career with the Arlington County Fire Department that included service as EMS branch director at the Pentagon following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He was appointed acting chief following Chief James Schwartz’s ascension to deputy county manager in 2015 and was subsequently named the permanent fire chief in 2016.

In a statement, County Manager Mark Schwartz lauded Bonzano’s commitment to the Arlington community.

“Jimmy has dedicated his career and his life to Arlington County and the people who live and work here, and I thank him for all he has done in his more than three decades of service,” said Schwartz. “His commitment to strong and progressive leadership has ensured the safety of our community.”

Bonzano, who was born in Arlington, said that “it has been my privilege to serve the community I love for 34 years.”

“The time has come to slow down and spend time with my family,” he said in a statement. “I am honored to have led the dedicated men and women of the Arlington County Fire Department, and I am proud of what we have achieved together.”

“I offer my sincere thanks to Mark Schwartz, the executive leadership team, the men and women of the fire department, and the citizens of Arlington County for providing me the opportunity to be their Fire Chief,” he continued. “It has been a remarkable experience I will always cherish.”

The fire department has been facing staffing challenges amid retirements, though the new county budget seeks to address that via increases in first responder pay. A new recruit class of 28 firefighter/EMTs, just sworn in last week, will also help “make the department’s staffing numbers whole.”

An exact retirement date has not been confirmed, but a fire department spokesman said that Bonzano will retire at the end of the summer.

The county is currently in the process of looking for a new chief. The full text of the job posting for the position is below, after the jump.

Hat tip to Tom N.

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(Updated: 4:05 p.m.) The Arlington County Board needs a new clerk “to serve as its principal staff officer,” according to a government job posting.

The current clerk, Hope Halleck, has been with the county since 1987. She has served as clerk to the County Board since 2008, according to her LinkedIn page, having served from 2006-2008 as a constituent services manager.

Her last day with the county will be April 27. Halleck told ARLnow that she’s getting married in June, and, along with other pleasant life events, both she and her partner are retiring and “ready for new adventures.”

The listed salary is between $88,025.60-$145,184, in line with the county’s 2018 county employee pay scale.

According to the job listing, the clerk will be expected to provide “leadership and supervision to a team of experienced and service oriented staff including the Deputy Clerk, Senior Management Analyst, and Receptionist and, in coordination with the County Board, the Board Members’ Aides.”

Key responsibilities will include “serving as the official record-keeper for the Board,” “providing management, staff supervision and administration of the County Board Office,” and “acting as the Board’s liaison to the public.”

File photo

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Morning Notes

Is Yelp Coming to Rosslyn? — Rosslyn’s 1812 N. Moore Street tower, the future corporate headquarters of Nestlé USA, could also be a destination for review website Yelp. The San Francisco-based company is reportedly considering opening an office in the D.C. area and 1812 N. Moore is on the short list. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman grew up in Arlington. [Washington Business Journal]

Democratic Committee Recommends Primaries — In a move that could be seen as a rebuke of the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s decision to hold a caucus to select a County Board nominee this year, the 8th District Democratic Committee has approved “a resolution saying primaries, not caucuses, should be the main form of nomination of Democratic candidates.” [InsideNova]

County Employee Is ‘Roadeo’ Star — Alexis Zambrano, a long-time county equipment operator, has scored a silver award in a regional “equipment roadeo” competition, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic American Public Works Association. [Arlington County]

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Morning Notes

Rosslyn skyline

La Tagliatella Expansion Plans on Hold — La Tagliatella, the Europe-based Italian restaurant chain that opened in Clarendon only to receive a scathing review from Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, is putting its U.S. expansion plans on hold. That includes the chain’s planned Shirlington location, in the former Extra Virgin space. The Clarendon location will remain open for the time being. [Washington Business Journal]

Remembering Arlington’s ‘Little Saigon’ — The timing of two separate events helped to transform the Clarendon neighborhood into a cluster of Vietnamese stores and restaurants known as “Little Saigon” in the 1970s and 80s. One event was the Vietnam War and the Communist takeover of Vietnam, which drove tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to the United States. The other was the construction of Metro, which drove away mom and pop businesses from Clarendon and forced landlords to lower their rents and seek new tenants. [Falls Church News-Press]

Raises for Top County Officials — The Arlington County Board on Tuesday quietly approved raises between 3.2 and 3.5 percent for top officials like County Manager Barbara Donnellan and County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac. The raises are retroactive to Jan. 1. Rank-and-file county employees are receiving a 3.5 percent raise this year. [Washington Post]

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Aerial view of Rosslyn (Flickr pool photo by @ddimick)Arlington has been named the “10th unhappiest city to work” in the country, according to a new survey by career site CareerBliss.com.

Washington, D.C., comparatively, was named the second-happiest city to work in the country. Each city was evaluated by 10 factors, including “one’s relationship with the boss and co-workers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and control over the work done does on a daily basis,” according to Forbes.

Each factor was rated on a five-point scale by a survey of more than 20,000 employees. Washington D.C.’s 10 factors averaged to a score of 3.925, behind only San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., which came in with a score of 3.93.

Arlington’s score was not listed — the list only gave scores of the top and bottom 5 cities — but the supposed unhappiest city to work in America, Cincinnati, Ohio, came in with 3.32. Pittsburgh, Pa., the fifth-unhappiest city, had a score of 3.58.

Flickr pool photo by @ddimick

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A local couple is in the running for a Facebook contest organized by the national bridal store chain David’s Bridal.

Samantha Sissman and Clyde Wentling, who first met as students at Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, are getting married this summer. They’re hoping to win the $2,500 “Share Your Love” contest to help offset the expense of flying the mother of the groom-to-be in from her home in West Africa.

Sissman and Wentling both grew up in Arlington. Though they attended high school together, they only started dating in 2008 after meeting again years later through friends. Sissman, whose family still lives in South Arlington, has worked as an aide in the Arlington County Board office for nearly four years.

To vote for Samantha and Clyde, go to their contest entry page and click on the red ‘vote’ button. Additional information about the contest can be found here.

Photo via Facebook

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