Arlington County is developing an alert system aimed at improving its emergency response to behavioral health crises.
The aim of the system, dubbed the Marcus Alert, is to keep people in crisis — due to a mental illness, substance use disorder or intellectual and developmental disabilities — from being arrested and booked in jail.
It comes from the Marcus-David Peters Act, which was signed into law in late 2020 and is named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old biology teacher who was killed by a police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.
Once operational, the system would transfer people who call 911 or 988 — a new national suicide and mental health crisis hotline — to a regional call center where staff determine whether to de-escalate the situation over the phone, dispatch a mobile crisis unit or send specially trained law enforcement.
Last summer, Arlington began developing its Marcus Alert plan, a draft of which needs to be submitted to the state by May 22. It’s asking residents to share their experiences with the county’s current behavioral health crisis response via an anonymous and voluntary survey open through mid-March.
Locals can also email the county to sign up to participate in focus groups, which will convene in early- to mid-March.
State law requires that the county’s final plan be implemented by July 1.
“We are hopeful that with the Marcus Alert and increased community outreach and co-response, we will see a reduction in arrests of people with [serious mental illnesses],” Suzanne Somerville, the bureau director of residential and specialized clinical services for Arlington’s Department of Human Services, tells ARLnow. “The system is tremendously strained at this time and hospitalization for people that need it for psychiatric symptoms is not always easy to attain.”
DHS attributes the strain to COVID-19 and a lack of beds in state-run mental hospitals after the Commonwealth closed more than half of these hospitals to new admissions amid its own workforce crisis. This overwhelmed local hospitals and the Arlington County Police Department, and drove fatigued DHS clinicians and Arlington police officers to quit.
“Everyone is trying to do the right thing and get the client the services they need and deserve and we just don’t have the resources currently,” said Aubrey Graham, the behavioral health program manager for the Arlington County jail.
Bed shortages also impact court hearings, as many inmates with mental illnesses require competency restoration services to understand court proceedings and work with their defense attorney. Graham says inmates must go to Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services state hospitals, which limits beds even more.
Compared to other jurisdictions, Arlington sends proportionately more people to Western State Hospital for competency restoration, per data ARLnow requested from DBHDS. It also saw the greatest increase in admission rates between 2020 and 2021.
Graham says she doesn’t know of any studies that explain why Arlington sees so many individuals with serious mental illnesses, but geography plays a role, as about 70% of people sent to state hospitals come from D.C., Maryland and other parts of Virginia. Only about 30% of those sent to state hospitals from Arlington are actually Arlington residents.
“Although there are a high number of competency evaluations requested in Arlington courts, the referrals are entirely appropriate, and most are deemed incompetent to stand trial,” Graham said.
That’s why police should not arrest them in the first place, says Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood, adding that people with mental illnesses are over-represented in the county jail, which is seeing a continued inmate deaths and may not have the resources to treat the needs of the mentally ill.
Despite promising improved functionality, Arlington County’s new website launched last month remains riddled with broken links that are frustrating some residents.
Last month, Suzanne Smith Sundburg was preparing to make public comments at an upcoming Arlington County Planning Commission meeting. As someone who is a passionate about weighing in on local issues, she uses the county website often for research and updates on county happenings.
But, starting in mid-October when the new website launched, Sundburg started having issues accessing information through the county website. She’d click a link and it would take her to a dreaded “Page or Site Not Found” error message.
“I searched for something on Google and tried to click on several of the county links that popped up. All were broken,” Sundburg writes to ARLnow in an email about her troubles. “So I then went to the site to see if I could use a more direct method to find what I needed. No dice.”
The changeover to the new site caused links from both search engines and websites like ARLnow to break. As of last week, one link-checking website listed nearly 900,000 broken links to arlingtonva.us pages.
Arlington County launched its brand new website, complete with the county’s new logo, on Oct. 18. The intention was to improve the website’s security, performance, look and navigation.
“The County website is the first and sometimes only stop for important information about Arlington for many of our residents,” County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said in a press release. “This upgrade will help ensure that the website is an easily accessible, safe, and reliable resource for our residents and businesses to engage with their government.”
For website users encountering broken links, however, that’s not yet the case.
Sundburg isn’t the only one who has noticed a number of dead-end links. ARLnow has received a tips in recent weeks from other users who have encountered broken links preventing them from accessing county webpages, documents and information, such as information on how to pay a parking ticket or the county’s Community Energy Plan.
“The Arlington County revised website is horribly broken, with links that don’t work,” said one anonymous tipster. “It’s a travesty.”
The Lyon Village Civic Association says it is still working with the county to update all the county links on its own website.
“We have asked the County webmaster to get these reestablished, some have, but not all,” it said in a recent post.
Last week, Sundburg wrote an open letter to county officials expressing her displeasure about this missing information.
“This revamp of the county website has been akin to the burning down of a library with half of the books still inside,” she wrote. “In this case, the ‘books’ still exist — the community simply has no access to them.”
County officials acknowledge the issues and say they’re working on it, noting the broken links are a result of issues migrating from the old site to the new site.
“The County is aware and actively working to resolve the issue of broken links on our new website, which launched last month,” county spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said. “Website migrations are highly iterative processes and we want to thank our residents and other website users for their patience during this time.”
Searching through Google for county webpages does result in a “higher prevalence” of broken links due to a “glitch,” she said.
“Our website provider, OpenCities, worked on resolving this glitch and we are beginning to see improved external search results to County webpages,” Baxter said.
Various county departments are prioritizing fixing broken links connected to current projects, plans, programs and services, since these are accessed most frequently, Baxter said.
“Our goal is to resolve as many of these broken links as possible by Thanksgiving,” she said. “An overall website clean-up is targeted to begin by the end of the year.”
Sundburg notes that, overall, county staff has tried to help and is “relieved” the link problems are being worked on, but she remains disappointed in so much older information remaining inaccessible.
“I understand prioritizing current items, that leaves out a significant portion of the site’s repository of documents,” she writes. “For those of us long in the tooth who have been around for decades, we have a greater knowledge base. But it’s not encyclopedic, and referring back to historical materials is frequently useful.”
Responding to increasing storms, flooding and ongoing development, Arlington County will be changing its stormwater management regulations for single-family home construction projects.
The new requirements — and how they came about — have developers worried.
Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services will require developers to use tools such as water storage tanks to ensure new homes can retain at least 3 inches of rain, which will affect applications submitted after Sept. 13, 2021.
Currently, developers are only on the hook to improve the quality of water runoff, using rain gardens, planters, permeable driveways and tree cover.
DES staff tell ARLnow the new system will manage more water, protect downhill properties, reduce plan approval times, and give homeowners stormwater facilities that are feasible to maintain.
In a statement, staff said the change “reflects future-focused and balanced responsiveness to a diverse customer base that includes downhill neighbors, property owners, and builders.”
But some developers who work in Arlington County says the changes blindsided them and they want more input. They predict significant potential cost increases to homeowners and argue that this shifts the burden onto individuals, rather than placing responsibility with neighborhoods or the county itself.
“There is broad concern with the roll-out of this,” said Yuri Sagatov of Sagatov Homes. “There are just a lot of questions and there aren’t a lot of answers. We’re all waiting to get more information from the county to see how the changes might impact properties.”
Staff said these changes were precipitated by the increase in heavy rainfall, the growing intensity of storms, and a sense among residents that the county is not doing enough to protect properties — particularly those that are downhill from development, from the runoff caused by new homes.
A county study last summer found that the soil under new homes is 10 times less permeable than the soil under existing homes, staff said.
With the tanks, which appear to be above ground in photos, the goal is to retain rainwater during flash flooding events like that of July 8, 2019.
“Gravity detention tanks… promote a ‘slow it down and soak it in’ strategy to capture and release runoff slowly as a more robust and reliable way to handle intense rainfall,” says a DES memo.
It seems like a feasible alternative to more expensive underground systems, but the challenge will be blending them in aesthetically.
“They are talking about massive above ground cisterns,” the owner of one remodeling firm told ARLnow. “I would think neighbors would hate this. They’re going to be hideous.”
As for engaging developers during the process, county staff said enhancements to an existing program only require the county to consult with stakeholders. The county surveyed neighbors, home builders and engineers in 2019 and met with engineers early this year.
With budget planning in full swing and tax season looming near, you may be wondering what Arlington County is paying for with your tax dollars.
County officials are currently hammering out the details for the next fiscal year’s budget, which the County Board is slated to adopt on Saturday, April 17 and which will go into effect on July 1. The proposed $1.36 billion budget, which County Manager Mark Schwartz calls a “transition” budget, includes a COVID-19 contingency fund and $16.4 million in cuts.
And while the pandemic forced some revisions to the current 2020-21 budget, the pandemic has not changed the different buckets of spending by the county — from Arlington Public Schools to the Department of Parks and Recreation — and what proportion of the general fund these sectors receive.
Local taxes represent 83% of Arlington County’s overall general fund revenue. That includes the taxes you pay on real estate, vehicles, restaurant bills, retail sales, hotel stays, and if you run a business, taxes on business or occupational licenses. For next year, local tax revenue is projected to exceed $1.1 billion, increasing only $1.1 million from last year’s adopted budget, according to Arlington County’s 2022 master budget document.
In this year’s budget, about $795 million comes from real estate taxes. Levied on homes as well as apartments and commercial properties, these taxes make up the lion’s share (59%) of general fund revenue.
This year, homeowners should expect to see their bills increasing due to rising property values, although Schwartz is proposing keeping the $1.013 per $100 property tax rate flat, as he did last year. Real estate assessments showed an overall growth of 2.2% with an increase among residential properties of 5.6% and a 1.4% decline in commercial assessments.
Other revenue sources are utility rates for water and sewage; fees, like those set by the parks department; permits and fines; state and federal contributions; and some leftover money after previous budget cycles.
Where does the money go?
The county’s general fund expenditures are divided into three large buckets: county services, schools and the capital fund. In the current budget, the county services bucket — which includes a $48 million contribution to Metro — accounts for $817 million. APS received $524.6 million from the general fund and the capital fund received $3.8 million (the rest comes from carryover balances and bonds).
In the current fiscal year, the school transfer covers about 78% of APS’s total expenses, the largest share of which, accounting for nearly 78%, goes to salary and benefits costs.
Excluding schools, of the nine overall departments or sectors receiving county funding, some are almost completely funded by local taxes, while others receive more support from federal and state support or other sources of revenue.
For example, taxes fund about 90% of the budget going toward public safety, which accounts for 11% of the county’s expenses. Within that, local tax support chips in $71 million of Arlington County Police Department’s $72 million budget.
The county is calling on the community to submit their ideas for a new county logo and seal.
The logo will phase out the depiction of Arlington House, also known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, on all county communications and materials starting this summer. Over time, the new logo will appear on signage for county amenities such as parks, community centers and buildings, the submissions webpage said.
“We are writing a brighter chapter in Arlington’s story, one that aligns with the County’s important focus on racial equity,” the website said. Submissions are due by Sunday, March 14.
According to submission guidelines, artists only can submit one idea and it must be new and original. The art should “look good” in black and white and in color, and when it is printed on something as small as a pen and as large as a billboard. Designs in any media — from digital to crayon — are accepted.
Proposed design ideas have included dogwood trees, the Potomac River, the Rosslyn skyline, and the Pentagon, as well as abstract concepts like peace and diversity.
“As you create your design, think about the images, symbols and feelings unique to Arlington and shared by people across neighborhoods,” the county website said.
A submission form is available on the county website. It asks people to submit a .jpg, .png or .pdf version of their design, to share whether they are a current or former resident or have some “other” affiliation with Arlington, and to briefly describe the art and what it depicts or represents.
The move to update the emblem began with a push from the Arlington branch of the NAACP last summer, which decried the current logo as a “racist plantation symbol” that honors a slave-owning Confederate general. County Board members expressed their support in September and approved a process for replacing it in December.
County Manager Mark Schwartz previously told the board that the earliest instance of the logo’s use by the county was in 1974.
When the March deadline passes, a panel of community members picked by Schwartz will choose three to five top contenders. A professional graphic designer will further develop the concepts through April. The community will then rank their picks in May and the County Board is expected to choose one in June.