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County Plans Hiring ‘Slowdown’ to Cope With Mounting Budget Pressures

County Manager Mark Schwartz is calling for a “hiring slowdown” for Arlington’s government, choosing to leave dozens of positions vacant while county officials mull how to cope with a yawning budget deficit.

Schwartz told the County Board last Tuesday (Nov. 27) that he isn’t planning a full hiring freeze for the county workforce, but he will nonetheless direct 10 department heads to hold off on hiring across 45 different positions for the foreseeable future.

The county’s budget picture for fiscal year 2020 is still coming into focus, but Schwartz projects that the county and its school system could combine to face a $78 million budget gap next year. That means that some mix of tax increases, staff layoffs and program cuts are likely in the offing, after the Board declined to raise taxes this year, and Schwartz is working to get ahead of some of those unpleasant measures with this slowdown.

“It may not be immediately noticeable to people, but we will see increased caseloads for some employees,” Schwartz told the Board. “It’s not something that, unless you’re going around and really trying to appreciate it, you’d notice.”

Schwartz said that the positions left unfilled include roles like librarians, code enforcement and housing inspectors and cultural affairs staffers with Arlington Economic Development. He added that the county generally has roughly 200 positions left unfilled at any given time, out of its workforce of about 3,500 employees, and he’d like to leave some spots open in case the Board does indeed pursue layoffs.

“We want to keep some positions vacant for some employees who might be affected by any reduction in force,” Schwartz said.

At the same meeting, the Board did direct Schwartz to present it with options for both layoffs and tax increases as he develops a proposal for the new budget. Even with Amazon’s impending arrival, and the tax windfall the company’s expected to generate for the county, Arlington leaders are gearing up for what Board member Libby Garvey termed “the toughest budget I’ve had to deal with in my 24 years in elected office.”

“We are looking at a path toward a resolution for a long-term structural budget deficit… so our outlook is so much better than it was even just a few weeks ago,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “But this will still probably be one of largest gaps between revenues and needs we’ve seen since the Great Recession.”

The county is indeed projecting that Amazon won’t generate substantial new tax revenues for several years yet, leaving Arlington officials with some lean budgets in the meantime. Schwartz projects that new expenses associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion, to the tune of about $1.2 million a year, and rising costs to fund Metro service, with expenses nearing an additional $10 million this year, will put a particular strain on county coffers.

“This is just a different situation than the county has faced before,” Garvey said.

Schwartz is set to present his first budget proposal to the Board in February.

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Layoffs at Arlington-Based Opower

Opower logo(Updated at noon) Arlington-based Opower has laid off about 7.5 percent of its global workforce, ARLnow.com has learned exclusively.

The move comes amid a wave of layoffs among tech companies that are struggling to attain or maintain profitability as tech investment euphoria cools. Across the economy, there’s weakness in the employment market and in corporate profits.

“We’ve reduced a small number of roles — about 45, including about 25 in our U.S. offices,” Opower Vice President of Communications Matt Maurer said this morning in response to an inquiry from ARLnow.com. “It’s part of an effort to cut back on our overall spend in sales and marketing and R&D.”

“These moves give us a better expense profile and strengthen the very good position we are already in as the clear leader in our space, having recently renewed our largest clients to multi-year extensions and with over $480 million in contracted future revenue on the books,” Maurer continued. “These strong fundamentals — combined with our new and growing set of customer care products — put Opower in a great position for continued success.”

Opower had about 600 employees worldwide before the layoffs, which were announced to employees last week.

The company is planning to move from its long-time offices in Courthouse to a new yet-to-be-built headquarters down the street, at 2311 Wilson Blvd, in about two years. Opower received a $1 million grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to entice the company to stay in Virginia.

Opower, which creates energy efficiency technology for utility companies, is publicly traded under the ticker symbol OPWR. As of 11:15 a.m. it was trading at $7.30 per share. The company reported a $13.6 million loss in its most recent quarterly results.

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Morning Notes

Office building in Rosslyn as seen from the Marine Corps War Memorial

Pro-Change Group Forms in Bluemont — Fed up with neighbors who shot down a potential redevelopment of the Safeway site in Bluemont, a group of residents has formed a new organization called “Bluemont Forward.” The organization says it wants to see Wilson Boulevard become a more vibrant and walkable main street, with “an improved grocery store and other amenities for neighborhood residents.” The group might be too late to save the Safeway development, however; Greater Greater Washington reports that developer Silverwood may have “quietly backed out of the project.” [Bluemont Forward, Greater Greater Washington]

Layoffs at PBS NewsHour — PBS NewsHour, which is produced in Shirlington, has laid off a number of staff members in a reorganization. The production will also save money by streamlining and digitizing its technical processes. [TV Newser]

Ballston LaunchPad Finalists Revealed — Kylee Majkowski, the 8-year-old CEO of Tomorrow’s Lemonade Stand, is among the 10 semi-finalists in the Ballston LaunchPad Challenge. The entrepreneurial competition will pair the semi-finalists and their startup businesses with mentors. In November, three finalists will be chosen and will have a chance to pitch their business idea to venture capitalist and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. Competition organizer Ballston BID is an ARLnow.com advertiser. [Patch]

Wedding Planning Recommendations at the Library — With wedding season in full-swing, Arlington Public Library has published a list of books and movies that may be of interest to those planning a wedding. [Arlington Public Library]

Northam, Herring Prevail in Dem Primary –– Turnout was very light for Tuesday’s statewide Democratic primary. Ralph Northam, a state Senator, is the new Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, having defeated Arlington resident Aneesh Chopra. State Sen. Mark Herring captured the nomination for attorney general. [WJLA]

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Arlington Reporter Leaves TBD

This is the last day on the job for Rebecca A. Cooper, the Arlington community reporter for Rosslyn-based TBD.com.

Cooper joined TBD last July, a month before the site launched. She was formerly a contributor to DCist.com and a reporter for a Long Island newspaper. No word yet on her future plans.

TBD is in the midst of layoffs and will likely not replace Cooper or her Arlington coverage.

The layoffs are part of a reorganization that will shift TBD’s mission from being a primarily news-oriented site to exclusively arts and entertainment-oriented site.

TBD’s corporate sister, television station WJLA (ABC 7), will eventually relaunch WJLA.com as a separate, news-oriented web site. (WJLA.com was replaced by TBD after its launch.)

On a personal note, it was a pleasure working alongside Rebecca, who was a total pro and brought an unrivaled depth to her Arlington reporting. Whatever she does next, we hope she stays here in Imperfect Arlington.

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DEVELOPING: Arlington School Budget Cuts Revealed

At tonight’s school board meeting, Arlington County Schools superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy will reveal significant cuts in the school system’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget. Here are some of the notable items in Dr. Murphy’s proposed budget:

  • APS facing $12.8 million budget shortfall (reflects county manager’s tax proposal, but does not take into account an expected decrease in funding from the state)
  • School enrollment is projected to exceed 21,000 for the next school year
  • APS will eliminate at least 57 full-time equivalent school-based positions
  • APS will eliminate at least 36 full-time equivalent support positions
  • There will likely be no teacher layoffs, as the school scales back new hires and shifts affected teachers to vacant positions
  • APS expects 15-20 support staff layoffs
  • The Arlington planetarium will be closed
  • Class sizes will increase by one pupil for grades K-3 and 6-12
  • Staff salaries will be frozen at the current year’s levels
  • Budget does not include funding for new initiatives or program expansions
  • $0.5 million in new school fees will be imposed, including: increased pool fees, building rental fees, drivers education fees, summer program fees, cafeteria meal prices and Montessori tuition
  • Fewer summer school sites and larger summer school class sizes
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