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Morning Notes

Christmas Travel Crunch Starts Today — “A record number of people are expected to travel this Christmas season, spurred on by economic comfort and relatively modest gas prices… This year INRIX, a traffic data firm, has forecast the very worst time for drivers to set out on the highways, and for the Washington region, that’s five days before Christmas, on Dec. 20, between 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m.” [Washington Post]

County Manager Pans ART Service — “‘The ART bus performance, recently, stinks,’ Mark Schwartz said during a meeting with Arlington County Civic Federation delegates… In the second quarter of 2018, on-time performance dropped to 83 percent from 92 percent a year before, according to data provided to the county government’s Transit Advisory Committee. Ridership in that quarter was down 14 percent from a year before.” [InsideNova]

Free ART Rides Today and Tomorrow — “Free ART rides on Thurs. December 20 & Fri. December 21. Everyone rides for free! Happy holidays and thank you for riding ART!” [Twitter]

Small Fire in Under-Construction Home — “ACFD is on the scene of a small trash fire at an under-construction home near Discovery Elementary and Williamsburg Middle School.” [Twitter]

Ballston Company Announces New Funding — “Acendre, a leader in secure, cloud-based talent management software for regulated industry verticals, today announced a majority growth investment from Strattam Capital. The investment will enable Acendre to accelerate its growth and more quickly advance its innovative, easy-to-use Software as a Service (SaaS) talent management platform, which helps organizations solve some of today’s most challenging hiring problems.” [Acendre]

Amazon Joins Arlington Chamber — “Amazon.com Inc. has agreed to join the Greater Washington Hispanic and Arlington chambers of commerce and could join more in the region in 2019… The e-commerce giant formally joined the 760-member Arlington chamber on Dec. 3. and subsequently sent a senior public policy official to its annual meeting on Dec. 7, said Kate Bates, chamber president.” [Washington Business Journal]

Nearby: Georgetown Wawa Opening Today — “What an exciting couple of days this week will bring, for fans of hoagies and tacos and caffeine and alcohol-infused frozen Pepsi products. Wawa announced Monday it will open its second D.C. location Thursday, in Georgetown at 1222 Wisconsin Ave. NW. As usual, the event will feature free coffee and a sampling of Wawa fare, in addition to a ‘Georgetown-inspired beverage.'” [WTOP]

Nearby: D.C. Population Breaks 700K — “Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released new official population numbers that put the District’s population at 702,455 as of July 1, 2018. The District’s population has risen every year since 2006 and has soared by more than 100,000 people since the 2010 Census.” [PoPville]

Flickr pool photo by Maryland Nomadic

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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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With Budget Gap Looming, County Board Set to Ask for Proposals on Tax Increases and Staff Layoffs

Arlington leaders now say they’re ready to start studying unpleasant budget measures from tax increases to staff layoffs, as they gear up to confront next year’s hefty budget gap.

The County Board is set to sign off today (Tuesday) on new budget guidance for County Manager Mark Schwartz, as he gets to work on a new spending plan for fiscal year 2020. The memo directs Schwartz to develop a range of possible options for the Board to evaluate next year, including “a range of potential tax increases” and “proposals for program and personnel reductions or eliminations” if Schwartz can’t develop a balanced budget while relying on the existing tax rates.

The Board made a handful of spending cuts in the budget for fiscal year 2019, but opted not to raise any of the county’s tax rates.

Since then, Schwartz has frequently called for the Board to give him the flexibility to pursue such budget measures, given the county’s gloomy near-term financial prospects. Though Amazon’s arrival in Arlington could well pour millions in new revenue into county coffers, officials project that their budget challenges won’t vanish overnight. In all, the county’s combined budget deficit could be as large as $78 million next year.

All on its own, Schwartz expects that the county will need to close a gap of anywhere from $20 million to $35 million, a gap driven by factors including Metro’s increasing expenses, the new raises for public safety workers the Board approved in the 2019 budget and new spending associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion.

But the county school system could tack on another $43 million in unmet needs, as it works feverishly to build new schools and keep pace with the county’s influx of new students. Without any tax rate hikes, staff currently projects that the county will be able to send about $7.7 million to Arlington Public Schools than it did last year. But that increase, driven by rising real estate assessments, likely won’t be enough to solve all of the school system’s funding woes — the School Board only narrowly avoided class size increases last year, and will face similar challenges this time around.

The Board’s budget guidance does identify one program that it hopes Schwartz will be able to protect from budget cuts: the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize the construction of reasonably priced homes. The memo to the manager suggests that Schwartz craft a proposal to maintain the $14.3 million in funding the Board sent to the fund last year, and recommends making more of the funding “ongoing” rather than subject to the Board’s appropriation process each year.

The latter change was one championed by Board member John Vihstadt in his losing bid for re-election this year, and the entire Board has emphasized the importance of funding affordable housing programs to prepare for Amazon’s projected impacts on the housing market. As part of its deal to land the tech giant, the county even committed to directing about a third of the money it spends on affordable housing each year to specifically serve the areas around Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City.

The Board is set to vote to approve the new budget guidance today, setting the stage for Schwartz to deliver his proposal to the Board in February. The County Board and School Board are also set to hold a joint work session next Tuesday (Dec. 4) to kick off their initial budget deliberations.

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County Manager Proposes Rolling Over Most Unspent Funds from Last Budget

Facing a combined budget gap of up to $75 million, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz is eschewing the usual divvying up of leftover funds from the last fiscal year and instead proposing to roll them over with an eye on next year’s budget.

Schwartz will recommend at Saturday’s County Board meeting that the $21.9 million in unspent funds available to the county remain primarily unallocated, with $16.5 million being set aside to give the Board more options going into the next budget process.

“Difficult choices will be required to balance the FY 2020 budget and will likely include service reductions, and consideration of a real estate tax increase,” says a county staff report. “Setting aside $16.5 million in undesignated funds from the close-out of FY 2018 will give the County Board some flexibility when weighing these choices.”

Schwartz is also recommending the county allocate $3.4 million (along with $3 million from Arlington Public School) to increase its General Fund Operating Reserve — important for maintaining the county’s triple-AAA bond rating — and $2 million for use by the County Manager “to address unforeseen needs that arise during the fiscal year without reprioritizing or cutting other programs.”

The county has funds left in its coffers at the end of almost every fiscal year, thanks to conservative budgeting practices intended to maintain the triple-AAA rating.

Often, the budget “close-out” process ends up funding a grab bag of county priorities, from law enforcement needs to affordable housing. Asked about that this week, Schwartz said his recommendation does not mean that affordable housing is being deprioritized.

“It doesn’t mean that some of that money going forward couldn’t be used for affordable housing,” Schwartz said at the town hall meeting. “I just think, given the hole we have to fill, I didn’t want to preordain what my priorities would be. We’ll see how the Board receives that.”

A number of civic activists have been pushing the county to reform the budget close-out process, which they see as a boondoggle meant to fund pet projects with minimal public scrutiny or discussion.

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Tax Hikes and Service Cuts Look Increasingly Likely Next Year, County Leaders Warn

Arlington officials expect a mix of across-the-board service cuts and tax rate increases is the surest way for the county to tackle its widening budget gap next year.

With a funding gap that could ballon as large as $78 million for fiscal year 2020, County Manager Mark Schwartz has repeatedly warned that some tough times are ahead for the county government. He repeated those gloomy projections at a budget-focused town hall with community leaders last night (Wednesday), noting that factors ranging from swelling school enrollment levels to dwindling county revenues to increasing Metro funding obligations will all squeeze county coffers once more.

The question Schwartz (and soon enough, the County Board) is looking to answer is: how should Arlington balance cuts with new tax increases? The answer will set the tenor of the Board’s upcoming budget deliberations, particularly when considering that the county has avoided tax increases in recent years.

“New tax increases are certainly a tool we should be looking at this year,” Schwartz told the group. “It depends on what the Board gives me as guidance, but I’m hoping that they carve out some room for tax increases.”

That’s not to say that Schwartz is only looking at jacking up tax rates — he says he’s asked all of his department heads to sketch out what an 8 percent budget reduction would look like for them, even though he tends to “hate across-the-board cuts” and would much rather “apply a set of principles to choose among departments and decide where to spend our marginal dollars.”

Nevertheless, Schwartz believes the county’s funding squeeze is such that simply slashing expenses can’t be the only answer. In addition to opening three new schools in the coming year and digging deep to cope with money pulled away from the county as part of the new Metro funding deal, Schwartz says the county needs to get creative to address the new costs of public safety pay increases the Board approved last year and new expenses associated with the state’s Medicaid expansion.

“People really have a problem finding something in the budget to get rid of or do less of,” Schwartz said. “It’s not a complaint, but in many cases, we’ve not had a really hard conversation about what we don’t want to do. And at a certain point, efficiencies won’t cut it, and this is one year where it won’t.”

He suggested that both the real estate and personal property tax rates could go up to address those budget concerns, though it’s difficult to know by how much just yet. A great deal depends on the budget the school system delivers to the county, considering that initial estimates suggest a $43 million budget gap from Arlington Public Schools alone — Schwartz encouraged the School Board to consider the hard question of bumping up class sizes and formulating a “revenue-based budget versus a needs-based one,” but the final decision will rest with APS leaders.

Eventually, Schwartz expects that the county’s office vacancy rate will shrink to a point where Arlington isn’t constantly facing such pressures. He noted that the rate has shrunk from 20.8 percent in 2015 to 18 percent as of last month, and as “outdated buildings” in neighborhoods like Crystal City are increasingly refreshed or converted into apartments, he expects the county will soon enough be back on sound financial footing.

In the meantime, however, he urged a focus on more than “nibbling a little bit here and there” and a real focus on “looking at how we do things” to bolster the county’s financial picture.

While the sentiment among county taxpayers is another story entirely, the town hall participants, at least, seemed broadly receptive to paying a bit more to avoid drastic cuts.

“I’m a old, retired coot living on a fixed salary… but Arlington has absolutely fantastic programs for everybody,” said Bill Braswell, a member of the county’s Neighborhood Complete Streets Commission. “I’m ready, willing and able to support a tax increase, because I’m getting far more than I pay in tax increases, and I enjoy it.”

Photo via Facebook

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County’s Resident Ombudsman Makes a Change, Prompts Search for Replacement

Arlington is now looking for a new ombudsman for county residents, a staffer dedicated to helping people sort out problems and access government services.

County spokeswoman Jennifer Smith told ARLnow that former ombudsman Robert Sharpe transitioned out of the role last week. He’s now serving as assistant division chief for the county’s public health division.

Sharpe took over as ombudsman back in 2016, as part of an expansion of constituent service offerings within County Manager Mark Schwartz’s office.

Smith says Sharpe “made significant contributions to the county’s constituent services efforts serving the community” during his tenure and will now be “responsible for operational and managerial aspects” of the public health division. He previously worked as an assistant director in the county’s Department of Human Services.

Brian Stout will serve as the county’s acting resident ombudsman while Schwartz searches for a permanent replacement, Smith added. She hopes to wrap up that process sometime next month.

The county is also currently looking for a permanent “business ombudsman” to work with local businesses to navigate county regulations, after Shannon Flanagan-Watson was appointed deputy county manager in May. Jeanine Finch is currently filling the role on a temporary basis.

Photo courtesy of Arlington County

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County Manager Pledges Not to Abandon Planned Construction Projects, Even Amid Community Grumbles

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Despite mounting financial challenges, top Arlington officials say they don’t plan to walk away from some major construction projects that are already in the works — even if that stance ruffles a few feathers in the community.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has stressed repeatedly that his newly unveiled proposal for the next decade of Arlington construction projects, known as the Capital Improvement Plan, will maintain the county’s standing commitments to several major facilities around Arlington, even as he’s forced to make painful cuts elsewhere.

With the county sending more money to the Metro system, all while dealing with declining commercial tax revenues and rising public school enrollments, Schwartz is adamant that projects like the Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center and the new Lubber Run Community Center won’t be affected.

But the large price tag of those projects already has some community activists asking: why not change things up?

“We’re spending millions on synthetic fields and a new swimming palace… and 600 or 700 kids are moving into the county schools each year,” civic activist Suzanne Sundburg said at a town hall meeting Wednesday night (May 30) that was also broadcast via live Facebook video. “I understand people want to finish what they start, but at what point do we start re-evaluating priorities and reprioritizing?”

Schwartz said the question was a valid one, and will likely spark plenty of debate among County Board members as they evaluate his CIP proposal over the coming weeks. But he also warned that the risks of spurning these projects, particularly after the county has already awarded design and construction contracts, could far outweigh the benefits of saving some money.

“There are some things that are settled that we have to move on,” Schwartz said. “There are obligations on the books that crowd out our ability to do new things, and that is the situation we face.”

Schwartz was particularly concerned that people in the community might see abandoning the Long Bridge Park project as a viable option, even if they blanch at its $60 million price tag. Not only does he believe it would be a “breach of faith” with the community, following roughly two decades of discussions on the project, but he pointed out that a contractor has already spent the last five months working on it.

“If we back out on that, nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years,” Schwartz said. “We’d probably not only be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company], but we probably wouldn’t be able to do as much as we want to do, and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”

Such an outcome would be particularly problematic as the county and APS eye a future full of new school construction; Schwartz noted that contractors tend not to see much of a difference between the county government and its school system.

Schwartz’s proposed CIP does come with some cuts likely to upset some people across the county, which could push the County Board to ignore the manager’s warnings. For instance, county transportation director Dennis Leach noted that initiatives like the Complete Streets program, Walk Arlington and Bike Arlington “did not get eliminated, but they were trimmed.”

The county’s Neighborhood Conservation Program, meanwhile, will also lose $24 million in funding over the 10-year plan, and Schwartz expects that there will “not be an adequate amount of money to keep pace with the program” in county coffers.

“This is a matter of making choices,” Schwartz said. “There isn’t extra money that’s laying around.”

The Board will hold a series of CIP work sessions over the month of June, with a planned final vote on the proposal on July 14.

File photo

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Morning Notes

Work Begins to Replace Collapsed Pipe — A collapsed 18-inch stormwater pipe is being replaced on Arlington Ridge. The work is necessitating a detour for Arlington Ridge Road traffic between 23rd Street and S. Glebe Road. The stretch has been the site of numerous water main issues over the past few years. [Twitter]

Big Turnout for Caps Sendoff — Thousands of fans reportedly flocked to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston on Saturday to give the Caps a Stanley Cup sendoff as they traveled to Las Vegas for Game 1 of the finals. [WUSA 9]

Manager Warns Against Additional Debt — “[Don’t] do it. That’s Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz’s advice to County Board members, urging them to resist any temptation to disregard the government’s self-imposed, and for the most part sacrosanct, debt guidelines. The guidelines, long in place to help the county government retain AAA bond ratings, call for the cost of servicing municipal debt to remain less than 10 percent of the total overall county-government budget in any given year.” [InsideNova]

ACFD Lends a Hand in Ellicott City — Arlington County Fire Department units are helping out the flood recovery efforts in Ellicott City, Md. The catastrophic flooding in Ellicott City over the weekend prompted a regional disaster aid response. [Twitter]

DJO Wins State Softball Crown — The Bishop O’Connell Knights girls high school softball team won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I tournament last week, capturing the state championship title for the seventh year in a row. [InsideNova]

Photo courtesy @thelastfc

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Proposed 10-Year Capital Plan Rolls Back Transportation, Neighborhood Improvement Projects

With Metro expenses climbing and tax revenue growth slowing, the county’s top executive is calling for a rollback in new construction on some transportation improvements and other neighborhood infrastructure projects.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz unveiled his proposed Capital Improvement Plan in a presentation to the County Board Tuesday (May 22), detailing the $2.7 billion in construction projects he wants to see Arlington take on over the next 10 years, and he did not have much in the way of good news for county officials.

Schwartz’s proposal does not call for the county to stop work on any existing construction efforts, or cancel some of Arlington’s major new facilities projects. For instance, Schwartz noted that his CIP still has full funding for things like the Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center, the new Lubber Run Community Center and a replacement for Fire Station 8 on Lee Highway.

However, he believes the roughly $90 million in additional bond funding the county will need to put towards Metro, under the terms of the dedicated funding deal hammered out by state lawmakers earlier this year, will seriously squeeze Arlington’s ability to take on major new projects over the next 10 years. When combined with rising school costs, and the Metro funding deal’s cuts to regional transportation funding available through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Schwartz feels there’s every reason to believe Arlington will be under some serious budget pressure for the next few years.

“This is not one of the better CIPs I’ve ever worked on,” Schwartz told reporters Tuesday. “You’re not going to find anything new in here… but I’ve proposed a CIP that sticks to what we’re committed to doing. Even still, I think there are things we should be doing that will have to be postponed.”

One of the largest changes Schwartz is proposing is to the county’s Neighborhood Conservation program, which funds modest community improvements like sidewalks, signs and landscaping. The county originally planned to spend $60 million on the program over the next 10 years; the new CIP would slash that to $36 million.

“We’ll be able to catch up on our backlog of projects already in the pipeline, and do some planning for future programs, but not much else,” said Michelle Cowan, the deputy county manager.

Schwartz’s plan also does not include any money for buying land for new parks; the county’s last CIP two years ago included $15 million for that purpose. However, his proposal does include $18 million for the first phase of redevelopment at Jennie Dean Park in Nauck, after the County Board just approved a new policy framework for the Four Mile Run valley.

Transportation projects on “arterial roads,” such as S. Walter Reed Drive or S. George Mason Drive, could also get pushed back under Schwartz’s proposal. He noted that the county still will devote $91 million over 10 years to improvements along Columbia Pike, largely aimed at beefing up bus service in the corridor to help compensate for the death of the controversial streetcar, but he also emphasized that Arlington’s “number one priority” with its transportation money is meeting its Metro obligation.

Even still, Schwartz echoed the warning by some county leaders that the county will likely have to abandon or severely delay plans to add second entrances at the Crystal City, Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations. The county expected to use regional funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to pay for the combined $230 million in costs — now, NVTA leaders warn that they’ll likely have less money to dole out under a hotly debated provision of the Metro funding deal, and Schwartz told officials that he “can’t tell you a way to come up with the funds for those” projects without NVTA money.

Schwartz added that the CIP does include about $3 million for development at the Buck property along N. Quincy Street and $1.5 million for improvements at parcels along Carlin Springs Road. However, Schwartz noted that the county was originally planning on moving forward with ambitious new projects at those sites, which it will now largely have to put on hold.

In all, the county’s financial picture is so strained that Schwartz believes Arlington’s county government and school system are spending about as much on debt payments each year as they can “in good conscience.” That will likely come as bad news to School Board members, who have been hoping the county would help the school system take on a bit more debt to fund expensive high school projects at the Arlington Career Center and Education Center sites.

“If we’re going to put more money toward schools, something has to go away,” Schwartz said. “And I’d be hard pressed to figure out what it would be.”

Board member John Vihstadt echoed that point once Schwartz’s presentation was finished, even as he noted that the lack of money for new park land was “very disappointing.”

Schwartz and some Board members expressed some optimism that the 2019 elections could change the outlook in the General Assembly, particularly as some Northern Virginia Democrats agitate for a chance to re-do the Metro funding deal that’s so squeezed localities.

But, for now, the county is stuck with a gloomy financial forecast. Schwartz even concluded his presentation by noting that he expects to propose tax rate increases in his next budget, an outcome the Board managed to avoid this year.

The Board will now hold a series of work sessions on the CIP over the next month, and is set to approve it by July 14.

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Police Department Plans Restructuring Amid Staffing Challenges

The Arlington County Police Department is planning a “strategic restructuring” as a wave of retirements and departures leaves significant gaps in its staffing.

Services could be reduced as the department’s functional strength falls to a projected 50 officers below its authorized force of 370, according to an internal memo sent by police chief M. Jay Farr and obtained by ARLnow.com.

The Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, an employee organization representing Arlington officers that is advocating for higher police compensation in the county’s current budget process, said the “historic understaffing” is due to “sub-par pay.”

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget includes a 2.5 percent pay raise for rank-and-file officers, on top of pay hikes for all county employees. The raise does not apply to the department’s command staff. The County Board voted over the weekend against a property tax rate increase, meaning that any additional money for the department beyond Schwartz’s recommendation will likely result in reductions elsewhere in the budget.

The police department is actively recruiting to try to fill staffing holes, but faces competition from other D.C. area local police departments as well as federal law enforcement agencies that often have higher levels of pay. Asked about the numbers, ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said the total staffing level at the department is a bit higher than the functional staffing level.

“The Arlington County Police Department has an authorized staffing of 370 officers and a current strength of 346 officers,” she told ARLnow.com. “Our current strength includes recruits currently at the academy as well as officers on light duty so our functional staffing is a little lower.”

A table showing retirements and non-retirement departures from the police department, as provided by a county spokeswoman, shows a sharp uptick in 2017.

In a statement, Savage said the planned restructuring will “maximize our available resources.”

Our goals and objectives as a department have not changed, nor has our commitment to providing professional law enforcement services to the residents, visitors and businesses of Arlington County. However, our methods of achieving these goals must adapt to our current staffing challenges. To maximize our available resources, we will be completing a strategic restructuring of the police department. This will be accomplished by our command staff collaborating with the entirety of the police department and devising a staffing plan jointly. Our staffing and structure will focus on prioritizing core services and ensuring the services we are able to provide are effective and efficient. The ultimate goal is to design a police department reflective of our current staffing levels, limit the workload strain on officers by focusing on core services and promote a balanced work/life atmosphere. Our plan will also be forward looking to support growth as staffing improves. It is anticipated that the restructuring will be complete by late spring and additional information will be available at that time.

“Great work happens throughout this agency on a daily basis and this I am confident this will continue despite our current staffing challenges,” Chief Farr said in a statement issued to ARLnow.com. “The strategic restructure will provide us with an opportunity to maximize our resources by building a police department reflective of our current staffing levels while supporting our mission to reduce the incidence of crime and improve the quality of life in Arlington County.”

In the memo, below, Farr says the police department will be reevaluating its ability to provide support for special events in the county as part of the restructuring process.

The Arlington County Fire Department, meanwhile, is facing similar pressures. Fire department personnel are slated to receive an extra 4 percent bump in pay over the standard county employee raise in Schwartz’s budget, but the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association says even that might not be enough to fill gaps in staffing.

The full memo about restructuring from Chief Farr, after the jump.

Greetings,

As we head into what we know will be a challenging year, I want to share some information on where we stand today and what the next steps for the police department will be.

We have undoubtedly seen a significant reduction in our workforce due to normal attrition, retirements and officers seeking other opportunities. I, along with the rest of the command staff, recognize the impacts the reduced staffing has had on all of you and the dedicated work you perform each and every day for the citizens, visitors and businesses of Arlington County. The police department has an authorized staffing of 370 officers and, by April of this year, our functional staffing number is projected to be as low as 320 officers.

While our goals and objectives as a department have not changed, our methods of achieving them must adapt to our current challenges.

To maximize our available resources, we will be completing a strategic restructuring of the police department. This will be accomplished by our command staff collaborating with the entirety of the police department and devising a staffing plan jointly. Our staffing and structure will focus on prioritizing core services and ensuring the services we are able to provide are effective and efficient. The ultimate goal is to design a police department reflective of our current staffing levels, limit the workload strain on staff by focusing on core services and promote a balanced work/life atmosphere.

This restructuring will give us the opportunity to review the department as a whole and to add services in critical areas that may currently be deficient. Our plan will also be forward looking to support growth as staffing improves. Additionally, the process will include trying to identify opportunities for career development and growth throughout the agency. We will also reevaluate the support the police department provides to special events.

For me personally, it is disheartening to be with the department this long, experience the hard work everyone has undertaken to make this a leading police agency and have to reduce many of the aspects that allow us to positively impact the quality of life of our community on a daily basis. I am proud of the dedicated work you provide to the community and the communities’ appreciation is evident in the support we receive. Great work happens throughout this agency on a daily basis and this, I am sure, will continue.

Those of us committed to seeing this through have invested a tremendous part of our professional lives in building this agency. Please know that we will weather this storm together, this is a team effort, and it is one that we will overcome collectively. The goal is to complete the restructuring process by the spring draft. Additional information will be shared as we move forward, but I wanted to ensure this information was shared directly with all of you at the onset of the process. If you have questions or concerns, please contact any member of the command staff.

M. Jay Farr
Chief of Police
Arlington County, VA

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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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Morning Notes

Highway Renaming Bill Fails — A bill from state Sen. Barbara Favola that would have allowed Arlington to rename Jefferson Davis Highway in the county failed to get out of committee on a 7-6 party line vote. The county will likely have to wait until next year’s legislative session to try again to get a bill passed.  [InsideNova]

Snagajob Heading Toward IPO — “Arlington job management company Snagajob aims to raise up to $30 million, part of a strategy to reach $100 million in revenue this year to prepare the fast-growing company for a future initial public offering.” [Washington Business Journal]

County Releases Annual Report — Arlington County recently released its annual report for 2017. County Manager Mark Schwartz wrote in the report, despite an expected budget gap: “Overall, I am optimistic about our future… with the leadership of the County Board and participation of our residents, we will continue to provide the quality programs and services that our residents have come to expect.” [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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Schwartz Gives Bicycle Advisory Committee a ‘Revamping’

The county’s Bicycle Advisory Committee has been revamped for the new year by County Manager Mark Schwartz, who has installed a new member as chair.

In a letter dated December 27, 2017, Schwartz told the group he wanted to make the group “more fully representative” of the biking community, and have more civic and citizen associations represented on the 18-person committee. Currently, Schwartz said, less than five of those groups are represented.

And he said that starting this month, the eight members that have “rarely or never attended” meetings would be removed from the committee. The BAC provides advice on issues that affect cycling in Arlington.

Schwartz also appointed Edgar Gil Rico, a member of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association and the county’s Master Transportation Planning Bicycle Element Working Group and an instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, as chair.

“I would like to begin 2018 with a renewed spirit by re-establishing the [Bicycle Advisory Committee] into a committee that is more fully representative of the current Arlington cyclist community; to accomplish this we need to engage citizens from our collective populations who have not been previously represented,” Schwartz wrote.

But Schwartz’s decision appears to be unpopular in some quarters. One anonymous tipster wrote that it caught the current members by surprise.

“The group was blindsided by the letter, and one long-standing member has resigned, apparently in protest,” the tipster wrote.

Former BAC chair Gillian Burgess confirmed the letter, and said she was “as surprised by the County Manager’s email as the rest of the BAC.” Burgess declined to comment further, but confirmed that one “longstanding member did resign and his expertise and experience will be missed.”

Chris Slatt, chair of the county’s Transportation Commission, said Randy Swart was the member to resign. Swartz was described in a 2007 article as a “bike safety crusader.”

Slatt criticized the decision, saying that committee members have been “left in limbo” as to whether they are still members, or when the next meeting will be. Burgess and Slatt said they had not been consulted on the decision.

“Expanding the diversity and representation of the BAC is a worthy goal, but this seems like an ill-considered and rude way to do it — especially right in the middle of the process to update the bike plan,” Slatt said. “As chair of the Transportation Commission I have worked with my board liaison over the years to to try ensure a diverse set of viewpoints on [the commission] — geographically, demographically and even trying to get a mix of homeowners and renters.”

“It could be done, over time, as a partnership between the chair and the Manager through new appointments without having to tell existing members that their service is no longer wanted.”

Schwartz’s full letter to the group is after the jump.

As we approach the end of another very productive year in advancing cycling projects and updating the Master Transportation Plan’s Bike Element, I’d like to express my gratitude for your service on Arlington County’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC).

I would like to begin 2018 with a renewed spirit by re-establishing the BAC into a committee that is more fully representative of the current make-up of the Arlington cyclist community; to accomplish this we need to engage citizens from our collective populations who have not been previously represented. The County has sixty-two registered civic and citizen associations; however, the BAC membership currently represents less than five of them.

To that end, I will be revamping the membership of the BAC to include representatives from more civic and citizen associations. There are currently eighteen members in the active member roster, however, only ten have regular attendance; eleven members are not representatives of an organization or civic association. Beginning in January 2018, the eight members that have rarely or never attended meetings will be removed from membership on the committee. The goal will be to have or minimum 15-member committee seated within 30 days of the first BAC meeting in January.

I will be appointing a new member, Edgar Gil Rico, who will also serve as the new Chair to help the County establish new goals, recruit representation from civic organizations and continue to work of the BAC. Edgar is a member of WABA, Arlington County’s MTP Bicycle Element Working Group, and an instructor with the League of America Bicyclists.

Please join me in welcoming Edgar to the BAC.

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County Could Face $10-13 Million Funding Gap in Next Year’s Budget

Arlington County could face a funding shortfall of up to $13 million in its Fiscal Year 2019 budget, according to budget projections by County Manager Mark Schwartz.

At the Arlington County Board’s meeting yesterday (Tuesday), Schwartz projected revenue will grow by 2.9 percent in FY 2019, but the county’s expenditures will grow by 4 percent. That would result in a funding gap of between $10 million and $13 million.

The funding gap assumes the current real estate tax rate of $1.006 per $100 of assessed value will remain the same. County staff is also projecting “modest growth” in assessed property values.

The projections are only for county government, and do not include revenues and expenditures for Arlington Public Schools. The forecast largely keeps the county’s operations and services budget the same, with the exception of expansions in transit service as laid out in the Board-adopted Transit Development Plan.

“This is a preliminary projection — it’s still early in the budget-building process,” Schwartz said in a statement. “We have additional information that will come in the next few months — including actuarial reports for our pension and retiree healthcare, state budget proposals as well as Metro’s updated financial forecast.”

Through November 22, residents can share feedback online about the FY 2019 budget, in addition to the series of public roundtables that end this week.

The county is also seeking feedback on Schwartz’s plan to spend the $11.1 million surplus from this past year’s budget between five “near-term needs,” including affordable housing, facilities studies, public safety employee compensation, a fund for “unforeseen needs” and a security system upgrade at the county’s Justice Center.

Residents can email [email protected] with comments on the plan. Those comments will then be compiled and shared with the County Board before its November meeting, where members will vote on close-out spending.

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Manager Recommends Surplus Go to Affordable Housing, Other ‘Near-Term Needs’

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz is recommending the county’s just-over $11 million surplus be spent on several “near-term needs & County Board policy priorities,” including affordable housing.

County staff said $11.1 million is left over, 1.4 percent of the county’s FY 2017 General Fund budget, excluding money appropriated to Arlington Public Schools.

The county collected just over $1.022 billion in revenue from property, business, sales taxes and other sources, having projected in April it would collect just over $1.004 billion. That is 1.8 percent more than projected.

“It is the lowest as a percent of total budget in recent years; in FY 2016, available funds totaled $17.8 million, or 2.4 percent, and in FY 2015 available funds totaled $21.8 million,” staff wrote. “This reflects diligent focus on executing the adopted FY 2017 budget.”

Schwartz is recommending the Arlington County Board use the leftover funds in the following ways:

  • Affordable Housing Investment Fund: $5.2 million in one-time funding to be set aside for the FY 2019 budget.
  • Critical Life Safety Needs: $2 million for unanticipated security system upgrades to the county’s Justice Center in Courthouse.
  • Employee Compensation: $1.75 million to reflect changes in federal law on several position classes in public safety.
  • County Manager Operating Contingent: $1.25 million to address “unforeseen needs that arise during the fiscal year without reprioritizing or cutting other programs.”
  • Facility Studies: $900,000 to primarily fund additional site analysis at the Buck and Carlin Springs sites, as directed by the Board.

“As was started with housing grants as part of the FY 2018 budget, it is important to move to a higher level of ongoing funding for AHIF in the future,” staff wrote. “This transition to a higher amount could take several years, and the transition can be eased with reliance on available one-time funding.”

Certain community members and some County Board candidates have criticized the closeout practice in Arlington, and instead suggested the extra money should be given back to residents and businesses as tax relief, or at least applied to the next year’s budget.

The County Board will consider its options at its recessed meeting tomorrow (October 24), although numbers are preliminary until the county’s independent auditors complete their work at the end of the month.

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