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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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Residents Oppose Proposed Cuts At Budget Hearing

Numerous Arlington residents spoke out last night against the County Manager’s “optional” proposed cuts to lessen a planned tax increase.

The County Board’s public hearing Tuesday saw opposition to suggested cuts to the Lee Highway Planning Initiative, snow removal from trails and the Glencarlyn Library among other programs.

County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed a $1.2 billion budget for FY 2018 that includes a tax increase of 2 cents per $100 of assessed value. One cent apiece would go towards Arlington Public Schools and Metro’s increased funding needs.

After direction from County Board members, Schwartz produced a version that would only have a 1-cent increase and cuts elsewhere to make up the difference.

But the suggested cut to funding Lee Highway planning — which would shelve the project until further notice — brought strong opposition from residents and business owners. Under the $500,000 budget cut, the Lee Highway Alliance, a grassroots partnership that looks to improve the quality of life along the corridor, would lose all $60,000 of its county funding, according to speakers.

“The Lee Highway Alliance is the Arlington way: it’s a grassroots effort that sprung up as we realized the need for planning in this corridor,” said Karen Kumm Morris, a representative of the Rock Spring Civic Association.

“A good idea is meaningless without the courage to act,” agreed Sandi Chesrown, an executive board member on the Waverly Hills Civic Association.

Also coming under fire was the plan to cut the Glencarlyn Branch Library’s days of operation from six to two, but it brought one of the two-hour hearing’s lighter moments.

Jeffrey Liteman, representing the Glencarlyn Civic Association, first unfurled a 20-foot petition signed in opposition to the planned cuts. He then sang and played guitar in support of the library, backed by other attendees holding signs behind him.

“It’s the heart of the community, two days are not enough,” he sang.

Members of the county’s Community Services Board advocated for various budget requests, including new case managers for those with developmental disabilities, six placements in a mental health group home and a $75,000 study to determine services for young adults on the autism spectrum.

Among the other topics discussed Tuesday night:

  • Arlington Public Schools and the need to fill the approximately $13 million funding gap between Schwartz’s plan and Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed $617 million budget.
  • Various solutions to increase the county’s affordable housing stock, including more funding for housing grants and a higher zoning fee for apartment developers.
  • Funding for the county’s streetlight repair program, which is in line to receive a big boost under Schwartz’s proposed budget but not under his optional cuts.
  • Opposition to an optional cut to the $50,000 program that removes snow from local trails with the same priority as street snow removal.
  • The financial literacy program within the Virginia Cooperative Extension and permanent county funding for the financial education program associate position to run it.

Earlier this month, opinion columnist Mark Kelly suggested that Schwartz’s optional cuts were purposefully unpalatable, “designed to make taxpayers believe there are few desirable options when it comes to trimming the budget.” Schwartz, in a statement, said making budget cut recommendations “is always difficult, particularly given the growing demands and potential impacts on our community.’

The County Board will return for another public hearing tomorrow night, this time about the proposed tax rate and fee hikes. The budget is slated for final adoption on April 22.

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County Manager Proposes Cuts to Halve Proposed Tax Rate Increase

County Manager Mark SchwartzArlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has proposed a series of budget cuts to halve his proposed two cent tax increase to one cent.

The cuts to Schwartz’s proposed budget total $11.1 million and include everything from a multi-million dollar reduction in school funding to a reduction of hours at the Glencarlyn library and the elimination of a management intern position in the parks department.

From a county press release:

The potential reductions would affect a range of County services, including Human Services, Libraries, Parks and Recreation, Community Planning and Housing and Economic Development. The options also include eliminating both planned service improvements in the streetlight program and additional staff for the County jail. Schwartz also recommended that, based on the principles of revenue sharing between County Government and Arlington Public Schools (APS), $3.5 million of the cuts from the on-going budget and $1.7 million of the cuts from the one-time budget come from the APS budget.

The Arlington County Board advertised Schwartz’s recommended two cent tax rate increase but also asked him to recommend some budget cuts, as an option to consider.

“Putting together budget reduction options is always difficult, particularly given the growing demands and potential impacts on our community,” Schwartz said in a statement. “The package makes no change to the additional resources committed to Metro. Since we presented our Proposed Budget on Feb. 25, jurisdictions are facing a Metro funding deficit that may grow even larger.”

Under the advertisement, the Board cannot raise the property tax rate more than two cents for every $100 in assessed value this year. (At last month’s meeting, Board members Libby Garvey and Christian Dorsey proposed, unsuccessfully, setting the advertised rate three cents higher than the current $0.991 for every $100.)

The Board will hold public hearings on the budget and the tax rate on March 28 and March 30, respectively. Final adoption of the budget is scheduled for April 22.

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Group Makes Last Push to Convince County Not to Sell Farmhouse

Reeves farmhouse (photo courtesy Peter Roof)A group that wants to use the Reevesland farmhouse as an educational center is making one last push to convince Arlington County not to sell it.

Members of the Reevesland Learning Center say Arlington should be seeking to add to, not subtract from, its parks and facilities. They’ve been fighting for several years to have the farmhouse, at 400 N. Manchester Street in the Boulevard Manor neighborhood, converted to a community space where children could learn about healthy eating and the history of the Reeves farm.

In 2015, Arlington County split the 2.5 acre Reevesland property, incorporating much of the open space into Bluemont Park while the house and the land around it was to be sold to a private buyer. On Feb. 28, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz recommended the sale of the farmhouse move forward, asking for County Board direction at the board’s March meeting.

“Our efforts to work with the Reeves Farm Conservation Society, Inc. and Reevesland Learning Center have not resulted in a viable community proposal for the farmhouse,” Schwartz said in a statement.

In a letter sent Wednesday, members of the Reevesland Learning Center disputed the county’s assertion that renovating the farmhouse for public use would be too costly and challenging.

The full letter, after the jump.

Photo courtesy Peter Roof

March 8, 2017

Dear Mr. Schwartz:

As longtime Arlington residents and taxpayers, we know that our County works best when our government officials listen to residents, respect them and are responsive to their ideas and requests for information.

Thus, your letter to us last week stating that the County intends to move forward to sell a portion of the Reeves parkland and the historic Reeves farmhouse is profoundly disappointing and troubling.

We urge you to postpone indefinitely any steps or action to facilitate the sale of the Reeves parkland and farmhouse for the following reasons:  

  • The County needs to respond to the renovation-related questions we submitted four months ago with the assistance of our pro bono general contractor regarding various building codes and regulations pertinent to Reevesland. The information is essential to finalize our widely-supported plan for re-purposing the farmhouse and for a realistic budget.
  • There is a strong consensus in Arlington that our County should be acquiring parkland, not selling off the Reeves parkland nor any of our irreplaceable open spaces.
  • In the proposal we sent you four months ago, a key, distinctive part of our renovation plan is “the participation of Arlington Career Center apprentices which will enable Arlington’s young people to gain life-changing job skills and employment opportunities.” They deserve the County’s support.
  • More than 600 residents throughout Arlington signed an online petition urging the County not to sell the Reeves parkland and farmhouse and to use it instead as a Reevesland Learning Center for Arlington kids, teachers and other adults who can learn how to grow and prepare healthy food through environmentally sustainable practices.

Mr. Schwartz, in your letter, you write that “Unfortunately, the RLC proposal continues to rely on the County to fund the significant construction costs necessary to renovate and maintain the farmhouse.”  That’s inaccurate.  First, in our November 14th letter to you, we said that the Reevesland Learning Center “is prepared to raise additional resources in partnership with the County” . . . for the farmhouse renovation. Second, we said unequivocally that “when the renovation is completed, the Reevesland Learning Center is committed to staffing and managing the farmhouse  , , , at no cost to the County.”

In fact, the Reevesland Learning Center has already raised pledges of thousands of dollars of in-kind resources.  As we told you, “we have secured the participation of the highly-regarded president of Monarc Construction, John Bellingham, who is a past president of the DC Preservation League.  He has agreed to organize and manage the entire renovation process, utilizing Arlington Career Center students as apprentices.  Mr. Bellingham developed a list of questions for you and your colleagues about various County regulations and codes that may apply to the farmhouse renovation.  That was four months ago, and you never responded. There can be no realistic budget until those questions are answered.

It is troubling and inexplicable to us is that our County is even considering selling off precious parkland and the farmhouse.  As you know, the County is purchasing private property to expand its public footprint but now, in direct contravention of its stated policy, is seeking to sell off such property.  One of the high priority recommendations of the County’s Task Force on Urban Agriculture is to “Ensure that urban agriculture education focusing on Arlington schoolchildren is given top priority in any adaptive reuse or repurposing of Reeves historic farmhouse.”  That is our goal, too, and it is widely shared by Arlingtonians throughout the County.

Arlingtonians want to see the farmhouse and parkland remain in the public domain and the farmhouse used as a learning center.  As Juliet Hiznay wrote on the countywide petition: “We are losing green space and we need this asset for the health of the community.”  As APS teacher Joe Price said: “I have visited the Reevesland farmhouse with my students for the past five years.  It is a wonderful resource that provides much more than academic lessons.”   And Kate Mattos wrote: “Arlington has little public and green space. Reeves is an opportunity to reflect on our history as a community, to help students learn about nature, and to be a meeting place for community activities. This is an opportunity to serve all citizens, not just those who can afford to buy the space.”

Mr. Schwartz, on behalf of the Arlington community, we ask that you postpone indefinitely this ill-considered action to sell or facilitate the privatizing of Reeves parkland and the farmhouse.

As leaders of the Reevesland Learning Center, we agree with our fellow Arlingtonians about the value of preserving our parkland and the Reeves farmhouse.  We also believe strongly about the imperative of responsive, transparent government.  We hope that you do, too.

In adopting Arlington County’s $1.2 billion budget, Board Chair Libby Garvey noted that the budget “preserves our community’s values.” Preserving our values starts with preserving our history, preserving our sense of community, and preserving a belief that there is an Arlington way and government works for the people it represents when it listens to them and works with them. Preserving our values starts with investing in them. It starts at Reevesland.

We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Sandra Kalscheur, Chair, The Reevesland Learning Center
Ron Battocchi, Vice-chair
Joan Horwitt, President

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Property Taxes Could Rise Under Proposed County Budget

County residents could see a property tax hike of up to 2 cents per $100 of assessed value after the Arlington County Board voted Saturday to advertise the possible maximum increase.

County Manager Mark Schwartz said the hike would pay for what he described as the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the board in increasing costs for Arlington Public Schools and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Under the 2-cent rise, APS and WMATA would each receive half of the added tax revenue. The average tax and fee burden for residential properties would increase by around $300 a year, factoring in a rise in property assessments, while the residential property tax rate would reach $1.011 for every $100 in assessed value, the highest rate since 2001.

Board members approved the measure by a 3-2 vote, with Libby Garvey and Christian Dorsey voting against. The vote included a proposal by board member John Vihstadt to request that Schwartz explore alternative budget options if property taxes increase by only 1 cent.

But both Dorsey and Garvey criticized Vihstadt’s plan, saying it was “too late in the game” to be introducing such a proposal.

“I totally support the whole idea of exploring these alternatives, but the way we do it now by rolling it into this action, we’re changing the budget process,” Dorsey said.

Board chairman Jay Fisette said that Schwartz’s proposal is just the beginning of talks about the county’s budget.

“Today we received the manager’s proposed budget, and we set the maximum tax rates and fees that we can consider,” Fisette said. “Now the responsibility shifts to us. This is the start of the Board’s conversation with the public about priorities for fiscal 2018. For the next nearly two months, we will be scrubbing the manager’s proposed budget and listening to the community.”

The proposed $1.2 billion fiscal 2018 budget includes $759.3 million in the county operations budget, a 3.9 increase over fiscal 2017. Also proposed are increases in household solid waste rates, a water/sewer rate increase, a new accessory homestay permit fee of $60 for those who use online booking platforms like Airbnb and various parks and recreation program fee changes.

Schwartz said APS faces challenges around its growing enrollment, which he said grows by approximately 1,000 students each year. His budget would include $478.3 million funding for the school system, an increase by $11.1 million.

“Simply put, Arlington Public Schools is facing an enrollment tsunami,” Schwartz said. “Each year, they have additional students come; whether they want them or not, additional students show up and they need to be be educated.”

Metro represents another fiscal stumbling-block for the county, as well as the region at large. Currently, Schwartz said, Arlington pays 8 percent of the agency’s total operating costs, to the tune of $56 million.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld proposed all jurisdictions increasing their subsidy, with its fiscal 2018 proposal asking that Arlington increase its subsidy to around $71 million.

That subsidy would be funded in part by state transit aid, staff reductions at WMATA, gas tax funding and money from the Transform I-66 project. It would leave a gap of approximately $6 million, with the additional penny of real estate tax adding $7.4 million.

The board will hold a series of budget work sessions next month, then public hearings on the budget and the tax rate on March 28 and March 30, respectively. The latter will include discussion on members’ possible pay rises. The board is expected to adopt the budget on April 22.

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County Manager Proposes Spending, Tax Rate Increases

County Manager Mark Schwartz at County Board budget work session in 2016

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) A new $1.2 billion budget proposed by Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz would boost core services — road paving, streetlight maintenance, public safety, schools and Metro — while raising property taxes to the highest rate since 2001.

The proposed FY 2018 budget is being presented to the County Board this afternoon (Thursday).

Spending under Schwartz’s proposal — drafted with guidance from the County Board — would increase 4.3 percent, while the tax rate would increase by two cents, from $0.991 to $1.011 for every $100 in assessed. That would be Arlington’s highest property tax rate since 2001, when it was $1.023.

The rate increase would come on top of rising property assessments — up 2.9 percent this year. The total tax and fee burden on the average Arlington homeowner would rise by $308 to $8,613 under Schwartz’s proposal, which will now be considered by the County Board after a series of work sessions and public hearings. That’s up from $7,745 three years ago, in 2014.

Final adoption of the new budget is scheduled for April 22, while the Arlington Public Schools budget — Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy is presenting his proposed budget tonight — is scheduled to be adopted on May 4.

Last year, Schwartz proposed a half-cent property tax rate decrease, which was then adopted by the Board. This year, Schwartz says more revenue is necessary to fund the “clearly extraordinary needs of Metro and APS.”

The two-cent rate increase itself is expected to bring in an additional $14.8 million in on-going revenue. Much of that is earmarked by Schwartz for an overall $21.2 million increase in funding for Arlington Public Schools, which is experiencing a prolonged period of enrollment growth, and additional funding for Metro, which is also set to receive $22 million in bond funds from Arlington for capital projects.

“It is never easy to recommend an increase in property tax rates, but Metro and our public schools are both vitally important to our County’s continued prosperity, and both are in urgent need of additional funding,” Schwartz said in a press release.

Other areas of spending increases, as outlined in the press release and in a press briefing Thursday morning, include streetlight maintenance, road paving, facilities maintenance, land acquisition, public safety and economic development.

Schwartz said streetlight maintenance and road maintenance, in particular, were identified as top priorities in resident satisfaction surveys.

The number of county-owned streetlights has increased 40 percent over the past five years, contributing to an average repair time of 30 days for minor outages and up to 120 days for major outages. Under the proposed budget, there would be an $910,000 increase in streetlight and trail light funding, adding five new full-time positions, two vehicles, a consultant, equipment and supplies, with the goal of reducing the length of minor repairs to 3 days and major repairs to 1-2 months.

“It’s a safety issue,” Schwartz said of dark streetlights. “People want their government to do the basics before other things.”

Road paving, meanwhile, would receive a $3.3 million boost in funding, with $15.2 million budgeted by Schwartz in FY 2018. Arlington has accelerated its paving program over the past few years, with the goal of raising the county’s Pavement Condition Index to the “high 70s” on a 1-100 scale, according an official at the briefing.

Schwartz’s budget includes $3.5 million for maintenance of synthetic turf fields and other county facilities, $2 million for land acquisition, $250,000 in grants to connect businesses to the county’s ConnectArlington fiber network, a new economic development employee focused on assisting child care businesses, and a 3.25 percent merit salary increase for county employees.

Also included are seven additional sheriff’s deputies, three additional 911 call-takers three additional police officers, all funded “through reallocation of existing resources,” plus two large fire department recruit classes to make up for projected retirements and other attrition.

“[The budget] continued the multi-year-focus on the three priorities I have laid out: economic development, service delivery and transparency, and strategic budget planning and fiscal sustainability, while addressing the core service demands of the County mainly through budget reallocations,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz proposes raising a number of county fees, to “bear a reasonable relationship to the service for which the fee is imposed,” including:

  • Raising the household solid waste rate by $6.88 to $314.16 annually
  • Raising the water/sewer rate by 35 cents to $13.62 per thousand gallons, an estimated annual increase of $24.50 per household
  • New “accessory homestay” (Airbnb, etc.) permit fee of $60
  • An unspecified increase in aquatics and gymnastics program fees “to meet the increased capacity in the programs.”

The public budget and tax/fee hearings are scheduled for March 28 and 30.

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County Needs More Land for Support Services, Says County Manager

As Arlington County continues to grow in population and in services provided by the county government, the need for more land to support those services is increasing, says County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Schwartz spoke about the land needs in a county-produced video, above, which was released late last week.

He pointed out that only 12 percent of county- and school-owned land is designated for support services — maintenance yards, storage facilities, etc.

“This is not enough space,” Schwartz said.

Putting the need in perspective, Schwartz pointed out that the county last year filled 12,000 potholes over its 975 lane miles of roadway, repaired 271 water main breaks over its 525 miles of water mains, and facilitated 3.1 million rides on its 65 (soon to be 90, by 2020) ART buses.

All of that work and maintenance requires support facilities, and the county’s current facilities are getting too crowded.

Schwartz said that supporting the “needs and wants of this community” is “a real challenge with limited space,” which will require “smart and tough decisions about addressing these needs.”

Arlington County is currently considering a $30 million land acquisition near Washington-Lee High School and subsequent, proposed land swap, which would provide additional property near Shirlington in exchange for a portion of the acquired land.

Together, the two actions would add a net 7.3 acres of industrial-zoned land to county ownership.

In the video, Schwartz said the land swap proposal is “attractive,” but noted that no decisions have been made yet.

“We wanted to be transparent and release the proposal as soon as possible,” he said. At its Dec. 13 meeting, the County Board is expected to direct Schwartz to move forward with negotiations on the proposal.

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