As one fire station faces permanent closure, Arlington County is considering plans to open another one.
Fire Station 7 in Fairlington (3116 S. Abingdon Street) temporarily closed in October due to structural safety concerns. The crews relocated to other stations, with Fire Station 9 and nearby Alexandria and Fairfax stations assigned to cover Fairlington and nearby parts of South Arlington.
The station hasn’t reopened since, according to Arlington County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Ben O’Bryant.
That closure could become permanent. Since at least 2014, the station has been on the chopping block. A report from 2012 noted that the station is beloved by the community, but lacks the efficiency of other stations throughout the county.
According to the report:
Station 7 is located in a residential community that has narrow streets and limited access. It does not provide as wide coverage area as do other fire stations in the County. Well maintained and in excellent condition, Station 7 is considered a ‘neighborhood treasure’ to residents of the community. The Routley study also recommended the elimination of Station 7, or its relocation to South George Mason Drive near Wakefield High School. This study found that Stations 7 and 9 could be merged to a location near the intersection of South Walter Reed Drive and South Four Mile Run Drive.
At an audit meeting last week regarding the overuse of overtime in the Fire Department, County Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey said part of the reasoning behind Fire Station 7’s closure is that 60 percent of the station’s runs are to Alexandria and Fairfax.
The County Manager is close to making a decision on the future of Fire Station 7, according to county spokeswoman Jennifer K. Smith, and more information should be forthcoming “soon.”
Meanwhile, the County is in the early days of scouting sites for a new fire station on Columbia Pike. No timeline or site has been identified, but County Manager Mark Schwartz noted that the eastern end of Columbia Pike is a desirable location based on previous studies.
In the audit meeting, County officials also noted that new development planned for the eastern end of Columbia Pike and in the Crystal City/Pentagon City area — notably, Amazon’s HQ2 — will also likely increase demand for fire services in that area over the next few years.
“The current high demand at Fire Station 5 in Aurora Hills, combined with anticipated development and population growth in Crystal City/Pentagon City, may affect priorities in the next Capital Improvement Plan, which will be proposed in May 2020,” Smith said.
Photo via Google Maps
Update at 11:20 a.m. — Arlington County’s Solid Waste Bureau has issued the following statement about trash collection in the wake of Monday’s flooding. In it, the county apologizes for notices of “improper trash preparation” issued to flood-impacted residents “during this difficult time.”
The County continues to take special measures to assist residential curbside customers in trash collection efforts following this week’s damaging storm. We have identified areas that experienced extensive flooding and will have additional County trash collection trucks sent out daily to monitor these areas and collect items set on the curb. This will continue through Saturday, July 21 and will be extended if necessary. The County will also continue to monitor other areas and expand this service if necessary.
Trash collection by the County contractor will continue as scheduled throughout the week of July 8. If storm damage debris set out for bulk item collection isn’t picked up the day of your regular trash collection, it may take an additional 1-2 days for service given the extent of the event. You can also call the Customer Contact Call Center at 703-228-6570 to schedule a special pickup.
Some residents may have received an orange notice of improper trash preparation. We apologize if you received one during this difficult time. These are routinely issued by the County contractor to help residents properly prepare materials to allow for efficient and timely pickups and to ensure the safety of the crews.
For residential customers with storm-related debris, trash should be properly prepared for pickup on your designated collection day. For large and/or bulk household items, please follow these guidelines.
If residents have any questions, contact the Customer Contact Call Center at 703-228-6570 or learn more about residential services at recycling.arlingtonva.us/residential. Check out the online Where Does it Go? directory to learn how to properly dispose of specific types of items.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Earlier: Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has declared a state of emergency in Arlington following Monday’s historic flash flooding.
The declaration, which is set to be formalized by the County Board on Saturday, is a first step to obtaining disaster relief funding for residents and businesses affected by the flash flood emergency. Across the county, cars were destroyed, homes were flooded and businesses inundated.
In a press release, below, the county says volunteers have been going door-to-door to conduct damage assessments, but residents and business owners are also encouraged to submit damage reports online.
County Manager Mark Schwartz signed a Declaration of Local Emergency for Arlington County, effective 8:30 a.m. on July 8, 2019, in response to the Flash Flood Emergency that saw torrential rain, dangerous public safety conditions and damage to private and public facilities.
“Following record setting rainfall and flash flooding on Monday, initial damage assessments have clearly shown the impact to residents and businesses in our community,” said Aaron Miller, Director of the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management (PSCEM). “This emergency declaration is a key step in activating recovery assistance for our community. We continue to work closely with state and regional partners, including the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, on the process of determining our community’s eligibility for disaster assistance.”
The County Board will vote to formalize the emergency declaration at Saturday’s Regular Board Meeting, a step that positions the County to request reimbursement for storm-related costs through Virginia to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The emergency state remains in effect until rescinded. More information on how individuals and businesses might benefit from this designation will be detailed in a soon-to-come Declaration of Local Emergency FAQ.
As Arlington continues to work with state and local partners to assess damage, the County is asking those affected by Monday’s storm to submit a Damage Report form by Friday, July 12. While owners are responsible for repairs on their property, the County could use this data to pursue disaster aid, to the extent it is available.
Volunteers from the Arlington Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) and Team Rubicon have been trained and mobilized to go door-to-door to assist with damage assessments in the County.
In the meantime, those with immediate needs are encouraged to dial 2-1-1 or call the local American Red Cross. Only dial 9-1-1 for a life-threatening emergency.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bender
Rescuers Searching for Vehicle in the Water — “A vehicle apparently went into the water Sunday night near Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River, and a search was still under way Monday morning, authorities said. The search was being conducted near the island’s parking lot, according to the D.C. Fire and EMS Department. A witness reported that the vehicle went into the water.” [Washington Post, Twitter]
Amazon Less Worried About HQ2 Housing Impact — “Amazon said its second headquarters in Arlington will not aggravate housing problems as much as the company has in Seattle because it will be able to plan for growth here in a way that it couldn’t in earlier years in its home base. Jay Carney, a senior vice president with the online retail giant, also said the company chose the Washington region for HQ2 and its 25,000 jobs partly because it is ‘a much more racially diverse area than the Pacific Northwest.'” [Washington Post]
Amazon’s Transformative Effect on Crystal City — “All of this points toward a vision of the future that was far-fetched even a few years ago: Crystal City as a place people would want to remain in after 5 p.m.” [Washingtonian]
County Had Cozy Emails with JBG Smith — “In a Dec. 6 email to Andy VanHorn, the executive vice president at JBG Smith Properties overseeing the development of Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters, Schwartz pledged open and unfettered access to a roster of key county officials charged with overseeing the various pieces of the approval process.” [Washington Business Journal]
Arlington Unemployment Rate: 2.1% — “Arlington will have to share the title of lowest jobless rate in Virginia for at least a month. With 150,932 county residents in the civilian workforce and 3,216 looking for jobs, Arlington’s unemployment rate for March stood at 2.1 percent, unchanged for a month before and tied with the adjacent city of Falls Church as lowest among the commonwealth’s 133 cities and counties.” [InsideNova]
Arlington Man Arrested After Police Chase — “An Arlington resident was arrested Thursday for allegedly stealing a Porsche and leading Fairfax County police on a chase through Tysons.” [Tysons Reporter]
County officials are trying to drum up participation in the next U.S. Census — a year before the feds start surveying and counting.
Arlington has joined other neighboring jurisdictions in creating a group called “Complete Count Committee” tasked with convincing residents to fill out the 2020 Census form when it arrives next April.
Wanda Pierce, a Nauck resident who co-chairs of the committee, said the group is “representative of all different types of organizations, ethnicities, religions, everyone across Arlington, because to reach a lot of the hard-to-count populations, we have to have those members on the committee,” per a press release.
“The U.S. Census Bureau cannot conduct the 2020 Census alone,” the website for the committee reads.
County Board Chair Christian Dorsey also signed a proclamation calling on “the Arlington community to rise up as leaders and partners in this effort to reach 100% participation in the 2020 Census campaign.”
“It’s not enough to want to count everybody,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz at the event. “We’re going to have to go out and tell people that we want to work with them to make sure they are counted.”
Each member of the committee is tasked with recruiting at least 1,000 Arlington residents to take the annual survey, per the committee’s website.
Previously, Principal Planner and co-director of the Arlington County Census 2020 campaign Elizabeth Hardy spoke at a March meeting with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments where she noted the county began 2020 census preparations in 2018.
“This time I feel like every resident is in a hard-to-count community,” said Hardy, who worked on the awareness campaign for the 2010 census.
She said there “were a lot of lessons learned” from the 2010 campaign, and that this time around the county planned to share more resources with neighboring jurisdictions.
The census is administered once every ten years by the federal Census Bureau.
Next year’s Census has drawn controversy after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to collect information about respondents’ about the citizenship status, a largely unprecedented move that’s been criticized by civil rights advocates and defended by President Trump.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling on the citizenship question on April 23.
The most recent Census estimate of Arlington’s population — made in intervening years between official Census counts — was 234,965 as of July 1, 2017. That showed Arlington’s population has continued to grow, from 230,050 in 2016, 226,908 in 2014 and 207,627 from the last Census count in 2010.
Every level of government studies the population data gleaned to make funding decisions. The number of people counted also determines how many House of Representative seats each state is awarded.
Image via U.S. Census Bureau
Metro is moving forward with its new budget, proposing sweeping service increases to bolster ridership with the need for a modest budget increase from Arlington.
The WMATA Board of Directors gave initial approval for the transit agency’s draft $3.5 billion, FY2020 budget during a meeting today (Thursday). The budget paves the way to start running Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt and Red Line trains all the way to Glenmont, eliminating the Silver Spring turn-back.
The budget asks Arlington to contribute $77.6 million to the agency’s operating budget, a $2.6 million increase from last year.
“Yellow and Red extensions help any Arlingtonians heading to those end points and expand the commute/travel shed into Arlington to accommodate growth in Pentagon City and Crystal City,” Metro Board member and Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey told ARLnow after Thursday’s meeting.
“Better service helps us all,” said Dorsey.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed $45.6 million in the county’s next budget to be allocated to Metro’s operating budget, a $5 million increase from budget adopted last fiscal year. The remainder of the county’s $77.6 million in funding is from a small increase in the portion of the county’s capital improvement program (CIP) funds set aside for Metro.
Arlington County Board members advertised a 2.75-cent bump to the real estate tax in Arlington’s next fiscal budget, in part, to cover rising expenses at Metro.
The idea was Dorsey’s, who said the increased funds to Metro allowed the transit agency’s budget “to do more service, reduce the price of some fare pass products including on bus where ridership is cratering while having no fare increases and staying within legislatively mandated caps.”
The budget also included a small, $1 million proposal provide $3 subsidies for late-night rideshare trips that area workers take, now that Metrorail’s own late-night service is no more.
One uncertainty the transit agency’s budget continues to face is its ridership rates, which have now plummeted to a 20-year low. The budget banks on that number stabilizing this year, a result WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld hopes to achieve with the increased service.
Wiedefeld initially proposed even more sweeping service increases, including an expansion of rush-hour service, but the expense prompted consternation from county officials. Those proposals were ultimately stripped from the budget.
The budget proposal Board members approved Thursday did not include service cuts or fare increases.
Metro Board member Corbett Price, representing D.C., thanked Dorsey at the end of the meeting for his “political leadership” in assembling the budget, reported WTOP.
“My only hope is people say such things about me when I’m dead,” joked Dorsey.
Metro Board members will convene again this month for a final vote on the budget, which goes into effect in June.
Arlington arts advocates are sounding the alarm about planned cuts in the county’s new budget, arguing that they’ll disproportionately impact the government’s already modest arts programs.
County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in spending slashes for fiscal year 2020, in tandem with a tax increase to meet some of the county’s financial challenges. About $500,000 of those cuts will targets arts-focused programs specifically, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Embracing Arlington Arts.
“We all have to sacrifice when budgets are tough,” Embracing Arlington Arts Chair Janet Kopenhaver wrote in a statement. “However, we remain stunned at the very high proportion the small arts budget is being asked to shoulder.”
Schwartz plans to close the Costume Lab and Scenic Studio Program located at the Gunston Community Center (2700 S. Lang Street), which provide scenery construction space and costume rentals for local arts groups. That will involving laying off two employees who staff the programs, a savings of about $180,000 each year.
The manager also expects to cut funding for its arts grant program by a third, dropping it from about $216,000 to $146,000 annually. The program provides some matching funds to support local artists, and both County Board contenders last year pressed for increases to the fund.
Kopenhaver group says that would make the county’s budget for the grant program “the lowest in the region.”
The county would also ditch the use of its mobile performance stage, which is available for rent, under Schwartz’s proposal.
The Cultural Affairs Division of the county’s economic development arm would also lose an audio production specialist who worked on county events, and the facility manager and facility technology services director working at the county’s arts studio at 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive. Schwartz expects existing staff could absorb the responsibilities of those employees, who are responsible for managing the space as a variety of different arts groups make use of it.
Finally, Kopenhaver’s group is also concerned about the proposed layoff of a supervisor of after-hours building engineers, who supervises building maintenance workers. Many county arts groups rely on county facilities after normal business hours for performance space.
In all, the arts advocates estimate that cultural affairs and arts program take up about one tenth of one percent of the county’s budget — Schwartz’s proposed cuts are much larger than that for arts-related services.
“In the end, the tiny arts program is being held accountable for a share of this year’s budget shortfall that is 62.5 times greater than its share of the fiscal year 2019 county budget,” Kopenhaver wrote. “If the cuts were proportional to the actual budget, then the cuts to the arts would be only $8,000.”
Embracing Arlington Arts notes that a recent study found that the arts generate $18 million in economic activity for the county, meaning that cuts to the arts budget could well have an impact on the county’s tax revenue.
The Board will evaluate Schwartz’s proposal over the next few months, while also keeping a close eye on school needs as well — Superintendent Patrick Murphy is already warning that the school system will face painful cuts unless the Board approves a substantial tax hike.
Officials are scheduled to finalize the budget in late April.
Photo via Arlington Arts
Arlington Transit could soon roll back some of its bus service on two different routes, with county officials arguing that ridership isn’t robust enough on the routes to justify keep them going.
County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing the service reductions in his first draft of a new county budget for fiscal year 2020, which he forwarded on to the County Board for consideration last week.
The service cuts would primarily affect ART Route 53, running from the Ballston Metro up to the Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood in North Arlington and then down to East falls Church and Westover.
Schwartz is proposing eliminating midday service on that route, noting that it’s currently averaging about 7.4 riders per hour on buses along the route during the day — the bus service has a “minimum service standard” of 15 passengers per hour, according to documents forward along by Schwartz to the Board.
The manager is also calling for the elimination of rush-hour service to Westover on the route, as that section of the route is averaging just three riders per hour. Buses currently stop there near the intersection of Washington Blvd and Patrick Henry Drive.
Schwartz estimates that the changes would save the county about $244,000 each year, though staff also wrote that the elimination of that service “significantly impacts neighborhoods in the northernmost portion of the county that will lose all midday bus service.”
The buses currently provide service adjacent to five county elementary and middle schools north of Lee Highway, and staff estimate that the changes would leave the following neighborhoods without midday service:
- N. Sycamore Street between 26th Street N. and Williamsburg Blvd
- Williamsburg Blvd between N. Sycamore Street and N. Glebe Road
- N. Glebe Road between Williamsburg Blvd and Military Road
- Military Road/Quincy Street between N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive
However, Schwartz does point out in his message to the Board that Metrobus routes 2A, 23B and 23T also partially cover the area, as do ART routes 52, 55 and 72.
He’s also proposing cutting weekend service along ART Route 43, which runs between Courthouse and Crystal City.
With an average of four riders per hour, Schwartz argues that it isn’t coming close to meeting ART’s minimum ridership numbers, though weekday service remains robust and would remain under his current plans. That move could save the county nearly $196,000 each year.
These latest service reductions would follow persistent ridership declines for the bus service, as part of a broader decline in bus ridership nationwide. Schwartz also proposed eliminating two ART bus routes last year, and the Board ultimately agreed to those reductions in a budget defined by some difficult spending cuts.
Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in cuts this year, paired with a tax increase, though he has not proposed the sort of drastic spending slashes he initially feared. The Board will spend the new few weeks tinkering with the spending plan, with plans to adopt the final budget (perhaps including the ART service cuts) in April.
Arlington officials now hope to use some of the county’s fiber optic network to jumpstart a “digital equity initiative,” though questions still linger about the future of the troubled “ConnectArlington” program.
County Manager Mark Schwartz envisions the county setting aside $250,000 for a new grant program, allowing nonprofits and healthcare providers apply for cash to build connections to the county’s “dark fiber” network. Everyone from senior citizens to patients would then be able use that high-speed internet connection to access county services remotely, taking advantage of the county’s own broadband network.
Schwartz is proposing the new initiative as part of his first crack at drafting a new budget for fiscal year 2020, but county officials have been discussing ConnectArlington’s future for some time now.
The county initially built out its broadband network to link its own facilities together. Then, four years ago, the County Board shelled out $4.1 million to build another 10 miles of the network, with plans to allow local businesses and internet service providers lease the fiber and get cheaper access to blazing-fast internet service.
However, the network has since gone almost entirely unused, and a committee of experts convened by the county is urging officials to change their strategies for managing the network, which they believe have scared off any businesses from using it.
Schwartz is still drafting up recommendations on how to meet those goals, and get some return on the county’s investment in the project. But, in the meantime, county officials see this “digital equity” investment as a small way to start using some of its capacity right away.
“ConnectArlington is obviously a valuable asset to the community, and we want to continue to work on maximizing that value,” Deputy County Manager Jim Schwartz, who oversees Arlington’s technology efforts, told ARLnow. “This is using it, but it’s not the maximal use we would hope for.”
Under the county manager’s proposal, the grant money could enable new telemedicine services at a local doctor’s office or hospital, or perhaps connect people in need with county services remotely.
Though the county has yet to strike an agreement with a specific nonprofit, Schwartz used Culpepper Garden, a senior living facility operated by the Arlington Retirement Housing Corporation, as an example of a building that could hook up to ConnectArlington.
Schwartz said that the nonprofit could use the grant money to construct a “lateral,” hooking up to the fiber network — one of the key problems experts identified with ConnectArlington was its lack of such laterals, with one critic comparing the network to “an interstate with no on-ramps or off-ramps.”
Culpepper Garden could then use that network connection to set up a secure video-conferencing service with county staff, perhaps at Arlington’s Department of Human Services, Schwartz said.
“It might just be a resident who needs to access human services, not even necessarily health-related,” Schwartz said. “But instead of going over there to Sequoia Plaza, there might be a place within Culpepper Gardens where they could go and converse with staff.”
Schwartz notes that the county would need to set up a software platform to enable that connection, which it hasn’t done yet, but officials are intrigued by the possibility, nonetheless.
“Making the fiber connection is the easiest part of this,” Schwartz said. “We’re thinking about, what sort of platform could enable access to the services we’re talking about?
The manager’s proposal also calls for setting aside $50,000 in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund for similar projects at affordable housing developments. The county previously worked with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to use the network to provide free Wi-Fi service at the group’s Arlington Mill apartment complex, though Schwartz says the county would specifically use ConnectArlington to provide access to services, not for internet access generally.
Schwartz added that the county could also use ConnectArlington to better link county-owned facilities. For instance, the county could upgrade the connection between the Department of Human Services and its Residential Program Center (an emergency shelter and jail diversion facility) to set up secure video conferencing.
The group that evaluated ConnectArlington for the county, the Broadband Advisory Committee, is broadly “supportive” of these uses for the network, Schwartz said. But he added that the manager is still thinking through the best ways to meet the bulk of the group’s recommendations.
The Board will consider its “digital equity” proposal as part of its budget deliberations, which are set to last for the next few weeks and conclude in early April.
Flickr photo via Arlington Dept. Environmental Services
Though the opening of the ever-controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center is still a ways off, county officials are gearing up to hire two new staffers set to work at the facility.
County Manager Mark Schwartz set aside $110,000 for the newly created positions as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. He forwarded along his first draft of the new spending plan to the County Board late last week.
Schwartz is recommending that the Board act now to start the recruitment and hiring process for a general manager and a maintenance technician for the facility, currently expected to open sometime in “early 2021.”
“Hiring these two positions prior to the facility opening will allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop standard operating procedures; ensure mastery of all building systems, including specialized aquatics equipment; procure inventory; and develop staff training plans,” Schwartz wrote in a message attached to the budget proposal.
The manager expects that the county will be able to afford the new hires largely through some staff reductions elsewhere across the department. In all, Schwartz is recommending $5.2 million in cuts in his budget, affecting 29 full-time positions and one-part time position across the county government. He’s also proposing a tax hike to meet some of the county’s growing expenses, though the Board opted to explore an even larger tax increase than he originally recommended.
Construction has continued apace on the $60 million Long Bridge project ever since it finally broke ground last summer, following years of debate over its scope and cost. Schwartz added in his budget proposal that he “remains committed” to somehow striking a naming rights deal for the facility to defray some of its costs — the Board decided last year to hire a marketing firm to help the county search for potential sponsors.
“As the project moves closer to completion, we remain optimistic that our efforts will be successful,” Schwartz wrote.
County officials also expect to finalize a fee structure for anyone hoping to use the facility’s pools and gym as part of the upcoming budget process. A working group on the subject recently wrapped up its deliberations and will deliver a proposal with potential fees to the Board in the coming weeks.
According to a Jan. 31 presentation from the group, daily passes for county residents would range from $9 for adults to $5 for children. An annual pass for adults would cost $630 and $350 for kids.
Non-residents would pay a 25 percent premium on daily passes and a 30 percent premium on all other passes, under the working group’s proposal.
Growing expenses from the county school system and Metro have convinced Arlington officials to propose a substantial tax increase for the new year’s budget, with leaders advancing a tax hike that’s even larger than the one initially proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz.
The County Board voted 4-1 to advertise a 2.75-cent bump to the county’s real estate tax rate at its meeting Saturday, nearly double the 1.5-cent increase included in Schwartz’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. Board member Katie Cristol cast the lone dissenting vote.
That change would raise the real estate rate to $1.0205 per $100 of assessed value, generating about $21.4 million for the county in all. The average homeowner would pay an extra $360 or so if the rate goes into effect, though most other county tax rates will remain unchanged.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Board will end up approving that exact tax bump — the advertised rate merely represents the upper limit of the rate officials can ultimately approve by the time the budget process ends in April, and they can always bring the rate back down if they so choose.
Most Board members said Saturday that they hope to eventually to do just that, but with the exact size of the budget challenges that the county will face still uncertain, leaders opted to post the higher rate to afford themselves some extra flexibility this spring.
“I don’t want to be in the position of erring because of a box we set ourselves in early,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “I’m comfortable having that [higher rate] to allow us the proper flexibility to make sure that, at the end of this budget season, we don’t end up with regrets.”
The Board was bracing for Schwartz himself to propose a similarly sizable tax hike in his first draft of the budget, given his warnings this fall that the county would need to close a budget gap of anywhere between $20 million to $35 million, without taking the schools’ needs into account.
But a larger-than-expected rise in property values filled up county coffers a bit, prompting Schwartz to propose the 1.5 cent tax increase and $5.2 million in cuts to balance the budget. Yet Schwartz also cautioned that he had no way of knowing quite yet just how much money the school system or Metro will ultimately need, convincing officials of the need for some extra wiggle room.
The extra quarter of a cent on the tax rate above Schwartz’s proposal would be set aside for Metro’s needs, a move championed by Dorsey, who also serves on WMATA’s Board of Directors. The transit system will set its new budget next month, and there’s no telling just how much cash that could demand from localities like Arlington — General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is proposing major service increases designed to increase ridership, but county officials have thrown cold water on some of those proposals.
As for the school system, Superintendent Pat Murphy will present his opening budget proposal to the School Board later this week, but he’s previously estimated that a flood of new students (and the opening of new schools to accommodate them) could put Arlington Public Schools in a budget hole of as much as $43 million.
Accordingly, Board members hoped to add an extra penny to the tax rate beyond Schwartz’s proposal, generating an extra $7.8 million to dedicate specifically to schools.
Board member Erik Gutshall says school leaders have been especially keen on a larger tax increase recently, particularly after the Board decided to hold the tax rate flat last year. Many around the school system felt that the Board promised them that they’d work to address school needs this year instead, and they’re looking to see officials deliver on that pledge.
Josh Folb, a leader of the Arlington Education Association, even argued that a 3-cent tax increase would be the most appropriate step for the Board to take.
“Without that flexibility, the Board will not be able to negotiate in good faith with the schools when they present their budget of needs in the coming days,” Folb said.
Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey, a former School Board member herself, said she’d have favored advertising the full 3-cent increase, but acknowledged she wouldn’t have the votes with her to make that happen.
Indeed, Cristol argued instead for the Board to advertise a 2-cent tax hike. She pointed out that the Board managed to find some extra money for both schools and Metro without raising taxes in last year’s budget, and worried that even advertising the 2.75-cent tax hike would send a poor message to local homeowners.
“Raising it any further undermines our commitment, or way of framing, we have taken to this community, this idea we’ve had softness in the office market and we were committed to doing everything we needed to do to raise that, rather than just balance the cost of our increasing needs on the backs of our residential taxpayers,” said Cristol, who’s up for re-election this fall. “I think that’s really penetrated and allowed us to have much a healthier conversation with most quarters of our community about Amazon’s arrival and why it’s necessary.”
But Cristol was the only Board member to support that proposal, with others arguing that last year’s budget cuts were painful enough that leaders aren’t eager to repeat that process this time around.
“If there’s fat to be found [in the budget], we’ve crossed that bridge already,” Gutshall said. “Last year, we hopefully didn’t cut to bone, but we came very, very close in some particular areas.”
As part of his proposal, Schwartz included an extra $3.4 million in potential cuts that the Board could consider if it doesn’t want to raise taxes at all. Those changes would affect another 19 county staffers, and involve changes like the elimination of library services at the Crystal City Connection and Glencarlyn Library, reductions in county transportation and human services staffing and cuts to some police department programs.
But Schwartz pointedly did not endorse those changes, urging the Board to opt for the tax hikes instead.
The Board will now hold a series of work sessions and public hearings on the budget and tax rates, with a final vote on the new spending plan set for April 23.
Arlington’s top executive is calling for a real estate tax hike and some select staff cuts to meet rising expenses passed along by county schools.
However, County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year is not quite as unpalatable as he’d initially feared.
Schwartz offered a first glimpse at his budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 to the County Board at a work session today (Thursday). The headline number: a 1.5-cent tax increase.
Unlike last year, when the Board opted to keep the tax rate level, Schwartz is envisioning bumping the base real estate rate to $1.008 per $100 of assessed value.
That’s a 4 percent jump from last year, factoring in the increase in real estate assessments, generating an extra $11.7 million for the county on an annual basis and costing the average homeowner an extra $277 annually. Schwartz plans to leave most other tax rates and fee schedules untouched.
In all, the annual tax burden on the average homeowner would reach $8,890, including car taxes and fees, trash collection charges, and water and sewer fees.
Neighboring Fairfax County, meanwhile, is considering holding its tax rate level at $1.15 per $100, while Alexandria’s rate is also likely to be held steady at $1.13.
Schwartz hopes to save $5.2 million by slashing a total of 29 full-time staff positions and one part-time role from the budget. Eleven of those positions are currently unfilled, and Schwartz is characterizing those cuts as ways to reform inefficient programs rather than as painful losses for the county.
The county manager had originally projected doom and gloom for the new year’s budget, predicting that the county would need to close a gap of anywhere between $20-35 million on its own, with the school system tacking on a $43 million deficit too. But Schwartz told reporters today that the county’s budget picture has improved substantially since those initial estimates in the fall, giving him a bit more room to maneuver.
“This budget been a little bit more of a meandering trail than a straight line,” Schwartz said. “I thought I’d be coming to the community proposing a budget with reductions to fundamental services in the county. We’d be doing less maintenance, we’d have fewer programs. That’s not really the case.”
Schwartz chalks up the sudden change partially to property values ticking up a bit more than the county anticipated — assessments saw a 3.5 percent increase this year, while Schwartz says the county projected a 2 percent jump.
That’s not to say that the county is out of the woods, fiscally speaking.
Schwartz says he’s still not sure just how large the school system’s budget gap might be, and the extra $24.8 million he plans to send to Arlington Public Schools next year still likely won’t be enough to meet all their needs. APS is opening three new schools next year, prompting plenty of new expenses, and persistently rising enrollment projections means that the school system will need to keep adding new buildings going forward.
“They still have something of a gap that will require cuts,” Schwartz said. “I can’t really quantify what those cuts would be, but I’m sure we’ll hear from the schools community and the School Board when the [County Board] has to decide what to advertise that my penny [on the tax rate] for them wasn’t enough.”
That tone toward the school system could set off yet another round of wrangling between the county and the School Board, which has repeatedly argued for more cash to fund school construction. School leaders narrowly avoided class size increases last year, but the Board is already warning that they may not be able to do so this time around.
Another potential spot of trouble for the county is Metro. Schwartz plans to spend an additional $45.6 million to support the transit service in FY2020, with only a 3 percent increase in expenses to fund Metro operations specifically. That’s a key figure because the deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro mandates that Virginia localities can’t increase spending on the transit service by more than 3 percent each year, but WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is courting a bit of a dispute on the issue.
He’s proposing a Metro budget that calls for substantial changes aimed at boosting ridership, which would require localities to blow past that 3 percent spending cap. Wiedefeld argues that he’s crafted a way to avoid violating that stricture — Arlington officials disagree, and Schwartz said he had no desire to push the envelope on this front.
“We had a deal, this is the deal and to the extent that there’s more [money] that has to be added, we can talk about it,” Schwartz said. “But I wasn’t prepared to make the choices on my own right now to defund a county program in order to do something I think might be questionable.”
Aside from Metro, the rest of the budget includes raises of 3.25-3.5 percent for all county employees, including pay bumps of up to 5.5 percent for Arlington first responders, a key part of last year’s budget deliberations.
Schwartz also hopes to add four new staff positions geared around adapting to Amazon’s growing “HQ2” presence, assuming the Board signs off on an incentive package next month to bring the tech giant’s new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City.