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.
Most of those staffers will be dedicated to handling the surge in development activity the county is expecting to see related to Amazon’s arrival, even though the tech company itself will only have limited development demands. For instance, Schwartz pointed out that the county is planning on receiving three times as many applications for site-plan developments as they do in the average year, a clear sign of interest in major mixed-use development.
“There’s a whole bunch of other plans I’m assuming people have had on their shelves that they want to dust off, based on what they perceive as new economic circumstances,” Schwartz said. “And that’s a lot of what they’ll be be available to address.”
Schwartz is projecting that the fees attached to those extra development applications will generate an extra $1 million or so each year. He’s leaving that money untouched in his budget projections, giving the Board the full discretion to spend it “to address any other impacts from Amazon that they think are appropriate.”
Given expected new rent pressure from Amazon’s planned 25,000 local employees, Schwartz is also putting an emphasis on new money for affordable housing.
He hopes to send an extra $500,000 to the county’s housing grants program, which hands out cash to low-income and disabled renters to help them afford homes in the county. Schwartz is also planning another $200,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to help spur the construction of reasonably priced homes in the county.
He also wants to make more of the cash the county sends to that fund each year “ongoing,” instead of being subject to yearly appropriations from the Board. Under the budget proposal, $8.7 million of the $14.5 million AHIF contribution would stay in the county’s budget going forward — an increase of about $1.5 million in ongoing cash.
That’s a change desired by several Board members, and Schwartz added that he also hopes to move away from the Board’s tradition of using leftover “closeout” funds at the end of each budget year to fund the program.
“That’s not a sustainable way of doing it, so year over year, we’re chipping away at it,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying we’ve solved the affordable housing issue, but we’re doing more than we’ve ever done before, and we need to do more than that.”
The Board will now vote Saturday (Feb. 23) on an “advertised” tax rate — that will then become the highest rate the Board could ultimately set, though it could opt for a lower tax rate.
Schwartz says he has prepared options for the Board should they opt not to raise the tax rate, but he expects the cuts that would entail would not be palatable to Board members.
Final budget adoption is scheduled for April 23.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget is expected to include a relatively modest $5 million in cuts, but that includes the elimination of about 32 county government jobs.
The early word on the budget comes from an email sent to county staff yesterday by Schwartz and obtained by ARLnow. Schwartz is scheduled to formally present his budget proposal next Thursday, Feb. 21.
The size of the reductions is much smaller than initially feared. Schwartz initially warned that the county was facing a $20-35 million gap.
Schwartz said that the county will work with affected employees to help them find and apply for vacant county government positions.
The manager’s proposed budget is one of the first concrete steps in a months-long process that culminates with the County Board’s adoption of a final budget in April. Arlington Public Schools, meanwhile, is facing its own budget challenges in the midst of continued enrollment growth and school construction.
The email from Schwartz is below.
February 13, 2019
To: All County Employees
As we get closer to submission of my proposed FY 2020 Budget to the County Board (a work session will be held February 21), I wanted to update you on the contents and timeline.
My proposed budget will include more than $5 million in proposed reductions – far less than the $20 to $35 million gap discussed last
Fall. My base budget includes elimination of about 32 positions – about 2/3 of which are currently filled. Affected employees will find out this week about the proposals.
In addition, the proposed budget will continue my commitment to the compensation maintenance plan for all general employees and the added commitments to Police, Fire and Sheriff staff included in the County Board adopted pay philosophy.
Next week I will provide you with more detailed information. Until then, those employees who might be affected by some of the proposed cuts are going through a difficult time. We are encouraging them to pursue vacant County positions and will do our best to match their skills with those vacancies. Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is also a great resource and support for all County employees during this time.
These cuts involve difficult choices. The County Board does not adopt a final budget until April 2019, and I will continue to keep you
updated as we learn more. Again, thank you for your continued commitment and support for Arlington County. I am grateful each day for Arlington’s dedicated workforce.
Mark J. Schwartz
Four years ago, Arlington officials spent $4.1 million to build a 10-mile fiber optic network aimed at allowing local businesses to get cheaper access to higher-speed internet — since then, the fiber has just sat in the ground, almost totally unused.
At the time, county leaders championed the construction of the “dark fiber” network as a transformative step for Arlington. Though the county is barred by state law from offering internet service itself, officials envisioned smaller internet service providers working with local tech firms to “light” the fiber, providing county businesses with a powerful new option to access the internet at blazing-fast speeds.
But an ARLnow investigation shows that Arlington officials made a series of decisions in designing the program that scared off any businesses interested in leasing the fiber.
A committee of broadband experts convened by the county laid out many of these problems with the network, dubbed “ConnectArlington,” in a thorough report recommending an extensive overhaul of the program’s design. At least one member compared ConnectArlington to the infamous — but never built — “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.
County officials, including County Manager Mark Schwartz, have now been aware of the group’s conclusions for close to eight months and they say they’re already hard at work to heed some of the committee’s recommendations. The report has even since been forwarded along to the County Board, even though Schwartz had originally hoped to wait to deliver his own recommendations for the program alongside the committee’s conclusions.
Now, it remains an open question how the county will work to address the problems with ConnectArlington, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the county to maintain.
“They have this huge amount of fiber in the ground, and not a single strand of it has been leased,” said Chris Rozycki, a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee that studied ConnectArlington. “It’s like they’ve built an interstate, with no on-ramps or off-ramps.”
The Board decided to build the 10-mile network in February 2015, reasoning that it would be a logical extension of the county’s existing fiber network, which connects county facilities, schools, radio towers and traffic signals.
Then-County Board member Jay Fisette touted it to ARLnow at the time as a “competitive advantage over other jurisdictions,” positioning it as a key tool for economic development in the county. It was also designed as a way to provide more competition for large ISPs like Verizon and Comcast — the county’s own research shows that companies at roughly 60 percent of all county office buildings only have one ISP able to offer them fiber-based service.
But the network’s design and the county’s conditions for leasing out the fiber were flawed from the very beginning, according to the broadband committee’s report and interviews with four of the group’s six members.
A chief concern is how the county chose to build out the fiber. Officials designed it as “middle mile” service, meaning it runs along major roadways (along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and Columbia Pike, for example) but didn’t initially connect to the buildings along the corridors.
“To be useful, the network must be complete,” the report argues, according to a copy obtained by ARLnow. The report has not been publicly released by the county.
“‘Build it and they will come’ does not always work,” the committee wrote. “Part of the network was built, but not enough to bring the ‘players’ to the game.”
(Read the full report written by the county’s Broadband Advisory Committee.)
Rozycki also works as the CEO of Potomac Fiber, a local internet service provider, and he says the lack of connections to large office buildings, known as “laterals,” would be particularly challenging for a company like his.
“We would have to bore into each building we’d want to serve, even if it was only for one or two customers,” Rozycki said. “And for building owners themselves, none of them want to be internet service providers. They don’t have technology or the resources, they need someone like us.”
The county also had problems attracting ISPs to use the ConnectArlington fiber and facilitating those sorts of connections. The committee identified the terms of the license agreement officials asked companies to sign to use the fiber as “a huge barrier to entry.”
“It wasn’t written in a digital context,” said Mary Crannell, a member of the broadband committee and the head of a local technology consulting firm. “It used the context of other negotiations, not the digital world.”
The document is full of legal jargon and complex provisions — a copy of the agreement provided to ARLnow clocks in at 72 pages long — which worried some prospective customers.
Committee member Deb Socia says she’s seen all manner of communities leasing out dark fiber have success with considerably shorter, less complex agreements. She heads a group called Next Century Cities, which works with dozens of localities around the country to champion access to high-speed broadband, Arlington included.
“We have seen that a simple and straightforward lease agreement can help to ensure that the asset brings the most value to the community,” Socia said.
The agreement also allows the county to boot ISPs off the network with just one year’s worth of notice, complicating any efforts by an ISP to sign customers to long-term deals. Rozycki said the terms of the agreement pushes so much risk on to his company that his investors threatened a revolt when he tried to sign a deal with Arlington.
“I had to put on my Donald Trump face and walk away, because I had no guarantee I could survive a year,” Rozycki said. “There’s no reason that they would take [our access] away, but the fact that it was in the contract had my investors say, ‘No.'”
That sort of risk-averse position by county officials meant that even businesses that found an ISP willing to hook them up to the dark fiber faced issues.
Chris Wargo, the co-founder of security consulting firm Infolock, says he spent close to a year working to get access to ConnectArlington.
After confirming that a lateral was already installed to link the network to his company’s office building at the Village at Shirlington, he approached the county about the prospect and quickly found a local ISP to light the fiber. From the preliminary numbers he saw, Wargo says he could’ve managed a “major cost savings” getting fiber access through the county.
But after months of back-and-forth, Wargo got word from county lawyers that it’d be impossible for him to lease the fiber, and he was forced to work with a large ISP instead.
“Arlington paid for this, they built this: it’s my money,” Wargo said. “My money’s in the ground for a service I could benefit from and I’m not allowed to use it… From a common sense perspective, it’s ludicrous.”
County leaders say that the decision to turn down Wargo was anything but simple, much like the rest of the problems identified by the report. Officials argue that everything from restrictive state laws to the county’s obligation to protect tax dollars have hamstrung their efforts to make ConnectArlington a success.
“All of those things we did made sense at the time, but it didn’t work,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer and head of its Department of Technology Services. “We’re not trying to hide anything. What it is is what it is.”
In Wargo’s case, Belcher says Infolock’s building was only connected to the dark fiber in the first place because it’s also home to a radio tower powering 911 service in the county. Once lawyers took a look at the situation, Belcher says they determined the ISP couldn’t use the same equipment designated for such an important purpose.
“It came down to a prohibition that said it’s set aside for the public safety radio network and couldn’t be used for other purposes,” Belcher said.
County attorneys saw additional legal problems with building laterals on private property, as such a move could similarly be a “great liability” for the county, Belcher said.
“That’s money that the county is bearing,” said Deputy County Attorney MinhChau Corr. “Let’s say Amazon wants to use one and, for whatever reason, it’s damaged and their business gets disrupted for 10 minutes. I wouldn’t want to be on the hook for Amazon’s 10-minute disruption.”
Rozycki said he “broke out laughing” when he heard that same sort of argument from county lawyers, considering how safe this sort of equipment is to use. Even Belcher admits he’s a bit skeptical of such thinking.
“It’s fiber optics, you’re not going to get electrocuted by fiber optics,” Belcher said. “You may prick your finger, but it’ll last 50 years, and once you make that connection, you’ll be fine.”
Crannell argues that it’s perfectly reasonable for the county to harbor such concerns, considering that officials are “entrusted to be stewards of taxpayer dollars.” As she puts it, county lawyers are “just doing their jobs, they’re not the villains in this.”
Still, she believes that the county’s problems demonstrate a clear need for a “different mindset” when it comes to managing the program. On that front, Belcher agrees, particularly when it comes to rethinking a license agreement that he concedes is a bit outdated.
“We operate under policies and procedures that have served us well for 60, 70 years,” Belcher said. “But the pace of tech is so fast that it’s just bypassed what we do.”
The fiber’s future
For its part, the committee urged the county in its report to remove the “poison pills” and “contract traps” in the agreement that scared away companies like Rozycki’s. The group also urged the county to rewrite the agreement “in plain English,” offer longer lease terms and provide “adequate remedies other than contract termination” should problems arise with the network.
And Belcher and Corr both say the county’s technical workers and lawyers are already huddling up on the best way to revise the license agreement to make it more palatable to ISPs.
“There’s been a lot of movement based on the report,” Belcher said.
But there are other steps the committee recommends as well. The group hopes to see the county build new laterals, offer grants to companies hoping to do the same and advertise incentives to ISPs looking to enter the market.
Brent Skorup, a member of the committee and a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, even wrote a special section of the report recommending that the county let companies use the network as a chance to experiment with autonomous vehicle technology. He points out that cities like Atlanta and Austin have had success with similar programs, and he reasons that the network’s proximity to major roadways would be a boon, rather than a hindrance, for such a purpose.
“They could be promoting innovation and allowing a permissive environment for companies to use this network if they can,” Skorup said.
Yet all those aforementioned changes would require the County Board’s sign off, and there’s no telling when officials will debate the issue.
Belcher says the committee presented the bulk of its findings to Schwartz and other staffers last June, before delivering a fully finalized version of the report in mid-January.
Rozycki, who drafted most of the document, says the draft Schwartz and others saw this summer was virtually the same as the final one — Belcher chalks up the delay in issuing the finished product to a series of vacations and some staff turnover, not major changes in the report.
That leaves the matter with Schwartz, who has now had months to decide what to recommend to the Board.
Despite ConnectArlington’s problems, Belcher hopes the county’s leadership will decide to recommit to the program. While officials had once entertained selling the network to someone else, he thinks it has huge potential to enable new partnerships with everyone from local hospitals to Amazon.
“Getting rid of it at this point, I think, is a mistake,” Belcher said. “We have the opportunity to leverage it in so many ways as a county.”
For all their criticism, committee members agree. Socia says she applauds the county’s “willingness to look for ways to more fully utilize” the network, instead of simply giving up.
Rozycki is even cautiously optimistic that the county can someday make use of its hefty investment in the project, so long as it can successfully lure in a few ISPs. But he expects that managing that feat will require a truly thoughtful response to the program’s problems.
“They have the makings of something really interesting there,” Rozycki said. “They just need the right people and partners to make it work.”
Flickr photo via Arlington Dept. Environmental Services
APS on Two Hour Delay — Arlington Public Schools is a two hour delays this morning amid a light coating of snow. Fairfax County Public Schools, meanwhile, is closed after initially announcing a two hour delay last night. [Twitter]
County Still Seeking Aquatics Center Sponsor — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has not given up on his goal of finding sponsors to help offset the cost of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center. ‘I remain optimistic that we will be successful” in finding partners,’ Schwartz told County Board members Jan. 29, though he offered no specifics.” [InsideNova]
ACPD: Get a Designated Driver for the Big Game — “Super Bowl LIII is slated for kick-off this Sunday, February 3, and, for many, this celebratory evening includes alcohol. Enjoy the game and festivities, but don’t drop the ball on safety. Make it your game plan to take a sober ride home – whether it’s by using a ride sharing service, taxi, public transportation, or designated sober driver.” [Arlington County]
Ballston BID to Launch ‘Club’ — “The Ballston Business Improvement District is launching a club for area residents… which appears to be a first-of-its-kind program in the region. When the club kicks off by the end of summer, members will enjoy exclusive benefits like discounts for restaurants and retail, in addition to events like yoga in the park and outdoor movies.” [Washington Business Journal]
Arlington Firm Makes Big Acquisition — “CACI International Inc. has reached an agreement to acquire LGS Innovations LLC for $750 million in a deal that extends Arlington-based CACI’s reach into the signals intelligence and cybersecurity markets.” [Washington Business Journal]
Flickr pool photo by Starbuck77
Arlington leaders are doling out raises for County Manager Mark Schwartz and several other senior county employees.
The County Board signed off on modest pay hikes for Schwartz, County Attorney Steve MacIsaac, County Auditor Chris Horton and County Board Clerk Kendra Jacobs at its meeting Tuesday (Jan. 29).
Each one scored 3.25 percent pay bumps on their previous contracts, matching raises the Board handed out last year to the group. All four report directly to county lawmakers.
Schwartz, the top executive in the county government, now stands to pull in just under $262,000 next year. This raise marks the third one he’s earned from the Board since he was hired as permanent county manager in 2016, when he started out with an annual salary of $245,000. His predecessor as manager, Barbara Donnellan, reached a top salary of about $270,000 a year by the end of her five-year tenure.
MacIsaac now pulls in about $253,000 per year, his tenth salary bump since taking over as the county’s top lawyer in 2000. Horton now makes nearly $143,000, earning his second raise since joining the county in 2016.
Jacobs now makes just over $108,000 annually, with the pay bump coming just a few months after the Board hired her to manage meeting materials this past July.
The good news for these county employees, most of whom rank among the highest-paid in the county workforce, comes as Schwartz is warning of some potential bad news for other county workers.
He’s already ordered a hiring “slowdown” to cope with the county’s dire fiscal picture, and has warned layoffs could be in the forecast (alongside tax increases and service cuts) to close a large budget gap in the new fiscal year.
Residential and commercial property values in Arlington ticked up last year, sending more revenue into the county’s coffers, but officials warn the increase won’t be enough to avoid the painful budget gaps facing county leaders this year.
The good news, the county says, is that the total assessed value of all Arlington property increased by 3.5 percent this year, compared to a 2.2 percent bump last year. Today (Friday), county mailed out property assessments, which determine the size of homeowners’ tax burdens. It plans to make all that information available online by tonight at 6 p.m.
The county said in a news release that three out of every four homes saw an increase in assessed value, for an overall bump in residential property values of about 2.9 percent. The average home’s value is now $658,600, up from $640,900 last year.
Commercial property also saw a 4.1 percent increase in value, and the county says the construction of new apartments was “responsible for about a third of the collective increase.” Office properties specifically saw a 4.3 percent bump, a substantial turnaround from the 6.9 percent decrease they recorded last year.
“Rising property values mean Arlington is a place people want to live and work,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement. “And the revenue we collect from real estate taxes helps us maintain the high-quality amenities and public services that make Arlington so attractive.”
Of course, the county still has its challenges. The release notes that Arlington’s office vacancy rate still sits at about 17.4 percent, and the resulting tax revenue slowdown has led to all sorts of fiscal challenges over the last few years.
Amazon’s arrival in Crystal City and Pentagon City will go a long way toward reversing that trend, but county leaders expect that it will take years for Arlington to start to feel the positive revenue impacts.
In the meantime, Schwartz is warning that the county’s budget deficit could be as large as $78 million in fiscal year 2020, given the gap facing both the county and its school system.
Schwartz expects that the county will need to close a gap of anywhere from $20 million to $35 million all on its own, which is driven by factors including Metro’s increasing expenses, the new raises for public safety workers the Board approved in the FY 2019 budget and new spending associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion.
The county school system could also tack on another $43 million in unmet needs, as it works feverishly to build new schools and keep pace with the county’s influx of students.
The County Board has already directed Schwartz to prepare options for the new budget ranging from tax increases to staff layoffs. He’ll deliver a proposal for a new spending plan next month, as will schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy.
Christmas Travel Crunch Starts Today — “A record number of people are expected to travel this Christmas season, spurred on by economic comfort and relatively modest gas prices… This year INRIX, a traffic data firm, has forecast the very worst time for drivers to set out on the highways, and for the Washington region, that’s five days before Christmas, on Dec. 20, between 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m.” [Washington Post]
County Manager Pans ART Service — “‘The ART bus performance, recently, stinks,’ Mark Schwartz said during a meeting with Arlington County Civic Federation delegates… In the second quarter of 2018, on-time performance dropped to 83 percent from 92 percent a year before, according to data provided to the county government’s Transit Advisory Committee. Ridership in that quarter was down 14 percent from a year before.” [InsideNova]
Free ART Rides Today and Tomorrow — “Free ART rides on Thurs. December 20 & Fri. December 21. Everyone rides for free! Happy holidays and thank you for riding ART!” [Twitter]
Small Fire in Under-Construction Home — “ACFD is on the scene of a small trash fire at an under-construction home near Discovery Elementary and Williamsburg Middle School.” [Twitter]
Ballston Company Announces New Funding — “Acendre, a leader in secure, cloud-based talent management software for regulated industry verticals, today announced a majority growth investment from Strattam Capital. The investment will enable Acendre to accelerate its growth and more quickly advance its innovative, easy-to-use Software as a Service (SaaS) talent management platform, which helps organizations solve some of today’s most challenging hiring problems.” [Acendre]
Amazon Joins Arlington Chamber — “Amazon.com Inc. has agreed to join the Greater Washington Hispanic and Arlington chambers of commerce and could join more in the region in 2019… The e-commerce giant formally joined the 760-member Arlington chamber on Dec. 3. and subsequently sent a senior public policy official to its annual meeting on Dec. 7, said Kate Bates, chamber president.” [Washington Business Journal]
Nearby: Georgetown Wawa Opening Today — “What an exciting couple of days this week will bring, for fans of hoagies and tacos and caffeine and alcohol-infused frozen Pepsi products. Wawa announced Monday it will open its second D.C. location Thursday, in Georgetown at 1222 Wisconsin Ave. NW. As usual, the event will feature free coffee and a sampling of Wawa fare, in addition to a ‘Georgetown-inspired beverage.'” [WTOP]
Nearby: D.C. Population Breaks 700K — “Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released new official population numbers that put the District’s population at 702,455 as of July 1, 2018. The District’s population has risen every year since 2006 and has soared by more than 100,000 people since the 2010 Census.” [PoPville]
Flickr pool photo by Maryland Nomadic
County Manager Mark Schwartz is calling for a “hiring slowdown” for Arlington’s government, choosing to leave dozens of positions vacant while county officials mull how to cope with a yawning budget deficit.
Schwartz told the County Board last Tuesday (Nov. 27) that he isn’t planning a full hiring freeze for the county workforce, but he will nonetheless direct 10 department heads to hold off on hiring across 45 different positions for the foreseeable future.
The county’s budget picture for fiscal year 2020 is still coming into focus, but Schwartz projects that the county and its school system could combine to face a $78 million budget gap next year. That means that some mix of tax increases, staff layoffs and program cuts are likely in the offing, after the Board declined to raise taxes this year, and Schwartz is working to get ahead of some of those unpleasant measures with this slowdown.
“It may not be immediately noticeable to people, but we will see increased caseloads for some employees,” Schwartz told the Board. “It’s not something that, unless you’re going around and really trying to appreciate it, you’d notice.”
Schwartz said that the positions left unfilled include roles like librarians, code enforcement and housing inspectors and cultural affairs staffers with Arlington Economic Development. He added that the county generally has roughly 200 positions left unfilled at any given time, out of its workforce of about 3,500 employees, and he’d like to leave some spots open in case the Board does indeed pursue layoffs.
“We want to keep some positions vacant for some employees who might be affected by any reduction in force,” Schwartz said.
At the same meeting, the Board did direct Schwartz to present it with options for both layoffs and tax increases as he develops a proposal for the new budget. Even with Amazon’s impending arrival, and the tax windfall the company’s expected to generate for the county, Arlington leaders are gearing up for what Board member Libby Garvey termed “the toughest budget I’ve had to deal with in my 24 years in elected office.”
“We are looking at a path toward a resolution for a long-term structural budget deficit… so our outlook is so much better than it was even just a few weeks ago,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “But this will still probably be one of largest gaps between revenues and needs we’ve seen since the Great Recession.”
The county is indeed projecting that Amazon won’t generate substantial new tax revenues for several years yet, leaving Arlington officials with some lean budgets in the meantime. Schwartz projects that new expenses associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion, to the tune of about $1.2 million a year, and rising costs to fund Metro service, with expenses nearing an additional $10 million this year, will put a particular strain on county coffers.
“This is just a different situation than the county has faced before,” Garvey said.
Schwartz is set to present his first budget proposal to the Board in February.
Arlington leaders now say they’re ready to start studying unpleasant budget measures from tax increases to staff layoffs, as they gear up to confront next year’s hefty budget gap.
The County Board is set to sign off today (Tuesday) on new budget guidance for County Manager Mark Schwartz, as he gets to work on a new spending plan for fiscal year 2020. The memo directs Schwartz to develop a range of possible options for the Board to evaluate next year, including “a range of potential tax increases” and “proposals for program and personnel reductions or eliminations” if Schwartz can’t develop a balanced budget while relying on the existing tax rates.
Since then, Schwartz has frequently called for the Board to give him the flexibility to pursue such budget measures, given the county’s gloomy near-term financial prospects. Though Amazon’s arrival in Arlington could well pour millions in new revenue into county coffers, officials project that their budget challenges won’t vanish overnight. In all, the county’s combined budget deficit could be as large as $78 million next year.
All on its own, Schwartz expects that the county will need to close a gap of anywhere from $20 million to $35 million, a gap driven by factors including Metro’s increasing expenses, the new raises for public safety workers the Board approved in the 2019 budget and new spending associated with the statewide Medicaid expansion.
But the county school system could tack on another $43 million in unmet needs, as it works feverishly to build new schools and keep pace with the county’s influx of new students. Without any tax rate hikes, staff currently projects that the county will be able to send about $7.7 million to Arlington Public Schools than it did last year. But that increase, driven by rising real estate assessments, likely won’t be enough to solve all of the school system’s funding woes — the School Board only narrowly avoided class size increases last year, and will face similar challenges this time around.
The Board’s budget guidance does identify one program that it hopes Schwartz will be able to protect from budget cuts: the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize the construction of reasonably priced homes. The memo to the manager suggests that Schwartz craft a proposal to maintain the $14.3 million in funding the Board sent to the fund last year, and recommends making more of the funding “ongoing” rather than subject to the Board’s appropriation process each year.
The latter change was one championed by Board member John Vihstadt in his losing bid for re-election this year, and the entire Board has emphasized the importance of funding affordable housing programs to prepare for Amazon’s projected impacts on the housing market. As part of its deal to land the tech giant, the county even committed to directing about a third of the money it spends on affordable housing each year to specifically serve the areas around Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City.
The Board is set to vote to approve the new budget guidance today, setting the stage for Schwartz to deliver his proposal to the Board in February. The County Board and School Board are also set to hold a joint work session next Tuesday (Dec. 4) to kick off their initial budget deliberations.