Arlington, VA

Members of the Arlington County Board say that before they enact a local tax on plastic bags, they need time to identify and avoid the unintended consequences of one.

“The most vulnerable suffer the most from pollution and will suffer the most when we try to clean it up,” Board Chair Libby Garvey said during the County Board recessed meeting on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re going to try and do it right and be aware of the pitfalls, and there are a lot.”

In March, the Virginia General Assembly passed SB11, a bill that allows municipalities to collect a tax of five cents on disposable bags. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on April 10. The proceeds of the tax would be used for environmental purposes.

“Based upon revenue generated from similar taxes in the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Maryland, the tax proposed in this bill could potentially generate aggregate local revenues between $20.8 million and $24.9 million annually” statewide, the bill’s impact statement said.

The 5-cent tax has the support of EcoAction Arlington, an environmental advocacy group, which launched a petition this fall. The group aims to have 1,500 signatures by the November Arlington County Board meeting.

“Presently, 471 local ordinances have been adopted in cities and counties across 28 states,” the petition said. “We believe Arlington should be the next county to take this important step forward.”

Staff have been and are working through policy issues and how to engage Arlingtonians, with a specific focus on how this would work during the pandemic, said Deputy County Manager Michelle Cowan.

A proposed timeline would start with a “robust” engagement of stakeholders in January, she said. An ordinance could be drafted in February. The law requires it be adopted by April 1 to be effective on July 1, Cowan said.

County Board Member Christian Dorsey said April may be too early, and wants to hold off until the community is optimistic that the pandemic is over. He said he worries that the tax would hurt the vulnerable and low-income residents of Arlington, “during a time when we are all hoping to prioritize getting them safely and healthily through the pandemic.”

Board Member Takis Karantonis encouraged county staff to include the most vulnerable in the county’s outreach efforts.

“It’s a very good point to think about how to introduce multi-use bags and create a culture that helps those who are the most vulnerable,” he said.

Members Matt de Ferranti and Katie Cristol also wanted to pump the brakes and review the potential tax in February or March when they have more information.

“I know there is a strong desire to see this plastic bag tax in effect on Jan. 1, and I associate myself with that impatience to make these big strides on environmental protection,” Cristol said, before adding that additional time is needed for a more thoughtful and equitable approach.

In the same meeting, Dorsey told members about new goals to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The association adopted a plan in 2008 to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% from the baseline in 2005 by 2050, Dorsey said.

“There was a significant decrease at the start, but that has resulted in a plateau over the last several years,” he said.

Pushing through the plateau will require retrofitting homes, ensuring new home construction is energy efficient and moving buses and passenger vehicles toward zero-emissions, he said.

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Morning Notes

Ballston Movie Theater to Close Again — “Cineworld Group, the owner of Regal Cinemas, will suspend operations at all of its theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom beginning on Thursday. The closures will affect 45,000 employees.” [CNN, Axios]

N. Va. Trending in Right Direction — “The health department’s new pandemic metrics, updated Monday based on data through Saturday, show that the disease is currently at a ‘low burden’ level in Northern Virginia, is trending downward, and has low levels of community transmission. All other region’s of the state either have moderate or high levels of burden of the virus and community transmission.” [InsideNova]

County Joins Eviction Task Force — “Arlington has joined the Northern Virginia Eviction Prevention and Community Stability Task Force, a diverse coalition of stakeholders from the housing sector in Northern Virginia, to identify best practices to prevent evictions and stabilize households.” [Arlington County]

Greens Want Local Bag Tax — “The Arlington Green Party is pushing the Arlington County Board to enact a tax on single-use grocery bags, now that the General Assembly has given localities the permission to do so. Party members on Sept. 2 endorsed the proposal to enact a 5-cent tax on bags, and plan to present a petition to the County Board in November.” [InsideNova]

New Police Dog’s Official Photo — “FRK9 Brooks recently sat for his official department photo and gave the camera his best puppy dog eyes.” [@ArlingtonVaPD/Twitter]

More I-66 Ramp Closures — “Alternating overnight ramp closures are scheduled to occur this week on I-66 East in Arlington for final asphalt paving and striping as part of the I-66 Eastbound Widening Project.” [VDOT]

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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Morning Notes

New Name for Green Valley Park — “A year after it was first proposed, the renaming of Nauck Town Square in honor of a longtime Green Valley civic leader looks headed to success. The name ‘John Robinson Jr. Town Square’ has won the support of the Park and Recreation Commission, Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Commission, Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) and the civic associations of Green Valley, Shirlington and Douglas Park.” [InsideNova]

Beyer Blasts Trump Taxes –“The revelation that Donald Trump paid almost no personal income taxes for many years is not surprising, but it is outrageous. Far more important, however, is Trump’s use of the government for his personal benefit rather than that of the American people.” [Press Release]

Memorial Circle Changes — “The National Park Service is taking action to make the roads and trails at Memorial Circle safer. Starting today, drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists will see higher visibility crosswalks, new signage & flashing beacons, clearer lane markings & repaved road markings.” [@NationalLanding/Twitter]

Officials Seek Info About Abandoned Dog — “Do you recognize this dog or vehicle? On 9/24 @ 8pm, a person in this vehicle abandoned a dog in a crate near the 5000 blk 7th St S. If you have information regarding this dog or vehicle, please contact Animal Control.” [@AWLAArlington/Twitter]

Rainbow Over Arlington After Sunshower — “Courthouse rainbow spotted from our office with a view.” [@ArlingtonVaPD/Twitter]

Heavy Rain Tonight — “A slug of heavy rainfall is set to drench the Washington area and points east during the middle of the week, with an inch or so likely… It seems likely that a band of heavy downpours arrives [this evening], then perhaps lasting much of the overnight and tapering down from west to east Wednesday morning.” [Capital Weather Gang]

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Arlington County has opened a temporary tax payment location.

As the Oct. 5 deadline approaches for vehicle personal property taxes and the second installment of real estate taxes, the Arlington County Treasurer’s Office on Monday opened a temporary payment location at Thomas Jefferson Community Center (3501 2nd Street S.) to accept payments in person.

The satellite location is in addition to the Treasurer’s Office payment windows on the second floor of county government headquarters (2100 Clarendon Blvd), which is open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“In addition to having limited staff at our main office, we will be at Thomas Jefferson Community Center to safety take your payments in person, Sept. 21-25, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.,” the Treasurer’s Office said via email. “Please remember to wear a mask.”

Payments can also be made online via the Customer Assessment and Payment Portal (CAPP), mailed to Arlington County Treasurer at PO Box 1754, Merrifield, VA 22116-1754, or a check can be dropped off at one of two 24-hour drop boxes.

Any person financially impacted by COVID-19 may call the Treasurer’s Office at 703-228-4000 for assistance.

For anyone who moved or sold their vehicle, taxes may still be owed for the months the vehicle was still located in Arlington. Vehicle tax bills — which were mailed in August — should be reviewed for accuracy in this matter, the Treasurer’s Office said.

“If you are waiting for your account to be adjusted, please be sure to avoid a late payment penalty by paying your bill in full by October 5,” the office said. “Any overpayment will be refunded to you once your account has been adjusted.”

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The Arlington County Board appears likely to consider a tax on plastic shopping bags later this year.

At the Board’s Saturday meeting, a volunteer from the group EcoAction Arlington spoke in favor of a five-cent tax on plastic bags, similar to that which has been implemented in D.C. and other cities, during the public comment period.

In response, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz noted that state authorization for such a tax — a five cent tax on plastic bags from grocery stores, convenience stores and drugstores — was recently signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, but will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2021. In the meantime, county staff are “working on” a proposal to bring to the Board in the fall, he said.

“We look forward to having a conversation,” Schwartz said.

The volunteer, Whitney Beer-Kerr, said that a per-bag tax helps to cut down on such bags — which take centuries to decompose — winding up in waterways and landfills. Revenue from the tax can also be used on a variety of environmental initiatives.

On the other hand, a key alternative to plastic grocery bags — reusable shopping bags — are being discouraged by stores for employee health reasons during the pandemic. And Schwartz said that charging extra money for plastic bags could raise “equity questions.”

Paper bags, however, remain a viable and more environmentally-friendly alternative, County Board member Katie Cristol said during the meeting.

What do you think?

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No raises, few areas of additional spending and a couple of delayed openings.

That’s the summary of County Manager Mark Schwartz’s revised budget proposal, as announced by Arlington County on Monday afternoon.

The new Fiscal Year 2021 proposed budget “focuses on core essential services of government, retaining the existing workforce and proactively responding to the pandemic,” the county said in a press release.

The revision comes as Arlington expects a projected $56 million drop in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, dealing Schwartz’s formerly “good news budget” a $34 million reduction while tacking on $21.6 million to Arlington Public Schools’ already sizable budget gap.

Local and state governments have been bracing for big reductions in revenue as the pandemic causes sales tax, meals tax, hotel tax and other types of revenue to plummet.

Schwartz’s new budget proposal allocates more than $10 million for relief efforts, including food assistance, help for local businesses and nonprofits, and employee assistance. County services in the new budget are mostly kept as the current budget year’s levels, and proposed county employee pay increases have been nixed, per the county press release.

Other proposed, money-saving efforts including delaying the openings of the newly-built Lubber Run Community Center and Long Bridge Park aquatics center, as previously suggested by County Board Chair Libby Garvey.

The County Board will now hold a joint budget and tax rate hearing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 23. Final budget adoption is scheduled for Thursday, April 30.

After advertising no tax rate increase, the County Board can only keep the current rate steady or lower it. The average homeowner is still likely to pay more in property taxes, however, given a rise in property assessments.

The full county press release is below.

As the County faces the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, County Manager Mark Schwartz presented the Arlington County Board with a revised FY 2021 Proposed Budget that focuses on core essential services of government, retaining the existing workforce and proactively responding to the pandemic.

County staff estimates a nearly $56 million drop in anticipated revenue for the FY 2021 budget–$34.0 million on the County side and $21.6 million for Arlington Public Schools.

“What was unthinkable two months ago is now in front of us,” Schwartz said. “Businesses have laid off staff, residents have lost jobs, schools have closed and only the most essential functions continue.”

In February, Schwartz presented a budget that added back targeted investments in areas that were falling behind after two years of reductions. Now, his revised budget maintains only the current levels of service, removes all salary increases, places many projects on hold, uses funds from the Stabilization Reserve, and removes almost every addition proposed only a few weeks ago.

The budget delays the opening of the Lubber Run Community Center and the Long Bridge Park Fitness & Aquatics Center until FY 2022.

The County Manager’s revised budget also responds to the pandemic. It provides funding to meet projected demand in direct life/safety services to our residents, such as housing grants, permanent supportive housing, and identifies $2.7 million for emergency needs, such as food assistance. An additional $7.5 million is set aside for potential assistance to small businesses and nonprofits, service delivery recovery and employee support, and possible additional shortfalls in revenue.

The County Board now will take up the Manager’s proposal and is expected to vote on the amended budget on Thursday, April 30. There will be a public hearing on the new FY 2021 budget proposal, followed immediately by a tax hearing, on Thursday, April 23, at 7:00 p.m.

Before the pandemic, the County Board voted to advertise a tax rate of $1.013 per $100 of assessed value for Calendar Year 2020 ($1.026 including stormwater). By law, the Board can adopt a tax rate no higher than the advertised rate.

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Arlington County is an affluent place. So affluent, in fact, that according to one analysis we are expected to get the second-lowest percentage of coronavirus stimulus checks in the U.S.

The study by the financial website SmartAsset ranked the 200 largest U.S. cities by the predicted percentage of residents who will receive the means-tested checks from Uncle Sam.

Here’s how the IRS describes who’s getting what:

Tax filers with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 for individuals and up to $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns will receive the full payment. For filers with income above those amounts, the payment amount is reduced by $5 for each $100 above the $75,000/$150,000 thresholds. Single filers with income exceeding $99,000 and $198,000 for joint filers with no children are not eligible. Social Security recipients and railroad retirees who are otherwise not required to file a tax return are also eligible and will not be required to file a return.

Eligible taxpayers who filed tax returns for either 2019 or 2018 will automatically receive an economic impact payment of up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for married couples and up to $500 for each qualifying child.

SmartAsset used 2018 Census data to figure out which places will get the highest and lowest percentage of checks.

Arlington, Alexandria and D.C. all ranked in the top 10, as did four San Francisco Bay Area cities. Arlington ranked No. 2 on the “fewest” checks list.

In terms of cities getting the most checks, the top three are: 1. Hialeah, Florida; 2. Sunrise Manor, Nevada; and 3. Brownsville, Texas.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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In a bit of relief for hard-hit restaurants and hotels, Arlington County’s Treasurer says tax payments due between now and the end of April can be deferred temporarily.

Treasurer Carla de la Pava said in a statement that her office will not impose penalties and interest on late tax payments, though tax returns are still due. The decision mostly affects meals taxes, paid by restaurants, and hotel taxes, and requires payment by May 31.

More from the Treasurer’s Office:

Carla de la Pava, Treasurer of Arlington County, has determined that late payment penalty and interest will not be imposed on local taxes with a payment due date between March 13 and April 30, 2020, if such taxes are paid in full by May 31, 2020. This decision primarily but not exclusively affects Arlington County Meals, Food, and Beverage Taxes and Transient Occupancy Taxes, which would ordinarily be due March 20 and April 20. Taxpayers should still file the required returns even if they are not paying the tax until a later date. Taxpayers are encouraged to pay their taxes on time if they have the financial means to do so. Any taxes previously paid will not be refunded. Taxpayers should direct questions to [email protected]

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 2:15 p.m.) Tax and budget season is upon us. County Manager Mark Schwartz has released a recommended budget of $1.396 billion, including increased tax revenues from increased assessments and increased county expenditures.

While I will not go into specifics of this year’s budget, I would like to begin a dialogue about systemic changes that the County Board should consider in the long-run about how we levy taxes.

Have Commissioner of Revenue Assess and Collect All Taxes

Currently, the county assesses and collects taxes on real estate and the Commissioner of Revenue assesses and collects every other tax including vehicular, personal property, and business license taxes. Two-thirds of our revenues come from real estate and one-third from everything else. This means a vast majority of the tax revenue is based on assessments that their own employees determine, rather than the elected independent Commissioner of Revenue, Ingrid Morroy.

In almost every election, Commissioner Morroy has advocated for this power. The argument is that having the same people setting the budget responsible for assessments is an inherent conflict of interest, and the move would provide better transparency and customer service for those who believe they’ve been overassessed.

The Virginia Code also says that the County government should only administer assessors if the Commissioner of Revenue will not consent to doing assessments, which is obviously not the case (note: I am obviously not a lawyer, but this seems to be the intention). This is used in almost every Virginia jurisdiction as a best practice when a Commissioner of Revenue exists.

Incentivize Lower Vacancy Rates

I would encourage consideration of a vacancy tax on office and storefront retail properties. For the last several years we have made it a goal to reduce commercial real estate and office vacancy. This is prioritized because when space remains vacant, the property is assessed at a lower value and we receive less tax revenue, making it harder to provide the services that our community expects. Each percentage of vacancy represents $3.4 million in lost revenue.

Intuition might tell you that if you cannot fill a space, owners would lower their rent to attract more tenants. Oftentimes this is not the case. Property owners will intentionally leave office and retail space vacant for a number of reasons. One is to wait for a large tenant to anchor the building, and avoid the build-out costs associated with leasing to smaller businesses along with the higher overhead needed to piecemeal tenants together. Another is that vacant space means lower taxes because of their low assessment.

Together this leaves very little pressure for owners of office and retail space to lower rents to the benefit of small businesses or fill vacant space to the benefit of the county’s tax revenue.

Other jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have developed a version of their own vacancy taxes. The intention of each is different, for example, San Francisco’s vacancy tax is only on storefront retail to maintain street-level vibrancy, and Washington D.C.’s vacancy tax is on office, retail, and residential, but based on the class of real estate to prevent general blight. Our real estate vacancy problems are unique to us and should be considered by our own stakeholders to frame a solution that prevents unintended consequences.

There has been some debate on whether Arlington has the authority to levy this type of tax. I would argue that there is precedent based on the tax exemption programs that we currently provide. If this is still deemed an unavailable tool in our toolbox based on state law, it might be worth restructuring the incentive in the form of a fine that we do have authority to enforce or for our government affairs team to push for this authority in the next General Assembly session.

Having the Commissioner of Revenue begin assessing taxes would likely save homeowners and commercial building owners in taxes, but would likely decrease overall county revenues. Levying a vacancy tax would benefit small businesses looking for office space, create a better restaurant and retail vibrancy, and increase county revenues, but would likely adversely impact commercial property owners. My hope is that further dialogue on these topics will benefit homeowners, small businesses, and on balance, our entire community.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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Morning Notes

Coronavirus Case in Falls Church — “On Mar. 9, a U.S. Navy civilian employee at the US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) in Falls Church, Virginia, tested ‘presumptive positive’ for the coronavirus (COVID-19)… The individual is currently at a hospital in Northern Virginia.” [U.S. Navy]

Northam Signs Arlington Tourism Tax Bill — “The governor’s signature on March 2 made it official – Arlington will now be able to impose a surtax on hotel stays, with the proceeds going to tourism promotion, in perpetuity. Gov. Northam signed legislation patroned by state Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax-Arlington) removing the ‘sunset clause’ from existing legislation allowing Arlington to tack on an additional 0.25 percent to the 5-percent transient-occupancy tax imposed by the county government on those staying in hotels and motels.” [InsideNova]

Lawmakers Support Long Bridge Project — Virginia’s delegation to Congress “sent a letter to Secretary Chao in support of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s (DRPT) application for an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant for the Long Bridge Project.” [Press Release]

No Arlington Rep on Metro Board — “For the first time in recent memory, Arlington will have no representation on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates the Metro system… The shifts came about due to the resignation from the WMATA board of Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey, due to issues over reporting of campaign contributions during his 2019 re-election bid.” [InsideNova]

Beyer Gains a GOP Challenger — “On Friday, Mark Ellmore officially filed to seek the Republican nomination for Congress from Virginia’s Eighth District in 2020…. It is currently represented in Congress by Democratic Rep. Don Beyer.” [Falls Church News-Press]

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Morning Notes

Biden Wins Virginia — “Virginia voters have overwhelmingly given former Vice President Joe Biden a sizable win over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Tuesday’s primary election. According to unofficial state election returns, Biden has been called the winner of the state with 53.3 percent of what was a record primary turnout, and will capture the largest share of its 99 delegates.” [Patch, Washington Post]

Bernie Underperforms 2016 — In the two-way race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, Sanders captured 33% of the vote in Arlington. Yesterday, he received 19% of the vote, a close third to Elizabeth Warren at 20%.

FAA Taking Comments on DCA Noise — “After changing the routes for planes taking off from Reagan National Airport, in Arlington, Virginia, the Federal Aviation Administration is holding a public comment period. The comment period closes March 30. In an email, Libby Garvey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said that even if people in the community submitted earlier complaints, the FAA will not be officially considering them.” [WTOP]

Tafti Defends Changes at Prosecutor’s Office — “There’s this false critique that these reforms are making our communities less safe. We’ve been fed a story for decades that we have to incarcerate and have zero tolerance in order to be safe. More and more we are finding that harm reduction — for drug use, mental illness treatment, restorative justice — is more effective.” [Arlington Magazine]

Police: Two Arrested in Stolen Vehicle — “At approximately 2:40 p.m. on March 1, officers [in Pentagon City] were alerted to a license plate reader hit on a vehicle previously reported stolen out of Washington D.C. Officers observed two subjects walking away from the parked vehicle and conducted surveillance in the area. The subjects were taken into custody without incident as they returned to the vehicle… A search of the vehicle located suspected narcotics.” [Arlington County]

Chamber Cheers Tourism Tax Bill — “The Arlington Chamber of Commerce celebrates the General Assembly’s establishment of permanent funding for tourism promotion in Arlington. This 0.25 percent Transient Occupancy Tax surcharge on hotel rooms is used exclusively by Arlington Convention and Visitors Service… to grow travel and tourism in Arlington. Previously, the tax surcharge was enacted with a July 1, 2021 sunset” provision. [Arlington Chamber of Commerce]

Bill Could Boost N. Va. Metro Funding — “Northern Virginia localities could soon have the ability to spend more money on Metro service increases after state lawmakers approved a bill that tinkers with the dedicated funding agreement for the transit agency… Virginia’s total financial contribution to Metro can’t increase by more than 3% each year, a condition designed to impose fiscal discipline on the agency. The bill from Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale would exempt any costs associated with service increases from that cap.” [Washington Business Journal]

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