The Arlington County Board today heard a presentation from County Manager Mark Schwartz on his proposed budget. (As of Wednesday night, when this column was written, the details had not been posted online.) It will be the first look at where the Board may be headed for FY 2017. And if history is any guide, it will not be without at least a few minor controversies.
The County Board’s guidance late last year directed staff to prepare a budget that did not raise tax rates. However, it has been the practice of the Board in the past to advertise a tax rate increase even with such guidance.
Some have argued that ongoing concern about the taxes we pay is overblown or somehow anti-government. But longtime homeowners here in Arlington know that our out-of-pocket property taxes over time have increased at a rate much faster than the rate of inflation.
Many ask, as they should, are they getting a good return on their tax dollar? Are potholes being adequately prioritized over gondolas? Is public safety adequately addressed before theater bailouts? And, what exactly is the plan to meet school enrollment increases?
Some may argue it prudent to advertise a higher rate and give the Board options in case revenue estimates fall dramatically over the next two months. The Board will almost certainly call it giving themselves “flexibility.” Flexibility usually means a reason to ignore their guidance and spend more later.
Here are three reasons the Board should advertise a flat tax rate for fiscal year 2017 and entertain the possibility of a rate cut:
1. The Board just added a new audit function as a nod to fiscal responsibility. Why not give the new office a year to make recommendations on changes the Board can make before even entertaining a rate increase?
2. The average homeowner’s taxes are going up even with a flat rate simply because of increased assessments.
3. If the last decade plus of history is any indication, revenues will comfortably exceed estimates – again. The “worst” thing that will happen is the Board will have a few million less on hand to spend at the end of the year in the closeout process.
(Updated at 2:00 p.m.) More money for cops and firefighters, for economic development and for county employees — that’s the message from Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz, who presented his proposed budget to the County Board this morning.
The $1.19 billion budget benefits from a 3 percent increase in overall projected revenues, allowing Schwartz to boost funding to a number of priorities and propose a slight tax rate decrease.
The budget adds $1.6 million for the addition of 19 public safety employees. Among them: eight firefighters/EMTs, six police patrol officers, and four uniformed Sheriff’s positions.
The new firefighters will covert existing three-person fire units to the nationally-recommended staffing level of four per unit. The extra police officers will help reduce overtime and officer fatigue. The extra Sheriff’s positions will address staffing levels at the county jail.
Schwartz allocates $1.5 million in additional one-time funding for Arlington Economic Development’s efforts to bring down the county’s office vacancy rate. Another $400,000 will be used on infrastructure maintenance like streetlight repair and residential concrete maintenance.
One of the biggest proposals in terms of cost is $6.3 million to increase merit-based pay for county employees, boost the minimum wage for permanent employees to $14.50 per hour, boost the county’s Live-Where-You-Work program and replace grade and step plans with an “open range” salary plan.
Arlington Public Schools, which is dealing with a quickly-growing student population, will see an extra $13.2 million — for a total of $464.9 million — in Schwartz’s budget.
The budget includes separate proposals for an extra $6.2 million in projected revenue than originally expected. Among them is a proposal to decrease the county property tax rate by half a cent, to $0.991 per $100 in assessed value, saving taxpayers about $3.5 million — though many will face higher overall taxes thanks to rising assessments and a rising solid waste rate. Other proposals include adding an extra medic unit for the fire department, to address peak demand, and $100,000 to expand the online streaming of public meetings.
While Schwartz did not highlight any specific cuts in the budget, he did propose a “systematic evaluation of programs and services, with the goal of reducing or eliminating programs and staffing, and proposals to eliminate duplication and inefficiencies.”
Schwartz also expects to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings via a new early retirement package for county employees. In addition to saving money, the retirement incentives will serve to “renew the county workforce.”
(About 20 percent of county employees are currently of the Millennial generation, but the county workforce is expected to be majority Millennial by 2020, officials say.)
Despite a so-so macroeconomic environment, Arlington County isn’t being forced to make tough budgetary decisions this year, unlike our neighbors in Fairfax County. Schwartz credited Arlington’s business community — which makes up about half of the tax base — for helping to smooth out economic bumps.
“We’re benefitting from our 50-50 split between commercial and residential,” he said.
Schwartz will formally present his budget at the County Board’s upcoming February meeting. The Board will adopt a final Fiscal Year 2017 budget on April 17.
County Board Chair Libby Garvey said there’s still work to be done on the budget, but overall she’s pleased with the county’s direction under Schwartz, who last month was selected to be the county’s permanent County Manager.
“We’re in a good place,” Garvey said this morning. “We’re changing how we do things a bit. It’s exciting.”
In 2014, Arlington had 6 million visitors who spent nearly $3 billion in the County, making Arlington the number one county for economic impact of tourism in Virginia.
This is a substantial boost to our local economy. In just tax dollars alone, tourism revenue generates approximately $81 million in County taxes and $108 million in state taxes per year. Without these revenues, each Arlington household would pay an average of $1,800 each year in taxes to receive the same services.
Tourism also accounts for about 25,000 jobs in Arlington. As the President & CEO of the Chamber, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many in our hospitality industry who work hard every day and reflect positively on our community to those who visit.
Every year the Chamber hosts our Hospitality Awards which recognizes individuals in the industry who go above and beyond. These awards are not for managers or properties, but for the front-line individuals who make a difference – whether it’s the concierge who takes off his own tie and irons it for a guest who spilled mustard on his, or the parking attendant who rescues a guest during a blizzard. These are the people who make Arlington’s first impression on visitors and keep them coming back to our great county.
While our hospitality industry is thriving, its potential to grow has been significantly limited by budget constraints. As the chart below shows, the Arlington Convention and Visitors Service’s budget pales in comparison to our neighboring jurisdictions’ tourism budgets. While the ACVS staff is effective with the resources available, they are severely financially constrained.
More than twenty years ago, the Chamber successfully lobbied the General Assembly for an additional 0.25% Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) surcharge on hotel rooms in Arlington with all revenues to fund tourism. The Chamber has an active Hotel General Managers Committee who were, and continue to be, fully supportive of this. Even with this tax, our hotel room tax rates are extremely competitive, particularly compared to DC. This is a surcharge that pays for itself in additional revenue generated.
The TOT surcharge had a three year sunset clause and was renewed consecutively until 2011 when it lapsed. That lapse had nothing to do with tourism, but with the political climate in Virginia and some legislators’ view of Arlington.
The Chamber is working hard to make sure that politics don’t get in the way of what is not only good for Arlington County, but also good for Northern Virginia and the entire Commonwealth. Reinstating the additional TOT has been the Chamber’s top legislative priority this session. We have worked closely with the entire Arlington delegation to the General Assembly on this issue, with Senator Janet Howell introducing SB160 and Delegate Patrick Hope introducing HB 1147. I, along with our Chair Todd Yeatts and a number of Chamber members, have gone down to Richmond several times for these hearings. At this time SB160 has passed the Senate and HB 1147 passed the House of Delegates just last week.
The Arlington Chamber is hopeful this legislation will be signed into law by Governor McAuliffe and is incredibly optimistic about the impact these additional tourism funds will have not only on Arlington business, but the larger community.
Federal prosecutors say 49-year-old Alexandria resident Obayedul Hoque conspired with managers at a number of Subway stores and a gas station he owned to keep some $6.5 million in sales off the books between 2008 and 2013. Hoque’s company dodged between $1.5 and $3.5 million in federal taxes as a result of the conspiracy, prosecutors said.
Among the seven Subway locations Hoque owned in Arlington, Alexandria and D.C. is the shop at 3000 10th Street N. in Clarendon. That store has remained open. Hoque also owned a Shell station on Duke Street in Alexandria.
Hoque pleaded guilty today and is scheduled to be sentenced on May 13. The full press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, after the jump.
Photo via Google Maps
Arlington Police HQ Evacuated Due to Bomb Threat — The Arlington County Police headquarters in Courthouse was evacuated for several hours Saturday night after police received an “automated phone call” that made a bomb threat. Bomb-sniffing dogs got a “preliminary hit” but a sweep of the building came up empty. [WJLA]
Arlington’s MLK Tribute — Arlington County held its 47th annual tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday. County Board members were among those in attendance, honoring Dr. King. [WTOP]
Tax Bills Could Be Going Up — Unless the Arlington County Board lowers the property tax rate, the tax bill for the average homeowner will be going up to a record $6,011. The average assessed value of residential properties in Arlington increased 2.8 percent year-over-year. [InsideNova]
Tour of Ballston Tech Office — Ballston-based cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect has grown to more than 100 employees and is continuing to expand. The company’s “hip headquarters… comes complete with some beautiful design work and creative Star Wars-centric accents.” [DC Inno]
Springfield-based Express Homebuyers sent a letter to Arlington homeowners claiming they owed real estate taxes to the county. The letter then offers to buy the recipient’s home to help pay the tax debt.
The Treasurer’s Office released the following statement about the letter Monday afternoon:
“We have recently become aware that many Arlington County homeowners have received correspondence from Jud Allen of Express Homebuyers, falsely claiming that these owners owe real estate taxes and that the County may take their homes away from them due to delinquent taxes.
Please be assured that, unless you have heard directly from the Arlington County Treasurer, you do not owe delinquent real estate taxes and there is no risk of the County taking or selling your home.
If you have any questions about this letter, or would like to report having received this letter, please call us at (703) 228-3090.”
(Updated at 5:05 p.m.) Arlington officials are anticipating “moderate” revenue growth in 2017 due to increases in residential real estate assessments, as predicted earlier this fall.
The County Board will review these increases — as outlined in the County Manager’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget guidance — at its meeting this Thursday, kicking off the county’s annual budgetary process.
Increases in the real estate assessments for single-family homes, townhouses and condos will provide the county with most of its revenue growth. On average, such assessments are expected to rise 3 percent, causing tax bills for Arlington residents to increase by approximately $175 at current tax rates.
Assessments for commercial real estate, however, are expected to remain flat or turn slightly negative “due to vacancy rates in office buildings and the slowing demand in multi-family residential.” Commercial property taxes are half of Arlington County’s tax base, and by staying flat or going negative it will “shift the tax burden to the average homeowner.”
Overall, tax revenue is expected to increase between 1.9 and 2.4 percent in FY 2017. Aside from real estate taxes, the projected growth in other county tax revenue includes:
- Personal property/vehicle tax: +0.1 percent
- Sales tax: +1.9 percent
- Meals tax: +6.2 percent
- Transient occupancy/hotel tax: +7.9 percent
Revenue from taxes categorized in the budge guidance as “other” is also expected to increase 4.2 percent because of rising bank stock and residential utility tax rates. Cigarette taxes are expected to decrease, and all other taxes not specifically listed should remain flat.
Predicted expenditures will also be discussed on Thursday as part of the budget guidance. The county is expected to spend 1.8 percent more on personnel, including salaries and healthcare. It also expects to spend 3.3 percent more on the Metro and 3.2 percent more on debt service than last year.
The county shares 46.5 percent of all local tax revenue with Arlington Public Schools. Given that revenue split, current tax rates, planned one-time outlays and budgetary projections, county government is expected to face a $1-3 million funding gap during FY 2017, while schools may face a deficit of more than $12 million.
Thursday’s meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the County Board Room at 2100 Clarendon Blvd, Room 307.
A joint Arlington County-APS public budget forum is scheduled from 6:30-9 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 7, at Washington-Lee High School.
Murder Victim Feared Her Estranged Husband — Bonnie Black, who was found dead in her home in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood on April 17, feared her estranged husband, court documents show. After months of continuing to live in the neighborhood a free man during the investigation, David Black is now in jail, charged with murder. [NBC Washington]
Wakefield, W-L Fall in Football Playoffs — The playoff runs for the Wakefield and Washington-Lee high school football teams have ended early. Wakefield could’t hang on to a 6-0 lead at halftime, falling to Potomac Falls 21-6, while W-L lost 44-20 to Westfield. [InsideNova, Washington Post]
Arlington Wants I-66 Widening Delayed — This week the Arlington County Board is scheduled to decide its position on the plan for tolling on I-66. At its Saturday meeting the Board made clear that it wants to delay the widening of the highway as long as possible. Meanwhile, responding to questions from county officials, VDOT says it’s not able to fully enforce existing HOV restrictions on I-66 because the enforcement causes significant traffic delays. Nearly half of the clogged rush hour traffic on I-66 is believed to be HOV rule breakers. [WTOP, WTOP]
County May Ask for Paper, Plastic Bag Tax Authority — Despite failing efforts in previous years, Arlington County’s draft legislative agenda seeks to again ask the Virginia General Assembly for the authority to levy a small tax on single-use paper and plastic bags. The proposal may exempt bags for certain items, like newspapers, dry cleaning and prescription drugs. [InsideNova]
Historic House for Sale — A 145-year-old house known as “The Hill” is now for sale in Arlington’s Old Glebe neighborhood. Originally a summer home for a prominent D.C. family, the four-bedroom house is on the market for $1,568,000. [Preservation Arlington]
Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick
County to Invest $55 Million in Ballston Mall — Arlington County is planning its first-ever Tax Increment Financing district to help fund the renovations to Ballston Common Mall. Arlington plans to invest $45 million in the mall with its TIF, which will be repaid over time via increased tax revenue from the property. It also plans to make $10 million in transportation improvements, including improvements to the attached county parking garage and the narrowing of Willson Blvd in front of the mall. [Washington Business Journal]
Arlington May Ask for Jefferson Davis Hwy Renaming — Arlington County is considering asking local state legislators to seek a name change for Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington. Also known as Route 1, the highway is named after the Confederate president thanks to state legislative decree in 1922. A draft of the 2016 Arlington legislative priorities list includes a proposal to rename “the Arlington portion of Jefferson Davis Highway in a way that is respectful to all who live and work along it.” [InsideNova]
Room For Economic Improvement — Arlington County’s building approval process remains cumbersome and overly time consuming, and the county lacks the kind of incentive resources — “weapons” — that other jurisdictions have for economic development. That’s according to Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins, at a recent panel discussion. [Washington Business Journal]
Per-Student Spending Down — Arlington County’s per-student spending is down to $18,616, from $19,040 last year, according to the Washington Area Board of Education. Arlington still has the highest per-student spending of any suburban Washington school system. [InsideNova]
Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley
“In the event that you are waiting for your account to be adjusted or closed, please be sure to avoid late payment penalty by paying the balance by Oct. 5,” the county said in a statement. “Any overpayment will be refunded once your account has been adjusted.”
The county charges a personal property tax on all vehicles regularly parked overnight in Arlington, including cars, motorcycles, buses and boats.
“All cities and counties in Virginia have a personal property tax which helps fund local government,” the county said.
The Treasurer’s Office collects real estate taxes in two installments — the first is collected on July 15 and the second on Oct. 5.
“Real estate taxes support schools, fire and police protection, and other public services and benefits afforded to County residents,” the county said. “You help absorb these costs in proportion to the amount of money your property is worth.”
Residents who have questions about their bills can contact the Treasurer’s Office by emailing [email protected] or calling 703-228-4000.
Virginians are getting a break from the sales tax this weekend courtesy of Virginia’s General Assembly, which combined three existing sales tax holidays into one longer Tax-Free Weekend this year, according to the Virginia Department of Taxation.
According to the department, items exempt from the sales tax this weekend include school supplies, clothing and footwear, emergency preparedness items and some energy-efficient home appliances with either the Energy Star or WaterSense label.
Included in the list of exemptions are back-to-school staples like backpacks, calculators, flash drives and composition notebooks, as well as a variety of sports and recreational equipment.
For items that do not qualify for the sales tax exemption, store owners may still offer them as tax-free by choosing to have the store absorb the cost of the sales tax on behalf of the consumer.
Photo via pixabay.com
There are actually two hurricane tax holidays this year. The first tax holiday is May 25-31, which has been declared Hurricane and Flooding Preparedness Week by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The second is Aug. 7-9.
After 2015, there will only be one holiday in August. The Virginia General Assembly voted to combine three hurricane preparedness tax holidays into one three-day period. However, the bill goes into effect on July 1, 2015, which means the planned tax holiday from May 25-31 was unaffected.
The 2015 Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, according to the National Weather Service. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its predictions for the 2015 hurricane season at 10:30 a.m. today.
Among the list of items exempt from tax are supplies under $60, including bottled water and batteries, generators under $1,000 and chainsaws under $350. Food and candles are not exempt.
While inland, Arlington is not immune to the impacts of Atlantic hurricanes. The county saw plenty of wind and rain from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and more significant damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011.
(Updated at 1:20 p.m.) The Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn will close and Arlington’s property tax rate will stay the same under the new Fiscal Year 2016 budget approved unanimously by the Arlington County Board last night.
The $1.16 billion budget will provide Arlington Public Schools with the extra $6.2 million it sought to deal with rising enrollment.
It also will fund a new internal auditor position, a campaign promise of County Board member John Vihstadt.
Other budget highlights include:
- An additional $1.4 million for economic development efforts, including an extra $200,000 for TandemNSI, $200,000 for tourism promotion and an extra $100,000 for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization
- Five new sheriff deputy positions
- Salary supplement for the public defender’s office
- Additional jail-based mental health services
- An additional animal control officer for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington
- Funding for Affordable Housing Investment Fund remains steady at $12.5 million
- An additional $1 million for housing grants, for a total of $8.9 in housing grant funding
- The county manager’s proposed cuts to BikeArlington were eliminated. Funding for county bike and pedestrian programs remains at $812,121.
- A merit compentation increase for employees
- Funding restored to the “Live Where You Work” program for county employees
Under the budget, Arlington’s real estate tax rate will stay at $0.996 per $100 in assessed value. However, due to the 4.9 percent rise in residential property assessments and a 1.8 percent increase in the water-sewer rate, the average Arlington homeowners’ tax and fee burden will rise about $281 a year, to a total of $7,567, a 4 percent increase.
“Arlington’s real estate tax rate remains the lowest in the region,” a county press release noted.
County government spending will increase 1.1 percent and Arlington Public Schools spending will increase 4.5 percent compared to the previous fiscal year.
Under the budget, the per-pupil cost of Arlington Public Schools to taxpayers will drop to $18,558 per student from $19,040 per student during FY 2015.
The internal auditor position sought by Vihstadt will require $200,000 of funding. The auditor will be independent, reporting to the County Board as opposed to existing internal auditing programs that report to the County Manager.
“The auditor, and an advisory committee, will report directly to the County Board and will focus on tightening financial oversight and deepening program performance review,” according to the press release.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill this year giving the Board the authority to hire an auditor. The only other positions the Board can hire directly are the County Attorney, the County Clerk and the County Manager.
County officials say they were able to balance the budget without a tax increase and find additional funding for schools and other priorities by making budget cuts elsewhere, including Artisphere.
“The Board’s most significant cut was its decision to close Artisphere, a move that will save $2.3 million in net taxpayer support for the County’s critically acclaimed arts and cultural center,” said the press release. “The County has said that the center’s failure to consistently attract a large enough audience and its ongoing need for substantial County funding put too great a burden on strained County finances. The County is redirecting $496,000 of the money saved to fund alternative arts and cultural programming across the County.”
Artisphere is set to close June 30.
The tax rate will likely remain at $0.996 cents of $100 of assessed value, which will result in an average property tax bill increase of $281 per year for Arlington households. The County Board had advertised a rate 1.5 cents higher than it passed, but ultimately decided to make budget cuts instead.
“Every member of this Board is acutely aware of the tax burden on our residents,” County Board Chair Mary Hynes said. “We felt strongly that we did not want to add to that burden.”
The tax rate was one of the key decisions the County Board made during its final budget work session yesterday evening. It will vote on the Calendar Year 2016 tax rate and its FY 2016 budget next Tuesday.
In addition, the County Board vowed to fully fund Arlington Public Schools, allotting $6.2 million above County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s proposed budget. The combination of the flat tax rate and additional money for public schools meant the Board had to slash $2.8 million from their previous budgets.
The biggest of those cuts will come from closing Artisphere, effective June 30. The county still has a lease on the property and there are outside parties that would like to turn it into a tech incubator and conference space, but no formal proposal has yet been made on that front. Closing the center, converting the Metrobus 3A route to ART service and foregoing expansion of urban agricultural offerings were enough to fund a balanced budget.
The Board also acquiesced to other budget requests, including funding a new animal control officer for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, providing pay increases to the Public Defender’s office and injecting $900,000 into Arlington Economic Development’s budget.
“This budget fully funds Schools, maintains core services and the social safety net, values our employees by providing a modest step increase, and invests more in the critical areas of economic development and public safety,” Hynes said in a press release. “I am confident that next week, we will adopt a budget that continues this County’s long track record of wisely managing taxpayer money while making strategic investments in infrastructure and environmental and economic sustainability.”
In Arlington County, residents who own dogs must pay a for a license.
The license costs $10 per year or $25 for every three years. Despite the abundance of dogs in Arlington, the tax only brought in $59,664 from about 7,000 licensed dogs during a recent fiscal year, according to the Sun Gazette.
That has prompted enquiries from County Board member John Vihstadt.
It also led the president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, who fervently advocates for lower taxes, to suggest that the fee might be raised to help pay for the county’s dog parks.
What do you think should be done with the county’s dog license fee?