FY 2019 Budget
We adopted our FY 2019 budget on Saturday. This was one of the tougher budgets in my 23 years of public service. Our Manager did a good job reorganizing and trying to focus on core government services when he developed his recommended budget. But when the Board voted to advertise no tax rate increase this year, our ability to adapt to changing needs was very limited.
The major issues were money for schools, as our student population continues to grow, and public safety salaries. Our pay for sheriff, police, and, fire—particularly for new recruits—is significantly below others’ in the region. We realized we needed to increase safety officer compensation even above the Manager’s recommendation, and we did so by reallocating $1.6M budgeted for positions we are unable to fill (because of the relatively low pay) into pay raises for officers we actually employ. Hopefully, this change will help our recruiting; although that means that next year, we will once again face the challenge of budgeting for these now-filled positions. To provide $2.5M more for schools, we used one-time funds from a rent abatement that came from the renewal of our lease on the County building at 2100 Clarendon Blvd.
We got by this year with no tax rate increase, ensuring that our core government services remain strong, and still providing many of the programs and services our community values, such as Arlington Independent Media, free paper shredding, and Arlington Neighborhood College. I was pleased we could add a mental health therapist for young people leaving our school system who have had such services through APS as students, but no longer qualify upon graduation. Without support, their health often declines rapidly, leading them to qualify for services later, but only because of severe needs that ongoing counseling could have prevented. This position will support some of our most vulnerable Arlingtonians, and it should save us money in the long-run by preventing acute incidents and the care those require. But, we made all of these additions to the budget with one-time funds; there is no guarantee that we can continue them in FY 2020 or beyond.
Next year, the needs of our schools, our first responders, and Metro will grow again. It is clear to me that we will need to increase taxes if we are to preserve the quality of services that Arlington has come to expect. Yet every year we hear of long-time residents struggling to afford to live here when their property taxes rise but their incomes do not. Unless there is a major change in our commercial vacancy rate (it is about 20% and costs us roughly $70M a year in lost revenue), I do not expect budgets to get easier in the near future.
Four Mile Run Valley
On Tuesday, we advertised the draft Four Mile Run Valley Policy Framework for adoption in May. Planning for the Four Mile Run area has been decades in coming and finally began two years ago. As is the case with our large projects, the stakeholders are many: near neighbors, many small businesses, the arts and sports communities, area residents, and more. The resident working group brought together all these stakeholders and their different perspectives in meetings that were sometimes contentious. In the end, there was agreement on just about everything except the design of Jennie Dean Park. We advertised two options for the park, and the Board will need to balance all the different interests and select one when we vote in May.
Thank you, Hope Halleck
Our long time Board clerk, Hope Halleck, retires this week after 30 years with the County and 10 years as Board clerk. Hope has long championed equal rights and also developed a real sense of teamwork in the Board office. Like all of my colleagues, I wish her well and look forward to what she does next as she is certain to remain very involved and active in making the world a better place for all.
As always, I hope this brief report is helpful and welcome thoughts and comments you might have on these or any other issues in Arlington.
I hope you will join me at the Phoenix Bikes Maker Ball tomorrow in Crystal City. There will be bicycles and food and fun for all ages to support a great non-profit. The party is 7:00-9:00 pm on Thursday, April 26th at 1750 Crystal Drive.