This time last year we had just adopted a drastically slimmed down emergency budget; were struggling to get the ability to test for Covid; and were setting up our Covid protocols to make sure people could, and would, distance and wear masks. I doubt any of us imagined that it would be a whole a year before we would be where we almost are
to now, when anyone who wants a vaccination can register and get one. We continue to pre-register people for vaccinations to ensure that people who live in Arlington get priority for appointments and to keep our centers operating efficiently for everyone. Anyone over the age of 16 can now get the vaccine. If you have not pre-registered and are not vaccinated, please do register: Vaccinate Virginia
The Board unanimously passed a more normal budget for FY’22 ($1.4M), but this is still a transition budget to get us to whatever the new normal is. While this is a difficult budget year, the Federal support from our new Democratic administration has made a huge difference in preventing draconian cuts. We are receiving about $46M, with $23M this year and $23M the next. Both funds can be spent over 2 years and the flexibility and certainty of revenue helped a lot in our budgeting. We are investing in ongoing Covid-19 relief efforts, housing affordability, sustainability and effective changes towards improved crisis response and equity, among other priorities.
We kept the tax rate the same. But real estate assessments have increased because home values have increased, so homeowners will see their local taxes go up. Assessments for commercial real estate, however, are down and our hotel and hospitality industry is operating at a fraction of what it was in ’19. This lowers our revenue from those sources at a time when our safety net is stretched.
The American Rescue Plan has indeed been a rescue for us and is helping replenish our Covid contingency fund for vaccinations, testing, contact tracing, emergency rental assistance, support for small businesses and more. We increased support for housing grants and eviction prevention to keep people in their homes.
We continue to address the other pandemic of systemic racism and included funding for recommendations from the Police Practices Work Group. This includes enhanced mental health crisis response (both professional staff and a mobile unit) as well as hiring officers who are not uniformed police for parking enforcement, traffic direction and safety. I have long supported improved mental health services and was prepared to support non-police traffic enforcement last year but it was not in the final budget which had, essentially, no new programs as we dealt with the pandemic.
The Board continues to address climate change and our stormwater infrastructure. We provided money to purchase electric vehicles (EV) and install 13 charging stations for EV’s. I believe we will soon see many more EVs in Arlington and we need to be ready. We increased our stormwater tax for the first time in a decade to help continue our efforts to upgrade, repair and replace our stormwater infrastructure. We directed the Manager to take a “whole of government” approach to address climate change issues, which means that every department should consider how its decisions affect our environment and climate.
Our County workforce has performed admirably during the past year and more as they kept our government services going, often not only working differently, but doing totally different jobs. They deserve more, but we were able to provide a 1% increase and a $900 net bonus for all employees. We also raised the lowest wages from $15/hour to $17/hour.
Besides the budget, the Board considered several land use issues. One was a request by a developer to convert 100 residential units in a new building temporarily to hotel use. We have done this before to help fill a new building until all the residential units can be sold or leased. Empty buildings are not good for anyone. The request by The Highlands project in Rosslyn was for 7 years, but in the past we have only permitted the change for 2 years. Our staff thought 5 years was reasonable. It is quite likely we will have a shortage of hotel rooms in the near future as some hotels will not survive the pandemic and close. These temporary hotel rooms could address that future shortage. The Planning Commission was concerned that even 5 years would take permanent housing out of circulation for too long and said we should only grant 2 years. Christian Dorsey and I agreed with staff and thought the uncertainty in the market and the time it will take to actually get the building on line meant 5 years was reasonable. However, our three colleagues disagreed. They were concerned about precedent and agreed with the Planning Commission.
Arts and Industry District Purchase
Finally, in accordance with the Four Mile Run Valley Area Plan as well as the goals of the Public Spaces Master Plan and the County’s Arts and Culture Strategy, we exercised our option to purchase two buildings near our existing Cultural Affairs building. The purchase will save us about $200K in lease costs. We extended the closing time to allow current tenants to relocate or close up their businesses. One tenant plans to be out soon. One tenant may need help relocating, which we will provide. And one tenant, The Inner Ear, has an owner who is planning to retire and expressed a desire to help us plan and program for the space. The buildings will be torn down and the open space will be used for events like outdoor movie screenings, performing arts, festivals or an outdoor market. We have a movable outdoor stage that can be used and the plan is that the activities will be free. There is a lot of excitement about the possibilities. I am hopeful this will help revitalize the area, but not too much. We want to keep the sense of an Arts and Industry district and keep companies that provide needed services but do not make large profits and cannot afford high rents.
I hope most of my readers are now vaccinated or soon will be and that you find this newsletter helpful. As always, I welcome comments, questions, and suggestions.