Over more than three hours last Tuesday night, 64 people asked the County Board to spend an extra $1.8 million on county programs.
Board members sat on the stage of the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater for their annual budget hearing. Meanwhile, one by one, dozens of speakers came forward to support their own special cause, the line item in pages of county expenditures that they wanted to see funded.
They came for many causes that are funded in whole or in part by the county: immigrants and staff members came in support of the Ethiopian Community Development Council; five speakers sought an extra $20,000 for the Virginia Agriculture Extension office.
Before any requests for money came to the board, Barbara Donnellan, director of the county’s department of budget and finance, told Board members that they should remember the effects of uncertainty about the state budget on county finances.
“State revenue is the largest unknown factor” in budget planning, Donnellan said. “We should have had a state budget by now.”
<b>SOME SPEAKERS SIMPLY</b> asked Board members not to cut programs proposed in Carlee’s budget. In particular, six speakers came to support a plan proposed by the county manager to increase county investment in the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, adding $1.5 million a year.
“We would like to see AHIF at $6 million” eventually, said Walter Webdale, executive director of AHC Inc., a local non-profit dedicated to preserving affordable housing.
Affordable housing is defined at houses and apartments available to families making 60 percent or less of the area median income. In the Washington area, the median income is $91,500 for a family of four — to qualify for affordable housing; a family of four would need to be making $54,400 or less.
But even middle-class families are having a hard time affording homes in Arlington, Charles Walter told the Board. Airing concerns that were echoed at a tax rate hearing two nights later, Walter told the board his assessments were rising out of control, pricing the county out of his reach.
<b>COUNTY EMPLOYEES</b> made up one of the largest groups asking the board for funds. But their request wouldn’t have any effect on county taxes, they said: it should already be paid for out of their paychecks.
The employee retirement system, known as Chapter 46, penalizes “penalizes … workers at the lower end of the income scale and long-term employees, especially those near retirement age,” said Brenda Kriegel, president of the Arlington General Employees Network Association.
Retirement pay for county employees is determined by an employee’s years of employment with the county, and final average annual salary, multiplied by a fixed multiplier of 1.5 percent. For instance, a 20-year county employee whose final average pay works out to $60,000 a year would get retirement payments of $18,000 a year. Teachers, police officers and firefighters are covered by separate systems.
County employees say the 1.5 percent in the retirement system is too small, leaving retirees at a disadvantage. “Many Chapter 46 employees will be eligible for public assistance when they retire,” Zulma Vargas, a 12-year employee, told Board members.
<b>THE PROBLEM,</b> Kriegel and others said, is based on county retirement plans set in 1981, and changed three years ago. Employees hired in that window, they said, should be eligible for a tiered retirement system, increasing the percentage that determines their retirement pay.
Under that proposal, the same 20-year employee who retires with an average annual salary of $60,000 would receive $24,000 in retirement from the county.
“For most people who go into public service, I think one of the lures is the long-term pension aspect of it,” Kriegel said after the hearing. “They haven’t been very receptive of that.”
But Marcy Foster, the county’s director of human resources, said that AGENA’s accounting of retirement benefits fails to take into account other payments: the county also offers a payment of 4 percent of salary for retirement.
More to the point, Foster said, the county can’t afford to increase retirement payments for all general employees. Increasing the multiplier by 1 percent costs $5 million, Foster said, so the proposal to increase payments by 5 percent would cost $25 million.
“That would wipe out cost-of-living increases, it would wipe out our Metro subsidy,” said Foster. “When we look at benefit packages, we look a little more globally than these employees: we look at Metro packages, at health care.”