Residents Want Piece of Pie

Residents Want Piece of Pie

Ask county to fund their projects and causes for FY 2007.

They pleaded. They cajoled. They demanded. But in the end, will it make a difference?

More than 100 Arlington residents, business owners and nonprofit employers asked the County Board during a public hearing on March 28 to include money in the fiscal year 2007 budget for their pet projects and causes.

THE MAJORITY of the speakers urged the board members to increase funding for mental health services, affordable housing and the arts.

The budget hearing came two days before a public session on the real estate tax rate, during which dozens of residents called on the board members to cut the tax rate.

In the coming weeks the board will have to make difficult decisions surrounding its priorities for the upcoming year.

If they slash the tax rate by too much, they will have to curtail vital county services and programs. If they include additional funding for organizations in the budget, the board risks raising the ire of residents stunned by a massive tax bill.

The five County Board members did not speak during the budget hearing. The board is scheduled to adopt a budget and tax rate on April 22.

Multiple speakers during the meeting stated that the county needs to generate new and innovative ways to stem the drop in the number of affordable apartments.

Arlington has lost 9,800 affordable units over the past five years, due to rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.

Walter Webdale, president and CEO of AHC, asked the board to raise the county’s $10.7 million subsidy to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

"Real money is crucial, but there is another critical requirement to meeting this challenge," Webdale said. "We must find creative solutions, and that means not just thinking outside the box but also acting outside the box."

THE BOARD must generate new avenues to ensure that middle class families can continue to buy houses and apartments, or they risk losing the few police officers, teachers and service workers who still live in Arlington, said Andrew Keyes, chair of AHC.

William Bozman, a member of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, recognizes that the board has little control over market forces, but sees no reason why there should be a waiting list for the county’s housing grants programs.

A cadre of mental health advocates made a series of emotional and powerful appeals for greater funding for services for the disabled.

"I think it’s time that we had a real debate in this county as to whether the health and safety of our most vulnerable residents is a ‘funding priority," said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board.

Jo Anne McKey spoke on the "desperate" need for a greater number of case managers for children and youth with mental retardation.

According to McKey, the county has only a single case manager for 125 children with developmental disabilities, despite the fact that the state’s guidelines call for one per 25 cases.

Several speakers addressed the county’s needs for more behavioral intervention specialists, who help their clients adjust to their social, scholastic and workplace environments.

"Without behavioral support, Arlington citizens may not be able to participate in vocational and social programs in the community due to aggressive behaviors that can be self-injurious or result in injury to others," said Sheila Billingsley.

Susan Lowry stressed the importance of increasing the salaries of managers at mental health group homes, who are underpaid and frequently quit.

If Arlington wants to remain a top-level player on the regional arts scene, the board will have to devote more money to its performing arts groups, said Wendy Rahm, chair of the Arts Commission.

The county provides 20 different arts groups with a total of $219,000 each year, a number far below Montgomery and Fairfax. Arlington does run an innovative incubator program, which helps arts organizations get started.

ARTS ADVOCATES asked the board to increase funding for the larger groups, which are currently capped at receiving $30,000 per year.

The arts are an integral part of attracting investment and businesses to Arlington, said Sam Sweet, director of Signature Theatre, which is receiving county assistance for its new space in Shirlington.

"Arts organizations provide an economic benefit to the county and those organizations should share in those benefits," Sweet added.

Arlington’s arts groups are one of the leading reasons tourists and residents of other jurisdictions visit the county, said Clare Huschle, executive director of the Arlington Arts Center.

Since they bring business to local restaurants and shops, it makes sense for the county to give these arts organizations more money to promote and improve their products, Huschle added.