When County Manager Ron Carlee presented his proposed $873.6 million budget to the board last month, many were surprised that, in the face of a significant housing slowdown, the Arlington budget hadn’t been cut back. Carlee’s fiscal year 2008 budget allocates five percent more funds than the 2007 budget, not a huge increase but larger than expected.
The increase comes at a time when the average tax assessment for a single-family home in Arlington is decreasing for the first time in more than a decade.
Carlee said that the budget continues to grow at a health rate even when residential real estate assessments aren’t what they used to be because the county has a good balance between residential and commercial real estate.
"The reason we are in such good shape is because of the balance we have between residential [and] commercial," Carlee said. "When one goes up and another goes down we can stay stable."
THE PROPOSED BUDGET, which will be considered by the County Board at a hearing on March 27, contained several notable areas of funding. One was the expansion of several health and human service programs.
The proposed budget includes $358,000 for the funding of an adult day care program at the Walter Reed Senior Center. If approved by the Board, it would be the first expansion of adult day care in the county in more than 30 years.
The budget also contained start-up money for a county-run assisted living residence. While only $130,000 would be designated for the residence this year, it will require up to $2 million per year once it is fully operational.
"This is a huge commitment of local funds for the most vulnerable population of Arlington," Carlee said.
The proposed budget also called for a $1.5 million expansion of Arlington’s environmental initiative. The money would go towards improving the efficiency of county facilities and towards encouraging residences and small businesses to become more ecologically friendly.
The money to fund this program would come from a residential utility tax. Carlee said that Arlington residents would be taxed an average of $30 per year on their utility bills. But he also said that it would not be a flat tax but, rather, it would be based on how much electricity a home uses in a year.
Currently almost all other Northern Virginia jurisdictions have utility taxes. Residents of Alexandria pay on average $130 in utility taxes per year and the average Falls Church resident pays $240 per year.
"All the other jurisdictions have [a utility tax]," County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said, "[But] ours would be more progressive. Even though the tax is small… if you use less power, you pay less money."
Carlee said that the money for the environmental initiative is crucial to bring Arlington’s effort to cut carbon emissions to the private sector.
"The board laid out that there was a clear mandate to do [our] part to reduce greenhouse emissions," he said. "The response from the community has been extraordinarily positive."
The largest piece of new spending in the proposed budget is for an overhaul of the county’s storm water management system that would cost more than $3 million. Carlee described it as an "aggressive program to prevent flooding and meet clean water requirements."
He said that the county’s drainage system was built more than 50 years ago and that much of it is starting to deteriorate within the last half decade. The county has been developing a plan to improve the system for the past three years but Carlee said that the floods during June and July of last year — especially in the Four Mile Run area — made the improvements even more important.
"With global warming," he said, "What were 100-year floods are now 10-year floods."
The improvements in the proposed budget are also to ensure Arlington complies with federal environmental regulations regarding water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Carlee said that if the quality of Arlington’s water is not improved the county could get fined.
The proposed budget did not have designated funds for the storm water program so, for the Board to approve it, taxes would have to be raised or other programs would have to be cut.
THE ARLINGTON COUNTY BOARD will be holding two public hearings on the fiscal year 2008 budget this month.
County Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D) was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming budget but said he was withholding judgment until he heard more.
"I need a chance to work through it," he said. "I want to hear from the public."
Ferguson also reiterated this point. "It's too early in the process for me to answer [budget] questions," he said. "We get input from the public and we have to go through the different [budget] processes."
The first will be held on March 27 and will be focused on the various programs included in the budget. The second hearing, to be held on March 29, will examine the tax rate.
The Board will then hold a final vote on the budget at their April 21 meeting. All three meetings will be open to the public.