After months of negotiations, the Arlington County Board and School Board settled on a compromise that sees cuts to projects on both sides. On April 21, the County Board passed a $1.16 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2016. Included in that budget is a $6.2 million increase for the Arlington Public Schools (APS) over the county manager’s original budget, bringing the total to $451 million, raising the total percentage of the budget allocated to the schools from 45.9 percent to 46.5 percent. The approved funding transfer is a $19.4 million increase over the FY 2015 funding. In a budget without a tax rate increase, the county was forced to work within the constraints of the county manager’s proposed budget to close the $6.2 million gap.
When the county manager proposed the FY 2016 budget in February, the school funding gap was $13.6 million. The schools prepared a series of “tiered reductions” and will be forced to implement the first tier, which includes central office reductions. School Board approved its $555.9 million budget at its April 9 meeting, which included $7.4 million in cuts from Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed budget.
APS currently conducts a two-day conference for 180 APS administrators with a keynote speaker, professional readings, and workshops with a total cost of $30,000. The reduction would decrease expenditures for the speaker, diminish staff payment for services during the event, and eliminate professional reading materials.
Tier One reductions also includes an increased budgeted beginning balance, which means the schools will have to reduce spending in the final quarter of the 2014-2015 school year to have remaining funding to carry over.
The schools will also be forced to eliminate two library staff positions for $24,880. APS will also lose four maintenance staff and $18,789 in classroom supplies funding. Tier One reductions total to $4.7 million.
The County Board’s funding transfer to the schools came from a mixture of $3.5 million in cuts from the county board and $2.5 million from the Third Quarter Review.
The largest savings from the funding cuts were from the Artisphere closure, which saved the county $450,000 from the ongoing costs. The Artisphere was one of the county manager’s additional funding cuts built into the original proposed budget. The closure of the Artisphere also means the loss of 11 full-time employees.
However, despite the long-term savings in over $3.4 million in Artisphere operating costs, the cut does come with a substantial funding setback.
“Budget also does include $1.3 million in one-time funds that address lease termination provisions,” said County Board Chair Mary Hynes. “The board has asked the manager to investigate whether there are alternatives to just paying the money.”
The county manager was given until June 30, when the current funding ends, to attempt to reach a settlement with Monday Properties. The county still has six years remaining on the Artisphere lease, leaving the county with a choice of subleasing the property or facing penalties for a six-year premature cancellation of the lease.
During the April 21 County Board budget meeting, County Board member Walter Tejada expressed hopes that the county might find another use for the location.
“I thought about not voting supporting getting rid of [the Artisphere],” said Tejada. “A lot of folks in the tech world are interested in that, but we’re yet to see anything specific though. there’s still some opportunity … on how we can leverage the Artisphere space.”
However, the Artisphere site plan conditions stipulate that the property must be used for arts or cultural purposes, which would limit sub-leasing options at the location.
While the Artisphere generates $1.2 million each year in revenue, according to Karen Vazquez, former director of Cultural Affairs, this barely covers the cost of opening the doors and turning on the lights. This leaves $2.2 million in the Artisphere’s budget to be financed directly through local tax support.
“We were given inflated information and we based a lot of decisions on that,” said Tejada. “It didn’t turn out to be like we wanted.”
“I think it was responsible to close the Artisphere,” said County Board member Libby Garvey. “That maybe wasn’t the easiest thing, but it was the responsible thing to do.”
Other cuts included the elimination of the Kids in Action After School program for $158,416. According to Hynes, the program is duplicated in other existing after-school programming sponsored by the schools.
“[This is] a duplicate of after-school programming in three locations, and in two it’s possible to work with extended day to blend the programs,” said Hynes. “We will be providing $36,000 to support transition of this program to APS extended day programs.”
Also in the budget were $2.5 million in funding from a transfer of the Housing Grants Program and PAYG (pay-as-you-go) from ongoing funding to the general one-time funding budget. Hynes said the transition was, in some ways, just moving the funding from one source to another. However, Hynes also noted that with these two items put on the one-time budget funding, their funding levels next year is not guaranteed.
“These projects were transferred from ongoing funding to one-time funding,” said Hynes. “Next year, the County Board will have to decide if there are enough funds to bring these back to ongoing funding.”
PAYG is a general capital projects fund which primarily finances maintenance projects, particularly replacement and renewal of existing infrastructure. PAYG funding was reduced to $10 million in the 2016 budget from $23 million in 2015 and $37 million in 2014.
The Housing Grants Program provides rental assistance to low-income Arlington residents. The total funding to the Housing Grants Program is maintained at the proposed $8.9 million, a $1 million increase over FY 2015 funding. However, $1.5 million of that funding is being transferred from ongoing funding to one-time funding.
The $2.5 million addition from the third quarter review comes from an overlap between the tax and budget cycles.
Among the additions to the budget from the County Board was $80,000 to the Public Defender’s office, part of a two-year set of budget increases that will provide a 15 percent salary supplement. County Board members said they were motivated by the testimony from members of the Public Defender’s office at the March 24 County Board public hearing.
“[These salaries] are not competitive in our region at all,” said Hynes. “They did come to talk to us because they were having a great deal of difficulty attracting the caliber of people they need to work on these cases.”
“They wanted to be equal to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office,” said Tejada. “That’s a very tall order, I’m not sure we’re going to get there, but this is a step in the right direction.”
The County Board is also adding five full time employees to the Arlington Sheriff’s Department, increasing funding to mental health services in the detention center, and adding a nurse practitioner position to Arlington Drewry Center, a mental health and substance abuse treatment center.
The total Arlington County Budget for FY 2016 is $1.16 billion, a 1.1 percent increase over the FY 2015 $1.15 billion budget.