Distribution of general fund expenditures.
There were already plenty of strains on the budget — rising school costs, increased metro funding, the regional affordable housing crisis — but the County Board added another: no tax rate increase. With taxes and fees for the average Arlingtonian still see an average $296 or 3.5 percent increase, according to an estimate by County Manager Mark Schwartz, the County Board instead opted to look at cuts for the FY 2019 budget. At the budget’s final approval on April 21, the few previously cut items found some returning investments, but in the final toll several programs will still go underfunded or cut.
“I believe raising the tax rate would have only deferred hard conversations,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol. “The pace of growth in needs is outpacing growth in assessed value. We have to find a way to show commitment to our values through better measuring of outcomes and impacts, not just input of dollars spent.”
The County Board surpassed the Arlington Public School’s budget request with $2.5 million taken from renovations planned for the the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center. While the addition passes the official request from the School Board, Board member Nancy Van Doren said the schools had actually needed $4.7 million to meet the needs of the growing school population.
The budget included a three percent increase in funding to the Metro, raising total operating support to $73.1 million. Cristol noted that much of the funding transitioned into Metro funding isn’t from new sources, but drawn from other regional transportation funding projects. Much of the increase came from reductions in ART bus operations and elimination of stops. Routes through Crystal City, Long Bridge Park, and the Pentagon had all experienced chronic low ridership, averaging three passengers per hour, and were cut.
The $1.3 billion general fund budget came with $8.4 million in spending reductions. There were also $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million from funding realignment. Utility taxes will increase five percent, up to $3 increase per month. This is separate from the household solid waste fees, increased $2 for a total fee of $316.16 per year. Parking meter rates also increased by $0.25 per hour, with hours extended from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and fines increased to $40.
Some of the most severe cuts to the budget were eliminations in the Office of Community Health in the Department of Parks and Recreation ($483,000), reduction in Department of Health and Human Services employment services ($825,000), and service cuts in the Department of Human Services ($625,000).
“It wasn’t all low hanging fruit,” said County Board member Christian Dorsey. “There were substantial cuts. We have employees performing work who will no longer be part of our organization. We can’t glibly ignore [that] sacrifice.”
There were a few last minute restorations to programs that had been on the chopping block. Among the proposed cuts had been $91,000 to Arlington Independent Media, a 20 percent cut to the nonprofit local broadcasting organization. Of that, $70,000 was restored in one time funding to give the program a year to move towards self-sufficiency. The County Board directed Schwartz to put together a list of other public access media funded by the county and how it compares to other jurisdictions, noting that further cuts may come down the line.
One of the more contentious proposed cuts had been a scaling back of the Lee Highway planning process by $500,000, a long-term plan to transition the residential and retail along Lee Highway into an archipelago of redeveloped mixed-use communities. The reduction would decrease the scope of the planning process to a smaller section of commercial development with consultant support potentially curtailed. Of the cut funding, $365,500 was restored.
The board also restored $40,000 in one-time funding to support the Neighborhood College program, a free, civic leadership program for Arlington residents who want to be more involved in their communities. Dorsey noted that the funding will allow the program to continue to operate at its current capacity.
Two law enforcement related cuts were restored. The board doubled the current $20,000 funding to Legal Justice Service for the legal support of immigrants in detention in Arlington to $40,000. Arlington County hosts one of the largest immigration courts in Virginia. The board also approved $200,000 to purchase a new body scanner for the county jail.
Finally, the popular free paper shredding program was salvaged, with $20,000 in one time funding.
On May 3, the School Board will adopt its FY 2019 budget.