The final days of Arlington County budget negotiations will largely deal with a major last-minute funding request from the public school system and fine-tune the amount of money put toward affordable housing and capital maintenance.
Tuesday, county and school officials grappled with a new law — the finer points of which are still being debated in Richmond — that requires local government employees, including teachers, to pay 5 percent of their salary into the Virginia Retirement System.
Arlington Public Schools requested about $1.9 million to cover salary increases that will allow its employees to pay for the mandate and still receive a 2-percent cost of living adjustment.
County Board members grumbled over the predicament they’d been put in.
Freshly minted Board member Libby Garvey called it “a case of sloppy legislation and unintended consequences.” Vice Chairman Walter Tejada said he and his colleagues were “handcuffed” and criticized the state for balancing its budget “on the backs of local government.”
“Thank you, governor,” Board member Chris Zimmerman said sarcastically as he and his colleagues agreed to include a 0.3-cent tax increase in their proposed budget to accommodate the school system’s needs.
“I’ve been here 14 years, and I don't think I've ever gotten anything of this magnitude the day before making a decision,” Board member Jay Fisette said.
If, ultimately, the school system doesn’t need all of the money the county set aside Tuesday, then the local government will place it in a reserve fund.
At close of business Tuesday, the proposed $1 billion general fund budget included a 1.3-cent property tax increase, which would cost the owner of a $520,000 home about $160 more per year. The board has given itself the flexibility to raise the tax rate as much as 2 cents per $100 assessed value, though the maximum increase now seems unlikely.
That budget includes a 2.3-percent salary increase for county Board members, about $7,300 in all. If approved, it would be the first pay raise for local elected officials in five years.
“I’m sure we'll still get blasted for doing this. Even a dollar. It's the story that writes itself,” Zimmerman said.
The proposed spending plan also:
- Funds a live-where-you-work program for county employees at $100,000;
- Lists $100,000 for "civic engagement," which includes training and consultant fees;
- Restores library hours cut in 2009 ($443,000);
- Adds three sheriff’s deputies and a warrant processor ($225,000);
- Provides $60,000 to the Arlington County Police Department to cover overtime expenses expected with “enhanced policing” in peak times, primarily in Clarendon;
- Allocates $58,500 to the Arlington Free Clinic, $66,000 to the Arlington Food Assistance Center and $100,000 to the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, the latter for case management.
Despite the Arlington County Civic Federation’s findings that about 60 percent of applicants to local government jobs are minorities, $115,000 for a new “diversity outreach” position in human resources remains funded.
The county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, or AHIF, will get about $6.7 million in ongoing funding, plus another $2.5 million in one-time dollars.
On the table is about $800,000, much of which Zimmerman and Tejada would like to see further bolster AHIF. Chairwoman Mary Hynes was hesitant Tuesday to move that money out of a reserve fund until further studies have been completed.
“I don't believe we need any more study to know that we need more funding for (affordable) housing,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman argued that the county should commit to substantially growing the amount of ongoing dollars the county puts in AHIF over the long term. Fisette said he didn’t want to commit board members to spending tax money when they don’t know what circumstances the county will face in the future.
Budget adoption is slated for Saturday morning.