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Proposed Arlington Budget Includes Tax Hike, Job Cuts

Uncertainty over federal sequestration complicating local budget process.

The average Arlington homeowner would pay about $262 more each year in taxes and fees under the 2013-14 budget County Manager Barbara Donnellan proposed Wednesday.

The spending plan also would eliminate about 46 county staff positions, about half of them already vacant, affect several county programs and force the Artisphere to justify its operating expense.

And the entire proposed $1.1 billion general fund budget is overshadowed by what might happen with federal sequestration.

Crystal City already has the highest vacancy rate the county has seen, Donnellan said, thanks in large part to Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. And now, the threat of sequestration is causing more companies to move out.

"If people aren't upping their leases and they aren't going to continue to stay in their buildings, that's huge for us," Donnellan said. "If the federal government doesn't start allowing people to feel confident that they're going to have a contract, and continue to do business … If you talk to the business community, they'll tell you, it's already happening." 

The county has $3 million in a contingency fund that could be used to ease the pain of sequestration. Officials are studying what impact such a move by the federal government could have here — and, in some cases, has already begun to happen.

Arlington, too, is beginning to feel more pressure from regional competition thanks to the Silver Line to Reston, which is scheduled to open later this year, along with new development in Fairfax and Washington.

Heading into the process, Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools face a $35 million budget gap. Part of that is due to real estate assessments increasing a paltry 0.2 percent in January, much less than the projected 1 percent to 3 percent.

To cope, Donnellan has proposed a tax increase of 3.2 cents per $100 assessed value. The county's current tax rate is 97.1 cents per $100 assessed value.

The Arlington County Board on Saturday will vote on the maximum tax rate that can be adopted this year. Board member Libby Garvey expressed the need to advertise a higher maximum rate to give the board "wiggle room."

Board member Mary Hynes said she was concerned about the message the county would send by advertising a higher-than-necessary tax rate. With so many federal employees and companies that rely on federal contracts in Arlington, she said, families could see their earnings shrink.

"For some families, that ($262 annually) may be quite a bit in light of the pay cut they're going to experience" through furloughs, Hynes said.

Donnellan cautioned against the board giving itself too much flexibility.

Local government aid to nonprofits is not, at this point, proposed to increase, she said. The greater the flexibility the board gives itself, the more board members open themselves up to pressure from special interest groups wanting a larger piece of the pie, she said.

Of the approximately 46 positions proposed to be cut, seven would be realized through attrition at the Arlington County Police Department.

In all, the county is looking at $9.3 million in cuts, including:

  • Reduced funding for medical services for inmates at the county jail.
  • Eliminating local child-care regulation and relying instead on the state.
  • Reducing nursing aides in schools.
  • Closing restrooms at small parks during the winter. Facilities at larger parks, or those on major trails, would remain open.
  • Reducing youth and senior programs with low enrollment.

The proposed spending plan also puts pressure on the Artisphere in Rosslyn. The center's $1.8 million annual budget would be fully funded under next year's budget, which begins July 1. But Donnellan is proposing allocating half of that money as one-time funding — leaving the onus on the Artisphere to become financially stable with potentially less taxpayer funding in the future.

Of the proposed tax increase, 1.2 cents would be used to pay for enrollment increases at Arlington Public Schools. The school system is expecting about 1,000 new students next year.

A little less than a half cent would pay for the renovated Arlington Mill and the ConnectArlington project. Donnellan told reporters Wednesday that putting a major project on hold to save money was always an option but might not be the best move when considering long-term implications.

Donnellan noted that some of the budget cuts from 2009 to 2011 still have not been restored.

Public hearings on the budget, tax rate and fees will be held in late March.

Click here to view the entire schedule of upcoming Arlington County budget meetings.

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Pat Murphy will present his proposed budget at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 28.

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