The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a $1.1 billion budget Tuesday night that cuts the real estate tax rate even as authorized spending rises by about 5 percent, thanks to increased property values.
Board members called it a “running-in-place” budget and a “structurally sound” plan, and the proposal survived last-minute changes in employee compensation.
The County Board trimmed the property tax rate to $0.996 per $100 of assessed valuation, down from $1.006 per $100. But residential assessments rose by an average of 5.3 percent, and the average home assessment in Arlington is now $552,700.
Even with the lower rate, the tax on the county’s average residential assessment will increase by $227, or 4.3 percent, to $5,505.
Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) said the tax rate cut has been under discussion for weeks as a result of comments made at public hearings. Others have said it’s an apparent response to the victory of John Vihstadt, who won an April 8 special election to the board, running as an independent, after vigorously criticizing county spending.
The board cut $6.6 million from the $1.1 billion budget originally proposed by County Manager Barbara Donnellan in February. The fiscal 2015 budget, which goes into effect July 1, calls for a 5.1 percent increase from the current budget.
The new budget includes $5.4 million for employee merit pay, also known as step increases in the pay schedule. Step increases had been dropped from the manager’s recommendation last week in favor of a 1 percent cost-of-living increase and a one-time $500 bonus for all employees.
But after the police and firefighter unions protested, Fisette said merit pay would be restored, the bonus would be dropped and only those at the top of the pay scale — and therefore ineligible for step increases — would get a 1 percent cost-of-living raise. The money would be found, he said, by slowing down hiring and eliminating several new positions.
County employees also received two more paid holidays in the coming fiscal year — the day after Christmas and the day after New Year’s Day because both holidays fall on a Thursday. That will cost $250,000.
The public schools will receive $440.6 million in local funding, a 6 percent increase, including an additional $19.6 million for the operating budget and $8.4 million for one-time expenses such as school construction. Arlington taxpayers pay more than $19,000 per student, more than any other school district in the region, county officials said.
The higher property assessment allowed the County Board to add $18.5 million for one-time-only services and grants in the coming fiscal year. Board members last week agreed to devote $3 million in contingency funds for emergency economic stabilization and $1.6 million for a project to provide high-speed fiber-optic cable to local businesses, which the county hopes will accelerate economic development.
Affordable housing programs will see an increase of $500,000. Bicyclists, who have been lobbying the county to start plowing snow from the 100-plus miles of bike trails, won $300,000 for that purpose.