An attempt to change the way that Arlington County deals with money left over after the fiscal year failed Thursday night, but county board member John Vihstadt’s effort clearly signaled that he intends to push for changes in long-standing county practices next year, when two of the five board members are replaced.
Vihstadt (I) tried to stop the allocation of just over half of the $21.8 million in carryover money that is usually used to pay for one-time-only expenses. Vihstadt and Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey (D) called for “a new tack” for what to do with the money left unspent at the end of the fiscal year. Garvey called for a “more disciplined and intentional” way of allocating the leftover funds. Vihstadt sought to delay a decision until newly elected members Christian Dorsey (D) and Katie Cristol (D) take their seats in January.
The effort did not sit well with the other board members.
“Sure, there will be two new board members coming up in January, but now you are dealing with us,” said J. Walter Tejada (D), who will be leaving the board after he chose not to run for reelection this fall. “This proposal seems to me unreasonable and unneeded.”
Mary Hynes, the other board member who is stepping down in January, turned red in the face as she objected to the proposal not to spend fiscal year 2015’s unused money on priorities such as economic development, land acquisition for schools, maintenance for existing infrastructure, housing grants and loans, and police staffing and fire training.
“We have spent hours and hours and hours this year talking about economic development. . . . Goodness gracious, there’s nothing random about this,” she said. “It’s all supported by plans; it’s all supported by what our community has told us.”
Board member Jay Fisette (D) called the existing procedure “a rational process meant to reflect the overall philosophy of the board.”
The money, a small percentage of the county’s $1.2 billion budget, is usually divided up as the county closes out the previous year’s budget to audit its financial statements. With $200.3 million left over, the county staff followed the board’s previous guidance on what to do with most of the money — using it for required reserves, restricted funds, allocations previously approved by the board and continuing projects that straddle fiscal years. But that left $21.8 million.
County administrators recommended that the remainder of the money, known as “onetime funds,” be split among economic development initiatives, land acquisition, infrastructure maintenance, housing grants and affordable housing loans and public safety staffing. It was this split that Vihstadt and Garvey unsuccessfully tried to delay.
In a less-contentious decision, the board directed the county manager to develop a balanced budget proposal for the coming fiscal year that assumes no tax rate increase and includes options for budget reductions, excluding schools.
At the moment, county budget officials foresee a budget gap of more than $15 million, $12 million of it from the school district. Arlington currently spends 46.5 percent of local tax revenues on schools, and booming enrollment has stressed school capacity.
Home values are rising, so tax assessments for single-family homes, townhouses and condos are expected to rise by about three percent, while commercial property assessments are expected to be slightly negative or flat. Arlington’s property tax rate of $0.996 per $100 of assessed value (including the sanitary district tax) is expected bring in about $20 million more to the county than this year, but costs are rising, too.
Those costs include employee wages and health care, leases, contributions to Metro, and debt service.
Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz will propose a budget for fiscal year 2017 in late February. Public budget and tax rate hearings will be held in March and the board will vote on it in April. In Arlington, the fiscal year begins July 1.