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Arlington manager proposes 1.5-cent tax rate hike to boost funding for schools

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz on Thursday recommended the elimination of nearly 30 county jobs and a tax rate hike of 1.5 cents, with most of the new money it raises going to the county’s public schools.

He said he had expected to take far more draconian steps to come up with a spending plan, based on projections last fall of a budget gap of up to $35 million.

“If you had asked me in September where we would be in February, I don’t think I could have predicted where we ended up,” Schwartz said in advance of his presentation to the County Board. He cited “a series of most fortunate events” that created a rosier revenue picture.

Real estate assessments rose more than expected, up 2.9 percent for homeowners and 4.1 percent for commercial property. Health-care costs were essentially flat, and interest income on some county funds and property rose, he said.

The county’s $1.34 billion budget proposal would increase spending about 3.5 percent in fiscal 2020, with a property tax rate of $1.008 per $100 of assessed value.

The average home in Arlington is assessed at $658,600, which means the average tax bill for homeowners would go up by $277 to $6,724, not including fees for personal property, vehicle licenses, refuse, water and sewer service, and the residential utility tax.

If the County Board accepts Schwartz’s recommendations, which it will decide after two months of scrutiny, Arlington schools would get an additional $7.8 million to fund three new schools that are opening next year. The rest of the tax rate increase would go toward the county’s share of the school budget, such as hiring crossing guards, school resource officers and nurses, and it would also increase pay for public safety employees.

Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy was not immediately available for comment. His budget proposal won’t be completed for another week, his assistant said.

Schwartz advised the elimination of 29.5 positions, 11 of them vacant. The cuts would come from the county’s employment center, the Arlington Economic Development’s cultural affairs office and positions elsewhere.

At the same time, Schwartz wants to hire four people to deal with an expected increase in development connected to the planned arrival of Amazon’s new East Coast headquarters. One of those people would deal exclusively with housing, he said. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) All of those jobs are expected to be paid for by the fees that developers pay when they propose new site plans. Officials expect the number of site plan requests to triple next year.

In addition, Schwartz wants to add another person to the economic development office who would specialize in small business.

The county’s housing grant program would get a boost of about $500,000, to a total of $9.3 million. The separate Affordable Housing Investment Fund, which provides county loans to affordable housing developers, would also see a modest boost to $14.5 million because of an increase in federal funds.

The County Board last year committed to offer the highest regional entry-level salaries for police and firefighters, so the budget for those salaries will go up an average of 5.5 percent. Other county employees would get about a 3.5 percent raise, on average.

Arlington will provide $45.6 million to Metro, which Schwartz said is a 3 percent hike once he subtracts one-time-only expenses.

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