Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey
State of the County Address to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce
June 18, 2019
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you my thoughts about the State of our County, and to answer questions after my remarks. I am joined here today by my colleagues on the County Board.
I know I speak for us all in thanking the Chamber for your effective support of businesses in Arlington, your commitment to this County and your unabashed optimism about its future.
We may not always see eye-to-eye, but this Board appreciates the Chamber’s work and your input, and we value your partnership on specific issues. From the Transient Occupancy Tax to dedicated funding for Metro, to helping us put our best foot forward in the competition for Amazon’s HQ2, the Chamber and the Arlington business community have been important, effective partners on important issues for this community.
We know we share the same fundamental goal of an Arlington County that is prosperous, inclusive and committed to being better tomorrow than it was yesterday.
Truthfully, this event is a highlight of every Board Member’s tenure as Chair.
I say that both because it is always inspirational to see our outstanding public safety officers honored, and because you offer a Board Chair the chance to do something we don’t get to do often enough – step back from the day-to-day issues that fill our monthly agenda and our daily calendars and survey the horizon.
So today I want to talk not only about what I think is working in Arlington, but also about my belief that our community functions most effectively when all sectors of civic society – businesses, residents, institutions and civic organizations – form true partnerships and collaborate; when they consider the consequences of their actions for us all. And I want to talk about how I think our business community can help strengthen these partnerships and collaborations.
And, so that I won’t be accused of ignoring the notional question posed with our gathering today, and hopefully this is not a surprise to anyone, but I believe that that the state of our County is excellent.
Despite headwinds that might have derailed this community – the Base Realignment and Closure process; the loss of key federal agencies that moved out of Arlington; sequestration; federal government shutdowns; the long and painful recession and increased regional competition for businesses to fill office space, Arlington has proved resilient and resourceful.
We remained a welcoming community that values diversity and inclusion and provides a strong safety net for the most vulnerable among us.
We maintained our coveted Triple-Aaa bond rating status through several tough budget years, ensuring continued low-interest rates for our bond sales.
Last month, that Triple-Aaa status was reaffirmed. In issuing its rating for Arlington, Fitch noted Arlington’s “exceptionally strong operating performance,” and praised our “solid maintenance of reserves and liquidity.” It noted our “dynamic economic base,” our “strong revenue framework,” and our “conservative budgeting and close monitoring of expenditures.”
An impressive endorsement; but Arlington’s success goes far beyond our financial performance.
Since 2008, we have reduced the number of homeless persons counted on our streets from 527 to 232 – a 56 percent decrease. We achieved “functional zero” for homelessness among military veterans in 2016, and we are close to attaining it for chronically homeless persons. We continue working toward the goal of eliminating homelessness in our County.
County Government services continue to earn consistently high marks from residents. In our 2018 statistically valid Community Satisfaction Survey, 88% of residents said they are satisfied with the overall quality of County services; 86% said they are satisfied with the overall quality of life in Arlington. 85% are satisfied with the quality of police services, and 93% are satisfied with the quality of fire/emergency medical/ambulance service. 91% have an overall feeling of safety in the County, and 94% said they feel safe in their neighborhoods– an extraordinary statistic.
That sense of safety is testimony to our strong civic culture and a police department that focuses not just on enforcement, but also on prevention, education and building strong ties with the community.
The downward trend in Group A Offenses – crimes against persons – that began several years ago in Arlington and that continued this year with a 9.5% decrease in such crimes from the 2017 rate, reflects a national trend. But the police department’s many educational initiatives have made a real difference in other areas.
I will call out here just one of the department’s key initiatives – transportation safety. As our roads hold ever more travelers, using ever more modes of transportation, the Arlington Police Department has intensified its efforts to ensure that everyone using those roads stays safe.
Their Transportation Safety Initiative combines education and enforcement, including an increased focus on DUI diversion, and it is getting results. We saw a 27.5% decrease in bicycle-involved crashes, and 7.5% decrease in pedestrian-involved crashes in 2018. There were fewer alcohol-involved collisions. In 2019, the County was awarded the Governor’s Transportation Safety Award in the category of Pedestrian/Bicycle Safety for the collaborative effort among County departments and commissions to use a multi-faceted approach to reducing pedestrian and bicycle-related crashes in Arlington.
I want to also give a shout out here to our fire department. Arlington’s average number of fires annually between 2014-2017 was slightly above the national average for communities with a population between 100,000 and 290,000 – but fire deaths in Arlington, at one per year, were slightly below the national average of just over two per year. Our Fire Department achieved Mission Lifeline Gold Status this year, meaning we provide exemplary cardiac care as defined by the American Medical Association for 90 percent of cardiac calls for the last two years. I could go on.
Exemplary performance data and outside validation are common across the County’s many lines of business. This doesn’t happen by chance, or by accident. Providing high-quality services, a strong social safety net and outstanding public safety takes resources and to do so at the lowest possible tax rate (my governing philosophy), requires that we broaden our economic base.
As you all know, we have been working hard to reduce a historically high office vacancy rate and to diversify our economy. And we have had some important successes.
In FY 2019, we closed or announced 24 company deals, representing 7.2 million square feet of office space and nearly 43,000 new or retained jobs. Only two of those deals involved incentives from the County.
We have focused on attracting and retaining tech-related companies in key sectors such as cybersecurity, as well as professional services and media. We have attracted large companies, such as Nestle and Gerber, as well as non-profits such as the March of Dimes.
But we are also stepping up assistance to our small businesses. We have added a small business support manager to our BizLaunch program, who will identify a new and existing partnerships to help in key areas of entrepreneurial development for local businesses and increase our capacity to provide customized assistance to small business clients.
And later this summer, we will launch “Permit Arlington,” our initiative to improve the land development, building and permitting processes by creating a new online permitting system and centralized space for in-person customer visits. Permit Arlington will make the customer experience for both businesses and residents efficient and user-friendly by building better physical and virtual spaces.
The first phase will include almost half of County-wide permits, including right-of way, use permits, and site plan applications, civil engineering plans and more. We will begin testing the system in July, and you can sign-up to be a volunteer tester on the County website, by using the keyword search: “permit Arlington.”
It has taken longer than expected to put this system in place, largely because each of the 33 permit and application types in Phase I has its own process and workflow, all of which are customizations built into the new system. It has required not only a complex technological solution, but intensive staff work to document and translate the business process for each permit into the software.
We are also streamlining information on our public website to make it more readily accessible, weeding out and refreshing the “Building Arlington” website to update materials and present information clearly.
We know we have more to do to make County government as efficient and user-friendly as possible for both residents and businesses, but we are committed to an ongoing process of upgrading our customer service and business practices and imbuing County government with the virtues of resilience, innovation and adaptability that typifies our emerging tech- anchored commercial ecosystem
In addition to the deals struck and the process improvements we are making, as you all may have heard by now, in March we closed the largest economic development deal in this County’s history, an incentive-for-performance package with Amazon for HQ2.
Some were surprised that Amazon chose Arlington from among the hundreds of communities who competed for HQ2. I was not.
The day the company released its RFP, as I read through their requirements — great access to rail; easy connection to airports; capacity to absorb significant development now and in the future – it seemed glaringly obvious that what they were looking for was Crystal City and the Richmond Highway corridor
I emailed Victor Hoskins, our director of economic development and just said: “you’re on this, right?”
The Board’s unanimous vote to approve the package was the culmination of months of effort by County staff, who were competing against nearly 240 other bids covering hundreds of locations 2 other communities, and months of engagement with our community.
Amazon’s presence in Arlington will be transformational. The company will invest at least $2.5 billion here over the next 12 years. It will add more than 25,000 jobs in a gradual ramp-up that is already underway. It will eventually occupy at least 4 million square feet of energy-efficient office space.
HQ2 will enable us to realize the community’s vision for Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard. The County plans to invest $360 million in transportation projects to serve the Pentagon City, Crystal City and Potomac Yard neighborhoods, including projects adopted by the Board as part of the CIP.
The deal brings with it significant investments by the state in higher education and in transportation, with at least $195 million and up to $295 million in state funding pledged for transportation projects in the area.
As Amazon ramps up its presence here, the revenues that will result will ease some of the budget pressures we have experienced over the last several years, and provide resources that will move us beyond squabbles over how to divide a shrinking pie, to creating new opportunities for addressing challenges we haven’t had the resources to fully tackle – such as housing and equity.
I believe these new resources will help us address concerns about the impact that Amazon may have on our transportation network, housing costs, schools; parks and perhaps most of all, on our ability to remain a diverse and inclusive community.
My colleagues and I know that a lot of hard work lies ahead, by this and future Boards, by the business community and residents, and by Amazon. I think Amazon realizes that its success in Arlington will be defined not only by what its presence here contributes to its bottom line, but by what the company contributes to our community and this region.
We expect Amazon to be a good corporate citizen, supportive of our community’s commitment to equity, inclusiveness, transparency, environmental stewardship, and fair labor practices.
The company began taking some initial, encouraging steps earlier this month, with its announcement that it will donate $3 million to the Arlington Community Foundation to support affordable housing, and combat homelessness in the County. It also announced that it will provide curriculum and other support to help Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University create a high-tech bachelor’s degree. And through Sept. 30, the company will match up to $5 million in its employees’ contributions, to donate to local charities in Arlington and in Seattle that work on housing issues.
We will continue to make the case to Amazon, and to all businesses in Arlington, that if Arlington is to remain a community for people of all income levels, all our businesses need to pay their employees sufficient wages, part of the constellation of policies that together address equity in our community.
We know that our community conditions result from our collective decisions about policies, programs, practices and budget made over time. As decision makers, we have the power and the responsibility to reduce or eliminate inequities. A community can stay healthy and successful only when all its members are treated fairly; have a place at the table, and when their socio-economic status is not predictive of their outcomes..
Striving for equity is entirely in keeping with Arlington’s community vision. We are an aspirational community that sets high goals for itself. We don’t want to just reduce homelessness, we are committed to eliminating it. We don’t just provide one type of public transportation, we provide layers of it.
I know that we can bring the same commitment to the complex problems of equity – in housing, education, the use of public spaces, and access to health care and child care – that we bring to so many issues that make this a truly great place to live. That will include reconsidering our Land Use policies and Zoning Ordinance, and our public school system considering a new approaches to diversifying our classrooms , among other changes.
I challenge all of you here today to bring us your ideas, your innovations, your entrepreneurial spirit, to help us come up with innovative approaches to land use that will create more – housing that provide affordable choices for those who make or want make Arlington their home
I ask you to participate because I believe, if I dare say, that this should be a priority that engenders your earnest engagement. At the core most businesses desire access to the largest pool of talent that fits their needs. If we can house people affordably and reduce their economic insecurity, we reduce the opportunity costs of infilled positions, increase your ability to retain valued personnel and if workers can reduce time commuting, they can spend that time being fulfilled in ways that benefit employers.
That said, government must lead in this effort. I would site two recent examples of how we are acting to increase equity, address primary needs for Arlington families—and expand talent that may be available to our business community: our Child Care Initiative and Housing Arlington .
AsBoard Chair, Katie Cristol championed the Child Care initiative, which resulted in a rewriting of regulations to make high-quality, more affordable child care available across Arlington.
Earlier this year, we launched “Housing Arlington” – an umbrella initiative to create more affordable housing and more “missing middle” housing by aggressively using land use and financial tools and creating effective partnerships with the non-profit and for-profit sectors and across the region. You will be hearing much more about this effort in the coming months.
We are also addressing significant disparities in health in our County – where black residents experience an eight-fold higher rate of asthma hospitalization compared to white residents, and where adults who earn less than $50,000 annually experience more poor-mental-health days a month than adults earning more than $50,000, and where life expectancy varies by up to 10 years among neighborhoods.
A steering committee convened by the County Health Director in 2018 has recommended ways to prevent further disparities and to achieve health equity by 2027, focusing on government, for-profit and non-profit sectors assessing policies, programs, practices and budget by asking: who benefits; Who is burdened; who is missing and how do we know?
There is much more to be done in this and the years ahead. Amazon’s arrival here embodies and intensifies the challenges we were already facing as a community – challenges that generally come down to the impact of continued growth and continued change. The difference now is, we will have far more resources available to help us meet those challenges.
In conclusion: this is an exciting time for Arlington. County government needs you, our business community, to help ensure that the new opportunities we now have yield benefits for our entire community. We need you to join a conversation with us about wages and salaries, with the goal of helping Arlington workers achieve the sort of economic security that will make our community stronger and more successful. We need for all businesses in Arlington, large, medium and small, to help us make Arlington a place that works for everyone who lives and works here.
I know that you will continue to play a positive role and continue to build partnerships with County government and this community. Thank you, again, for inviting me here today.