Our gathering this evening—just one day after we’ve turned the calendar to 2019, and marking the debut of a new Board Member and new Board leadership—focuses our attention on what is to come.
For a moment, however, I’d like to look back at 2018, for it was a notable year, and it very much informs the perspectives I’ll share with you tonight.
Among our many successes and noteworthy achievements over the last year:
- Arlington was designated the first ever Platinum level community in the world by the US Green Building Council, an affirmation of our progressive efforts toward environmental sustainability.
- We improved our tax relief program for seniors and the permanently disabled so that the program could be administered more efficiently and be more equitable in providing support to these vulnerable populations.
- Our efforts to create housing for moderate and lower income Arlingtonians added ninety units to what will be a community of 249 affordable homes within walking distance to Metro. Just as importantly, we enacted changes to our zoning ordinance that remove barriers residents face when needing to improve non-conforming dwellings, allowing them to stay in their homes longer, and preventing wholesale redevelopment.
- On the economic development front, the equivalent of two high-rise office buildings were saved from vacancy with the attraction of new, and retention of existing tenants. And our engagement efforts with the community continued to move forward with Ms. Cristol’s Big Idea Roundtables, virtual town halls and partnerships with community organizations who developed the Community Progress Network, which purposefully and successfully brought new, diverse voices to our community conversations.
We also had failures. Most notably the forced closure of the northside salt storage facility, which required swift actions to maintain winter weather operations that were not the product of deliberative planning and community conversation.
Overall, however, we are doing well. Resident satisfaction with government services nears 90 percent–placing Arlington in an elite class compared to other communities.
Our Resident Satisfaction survey validates that Arlingtonians value our physical assets and infrastructure. In 2019 we must continue to focus on keeping these in a state of good repair, so that we maximize the time we can use and enjoy our infrastructure while minimizing unplanned disruptions due to emergency repair or replacement.
Yet, when we think about the fundamental programs and services we deliver, we are in the unfortunate position of having those costs significantly exceed our revenues. There are many reasons we find ourselves in this situation.
Sustained weakness in the office sector is depressing our tax base. Even though the region achieved a landmark victory in securing sufficient Metro capital funding, we are paying substantially higher operating subsidies, at least in the near term. Thankfully, the Commonwealth of Virginia expanded Medicaid, but that too came with increased local funding obligations.
The result of all this is that the cost of delivering government services and public education in Fiscal Year 2020 will require closing a combined County-APS budget gap as high as $70 million. The only responsible course is fiscal austerity.
Last year, we eliminated some programs and reorganized others to save $14 million. Eliminating and reorganizing more programs again for Fiscal Year 2020 will still leave a substantial gap. We need our partners at APS to find significant savings, and we will still be left with needing to either fundamentally reduce the services that Arlingtonians expect and value, or raise revenues through a property tax increase.
And that is just to deliver the same level of service. Clearly, this year, the responsible course is fiscal austerity. That austerity, however, must not translate to stagnation.
We must help lead the region to develop housing policies that will create a larger supply of affordable homes if we are ever to meet the targets of our Affordable Housing Master Plan;
We must continue our commitment to the sort of digital, customer-focused innovation that will make County government more efficient and responsive, and
We must develop the capacity to understand mobility trends so that we can better manage our public spaces and right of way.
We have a need to do more, but our resources are constrained. This is our current reality, but we must make sure it is not our new normal. To do so requires restoring our commercial sector to good health so that we can grow our revenues.
That is the principle that guided our competing for Amazon’s corporate headquarters expansion. Having a planned investment of $2.5 billion to support 25,000 jobs in an area with the capacity to support that level of growth is a significant catalyst toward our emerging from austerity budgets. And we are landing this investment without diverting existing revenues, while receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the state to support our transportation and housing priorities.
For Amazon to serve as a springboard for more opportunities for all Arlingtonians, we must expertly manage its growth. That means ensuring that the changes it brings to the built environment reflect the vision of our existing plans, and that we prevent the displacement of residents and businesses, or the diminishment of the quality of life for all who already call Arlington home. I know that every member of this Board is committed to ensuring that Amazon’s gradual growth here benefits our entire community.
Taken together, budget gaps today, and significant investment and commercial growth in the near term, present us with the dual responsibility of ensuring that today’s austerity doesn’t disproportionately burden the marginalized and most vulnerable, and that better times don’t leave those same people behind.
To do that requires that we rethink how we develop and deploy government services, regulations, programs, and actions. We must imbue our public policy with an emphasis on equity.
I note with pride that Arlington defied efforts to maintain segregation in public facilities, and that our vision affirms the inherent equal value of all persons. We are the caretakers of a legacy that rejects discrimination.
Yet, even in Arlington, disparities based on social status exist in health and wellness outcomes, educational achievement and in many indicators of one’s ability to lead a secure and fulfilling life.
These disparities matter – most especially for the individuals who must deal with the inequity — but they should matter to everyone. Our collective well-being is compromised when people are prevented from reaching their potential.
To operationalize bringing an equity lens to our public policy requires that we:
Measure disparities by collecting necessary data and fully analyzing those data so that broad successes don’t mask real challenges people face;
Recognize and report on who benefits from and who is burdened by the actions of government, including budgets; land use decisions; appropriations; legislation and civic engagement, and
Repair the damage that inattention to equity has already produced by supporting efforts to convene voices and perspectives that we don’t often hear in public discourse. I am pleased that Virginia Humanities is supporting Arlington in creating educational and dialogue opportunities to understand historical and current inequities in our community. I look forward to supporting these efforts to the greatest possible extent.
Ensuring a focused emphasis on equity will require a commitment at all levels of County government.
The good news is several efforts are already underway:
- Connecting committed affordable apartment communities to broadband, a key pillar in bridging the digital divide.
- A year-long planning effort that identifies health disparities to develop an action plan to eliminate them.
- Offering flexibility in payment terms and requirements for participation from parents in County-sponsored preschool and out-of-school time activities.
- Libraries focusing on community-centered programs coupled with the outreach to make sure all who can benefit are encouraged to participate.
These initiatives haven’t required increased spending, but have succeeded in focusing our efforts to deliver needed services where they will have the most impact, and that target the inequities that come from doing business as usual. By adopting equity as a guiding principle by which we operate, we make government work better–for all.
And to work for all means that one’s race, nation of origin, gender, sexual identity, disability, religion, neighborhood, family structure or any social status… are not predictive of adverse outcomes. Our community has long been united in believing this, and now is our time to begin achieving it.