With little extra cash in the coffers to lavish on new programs, Arlington’s new-for-2019 County Board chairman said his focus will be on efforts that make a positive impact but do not required significant additional funding.
“We have a need to do more, but our resources are constrained. The only responsible course is fiscal austerity,” County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey said at the board’s Jan. 2 organizational meeting, where he rotated in for a one-year term as chair, succeeding Katie Cristol.
While the Arlington government’s budget situation is likely in better shape than that of a vast majority of localities nationwide, there will be a budget gap to be addressed and, likely, trims to be made on both the county and schools sides of the equation.
“That austerity, however, must not translate to stagnation,” Dorsey said, outlining plans that consider the short- and long-term consequences of any potential cutbacks and find ways to do more with less.
“To do that requires that we rethink how we develop and deploy government services, regulations, programs and actions,” he said. “We must imbue our public policy with an emphasis on equity.”
First elected to the County Board in 2015, Dorsey will split his time as chairman with service as a representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. In his other life, he serves as a policy consultant.
Dorsey rotates in at a time of community anticipation and trepidation that is accompanying the looming arrival of Amazon to Crystal City. Those thousands of additional workers will put a strain on existing infrastructure, but also are likely to help ease one of the county’s biggest challenges – a high office-vacancy rate.
“Sustained weakness in the office sector is depressing our tax base,” Dorsey acknowledged.
Despite doing well on community-satisfaction surveys, Dorsey acknowledged that the county government’s relationship with its residents needs continued refining. He cited last year’s wrangling with neighborhoods over relocation of a North Arlington salt dome as one example where the government didn’t get it right.
“Overall, however, we are doing well,” he said.
The heavy lifting of governance begins later in the month at the County Board’s first regular meeting of 2019. County Manager Mark Schwartz is slated to present a billion-plus-dollar budget proposal in February, kicking off three months of fiscal wrangling.
In his first-day remarks, Dorsey intimated that School Board members would have to do more than they have in the past to help ease the government’s overall budget crunch. Arlington Public Schools long has had the highest per-student spending in the region, plus high facilities-construction costs, but to date the county government and school system have sidestepped major fiscal head-butting that has plagued several other jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
The seats of Dorsey and Cristol are headed to the voters in November; neither has formally announced a re-election bid, and if they do run, as expected, they could find themselves challenged from an increasingly vocal left flank of the Democratic Party.
At the Jan. 2 meeting, board members selected Libby Garvey to serve as County Board Vice Chairman for 2019, setting her up to be board chairman in 2020. Garvey has served on the board since 2012 and once before chaired it.
The Jan. 1 board meeting was the first for Matt de Ferranti, who in November defeated incumbent John Vihstadt. The result is a return of a Democratic monopoly on the five board seats, which it last had held from 2000-14.