With the COVID-19 pandemic settling in for what could be a prolonged stay, and efforts to contain it having proved largely ineffectual, Arlington’s new County Board chair says one major government initiative in 2021 will be supporting residents and businesses most at risk until some semblance of normalcy returns.
“I want to issue a call to action from my heart to yours,” Matt de Ferranti said in remarks delivered Jan. 4 after he was unanimously selected to lead the board for the coming year.
In his remarks, de Ferranti noted that Arlington would react to the ongoing needs of those on the lower economic rungs of the community by creation of a Hunger and Food-Insecurity Working Group “to better collaborate and coordinate to maximize our resources.”.
(The new chairman said the working group would conduct its work “over the next 12 to 18 months,” suggesting it will have less to do with triaging the current situation and will look at the longer term.)
The efforts also will focus on providing further protections from eviction for those delinquent on their rent, and will attempt to address the needs of Arlington small businesses – nearly 40 percent of whose owners voice concerns that a prolonged period before a recovery will prove to be an economic killer for them.
“Now more than ever, we must support our hard-hit businesses and address office and retail vacancies,” the new chairman said. “Our neighbors matter, jobs matter, and Arlington residents matter.”
In his remarks, de Ferranti predicted a “very tight” county-budget year – something no doubt true, but also a phrase that has been used by county officials every year (in good times and bad) for decades. He did not hint whether homeowners would be called upon to fill the government’s shortfalls through more taxes, although without a substantial drop in the existing real-estate tax rate, many owners of residential properties are likely to pay significantly more due to higher assessments. Those 2021 assessments are due out by the end of the month.
De Ferranti made passing reference to the fact that 28,000 Arlington public-school students remain learning – or “learning” in air quotes, as some critics might derisively put it – at home.
“Our children will need to resume in-person learning and return to routines,” he said, although County Board members have been unwilling to further press school officials on a timetable, saying it is not their place.
Last June (not long after President Trump issued a call for classes to reopen in September), Arlington became the first school district in the Washington area to throw in the towel and declare its intent go all-“virtual” for the start of the 2020-21 school year. Despite a majority of parents wanting classrooms reopened for families that opt for it, it’s an increasing possibility school could finish the academic year in an all-virtual format.
In his remarks, de Ferranti predicted the incoming Biden administration would “lead our nation’s recovery” and said the county government would continue moving forward with renaming streets and facilities that “do not align with our community’s commitment to racial equity.”
(County leaders remain in something of a conundrum, however; if their renaming bacchanalia – which began by removing “Lee” from Washington-Lee High School – is taken to its logical extension, the name “Arlington” would have to go, too, as it was named after the Lee family’s plantation. And only the General Assembly could make that happen.)
De Ferranti gave no indication when county libraries, which have been closed since the pandemic hit even though those in several surrounding jurisdictions have been reopened for nearly six months, would be back in operation. Officials have cited a combination of health concerns and financial woes for keeping them shuttered.
The Jan. 4 County Board meeting was organizational in nature; the board’s first business meeting of the year will be later in January. The board chairmanship traditionally rotates each year among members of the majority party; all five current board members are Democrats.
De Ferranti, an attorney, was elected in 2018, defeating independent John Vihstadt.
The 2021 chairmanship likely would have been taken by Erik Gutshall, who was serving as vice chair in early 2020 when he was felled by brain cancer. County Board members did not tap a successor as vice chair for the year.
For 2021, Katie Cristol will serve as vice chair, teeing her up for her second stint as chair in 2022.
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