Sept. 11, Economy Still Top Issues

Sept. 11, Economy Still Top Issues

As the one-year anniversary approaches, the effects of Sept. 11 are still being felt in Arlington.

The costs of the county’s response were large, and Arlington government is filling in gaps in the fire and police departments’ ability to respond to another such attack.

But Sept. 11 is not the only issue that lingers in Arlington. The cost of keeping the county running has taken a front seat throughout the year, as threats to the county economy rear their heads with the continuing business scandals.

Assessments in Arlington rose dramatically this year, and may continue to rise next year. That means pricey tax bills for homeowners. But it also means that many Arlington homes are priced out of the reach of Arlington’s residents with low or even moderate incomes.

LAST MONTH, County Manager Ron Carlee summed up Arlington’s role on Sept. 11.

"When the Pentagon dials 911, he said, "Arlington answers."

Carlee was presenting a report that examined the county role in responding to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, a report that looked at improvements the county could make to its fire and police departments.

Problems are inevitable.

"In an emergency of this size, no response, no matter how remarkable, will ever be perfect," Carlee said. But overall, the work of Arlington’s police and firefighters when terrorists crashed American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon at more than 300 mph.

"The people who responded to the Pentagon were the same people who respond every day," he said.

In interviews soon after the attacks, Arlington emergency service workers expressed the shock they felt as they watched the attack on the Pentagon unfold. "In this area we are used to seeing airplanes," said Capt. Steven McCoy. "My first thought when the plane hit was, 'I don't believe it.'"

"All I saw was the big mushroom cloud," said Andrea Kaiser, an Arlington firefighter whose truck was on I-395 North when plane struck the west side of the Pentagon

But fire personnel quickly overcame their initial shock.

"I couldn't look anymore than that because my job is to drive the rig. My job is to get us there safe," Kaiser said. She pulled off the freeway and into the South Parking entrance of the Pentagon.

"As soon as we got off the rig we saw burned people wandering around the parking lot. There is nothing that can go through your mind at that point. You just do what you have been trained to," Derek Spector, an Arlington firefighter, said last fall.

BUT THE BEST efforts of firefighters from Arlington were sometimes hampered by a faulty communications system, and a poorly defined response system for emergency personnel not on duty at the time of the crash. County government has already acted to address some of the shortcomings revealed in the report, and will work locally and nationally to find solutions to others.

In October, Police Chief Edward Flynn announced that Arlington had won an $81 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department that would go to pay for mobile computer systems for Arlington Police.

The grant was in the pipeline long before the Sept. 11 attacks, Flynn said, but it was a step in the right direction for the federal government.

The fire department also got the payoff of a pre-Sept. 11 grant, as the federal government sent $280,000 to the county under the Justice Department’s Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Equipment Program. The grant helped equip the county for biological or chemical terrorist attacks, funding testing equipment, chemical suits and other protection.

That program also brought high-profile training exercises to the county, exercises that sometimes brought reminders of Sept. 11. In "Operation Misty Court," Arlington firefighters were, once again, the first responders to an attack on the Pentagon – a chemical attack that released the poison gas Sarin in the Pentagon courtyard during an awards ceremony.

IT WAS JUST a simulated attack, a test to see if Arlington’s fire and police departments prepared for another possible attack. The Fire Department had been training for such attacks since 1995, and had kept a high profile at the Pentagon. In 2000, Arlington’s fire department took part in Operation Cloudy Office, another drill at the Pentagon, simulating the release of a chemical in the office of the Defense Secretary.

And Sept. 11 was far from the Fire Department’s only emergency run to the Pentagon. Only a month before, trucks from Arlington and Alexandria responded a fire near the Pentagon laundry, possibly sparked by lint in a drier vent.

"About 11 percent of our activity was federal [runs] last year," said fire Chief Edward Plaugher.

The cost of those runs added up, he said, and in July 2001, Plaugher took a request for $4.5 million to the Department of Defense, to pay for runs the department makes to defense offices, in the Pentagon and around the county.

Those costs sometimes became a burden on Arlington, and a month after Sept. 11, Chris Zimmerman, then a member and now Chair of the County Board, blasted the Defense Department for dragging its feet on paying its bills. Pentagon officials stiffed the county's fire department on expenses from before Sept. 11 and after, he said.

COST CONCERNS were not isolated to the response for Sept. 11, however. Arlington had to answer questions of how to pay for a growing county budget in the face of economic crises locally, statewide and nationally.

Even before Sept. 11, it was clear there would be some challenges to Arlington’s economy. The slowdown in the tech sector had already had some impacts here last summer. But economists pointed to the federal workforce in Arlington, and the tourism industry, as Arlington’s saving graces.

"Northern Virginia is still generating jobs like in 1999," said Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University economics professor specializing in Northern Virginia, last August.

Tourism in the county grew from 2000 to 2001. Revenues for tourism in May 2001 were 1.6 percent higher than in 2000, and hotel occupancy and room rates were up as well.

Tourism fell sharply, though, after Sept. 11, especially with the shuttering of Washington National Airport.

As of December, Carlee told County Board members that Arlington had spent $4.2 million on it response to Sept. 11, and by that point had lost some $5 million in tax revenues, mostly from the tourism sector.

In the same fiscal year that Arlington absorbed those losses, county leaders saw no less of a demand for county services. Carlee presented the board with a $610 million budget proposal in February, including a $301 million school budget, increased on both sides.

Those numbers went up in April, when the County Board approved a $628 million county and school budget. In addition, the county will ask voters to approve $79.8 million in bond money this November, and an additional $79.9 million bond for schools. Both numbers are higher than earlier projected.

County officials and school administrators say those funds are necessary, that they must spend money on aging schools, park and public safety infrastructure. The alternative, they say, is to let such facilities get further out of date, meaning higher costs when renovations are sought later.

HOW CAN the county afford to pay for its budget needs and capital spending?

Property taxes.

Assessments on homes in Arlington (including condos) rose by an average of 20.1 percent since last year. That means the average home value in Arlington went from $224,390 in 2001 to $269,500 this year.

County staff members are expecting home values to rise again next year, up 6-8 percent, translating to a rise in home values of $16,000-$22,000.

Assessments have been on the rise for the last decade, but that kind of increase came as a shock to some Arlington homeowners.

"I wasn’t prepared to see this kind of increase," said Mark Scoble, then president of the Westover Civic Association. "All of my friends and neighbors experienced a $50,000 increase As a single person, in a downturn, in a recession, I find it hard to keep up with this kind of increase."

Rising assessments were exerting such great financial pressure, Scoble said, that he decided to move to Maine after 22 years in Arlington, resigning his position as head of his neighborhood civic association.

As County Board members considered the county budget in April, they said they were sensitive to the financial impact of rising assessments. Ultimately, they voted to cut the county tax rate from $1.023 to $0.993 per $100 of a home’s assessed value.

Still, that left the average Arlington homeowner paying a tax bill of $2,676, $400 higher than last year, and facing the possibility of a tax increase of between $161 and $214 next year.

RISING TAXES and rising home prices mean that many Arlington homes climb further and further out of reach of many Arlingtonians.

Affordable housing has come to a crisis point, activists say, and Arlington can ill afford to let the problem get any larger.

The number of homeless people in the region is growing because of housing prices and because of the low wages for the jobs many homeless have to take, said Lora Rinker, executive director of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, last November.

The problem was exacerbated by Sept. 11, which left many employees in the tourism industry out of work.

"Right now, people are able to make it, just barely," she said. "If help runs dry, or they're out of a job for good, then we're going to see more, and they'll end up out on the street."

More than half of Arlington residents are renters, rather than homeowners, and that means they depend on finding a rental market they can afford in the county.

But at the same time, Arlington has been caught up in a years-long development boom, a boom that has attracted the attention of many commercial property owners.

That poses a threat to the homes within the reach of many Arlington residents, Zimmerman said.

"They tend to be older apartments, maybe garden apartments, where it’s advantageous for somebody to raze it, or reinvest in it and raise the rents," he said.

The County Board acted to address the problem in May, as they approved a $15 million county loan to AHC Inc., a non-profit in Arlington, in order to purchase the 465-unit Gates of Arlington, an apartment building with units in the price range of Arlington’s low-income families.

The Board vote drew criticism, as some community activists criticized the speed with which the deal had been reached, and financial uncertainties in the deal.

But Zimmerman said it was time for the County to examine new ways of preserving affordable housing. "We have to do a better job anticipating the housing situation," he said. "We have to look for new ways to approach this."

The board has been looking at where to target affordable housing preservation, and is set to pass housing targets at the end of the year.

Such targets that would let them decide how and where to spend county loans like the Gates loan in the future. They will also be used to design county programs to preserve affordable housing.