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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools has to adjust its budget outlook for the next two years after a miscalculation led the state to overestimate how much funding it will give local school districts.

The error means FCPS will get nearly $18 million less than it had anticipated, including $5.1 million for the current fiscal year 2023, which began on July 1, 2022. The remaining reduction of $12.7 million will affect the upcoming budget for FY 2024.

Overall, Fairfax County’s shortfall is the biggest of any district, Virginia Department of Education spokesperson Charles Pyle confirmed to FFXnow.

According to the Washington Post, an unidentified “someone” discovered last week that a calculator tool provided to help local school divisions determine their allocation from the state budget had failed to account for the elimination of the state’s grocery tax.

Virginia stopped imposing a 1.5% tax on groceries and personal hygiene products on Jan. 1, though a 1% local tax remains in effect. The legislation, which was incorporated into the state budget, directed the state to use its revenue to compensate localities for any lost education funding, starting Feb. 1.

“The tool released last month did not include recognition of the grocery tax hold harmless payment, which began in FY 2023,” State Superintendent Jillian Balow said in an email sent to local superintendents last Friday (Jan. 24).

Statewide, Virginia will provide $201 million less in aid than expected, including $58 million for the current school year, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Balow said the VDOE will release an updated calculation tool after the General Assembly votes on a new state budget on Feb. 9.

It’s unclear how the $18 million deficit will affect FCPS, though it’s a relatively small portion of the district’s $3.3 billion budget. FCPS said it didn’t have an immediate comment, as of press time.

As part of their legislative agenda for the General Assembly, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and school board are advocating for the state to increase its funding for FCPS, arguing that the current formulas used to calculate allocations for each district don’t adequately reflect the area’s high cost-of-living.

FCPS received a projected $869.7 million — or 26.4% of its operating budget — from the state for FY 2023.

A $3.5 billion budget that Superintendent Michelle Reid proposed last month projected $696.4 million in state aid. Items covered in the budget include the addition of middle school athletic programs, staff compensation increases, and expanded pre-kindergarten education.

“The average Virginia school division receives less than 50 percent of its financial support from its local government,” the budget overview says. “FCPS must rely on local funds for 68.8 percent of its revenue.”

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Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay (file photo)

Fairfax County’s top priorities for 2023 will be increasing mental health services, boosting police retention, addressing commercial office vacancies, and improving pedestrian safety, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says.

Adequately addressing those needs, though, requires more financial help and local authority from Virginia’s General Assembly, he told FFXnow in an interview.

With the county increasingly reliant on real estate taxes, officials expect this budget cycle to be one of the most challenging in a decade.

As property values rise, the tax burden on property owners is already “significant” and hurting residents, McKay said. To not “exacerbate” the situation, the county likely needs to lower the real estate tax rate.

“I personally believe absolutely we have to reduce the tax rate as a part of this next budget,” McKay said.

Continued recovery from the pandemic is paramount, informing all the board’s priorities for the upcoming year, McKay said.

While economic recovery from the pandemic tends to get a lot of attention, there remains “a lot of work to do” on human services, according to the chairman.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the ongoing growth of mental health challenges, especially with some of our young people,” McKay said. “I do think that a good chunk of that is a byproduct of what we’ve been through with Covid.”

Mental health-related challenges affect everything from police calls to unemployment and schools, he said. The county’s current budget gave close to $186 million to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides support services.

McKay believes the state’s $37 million contribution isn’t enough, arguing that mental health funding should be “primarily a state responsibility.”

“This is something the state has to get really serious about addressing,” he said. “Frankly, if they provided the level of support that the county did, we probably wouldn’t have near the mental health challenges in Virginia that we have now.”

Increasing mental health services could mean more educational programs, staffing, and supportive programs.

It also ties into public safety, as the Fairfax County Police Department struggles with understaffing and retention. McKay says officers are being asked to take on responsibilities that they shouldn’t have to handle.

“Increasingly our police are almost being asked to be mental health clinicians [when then are] mental health service calls,” he said. “It’s stressing them out and getting people not interested in joining police departments.”

In 2021, the county instituted a co-responder program where a crisis intervention specialist joins police officers on certain mental health-related calls. Alongside the county’s Diversion First program, launched in 2016, it provides treatment to individuals instead of incarceration. McKay says the programs need to “grow dramatically.” Read More

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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

The new Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) budget could signal big changes for local schools, including extended availability of school counselors and new middle school athletics programs.

Superintendent Dr. Michelle C. Reid presented the budget for the 2023-2024 school year at a meeting last Thursday (Jan. 12).

The $3.5 billion budget is a $249.6 million (7.6%) increase over the approved budget for fiscal year 2023, which began July 1, 2022 and ends June 30.

Reid is requesting an additional $159.6 million from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Part of that cost comes from an increase in employee compensation.

According to a release from FCPS, the budget includes:

  • $80.9 million to provide a market scale adjustment of 3.0% for all employees.
  • $58.2 million to provide a step increase for all eligible employees.
  • $19.9 million to provide a 1.0% retention bonus for employees hired in FCPS during FY 2023 and remaining employed with FCPS in FY 2024.
  • $4.3 million to provide a step extension for all scales.

Several members of the school board praised the proposed increase for staff compensation.

Another popular item among school board members is funding to provide middle school spring and fall athletic activities.

“You had me at middle school sports,” said Hunter Mill District representative Melanie Meren. “I think about where I grew up and the sports there, and it’s something that’s so missed here…I know this is a significant ask, but we are going to get an incredible investment. I’m eager to work to make this happen.”

Student representative Michele Togbe said the expansion of high school counseling for students into summer break will be a welcome improvement.

“If I could hug a budget, I would hug this budget,” Togbe said. “With the counselors, I think it’s really cool that we’re expanding their contract and their days.”

Other notable investments in the new budget include:

  • Increased access to Pre-K: the budget includes $2 million to provide resources for 10 additional Pre-K classrooms.
  • Support for students with disabilities: the budget includes $2 million to be allocated to the Special Education Compensatory Services Fund to address learning loss caused by the pandemic
  • Changing student enrollment needs: the budget includes a variety of improvements grouped together as “student enrollment needs,” including paying for increased costs in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs and free and reduced-price meals, totaling around $65.2 million for 679.2 positions

The Fairfax County budget will be presented on Feb. 21, followed by a joint meeting of the school board and Board of Supervisors on Feb. 28. Public meetings will be held in April followed by final adoption on May 9 for the county budget and May 25 for the school budget.

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A walkway over Sunrise Valley Drive leads to the Innovation Center Metro station (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A cycle path to the Innovation Center Metro station is circling closer to construction.

Roughly $4 million in federal funding was secured for the project, which will include a cycle path from Sunrise Valley Drive to Innovation Metro Station, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine announced yesterday.

Funds were designated in the fiscal year 2023 appropriations bill, a $1.7 trillion spending package that must be adopted by midnight tomorrow (Friday) to avoid a partial federal goverment shutdown.

The upgrades are part of the county’s Active Transportation Program, which covers non-motorized methods of travel and aims to reduce vehicle traffic.

The changes to the four-lane boulevard, which also has additional turning lanes at various intersections, would connect to existing bicycle and pedestrian paths, notably the Fairfax County Parkway Trail, FFXnow previously reported.

“This project will provide significantly improved access to several Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail Stations and high-density transit-oriented development near the Metrorail Stations and activity centers,” said a statement breaking down the funds designated for Northern Virginia.

Other projects also fit the bill in Fairfax County.

Among them is a neighborhood job and entrepreneurship research center for teens and young adults in the county’s community centers. The centers will offer teens and young adults career readiness skills, job training and leadership programs, according to the release. That project is expected to cost $2.1 million.

In Springfield, the Northern Virginia Community College’s Medical Education Campus will receive $2.2 million to grow its nursing program. Funds will also go towards buying computerized manikins and other technology to supplement clinic training for nursing, respiratory therapy and EMS students.

Other cyclist-related improvements include $1 million for bicycle and pedestrians upgrades near the Vienna Metrorail Station in Oakton. The project is targeted to the area near the station and Oakton High School.

A complete list of secured funds is available online.

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Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing’s proposed Dominion Square project in Tysons, which is being partly funded by Covid relief money (via KGD Architecture/Fairfax County)

Fairfax County has now committed $45 million of the COVID-19 relief funds it received from the federal government to supporting affordable housing projects.

The Board of Supervisors approved the latest allocation of $15 million at its meeting last Tuesday (Dec. 6), and more could be on the way next year, if the board opts to dip into a reserve fund to further its goal of creating 10,000 more affordable units by 2034.

Only Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity voted against the joint board matter sponsored by Chairman Jeff McKay and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust.

“While we’ve been through and used a lot of these funds for emergency purposes, part of recovery is a recognition of the need for affordable housing and how lack of affordable housing played a role sadly and unfortunately in the health outcomes of people who could not find safe and effective affordable housing,” McKay said. “So, I’m happy that we’re able to use this…to help keep up the momentum that we have in producing that goal of 10,000 affordable units.”

Citing a recent memo from County Executive Bryan Hill, McKay and Foust said in their board matter that the county has “a robust current pipeline of affordable housing development projects which clearly demonstrates the need for significant capital funding in the coming years.”

In his memo dated Nov. 4, Hill reported that the board had dedicated $30 million of the $220 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) program to affordable housing production.

Signed into law in March 2021, the federal stimulus package created the SLFRF program to assist localities in responding to and recovering from the pandemic. The money can be used to replace lost public revenue, address the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, provide bonuses for government workers, and improve water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Prior to last week’s vote, all of the funds that Fairfax County designated for affordable housing had been committed to specific projects — with $10 million and $19 million, respectively, going to the planned Dominion Square and Somos developments in Tysons.

Hill recommended that the board devote an additional $15 million to affordable housing, noting that ARPA set a Dec. 31, 2026 deadline for spending affordable housing loans financed with Covid relief money.

“Our ongoing investment of local and federal dollars continue to be essential toward achieving our affordable housing goals,” he said, calling the proposal an “effective use of the one-time ARPA resources.”

In addition to approving Hill’s recommendation, the board matter by Foust and McKay suggested that the county consider allocating a portion of a general fund coronavirus pandemic reserve fund to affordable housing as a third-quarter adjustment to its current fiscal year 2023 budget.

As of Nov. 18, the county had $50 million in unallocated ARPA funding, though after last week’s vote, that has gone down to $35 million. There is also $21.3 million left in the pandemic reserve, which has been used to provide basic needs assistance for residents and some relief grants for businesses.

“Based on the current trajectory of the pandemic, the one-time nature of this reserve, and an existing balance remaining in the County’s ARPA allocation for other priorities, I believe that this reserve may be a useful resource for affordable housing,” Foust said in the board matter. “It is also important to note that since these are local funds, these dollars would provide maximum flexibility for Housing staff as they make resourcing decisions for affordable housing development.”

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The Fairfax County Government Center building (staff photo by David Taube)

(Updated at 1:15 p.m. on 11/30/2022) Local officials are already preparing for “one of the most challenging” budget talks in years due to inflation, the changing real estate market, and staff retention challenges.

Right before the Thanksgiving holiday, Fairfax County staff offered supervisors and the school board an early look at projected revenues, expenditures, and points of potential discussion as the county and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) prepare to release proposed budgets early next year.

The fiscal year 2024 budget forecast that staff presented on Nov. 22 didn’t paint a particularly rosy picture, however.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay called the forecast “a real mixed bag.” County staff said that generated revenue remained “healthy,” but others weren’t so sunny.

“This is probably going to be one of the most challenging budgets in my 11 years on the [school] board,” Braddock District School Board representative Megan McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be a tough one.”

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity concurred, saying there wasn’t “a lot of good news in here.”

As is the case across the country, the local real estate market has been slowing due to increasing interest rates and rising prices. While it increased from last year, growth is expected to flatten going forward for the rest of 2022 and into 2023.

Fairfax County staff forecast a dip in revenues available for fiscal year 2024 (via Fairfax County)

Non-residential tax revenue is in even worse shape, at least partially due to the change in work-from-home habits resulting from the pandemic. It’s expected to increase by only 0.6% compared to last year when the growth was about 2.3% compared to 2022.

While hotel, retail, and apartment revenues are all expected to increase next year, office revenue is expected to decline between 5% and 6%, raising concerns among some supervisors and school board members.

Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said he has talked to companies in the county that have no intention of renewing office leases due to decreased need with more employees now teleworking.

He called it a “slow-moving crisis” that could create a “very significant hole” in terms of missing revenue.

“[This] is very troubling,” Walkinshaw said. “It’s a structural challenge now in our economy…I’m not confident we have our arms around what that challenge is going to look like over the next 5 to 10 years.”

New construction and transient occupancy (or lodging) tax revenue are also expected to grow, but at much lower rates than prior to the pandemic.

Real estate taxes are the largest source of revenue for the county, providing more than two-thirds of generated money. Last year, home values soared, while commercial tax revenue dropped, resulting in a 3-cent decrease in the real estate tax rate.

All told, revenue is predicted to rise by about $266 million, a 3.8% increase from last year, per the presented forecast.

However, revenue isn’t keeping pace with expenditures, due mostly to anticipated staff salary increases.

Between recruitment and retention challenges and inflation, an additional $159 million will be needed for salaries and benefits compared to the current budget — plus another $113.5 million for school staff. Adding in other costs, the county and FCPS are looking at a combined shortfall of about $125 million for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, 2023, staff said.

Since this is a baseline forecast, a number of county and school priorities were not taken into account, including infrastructure upgrades, increased investments in affordable housing, and an expansion of early childhood education programs.

As county staff and McKay both reiterated, the forecast is only an estimation subject to change.

“As the economic outlook is uncertain, staff is approaching FY 2024 revenue forecasting very conservatively,” the presentation said.

Adoption of the fiscal year 2024 budget remains six months away. Advertised budget plans for the county and schools will be released in February with final votes coming in May 2023.

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Reston Association (file photo)

Reston Association members will see a 3% increase in annual assessment dues next year.

At a meeting on Thursday (Nov. 17), RA’s Board of Directors voted to increase member fees from $740 to $763 as part of its $20.7 million budget for 2023.

The board held off higher increases in the annual fee by buying it down with $1 million in cash surplus from last year.

An attempt by board member Glenn Small to use savings from not filling current vacant positions — roughly $781,000 — failed to gain clout with the board.

The move was suggested by RA’s fiscal committee in an effort to keep the assessment from growing at “too big of a percentage,” RA CEO Mac Cummins said.

Citing conversations with RA members, Small said he was concerned about fee increases over the last 15 years, including a 69% increase in fees from 2007 to this year. He compared the increase to a 44% hike in the number of full-time staff.

“We need to find a way to stabilize and reduce assessments,” he said.

But Cummins cautioned that failing to fill some positions could have a direct operational impact on the organization and members.

The long-term outlook of fee increases is unclear, particularly when the cash surplus was utilized this year, according to board members. Assessments are due on Jan 1.

Board member Bob Petrine said he was confident that the new CEO’s initiatives will provide long-term planning and direction.

“I think we will see a more robust process going forward,” Petrine said.

The budget doubles boat mooring fees for 2023. Fee increases are also proposed for non-resident memberships. For example, an all-access family pass for pools, tennis and pickleball may increase from $450 to $522.

The board also moved to remove $381,000 in funding for lighting improvements at Barton Hills Tennis Courts for this year. Instead, funds were shifted to next year to offset new projects like a refurbishment of the ballfields at Hunters Woods.

An additional $300,000 was allocated to another future pool of money for the renovation of the Barton Hill courts.

Cummins also added a line-item of $50,000 for organizational assessments and development.

The budget — 71% of which covers staffing and staff-related costs — also includes two new positions for a registrar and an administrative assistant for covenants.

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SEIU Local 512 Fairfax President Tammie Wondong delivered remarks at a Board of Supervisors public hearing Tuesday (courtesy SEIU Fairfax)

Fairfax County has officially allocated millions of unspent revenue from the previous year’s budget for items like restrooms for school stadiums and a boost of the county’s hiring program.

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 11), the board voted 7-1 to allocate $7.5 million in carryover funds to help install permanent restrooms at 15 Fairfax County Public School outdoor high school stadiums.

“At its heart, this is a matter of equity. No matter which school a student goes to in Fairfax County, it is expected they receive not only a high-quality education, but that they are provided high-quality, accessible facilities as well,” Board Chairman Jeff McKay wrote in a statement.

The school board has already agreed to pitch in half of the funds needed for the new facilities.

The board also approved an additional $2 million for a “comprehensive hiring incentive program,” which could grant up to $15,000 in bonuses for new hires in critical county positions. In total, the reserve includes more than $4 million, but exactly where the money will go remains to be determined.

“A portion of all the funding could be used for all agencies, but we do not know exactly how much of the allocation will be towards hiring incentives until the County Executive reports on the design of the program,” McKay’s office told FFXnow.

The move comes as the Fairfax County Police Department and other public safety entities face historic vacancy rates and staff shortages.

Tammie Wondong, a 32-year county employee and president of SEIU Virginia 512 Fairfax, lauded the board for amending the carryover package to create a hiring incentive program instead of funding raises for top executives.

A recent “benchmark study” of the county’s executive and managerial positions found salaries were generally below market rate. Staff recommended that the pay scale be simplified and adjusted to be more competitive at the Board of Supervisors’ personnel committee meeting on July 26.

“The Board clearly heard employees’ voices because they changed the carryover package to invest in a hiring incentives reserve, instead of executive pay,” Wondong said. “However, the county must do more to ensure fair pay for their hard-working employees who got our community through the worst of the pandemic.”

The union delivered hundreds of petitions urging the county to maintain transparency around the use of carryover funds, relieve wage compression, and ensure all county employees are engaged in future benchmark studies.

Dave Lysons, executive director of the Fairfax Workers Coalition, said the county is no longer competitive for many jobs, adding that its current vacancy rate is 13% overall with a 17% rate in public works.

“Fairfax County is no longer competitive for these jobs…We can’t continue like this,” Lyons said.

Other allocations include roughly $25 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements, part of an overall commitment to fund $100 million in projects over six years.

Supervisors had requested that funds be provided specifically for new sidewalks to Huntley Meadows Park and trail improvements in Gum Springs, but those items didn’t make the final cut.

“The sidewalks were not a part of this current package but may be considered as part of the ongoing $100M commitment to pedestrian safety,” McKay’s office said by email.

Among other needs, the county also allocated $175,000 to design and construct a picnic shelter, ADA-accessible pathway and picnic tables and benches for Justice Park in the Mason District.

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A Fairfax County voting machine in use during the June 2021 primary election (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Early voting for the next general election has just gotten underway, but Fairfax County’s elections staff is already planning for next year and beyond.

The county’s Office of Elections has requested $5 million to launch a multi-year rollout of new, updated voting machines as part of a $190 million spending package carried over from fiscal year 2022, which ended on June 30.

Expected to start in 2023, the process will replace more than 1,200 machines owned by the county, according to Fairfax County Office of Elections spokesperson Brian Worthy. The existing machines are now eight years old.

“While the machines are secure, function well and meet current standards, the Office of Elections will replace them to keep up with technology changes, as well as meet new federal security guidelines that will become the standard in the near future,” Worthy said.

The voting machine replacement plan is one of several initiatives covered by the FY 2022 carryover review, which uses surplus funds to address previously approved or new, one-time budget items.

Buoyed by higher-than-anticipated revenue from staff vacancies and close spending management, per an Aug. 1 memo from County Executive Bryan Hill, the package includes a net total of 30 new positions, 27 of them for the upcoming South County Animal Shelter.

The animal shelter positions are needed to ensure the facility is staffed for an expected opening in May, Chief Financial Officer Christian Jackson told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ budget policy committee on Sept. 20.

The proposal raised some eyebrows, since it will require ongoing funding.

“We have traditionally been very, very disciplined about using carryover for recurring expenses,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “30 is a lot [of positions].”

Jackson reassured the committee that the carryover will allocate $1.9 million to fill the positions for part of a year, but full-time funding of $2.9 million will be included in the county’s next proposed budget, which is typically presented in February each year.

Other notable items in the carryover review include:

  • $10.3 million for environmental initiatives, including electric vehicles and charging stations as well as LED streetlight replacements
  • $3.5 million for an expanded child care center at the Original Mount Vernon High School
  • $2.58 million for employee pay and benefits
  • $2.5 million to establish a Tysons anchor organization
  • $5 million for Fairfax County Park Authority capital projects
  • About $13.2 million for facility improvements, including the demolition of two Historic Courthouse wings and a long-term design for the Hybla Valley Community Center

The Board of Supervisors has also proposed using remaining unallocated money to help bring permanent restrooms to local high school stadiums, improve sidewalks to Huntley Meadows Park, enhance trails in Gum Springs, and hire a data scientist for the board auditor’s office.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity requested that the county address police staffing shortages with a $2.5 million reserve for one-time hiring bonuses. He also proposed letting employees defer retirement for two more years and enabling the police chief to hire retired officers.

Jackson said employees can only use the deferred retirement option for up to three years, but the current average is less than two years. She also said retired police officers can already be hired for a limited amount of time, since otherwise, they’d have to un-retire.

The board will vote on the carryover review after a public hearing on Oct. 11.

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A kid runs past Vienna Town Hall (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

With the national shortage of commercial drivers continuing to strain services from trash collection to school buses, the Town of Vienna plans to increase salaries and offer bonuses to bolster its maintenance workforce.

As part of a new incentive program, the Department of Public Works recommends that the town increase its entry-level salary for maintenance workers to $55,000 and offer a $2,000 hiring bonus to new employees with a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Maintenance workers — who handle tasks from paving and plowing roads to maintaining sewers and parks facilities — currently get a minimum annual salary of $40,354 or $44,490, depending on the exact position, according to Vienna’s pay plan for fiscal year 2022-2023.

The incentive program would adjust the salaries of existing employees with CDLs accordingly “to address compression and years of service,” town staff wrote in a request for $80,000 to fund the plan in the FY 2022-2023 budget.

The program would also give an annual $2,500 bonus to employees who maintain a Class A CDL and $2,000 bonuses to employees who maintain a Class B license.

Per the staff memo, the proposed hiring bonuses are in line with what Fairfax County, the Town of Herndon, and other Northern Virginia jurisdictions are offering. However, they fall short of what workers can get from the private sector, where incentives range from $4,000 to $10,000.

Vienna’s public works department is seeking $80,000 for the program in a $1.28 million set of adjustments to the FY 2022-2023 budget, known as carry forwards.

“Carry forward money is available because the Town had a surplus in FY 2021-22 of approximately $720,000,” town staff said. “The surplus is due to a combination of several General Fund revenues exceeding budget plus salary savings due to position vacancies during the year.”

Intended to address needs identified after the budget was adopted in May, the package includes $100,000 for building maintenance, $15,000 for landscaping at the Bowman House, and $30,000 to switch 60 town cell phones from T-Mobile to AT&T, among other items.

Stricter regulations for massage salons that the town council approved on Aug. 29 will require a new temporary employee to help enforce the new rules, according to staff. The town estimates that the position will cost $40,000.

“During the 2024 budget cycle staff will recommend whether or not this requires a permanent full or half-time position,” the memo says.

The Vienna Town Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed carry forward plan during its regular meeting at 8 p.m. tonight (Monday).

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