Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

clark-fcnpLike last year’s derecho and Hurricane Sandy, this month’s 16-day shuttering of the federal government cut a swath through Arlington life. And like those strange recent storms, its still-sour memories come with an ongoing threat of a repeat.

Washington’s closest suburb is home to some 34,000 of the 800,000 federal employees who were furloughed by the new downtown radicals’ budget faceoff, many of them my neighbors.

Daily, I watched as dads walked their kids to school (how do you explain furlough to a first-grader?) and puttered in their yards. One devoted the forced downtime to renovating a bathroom; another did volunteer work with youth.

Agencies headquartered in Ballston were hit hard by the “appropriations lapse.” The National Science Foundation idled 99 percent of its 2,100 workers; the Fish and Wildlife Service furloughed 7,261 of its 9,349. One that was spared through the miracle of multi-year funding was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Arlington is also terra firma for many government-dependent contractors, among them the skyline logos of CACI at Glebe Road and I-66, Boeing’s offices in Crystal City, and Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems facilities in Rosslyn. Though the smaller ones faced the most cash-flow problems, they all confronted uncertainty from the shutdown, as did their employees.

Then add in the economic ripple effect when typical spending is suddenly not happening – at hotels, restaurants, bars – by agency and contractor conference planners and by financially spooked individual employees.

Hotels “have had unprecedented cancellations, with revenue losses reported from 15 to 50 percent,” says a preliminary compilation byArlington Economic Development and the county’s Department of Management and Finance. Before the shutdown, the hotels were already out 3 percent of usual revenues because of sequestration and the Obama administration’s crackdown on federal travel.

“Local service businesses (nail salons, coffee shops, delicatessens, etc.) have reported drastic business drop-offs from regular customers since the shutdown began,” the analysts said.

County sales tax receipts are down 3 percent, though that may be related more to earlier fear of the shutdown than the actual event, they added. Revenues from Arlington’s Transient Occupancy (hotel) Tax showed a 9 percent decline year-over-year and a slightly negative 12-month rolling average compared against 1.3 percent growth a year ago. Meals tax receipts have recently slowed to less than half the growth of the prior year, they said.

The full local effects directly tied to the shutdown won’t be calculated until late November.

When life hands you lemons …, the saying goes. I give kudos to the Z-Burger eatery on the 3300 block of Wilson Boulevard for giving furloughed feds free food. More than 100 bewildered public servants took advantage on the shutdown’s first day, and the managers gave away $60,000 worth before ending the altruism, according to the blog ARLNow.

Taking a lighter approach, the Central United Methodist Church on Fairfax Drive mounted a witty welcoming sign reading, “No Shut-Down Here.

God Never Fails Us!”

When my federal employee neighbors finally returned to work on Oct. 17, many were forced to spend the day catching up on their 1,001 unread emails. I know they’d rather it all never happened. And I suspect most will remain on edge when shutdown season resumes in January and February.

The shutdown’s meager good news? Let me think. … It was easier for me to get a seat on the Metro.