Our Man in Arlington

May 9, 2018 3:35 PM0 comments

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The national became local in Arlington last week.

The Trump administration’s bid to streamline agencies bumped up against the human factor on May 3 as the Social Security Administration’s quiet plan to close its Arlington field office. That provoked a demo.

I watched as 60-70 mostly union protesters chanted “Not no, but hell no!” in response to the plan to shutter, by June 21, the decades-old Rosslyn office at 1401 Wilson Blvd.

“The administration wants to continue to close community offices and push people online,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox told me. “But everybody’s not online. Many people on disability are making decisions and elections — at what age to draw Social Security, which, once you make an election, is for life. They can’t get all the information from a computer. They need human interaction.”

SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said her agency will consolidate its Arlington office and refer clients to Alexandria, Fairfax, or D.C. offices due “to an expiring lease.” The landlord was not interested in renewing, she said, and the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, has been unable to find replacement space.

“Most Social Security services do not require a visit to an office,” she said, referring to the push from Democratic and Republican administrations to encourage benefits administration online.

But the Trump team’s explanations were challenged by Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who on May 1 wrote to the SSA Inspector General seeking an investigation of whether the SSA’s decision to close the office complied with requirements for public notice.

“Closure of this office will cause my constituents to suffer from the lack of in-person services, especially to a Metro accessible office,” Beyer wrote.

Neither Beyer nor the rally-goers buy the SSA’s explanation that it couldn’t reach a deal with Monday Properties, which isn’t talking.

“The building is scheduled for redevelopment, but it’s not imminent, and space in close proximity is readily available,” County Board Member Christian Dorsey told me. “We can’t afford to lose this critical outreach component.” Though it pained him to say it, “Arlington office space right now is not expensive, and there are plenty of opportunities” to find a “space that makes sense,” he told the assembled, pledging to reverse the decision.

Arlington’s overall office vacancy rate has been hovering stubbornly around 20 percent, with Rosslyn’s at a higher 24.7 percent, the county confirmed to me.

“I was shocked, then confused, then angry” about the closing, said Social Security recipient Julian Blair. The Arlington office already is “is understaffed, there are long lines, and people have to go back 2-3 times.”

(I’ve been in that office, a decade ago as a representative payee for a disabled friend, and yes, long waits).

Speakers from groups like Social Security Works and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare stressed that 10,000 Americans every day are turning 65. Cutting access to field offices is tantamount to cutting a benefit recipients have paid for, they said.

Witold Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE’s Social Security Administration Field Operations, said, “The real reason is to save money and shift to the Internet.” But while many people can use online services successfully, “we found error after error in which the public are screwing themselves out of disability benefits.”

This is a national and generational clash — unfolding in Arlington.

***

The seats were filled Saturday morning at St. George’s Episcopal Church for the farewell service for the woman Sen. Tim Kaine called “the patron saint of Democrats in Virginia.”

Lucy Denney, the six-decade Arlingtonian who ran local and congressional electoral campaigns in the ‘60s-‘80s, died May 1 at 87 following a cancer struggle. She was one of many senior “Democrats in exile” who moved across the border to Goodwin House-Bailey’s Crossroads.

In his eulogy, son Charlie noted that many today forget the Republicans actually controlled the county board in the late 1970s. He teared up as he recalled his mother in the stands at his Washington-Lee High School soccer game. She was talking to a rival soccer mom, Republican Dorothy Grotos.

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