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Richmond Bites Back on HOT Lanes Suit By Blocking Tax Bill

by ARLnow.com — January 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm 1,448 48 Comments

(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) Arlington’s legislative agenda is in danger as the county faces a backlash in Richmond over its controversial HOT lanes lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which has thus far cost the county about $1.5 million in legal fees, was filed in order to block VDOT’s plan to build High Occupancy Toll lanes on I-395. The suit has been ruffling feathers in Richmond ever since, but on Wednesday it came back to bite the county on a key legislative priority.

Del. Tim Hugo (R) of Fairfax County used his chairmanship of a House finance subcommittee to delay action on HB 1513, Del. Bob Brink’s bill that would extend Arlington’s 0.25 percent hotel tax surcharge for another three years.

The surcharge brings in between $800,000 and $1 million each year, which is then used as the county’s tourism promotion budget. But, in a bit of political theater, Hugo had a question waiting for Brink once he explained how much revenue the surcharge brings in.

Why, he asked, can’t the county use the money it has been spending on the lawsuit to promote tourism?

“If they’ve got so much money for silly, abusive, intimidating, frivolous lawsuits like this, then they obviously have plenty of cash in Arlington and don’t need this tax reauthorized,” Hugo said.

Hugo said he objected to the suit generally as a supporter of the HOT lanes project, but he objects specifically to the fact that the county is suing two officials — Federal Highway Administration Administrator Victor Mendez and former Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer — in their personal capacity, instead of in their professional capacity.

“It’s incredibly wrong… it’s abusive, it’s intimidation,” said Hugo, who noted that he’s “sticking up” for Homer, a Democrat.

Hugo said he “would like to hear from Arlington personally” about the suit. As for the bill, Hugo said he wanted to table it — essentially killing it — but instead decided to wait to see if he hears back from county officials.

The bill “may or may not come up in a week or two,” he said.

Arlington Chamber of Commerce President Rich Doud, who was at the subcommittee meeting to support the bill on behalf of Arlington’s hotels, said Hugo’s action was indicative of the difficult political climate for Democrat-heavy Arlington in Republican-dominated Richmond.

“I think the bottom line is that it’s going to be an uphill year,” said Doud. “The sense that I got… is that the rest of the Commonwealth is not real enamored with what they consider heavy-handedness on the part of the county board.”

Doud called the HOT lanes suit “ill-conceived,” but said he hopes other bills that might benefit Arlington businesses will not be held up as a result.

“Please don’t hold the business community hostage for ill-taken actions by the county itself,” he said.

So far, we haven’t heard back from Del. Brink or the county board on the issue. But it will likely be hard for Hugo and County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman to find common ground.

“I think Chris Zimmerman is a thug and that’s on the record,” the blog Not Larry Sabato quoted Hugo as saying yesterday.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, wasn’t enthusiastic about pursuing the hotel tax surcharge to begin with.

“Should this be one of the things we expend political capital on?” he asked at a county work session in December.

How would Hugo respond to someone who says the state legislature shouldn’t let politics interfere with local affairs?

“We have a Dillon Rule… that’s the constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “Just because they go to the state for approval doesn’t mean we have to approve everything.”

As for Arlington’s other legislative priorities?

“We’ll look at everything,” Hugo said.

  • GeorgeOrwell

    finally. the lawsuit against the individuals is a DISGRACE.

    • Greg

      It is and a real sleezeball tactic for a government to take. And I like that the County filed a lawsuit here, but that part of it should be dropped.

      • GeorgeOrwell

        agreed, the lawsuit is appropriate and unfortuantely how stuff is done.

  • DT

    Arlington always does this. They make life hard on Richmond and then act surprised when the favor is returned. How about the idiots in charge not sue the state and the state won’t delay their items? Odd, I know.

    • Just Me

      +1

    • Terry

      That’s right, the county should just roll over for Richmond. Totally logical. Are you also in favor of allowing 395 and 66 to be widened to the point where it covers half of the county?

      • NPGMBR

        Funny how the Republicans down in Richmond talk out their ass and mouth at the same time! The same people that rail on the Obama Administration for “taking away their freedoms” turn around and do the exact same thing to the State’s Local Governments. Its as if they really believe the citizens are too stupid not to know whats really going on.

  • TuesdaysChild

    Hugo seems like a straight-talker. Can we see a video of the exchange?

    • DouroDouro

      I bet you think Cuccinnelli is a straight talker as well. Thanks for today’s laugh!

      • Jason S

        I’ll bet you can’t stay on topic.

      • TuesdaysChild

        No I don’t, actually. However, I have formed a very specific opinion of you.

  • Lou

    Love it

  • Arlwhenever

    You can check out the discussion of this maneuvering on Not Larry Sabato a left leaning blog…

    http://notlarrysabato.typepad.com/doh/2011/01/tim-hugo-grabs-arlington-county-by-the-throat-and-practices-a-choke-hold.html#tp

  • MC

    I’m shocked. I’m sure I read a few weeks ago that a resolution to the HOT suit was imminent. And during that time, the bill for the suit seems to have grown another 30%.

    But we don’t need to feel too sad — I have a hard time believing many people visit Arlington because of money the County is spending on tourism promotion. I’m not against taxing tourists in hotels, but don’t see how the county is convincing anyone to come here to see the Arlington experience. Despite certain indications to the contrary, we don’t live in Disneyworld.

    • Thes

      Arlington is as little as 5 minutes away from one of the top three tourist destinations in the United States (Washington, D.C.). Our hotel occupancy rate is substantially higher than the industry average.

      • local

        People stay at hotels and dine in Arlington but sightsee in DC/Alexandria. The only worth siteseeing in Arlington is Arlington House and the cemetery-everything else is meh.

      • http://arlingtondirt.blogspot.com/ TGEoA

        Thanks for that geography lesson Ric Romero.

        • Lou

          + Pi

  • OX4

    Arlington is making a fool of itself with this suit, and it’s nice Richmond is finally fighting back. Wait, did I just write that?

    • mehoo

      You didn’t write it, you typed it. And strangely enough, I’m typing this:

      +1

  • R.Griffon

    Suing officials in a personal capacity and forcing them to bear the cost of legal defense is nothing short of bullying. I think no matter which side of the HOT lane issue you’re on, the way the County has gone about it is an absolute disgrace.

    • Rosslyner

      +1

      • Dan

        +1

    • local

      The Arlington County Board is a huge BULLY – do you think they listen to neighborhood groups? The choice that residents have to to like it or leave…..

      • Just the Facts

        Or you could, in just six short years, replace 3 of the 5 members electorally and have a majority that agrees with you. Of course, you’d first have to convince 50%+1 of your voting neighbors to agree with you. Apparently you haven’t been able to do this. So your real complaint is that the majority of voting Arlington continues to heavily support the current Board members. Stupid democracy…

        • http://arlingtondirt.blogspot.com/ TGEoA

          Or we could change the form of government and not have to wait 6 “short years”. The CB is a joke. Arlington would better served by having a Mayor.

  • Bender

    So, instead of county taxpayers bearing the cost of this suit, which targets the defendants in their individual and personal capacity, it should be required the County Board members be personally responsible for payment of these legal costs. Slap a lien on their million-dollar homes until they pay out of their own pocket.

  • Just the Facts

    Typical conservative hypocrisy: they’re pro-business except when hurting businesses can score them political points. Just like they support a strict construction interpretation of the Constitution except when a more loose interpretation gets them something they want (D.C. v. Heller).

    I’d love an explanation of how this is not hypocritical that doesn’t include “Liberals do it too!” I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right about 35 years ago…

    • Bender

      Leaving aside the whole “hypocrisy” thing, since it is a tangental matter that completely ignores the merits of the situation, even assuming for the sake of the argument that conservatives are “pro-business” (even more so, I suppose than the Democrat Arlington County Board, which is in bed with developers), how does it hurt business to NOT impose a tax on them?

      To be sure, without the tax, hotel rates will presumably be lower. That will encourage more people to stay in Arlington hotels. That will increase Arlington “tourism” (which, as someone noted above, consists entirely of going to Arlington National Cemetery, there being no other tourist spots in the County, unless one counts the airport).

      • Just the Facts

        First, I wasn’t arguing the mertis of the situation, I was pointing out that conservatives often act hypocritically.

        Second, I will defer to the president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce who supports the tax and said, “Please don’t hold the business community hostage for ill-taken actions by the county itself.” I will not pretend to know more about the Arlington business community than the president of the Chamber of Commerce, but you are certainly welcome to do so.

        Third, the tax is not on businesses that own hotels, it’s on people who stay in hotels. It is paid in full by the person who rents a room, much like a sales tax is paid by the purchaser of an item, not the business that sells it.

        Fourth, the 0.25% surcharge has absolutely no impact on visitors’ decisions to stay in Arlington or not. On a $150 hotel bill it would amount to an increase of $0.38. That’s 38 cents. If you think an increase of 38 cents on a $150 bill is going to drive a potential visitor to another location, you’re not very bright.

        Fifth, anyone making an argument that tourists only come to Arlington to visit a limited number of Arlington attractions is, again, not very bright. Visitors to D.C. stay in Arlington because our hotels are cheaper, Arlington is safer, and it’s a quick bus, subway or taxi ride into the city. So potential Arlington tourists are NOT just visitors to the cemetery.

    • Bender

      If hotels truly do want a surcharge on their customers’ bills, if they truly want their customers to pay $800,000 and $1 million more each year, then the hotels can simply increase their rates on their own and use than money on their own to promote tourism in Arlington or otherwise simply voluntarily pay extra money to the government. There is absolutely ZERO need for hotels to want a tax here.

      • Greg

        Good luck with that.

      • Just the Facts

        Why would Marriott voluntarily promote businesses other than Marriott? That’s what you’re proposing. A county-wide effort helps all hotels in Arlington.

        I think I can boil down the two sides of this discussion: on one side is a desire to collect an extraordinarily small per-room tax that will have no negative impact on room rentals and has been in place for 20 years to be used to promote Arlington tourism and is supported by the business community and on the other side is knee-jerk opposition to tax and government with no substantive arguments against the room tax.

        • Jason S

          I think Bender’s idea is a sound one. Aren’t these the things that the Chamber of Commerce should be organizing anyway?

      • http://www.arlnow.com ARLnow.com

        I presume the hotel owners would tell you to look up game theory. What’s preventing one hotel from not paying and “freeloading” off the others.

        • Jason S

          This program would also help restaurants, gas stations, shopping centers, convenience stores, and a host of other businesses as well. Perhaps the hotels can hold their breath and stomp their feet over those businesses. Any promotion for a hotel can bring guests and helps businesses near the hotel.

  • LPS4DL

    Del. Hugo is a crass opportunist. The HOT lanes benefit his county and provide nothing to Arlington. Hugo ignores the fact that VDOT and its cronies tried to sneak the HOT lanes across without following the steps required for such a project. He should remember that tourist dollars spent in Arlington benefit the whole state and he is cutting off his nose to spite his face by delaying this bill. What has Hugo said about all the money Cuccinelli is wasting denying global warming and trying to prevent all Virginians from getting health insurance? Not one word from Hugo on that example of government waste. Let’s put toll booths on I95 and I66 at the county line and just charge tolls to Fairfax County residents in memory of Del. Hugo.

    • Westover

      I have to drive I-395 everyday, and I am an Arlington resident and taxpayer. These HOT lanes WILL help me. I wish the Board would stop wasting MY money with their foot dragging.

  • Steve

    Bender, as a certified tour director who books and uses about 5000 bed-nights per year in hotels, I can assure you that hotel prices WILL NOT be cheaper if they remove the tax. Most people arent even aware of the tax cost until they check out and are headed home. Hotel managers will simply up the price $5.00 to stay the same…and pocket the rest. Hotel owners and managers are some of the biggest crooks around….except possibly the elected officials.

  • Martha

    I thought that the main allegation of the lawsuit was that it discriminated against Arlington’s poorer/minority community because cars not in the hot lanes would be slowed and would emit exhaust that would pollute the air of those who live nearby. I recall reading a controversy about referring to Glebe Road. I’d appreciate a factual summary of the basis of the lawsuit and Arlington’s rationale for suing the people as individuals. Is is related to civil rights?

  • Curioser and Curioser

    This lawsuit is simply a waste of money. In a period where revenues are scarce and the schools are en route to trailer city, the County should be hyper-careful with its resources. Spending them on a frivolous lawsuit, that is essentially tilting at windmills, is typical of the holier than thou County Board. Can any party field a candidate to the left or to the right of the current members and knock at least one of the incumbents off in 2011? Please?

    • 4Arl

      Due in large part to its location, Arlington real estate is generally valued at a premium over jurisdictions that are farther out, like Hugo’s. If the HOT lanes are built, they would likely undermine some of that premium, to the benefit of outer suburbs. Arlington residential real estate is currently valued at around $38 Billion. I don’t know if they have any chance of successfully stopping the project, but it may not be a waste of money to try.

  • The native

    I think that the point is missed here. Yes the ACB have their heads where the sun don’t shine. But more importantly this delegate jackass from Fx (Richmond) and make no mistake this is a reactionary, partisan, hurtful individual, is interfering with Arlington business because he is a bad, petty man. Hugo is no straight talker and is just a bad man.

    • Jason S

      Yes, he’s a “bad man”. Very eloquent. What makes him bad? That he believes Arlington should ask for special taxes on one hand while throwing away money with the other? Would you lend your friend money so he can throw it away one stupid and wasteful things?

  • The native

    Take a look at his record. Cucinelli, Albo, Hugo same types. Reactionary self serving headline seeking politicians. They have little more than advancing their own personal agendas. Not the electorate they ‘serve’.

  • Barrett

    I thought the Pentagon was in Arlington along with the airport, cemetery, Air Force memorial. Also, another tourist attraction to appear in April, George Allen once again strives to become some thing.
    Why did the CB engage a DC come-lately law firm rather than a VA firm to do its suing business?

  • The native

    Hey Jason S. See Tax Blocker… For another indication of what kind of guy Hugo is. This typical of this guy and just another indication of him advancing his agenda. Don’t be a Hugo, hater.

    • Jason S.

      You say he is advancing his agenda as if that I unusual for a politician. Why does my taking the time to understnd his position make me a hater? It makes no sns.

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