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Peter’s Take: Prioritize Core Services, Stop Funding Artisphere

by Peter Rousselot | March 5, 2013 at 1:45 pm | 892 views | 63 Comments

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column published on Tuesdays. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter Rousselot

In last week’s column, I explained why a new normal has arrived for Arlington’s budget. I concluded that business as usual in setting budget priorities must change. In response, one commenter named “Courthouse Diva” said “[I] love the idea of defining core services — everything does not need to be core.”

Courthouse Diva nailed it.

Arlington needs to develop standards to define core services, and then use those standards to decide which services and programs are core services and those that are at the edge or outside of that core.

How does Arlington handle this now?

For the FY 14 budget now under review, the County Board essentially told the County Manager, “If you think there’s going to be a $50 million shortfall, design a budget that eliminates that shortfall by relying half on spending cuts and half on tax increases.” The manager was then left to recommend a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, using that very general guidance.

How would a core services approach be different?

Under a core services approach, programs and services at the center of the core would have much greater protection from any cuts. The farther out you move from the core, there would be less and less protection. The size of a cut as a percentage of the total expenditures in its category would be greater the farther out from the core.

An example of how a core services approach might work is illustrated in this chart from Regina, California:

I am not suggesting that Arlington ought to adopt every last detail of Regina’s core services approach. Arlington must adopt its own customized version of a core services approach, and then apply it to decide the priorities in its budget.

For example, if Arlington had a core services approach, the County Board could have provided this kind of guidance to the County Manager: “If you think there’s going to be a $50 million shortfall, design a budget that eliminates that shortfall by relying 25% on tax increases and 75% on spending cuts to programs and services outside the core.” This is a much better way to decide on budget priorities than the way Arlington does it now.

I will devote more future columns to examples of specific Arlington programs and services that would be treated differently — and much more appropriately — if a core services approach were in place. Here is one much-discussed example: Arlington should extricate itself completely from the Artisphere. There is a place for public support for culture and the arts in Arlington. However, such support belongs at the very discretionary end of the core spectrum.

In the new normal, programs at that end of the spectrum must be subject to deeper cuts to protect programs and services closer to the core.

Peter Rousselot is a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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  • DCBuff

    In ArlCo, everyone thinks that their piece of the pie is core. More specifically, each member of the ArlCo board has his or her “core” special interest, thus the Artispharce.

    • flux

      You exactly nailed it. Don’t believe for one second that the board didn’t do plenty of elaborating to the manager about their vague “get half from spending half from revenue” once the cameras stopped rolling.

    • drax

      In (everywhere ever), everyone thinks their piece is core. Even you.

    • speonjosh

      What makes you think that your particularly cynical view of the world is shared by others? Somehow the people of Regina have more integrity than the people of Arlington? I am quite sure that Arlington county staff are capable of keeping the big picture in mind.

      • DCBuff

        “What makes you think that your particularly cynical view of the world is shared by others” I don’t know, maybe the 7 ups (v. only 1 down, probably yours) for my comment. And, I don’t live in Regina or pay taxes in Regina or drive the roads in Regina or send kids to school in Regina, so why do I give a cr@p about Regina? Just what I would expect from a Giants fan.

        • speonjosh

          A trifeca of a BS response.
          A) using internet comment rating trends to discern public opinion
          B) missing the point about Regina
          C) personal insults

          Woo hoo!

  • SomeGuy

    Peter’s post makes sense. But this is really just a rephrasing from “wants and needs” to “non-core and core,” something which most of us could grasp as youngsters, but just doesn’t seem to carry over to politicians who get a hold of public purse strings (and/or constituents who adopt pet causes).

    The problem I see with the continuum diagram is that if you look closely at the “Non-Core” line, you’ll see it says, “Beyond the scope of normal municipal purview without justification.” And as anyone who’s submitted a questionable “business expense” can tell you, justification has a loose definition, and it’s in the eye of the beholder. Hence, Artisphere!

  • bender

    “If you think there’s going to be a $50 million shortfall, design a budget that eliminates that shortfall by relying half on spending cuts and half on tax increases.”
    Instead of budgeting $50 million they do not have and then having to “cut” it, why jack up spending by $500 million and then using that as an excuse to increase taxes by $250 million?
    The right way to avoid “deficits” is to first see how much money you have to spend and only then deciding on how much to spend.
    The spend first, get the money second, approach is why we are on the road to bankruptcy in this country.

    • Bennett

      Wrong. Government’s job is to identify needs, set priorities, then get the money required to meet the priorities, as determined by democratic means. Government does not first set set arbitrary spending limits that may have no relation to either the needs to be met or the ability of taxpayers who, particularly at the local level, are partners in setting the priorities.

    • speonjosh

      Yeah, I’m with Bennett. Your suggestion is completely arbitrary.

      Besides, in effect, what happens now is largely the same to what you suggest. And it saves time. You have the managers come up with their budget requests at the same time you are developing your revenue projections. If there is a difference, then you figure out what to do about it. I think the language definitely throws people off – the “cuts” are to projected spending. I guess if they are deep enough, they could also be “cuts” in relation to previous years’ spending. But, not necessarily. So it may be that the only “deficit” is a deficit on paper – between the projected need and the projected revenue. The county manager has to decide who doesn’t get their request.

  • Ballston Resident

    Peter’s Take,

    Don’t think most see it your way. Respectfully, you might be off base.

    • speonjosh

      Actually, I think this might one of the few postings by these guest columnists that most people could get behind.

  • kalashnikev

    I still don’t completely trust this Rousselot… but he makes a damn lot of sense for a Democrat!

    • SomeGuy

      I was thinking the same thing, Kev. His suggestion of fiscal restraint could sandbag any ambitions he might have to move up the ranks of the Democratic Party.

      • kalashnikev

        He’s probably just getting us to lower our guard so he can approve some measure on New Year’s Day when we’re all hung over for a giant waterslide from Columbia Pike to the Orange line, or a Band Shell for Small Dogs, or a hot air balloon from Crystal City to Rosslyn…

  • willy

    Mr. Rousselot provides a useful area of discussion. Another way to look at the role of government revolves around the phrase “Basic Human Needs.” Things like the Artisphere, other arts and cultural projects, fancy swimming pools, and dog parks need to take a back seat to education, public safety, assistance to the needy.

    • flux

      It’s stuff that you would think is almost too self-evident to need mentioning. But when you see the cuts proposed, you have to wonder. Sure, there is some room for debate about what is core, and the published example from California is just one example.

      But facing a deficit, and with gloomy forecasts for the next couple of years, you have to wonder if now is the time for Arlington to establish a similar general framework for the core. Does any similar categorization of core services exist in the Arlington system?

    • sticktothe3Rs

      is art education part of education?

      • Ballstonian

        Yes, art education is part of education, in my opinion. But the artisphere is not — it isn’t education.

        What makes the artisphere so egregious is that it is completely unnecessary in a place like Arlington. It is located across the Potomac from one of the great performing arts centers in the country, the Kennedy Center, and within a few miles of the great art museums of DC. It is silly for Arlington to think it needs to compete with those institutions. If Arlington were located 50 or 100 miles away from where it is, something like the Artisphere might start to make sense, but in this region it seems like a vanity project for the county to show that it is important, too..

        • speonjosh

          It’s not education?
          Says who? How do you know what is educational and what isn’t? You “know it when you see it?”

          And because other institutions exist, this one isn’t needed? THat’s completely ridiculous. There’s a library on the other side of town, we don’t need one here. You can go to New York and see the best opera in the world, why would you ever put on an opera anywhere else?
          Totally ridiculous.
          The arts are just “vanity projects?” I think your credibility is more and more shot the more and more you write.

          • Ballstonian

            You seem to be assuming that I meant something other than what I wrote, Mr. Speon.

            The Artisphere is not education because its not in the schools, obviously. Its programs may be educational, but “education” is not the same as “educational.” Many things are educational, but that doesn’t mean they should be funded the same as schools, which was the point of the post to which these response are written.

            Nor do I think that “the arts” are vanity projects, but the Artisphere is. The Artisphere is not synonymous with art. The fact that some institutions exist doesn’t always mean that another one isn’t needed; it does in this case, given the proximity and superiority of the other institutions. Can you name a mission the Artisphere fulfills that is not fulfilled by some other institution in or near Arlington? I can’t either.

            As for my credibility, obviously I don’t have much with you, nor you with me. But that seems to be largely a function of reading comprehension. In any case, at least dozen people voted my post up, so it would appear that I have some with some people.
            Carry on

          • speonjosh

            “The Artisphere is not education because its not in the schools, obviously.” How can you write such things and expect to be taken seriously?
            Carrying on.

          • oscar

            It sounds to me like somebody needs a hug!

    • esmcmurrer

      Agree completely.

  • kalashnikev

    I fixed it!

    [IMG]http://i145.photobucket.com/albums/r220/Kalashnikev/c0298000-934d-408d-9571-4a7a02dfb17b_zpsa16d1eb4.jpg[/IMG]

    • JimPB

      kalashnikev — Might your desire be to reside in a gated, maximum security community?

      • kalashnikev

        No… quite the opposite, in fact.

        • speonjosh

          If you say so. However, most of your comments belie a truly un-egalitarian approach to life.

          • oscar

            nice to see you avoid personal insults in your comments, Josh

          • speonjosh

            I’m not sure it’s so much of an insult as it is an observation.
            Besides, what is the point of your comment? Do you go around making sarcastic remarks to everyone on the internet?

          • kalashnikev

            Un-egalitarian, you say??? Well I’m certainly in favor of every American having the same political, legal, and economic rights… Are you perhaps talking about social leveling and the redistribution of wealth? (which would be the opposite of egalitarianism…)

  • drax

    Um, I get the core part, but why rely on 75% cuts instead of 50%? You throw that in without even beginning to explain why. What’s that got to do with cores and all that?

    • dm

      Um, he prefaced that paragraph with “for example” so I think it was just an example, not a counteroffer.

    • Jeff

      Why pick any percentage as cuts versus revenue increases? It’s really just an arbitrary choice in the end. On the surface, 50% each sounds fair, but if you added $1B to the deficit for lining every street in the county in diamonds, maybe it’s not so fair to simply say meh, 50/50. In that extreme, it should probably be more like 100% in cuts (specifically to that idea) and 0% in increased revenue.

  • drax

    This is a timely column, by the way, given that we’re going through a more or less across the board cut on the federal level right now.

  • John Fontain

    Good column Peter and lots of good comments from the “loonies” too. Focus on the core and spend in other others only as funds permit. But equally as important, spend wisely on everything. There is no justifying million dollar bus stops under any circumstances.

  • novasteve

    My God, he reads comments here!

    • Fanny

      Probably skips some from posters who have little to say (on every subject).

  • Dills28

    Peter, I get your point but I think the county turning its back on the future revenues that the Artisphere could provide is a big mistake. Lots of money has gone into the Artisphere cutting off funding now while it is rent free would be short sited. Something does needs to be done to up its profile within the area because most people don’t know it exists.

    • SouthArlingtonian

      The Artisphere has been losing money each year. How many more years should it lose money until it’s cut loose?

    • kalashnikev

      Artisphere… *generate* revenue???

      HOW?

    • snowed in

      Artisphere’s future revenue potential has been severely hampered from the get-go by both a ridiculously poor remodel and an unrealistic business plan. I have to think it was Ron Carlee’s last laugh at Arlington to allow this through – what responsible manager could have possibly thought that the plan presented to him would work? The cultural affairs dept. simply had no experience with managing such a big venture, and it showed from the minute the place opened. The arts generate a lot of money for the community by encouraging people to visit and spend money at the venue and at nearby businesses, and no arts venue exists without significant public and private financial support; however, you have to have experienced professionals design and program them so that the support they need is not 90% of their budget. It’s a shame, because Artisphere looks to have some quality people running it now, but only after it’s become the favorite whipping boy of Arlington’s crankier set. The best bet to make it generate more revenue is another remodel to maximize the simultaneous use of each venue within the place, but the county and the public have no appetite for that now.

  • Herodotus

    Artisphere is awesome

  • JimPB

    Peter wrote: “Arlington needs to develop standards to define core services, and then use those standards to decide which services and programs are core services and those that are at the edge or outside of that core.” Peter and/or others, please illustrate the critical first step, the development of standards to define core services.

    And, wIthin a service or program, e.g., public safety, isn’t it the case that all of the categories of functions would not have equal efficacy and cost-efficiency? So, within specific core areas, there would be need to rate specific functions, and allocate amounts of financial support accordingly.

    How do bond issues fit into the core services model? I have the dim recollection that funding for many recreation and leisure projects, e.g., dog parks, the aquatic center, has been largely provided for in bond issues that were on the ballot, and were approved by a majority (some by a very substantial majority) of Arl Co voters.

    • John Fontain

      Don’t put them on the ballot if they aren’t core or put only scaled back, reasonably priced projects on the ballot. That clarendon dog park, which I will use, could have been done for a fraction of the price and the dogs would have enjoyed it just as much. Have you seen the amount of below grade concrete work they put in there?

    • speonjosh

      Bond funding doesn’t fit into the model because it’s not a function, it’s a funding mechanism.

  • amerikeen

    Part of the issue is that there are core and non-core expenses within each category of services. For instance, I don’t think that anyone would argue with the statement that public safety is a core service. However, is any amount of money that we spend on it then automatically protected from budget cuts? If we give more money to certain departments, they are happy to spend it, but does this tactical vehicle that Arlington no doubt spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on measurably improve public safety? I think not, despite whatever statistics the APD could put out on how often it is used (I’m sure it gets trotted out at every opportunity).

    Also, it is probably important to consider the source of funds. If a non-core service is funded by say a grant from a private organization or the federal government that Arlington would not receive otherwise, maybe it is stupid to cut that service since it would mean a corresponding cut in revenues and not help the deficit at all.

    • kalashnikev

      To make it even more funny- Arlington is home to pretty much all manufacturers of current MRAPs… except for the Terradyne GURKHA pictured. Also DHS has just taken accountability of 2,700 rebalanced MRAPs which they will be giving away to various jurisdictions for free. More genius planning on the part of our County leadership…

      • speonjosh

        Ah yes, the county’s crystal ball must be in the shop…..

    • Vroom Vroom!

      Was that tactical vehicle local dollars or a federal homeland security grant? Either way, I think that thing would be best used as prop and conversation piece for the community oriented policing team. Time for a truck touch!

  • Mc

    If Peter believes what he writes, he should say “stop funding parks!” Or “stop funding libraries”. They are categotically no different than the Artisphere, but cost tens of millions more each year.

    • speonjosh

      Yikes.

  • Abe Froman

    But a street car that could easily be replaced by bus service and an aquatic center that is so not geographically desirable is core?

  • JimPB

    Some years ago I was part of a group in another area that engaged in making personal decisions about local government expenditures and revenues. We got a list of the categories for current expenditures and possible reductions and increases and the same for revenues. Our task was to settle on a budget (expenditures and revenues) that reflected our values and that were in balance. We then shared our schemes and sought to develop a group budget.

    It was a challenging and illuminating exercise. There were areas of consensus about what Peter would label as priority core services, but a range of views about budget amounts for them and for other focuses. One remark has stuck with me, “a vibrant community’s government is concerned with more than police, streets and utilities (water and sewage, trash). Public health emerged as a core function. Assistance for those with needs had majority support. Libraries, parks, and yes, the arts, also emerged with considerable support as vital for the mind and spirit.

    Various colleagues from the Midwest and plains states have recalled how important the Carnegie libraries were for developing their young minds. The importance of libraries hasn’t diminished. Thank goodness for the terrific ArlCo library. There were often also an active program of concerts and plays in various of the towns, usually in the schools but sometimes in churches or in buildings built (with private funds) especially for such performances — the “Opera House” in What Cheer, Iowa is an example of the last’ it continues in regular use.

    And yes, taxes were a uniform concern. The focus of the majority was that their tax dollars be spend well.

  • tom smart

    Let’s go back a number of years, like back in the 1980s when the Artisphere didn’t exist. First, the only reason the Artisphere, or that building exists, is because Arlington County’s design engineers provide incorrect construction drawings to a company to build the by pass around Rosslyn. Yes, where that building sits was once supposed to be where the by pass would carry traffic around Rosslyn. And the newly constructed bridge from one side of the street to the other side of the street, built per the specification, did not meet the other side correctly. And because Arlington County was at fault in the end, and they didn’t want to tear down what had been built (millions of wasted tax payer dollars) they decided to invent something to take the place of that by pass. Thereby creating the Artisphere and everything that preceded it since the late 80s. So Arlington in it’s infinite wisdom is continuing to throw good money after bad because of their false pride.

    • speonjosh

      Uhhhhh. Hmmmm. I’m guessing there might be a wee bit of subjectivity in this interpretation of historical events…..

  • Mimi

    Peter, you defined the County budget process far too simplistically. In determining where to cut, all agencies defined core services and priorities in exactly the manner you suggested. Our county staff didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

  • Humble S’Arlingtonian

    I’d just like some lights on my street, please.

  • Common Sense for Pete’s Sake

    While pleased by the services I receive in Arlington, I think that they are excessive. Example – the county pays someone to hang brochures on individual doorknobs advertising leaf collections. We should not continue as a county to approve budgets that aren’t tied to current revenue. So yes, a core group of services should be identified and prioritized. I regret the County’s governance structure. There’s no opportunity for appeal and there’s little opportunity for challenging the status quo. Entree into the Arlington County Board is through the Arlington County Democratic Machine. Though a Democrat myself, I lament the fact that there’s little opportunity for a Republican opposition in our county – and there’s little opportunity for discourse. Being allowed to speak at County Board Meetings or participating in public forums doesn’t cut it. And having an “At Large” structure further and severely limits the accountability of Board Members to Arlington Citizens and, worse still, stymies entree of fresh blood into the political system.

    • speonjosh

      I’m fairly certain that no budget has ever been passed in Arlington that wasn’t tied to revenue. I don’t think local jurisdictions can run deficits.
      As for the county’s “governance structure.” What “governance structure” would you suggest? How is Arlington’s governance structure demonstrably flawed as compared to any other Virginia county’s governance structure? Just because you may disapprove of certain county actions is no evidence that the “governance structure” is flawed. No one will always be 100% satisfied in a democracy.

  • You voted for this

    The Artisphere is just one example of incompetent and arrogant behavior on the part of the board. People here make more than the average American and the arrogant board looks for ways to spend it.

    The fact that the Kennedy Center is across the river, and Wolf Trap and other area facilities are also nearby, even considering something like the Artisphere shows just how out of touch with reality the board is. Allowing it to continue bleeding money is
    nothing short of insulting.

    When figures are released reporting that Arlington spends more per student that any other jurisdiction in the area, the government bureaucrats seem to be proud of that as if
    it is a contest to spend more than anyone else. People not in the government know that throwing more money at something does not mean it’s better. Is there any accounting for this? Is there anything like a GAO? Of course not.

    Apparently this community is so used to fiscal nonsense and insult that this is what they think is normal. Consequently, they accept things like the board not taking public
    comments until almost midnight and then voting well after midnight for a trolley project that only the politicians want.

    Don’t say they don’t accept it because they keep electing people who continue this kind of irresponsible and insulting behavior. Until people get a backbone and stop blindly
    supporting one party, expect more of the same.

  • TC

    So Peter will be working hard to vote Fisette out of office for his support of the Artisphere?

    • speonjosh

      The Artisphere? Seriously?
      The Artisphere is worthy of making a voting decision?

      You might as well decide based on what kind of car they drive. The Artisphere is peanuts.

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