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The Right Note: Numbers Games?

by Mark Kelly | March 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm | 1,102 views | 39 Comments

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Mark KellyAccording to Arlington County, it will cost $2,858 to produce records in response to a recent FOIA request on the Columbia Pike trolley project.

The FOIA request was for e-mails, memos and other specified documents between county staff, consultants and County Board members in regards to the preference of a particular station for the Skyline trolley stop, the location of the maintenance facility, traffic impacts on Columbia Pike during construction, economic development, and other issues.

Of that $2,858 cost, $2,341 would go to AECOM — the County’s consultant on the project and County Board member Chris Zimmerman’s new employer. The effective rate per hour for AECOM’s work is approximately $180 when you include their expenses and fees. Is it any wonder Zimmerman signed a consulting contract with them? Good work if you can get it.

The county’s share made up the additional $517, a bargain by comparison, at an hourly rate of just under $65 per hour.

No average citizen can fork over $2,858 for copies of these documents. The county seems to be hiding behind this cost to keep the documents out of public view, signaling an aversion to transparency when it comes to the massive project.

What the county staff should do is offer to provide all of their copies of the documents requested for $517. Since the county was in receipt of virtually all requested documents, this seems like a reasonable solution to provide an appropriate level of transparency.

Speaking of numbers that do not add up, the Arlington Public School superintendent recently released a proposed budget for next year.

The total topline spending number in Superintendent Murphy’s budget was $520.4 million. The total projected enrollment is 23,586. For those of you with calculators, that equals $22,063 per student.

According to the superintendent’s budget presentation, however, we will be spending $18,709 per pupil. So, the published amount provided to the public is $3,354 or 18% less than the actual amount.

By my quick “back of the envelope” calculations, it seems as though the superintendent only counts $441 million of the $520 million in his per pupil numbers. I can only assume from his presentation that state and federal aid do not count. However, based on Arlington’s median income, I think we can safely say that Arlington taxpayers pay more than their fair share of state and federal taxes. In other words, Arlingtonians are picking up this share of the school funding tab as well.

I am sure someone has a politically expedient explanation for why this spending does not count in the per pupil calculation. But, it seems disingenuous to people who care about things like accountability, transparency, or even math. This is coming from our school superintendent after all.

Regardless of whether you think we do not spend enough on our schools, too much, or just right, shouldn’t we be honest about what we are actually spending to educate each of our children?

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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  • squidgod

    “The effective rate per hour for AECOM’s work is approximately $180 when you include their expenses and fees.”

    You neglected to mention how many hours it would take. A true cynic might assume that you just took a wild guess and kept the number low enough that the per hour rate looks crazy.

  • squidgod

    “By my quick “back of the envelope” calculations, it seems as though the superintendent only counts $441 million of the $520 million in his per pupil numbers. I can only assume from his presentation that state and federal aid do not count. However, based on Arlington’s median income, I think we can safely say that Arlington taxpayers pay more than their fair share of state and federal taxes. In other words, Arlingtonians are picking up this share of the school funding tab as well.”

    That’s…a pretty weak argument.

    • drax

      Yeah, talk about a numbers game.

  • Wayne Kubicki

    From the Supt’s proposed budget (pg 30):

    “Arlington Public Schools uses the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE) methodology to calculate the cost per pupil presented in the budget. The WABE calculation includes all students, including pre-K students, the School Operating Fund, entitlement grants, police services costs and the Major Maintenance/Minor Construction portion of the Capital Projects Fund. It excludes only the self-funded portion of the summer school and Adult Education program costs in the School Operating Fund.”

    • drax

      Wait – you mean there’s a rational, accepted method that the county didn’t invent? Oops.

      • Wayne Kubicki

        Drax – the WABE formulas are an attempt to compare “apples/apples” numbers among the local jurisdictions. A lot of the Arlington difference cited in Kelly’s article is debt service, which WABE excludes – it’s about $1,900/student.

        • drax

          My point is that it’s not something the County Board invented, and is therefore not an attempt by the board to play games with the numbers. Just shooting down another conspiracy theory, that’s all. Thanks for posting this by the way.

    • http://twitter.com/Dezlboy Dezlboy

      Wayne, thanks for your information. In his column Mark said, “I am sure someone has a politically expedient explanation for why this spending does not count in the per pupil calculation.” I was wondering why Mark didn’t ask someone in the school system, instead of just complaining……

  • Greg

    So AECOM is involved with our trolley? I thought the County said they weren’t. Maybe I’m wrong about that. If they are the only third party that FOIA money is going to, does that mean they are the sole trolley contractor so far?

    No one finds that odd?

    • Tim

      I don’t know anything about the trolley situation but my guess would be that AECOM is solely a consultant for the planning phase and probably precluded from competing for the actual trolley award. That’s how it typically works in contracting, anyway.

    • meh…

      If information for ALL correspondence has been requested in the FOIA request, then they would have to gather those emails from all A/E firms that they’ve consulted with, or discussed the project with. Mark simply called out AECOM because their involvement was recently made public.

      • Greg

        Maybe, but I think you’re making a big assumption there.

      • speonjosh

        Given this guy’s level of duplicity and obfuscation in past columns, I don’t think it’s a big assumption at all. He is anything but a straight shooter.

  • Louise

    Absolutely not. A FOIA request is a waste of time and money. Ridiculous.

    • TJ

      Why would it be a waste of time and money? Would you have said the same thing if this were about Watergate? Not saying that this the same thing, but to say that not being transparent is a good thing is a good thing? I guess they are taking a lesson from the “most transparent administration in U.S. history.”

  • vawhelan

    Thank you for the column.

  • G Clifford Prout

    Oh my. Trolley v Children. When in doubt toss the children in the mix.

    • Louise

      I actually think this is more along the lines of a traditional consipracy theorist–not only is the County Board not to be trusted, neither is the Superintendent!

  • Tim

    I work as a contractor in federal acquisitions and I think at times the public can underestimate what a response to one of these FOIA requests may involve, particularly when a FOIA request comes in for something as broad as “e-mails, memos and other specified documents between county staff, consultants and County Board members in regards to the preference of a particular station for the Skyline trolley stop, the location of the maintenance facility, traffic impacts on Columbia Pike during construction, economic development, and other issues”. I agree that Government at all levels needs to be transparent, but this transparency does have a cost tied to it, whether paid for by the requester or the responding entity. In this particular scenario, in absence of some type of eDiscovery tool, you’re requesting each of the indivuduals named, the county staff, the consultants, the County Board members, to comb all their emails, memos, and documents for the broad range of issues listed, then review each document to determine if it actually provides something of substance (rather than, for instance, acknowledging receipt or an out of office reply), and finally, determining if any information requires redaction prior to release (certain information may be proprietary or unreleasable for a number of valid reasons). Typically the responses will then be routed through a legal office, further increasing the cost, ensuring the redactions are proper and the response adequate.
    Requiring the requester to be responsible for their fair share of the cost is necessary to ensure that Government is not over-burdened with frivolous requests; or perhaps to motivate the requester to be more specific in their request to minimize the interruption to the primary mission of that Government office.

    • Greg

      I don’t think he has an issue with the government cost. It’s the private party costs. If a private party is doing business with the government I do think it makes sense that they should not be able to hide from FOIA by jacking their fees. If you get a government contract, you are no longer purely doing private business.

      It doesn’t seem like that’s the law, though.

      • meh…

        Those fees aren’t “jacked” at all. That’s the standard fee for engineering services throughout the metro region. That’s likely something a Principle in the firm would be responsible for compiling. It’s not proper to say that they are hiding from FOIA.

        • Greg

          Jacked versus what the government charges. In any event, if a company Principle wants to be involved, he should be able to charge only what the government employee typically tasked with this service would charge.

          • meh…

            It’s not a matter of “versus what the government charges”. The firms’ rates are whatever they are. If the county has to request the firm to do work for them, that’s the rate they will be charged for the work and they have a right to pass that on to the person submitting the FOIA request. I’d much rather it be done that way than for the county to absorb it.

            It’s also not a matter of IF a Principle WANTS to be involved, matters of this nature absolutely require involvement of a Principle. The rates are established and presented by the A/E firm up front as part of the bid and contracting process. Tasks and responsibilities are also established up front.

            The issue here is that you are looking at it as simply a menial “task” when in reality it’s not as cut and dry as that. Tim laid it out pretty well in his reply above.

  • Chris Slatt

    Mark, I had a similar response when I FOIA’d some Streetcar documents. I replied with “please amend my request to add ‘that can be retrieved without AECOM staff time’.” and got all the documents that the County had on-hand the next day.

    Much more effective than an Arlnow column.

    • EBJ

      Yeah, but he can’t get an AECOM employee to forward their docs for free later.

  • South Awwlington

    I was looking forward to these weekly columns in the hope of reading about some ideas and creative ways to deal with the challenges facing Arlington of 2013 and beyond. Instead they seem to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for the loser of elections or those that never ran. There is no opposition to the Streetcar OTHER than financial. Its financial for Military Road Arlingtonians who “don’t take the bus OR the train,” much less ever set foot on Columbia Pike. It’s also financial for the Columbia Forest and Douglas Park and Columbia Heights Arlingtonians who won’t or can’t afford to pay a higher tax assessment. I have heard every argument for and against this project — until today– enter conspiracy theory to over burden citizens on FOIA requests. What next? I guess this is what the last throes of an argument look like. Say anything. Now’s where is my double-deck, gold-plated Cadillac Vegas bling bus?

  • dm

    There are enough trolley opponents.. They can’t raise $2400? I’d chip in.

  • Rory

    FOIA are not cheap, regardless of where you request them from. Arlington is hardly unique.
    This article is aimed at those people who have no clue of that fact. What a cheap tactic to base your article on.

    • dm

      FOIA requests can be cheap and even free. It’s the scope of the request that makes one expensive.

  • Bennett

    Lots of admitted assumptions in this column and very little analysis, other than “back of the envelope.” Why not do some reporting and get back to us?

  • Mc

    I’m glad my tax money isn’t subsidizing FOIA trolls. Make them pay their own costs for thier hobby-obsessions. Real Republicans would agree.

  • Big Cow

    Why would a private company be responding to a FOIA directed to a public agency?

    • Kickbacks

      Why would a county transportation contractor hire a county board member with no formal training or education in transportation planning for a trolley in “Montreal”?

      • South Awwlington

        Calling into question someone’s integrity and ethics is a bell that should only be rung when you can back it up. Please do. Furthermore, serving as a locally elected official in a metropolitan region and from a jurisdiction that values transit now as we did during the days of the old trolley lines, again in 1968. I’ll be the first to conceded the formal education piece but there is something to be said about learning on the job and from past experience. How many of us work in the major we attended college for?

      • No Name

        Does one ever think that economics plays a big part (maybe the biggest) in the planning of transportation projects? Your notion of Zimmerman having no formal training or education is weak. Not to mention on the job training of being a county councilman and member on the WMATA Board for many years.

  • meh…

    I wish there was a way we could DOWN vote weekly opinion columns….

  • amber waves

    The school calculations are fair, but complicated as far as I can see in the APS 2014 draft budget. It excludes the food service which is self supporting ($7 million), Debt service on bonds ($44.7 million), Comprehensive Services Act-state money for social work-fostercare sent thru the APS ($4.5 million), Grants and Restricted Program funds from Feds, State, county, and combined—Entitlement funds yes not discretionary. (14.4 million minus discretionary), & community activities funds such as swimming pools, community centers, planetarium, extended day, etc. ($16.3 million). It would be helpful if the writer did a bit of homework in publicly available documents before spouting off.

  • JohnB

    This is why Arlington Republicans can never win in Arlington. They never have any ideas, just complaints.

  • speonjosh

    I’m wondering if Mark Kelly misunderstands how the income tax works. Noting that Arlington has an above average household income he concludes that we must be paying more than our fair share of taxes. How does that make sense at all? Income taxes are a percentage of your taxable income. So your tax goes up as you make more money. I guess he’s suggesting that everyone would simply owe the same amount of money? So the percentage of income paid would go DOWN as income goes up? I guess it all depends on your definition of “fair.”

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