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by Mark Kelly — January 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm 628 0

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

Mark KellyUnless the County Board acts to lower the tax rate, and they should, the average homeowner’s bill will increase by $270 this year.

Think it is not much to complain about?

Just three years ago the average single-family residence was valued at $519,400. Today it is $579,800. The average out of pocket increase over that time is slated to come in at $550.

What does $550 a year mean to a family? Here is one example. If a young family had a child in 2012 and could save that amount every year, they could save over $10,000 to pay for college with moderate interest.

Unsurprisingly, the County’s press release announcing a $270 increased average residential tax bill noted the so-called budget gap to cover projected expenditures. This is what we could call the “we know it seems like a lot, but we actually need more” gambit. It is the same line we hear every year.

We start hearing about the gap during the budget guidance process in November. It is reinforced when property tax assessments come out. Then, in every public statement about the fiscal year budget process.

The gap is what the County Board relies on to sway residents to believe they need to pay more for county services. More to bailout the Signature Theatre. More to pay for the next boondoggle project like the Artisphere or trolley.

The gap is also what the County Board uses to say they made “tough budget decisions.”

It is actually quite audacious to talk about a projected funding gap during the same Board meeting you are spending the previous year’s surplus. But, the Board did just that again in November.

The County admitted once again that revenues came in higher than estimated last year — $31.8 million higher. This is in addition to millions that were not actually spent, even though they were projected to be spent.

In other words, there was no funding gap last year because all of the projections were wrong — even with expenditures going out the door for the trolley and Artisphere. They were wrong in such a way that caused us to ultimately spend and pay more, not less. This is just like every year in recent memory. You can go to county website and search “closeout” for every year for proof we never really have a funding gap.

Now that we have cleared some of the shiny objects out of the budget, it is time for a serious County Board candidate to emerge who wants to dig even deeper into County revenue and spending. County residents deserve someone who will shed light on the revenue estimating process and help put an end to the myth of the funding gap.

In the meantime, maybe the question for County Board members during the budget process this spring should be, how much of the $550 annual tax bill you have tacked on the past three years do you actually need?

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

by Larry Roberts — January 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm 471 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Larry RobertsAs Arlington County embarks in 2015 upon the “Arlington Community Facilities Study — a Plan for the Future,” there are echoes to two past Arlington initiatives that charted successful paths forward that served the County for decades, brought the community together, and provided opportunities for Arlington residents to learn more about their County and become more involved in civic life.

The Arlington Public Schools Futures Planning Process of the early 1990s identified a set of community values to guide our public school system. In addition to setting out those values, the Futures Report built upon the notions that: to pursue a high quality education, students require appropriate classroom space; and we must ensure that all Arlington students receive high quality instruction.

Arlington’s blend of urban corridors and strong residential neighborhoods resulted from a mid-1970′s initiative known as the Long Range County Improvement Program (“LRCIP”). Through that initiative, a divided County achieved a consensus that guided Arlington’s revitalization, growth and development through successive periods of Democratic-endorsed, Republican, and Democratic majority County Boards.

LRCIP Committee Chairman Joe Wholey, who served three times as County Board Chairman, remains an Arlington resident active in community life.

Our interview with Joe will form the basis of a series of Progressive Voice columns during this year when County residents again have the opportunity to work together on charting a successful path forward for our County.

Progressive Voice: Why was LRCIP organized?

Joe Wholey: Joe Fisher (then a County Board colleague and later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives) and I wanted to look beyond the day-to-day government activities. We wanted a process that would set realistic goals and attend to likely costs and revenues. By calling it the Long Range County Improvement Program we meant that anything you could do in the next budget was not eligible; rather, we looked at a 2-20 year planning horizon.

PV: What motivated you to consider LRCIP?

Joe WholeyJW: Metro was coming. Arlington had already decided to align new high-density development with the Metro stations and preserve most of the rest of the County pretty much as it had been. We looked at what we could do within walking distance of those stations. Our supporters were slow growth or no growth people. That was an option we explored. We also explored development under existing zoning; intensive commercial development (office buildings and hotels); and intensive residential development (high-rise apartment buildings). Arlington was losing population in those days, commercial areas like Parkington (now Ballston) were going under and people were shopping instead in Fairfax County. We had problems, but with Metro coming, we had the opportunity to explore how best to respond to diminishing population, shrinking school enrollment, and declining commercial areas.

PV: How did your Committee gather input?

JW: We had 10 committee members who worked with long-range planning staff dedicated to the committee, consultants, and other resources to put before the public a set of facts and realistic projections. By the spring of 1975, we had already started publishing “The Citizen,” and we devoted an entire issue to information on community services and public needs; land use trends; housing prices and rents; population trends; school enrollment; employment; transportation; tax levels; and costs for public services and capital improvements. We announced a series of over 50 community meetings to let people know what was going on. We also provided ways for residents to get additional information and provide input over a two-month period.

We then completed a draft report. After the County Board held public hearings, we revised the program in response to citizen input. For example, the Board scaled back some proposed development in the Clarendon area. The County Board adopted the program later in 1975.

PV: What do you see in the County making it worthwhile to try something similar now?

JW: We need to come back together even where we disagree. I think that is attainable. After all, our supporters at the time were slow growth/no growth people but came to see the wisdom of intense development near the Metro stations to produce new revenues and thereby restrain taxes on existing residences. I applaud the idea of trying to get a fractured community — advocates for schools, parks, affordable housing, business and other causes — back together to move the county ahead. They are all good people and we can accommodate their goals if we work together, keep an open mind, and explore our options creatively in a time of limited resources.

Joe Wholey is former three-time Chairman of the Arlington County Board. His interviewer, Larry Roberts, is former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee and also served in state government as Counselor to the Governor.

by Peter Rousselot — January 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,478 0

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

Peter RousselotNow — not “mid-2015″ — is the time to cut bait on the extravagant $80+ million vanity project known as the Arlington Aquatics Center.

According to Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz, despite the loss of potential new funding associated with the 2024 Summer Olympics, “Arlington is ‘still committed’ to building the Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Center ‘without any new taxpayer funds.’”

To the contrary, Arlington should not spend one more dime of any new — or old — taxpayer funds to build this gold-plated project. This decision should be made now — during the County’s upcoming FY 2016 operating budget review process — not in “mid-2015″ as Schwartz suggests.

The estimated annual operating subsidy for the Aquatics Center, as currently designed, has skyrocketed from $450,000 in 2011 to almost $4 million today. Discussing the Aquatics Center’s fate in conjunction with the FY2016 operating budget review will help the public answer questions like these: Where should budget cuts likely be made? How much would the tax rate have to increase to cover this swimming palace’s projected $4 million annual cost?

The Aquatics Center also is relevant now because it is already costing us money even though the project’s construction is “on hold.” Some Aquatics Center funds already have been borrowed and are sitting unused. We are paying interest on this debt out of current Arlington County operating funds. Because the project remains on hold, this money cannot be reallocated to construct neighborhood community pools on the Long Bridge site or elsewhere. This money cannot be used to perform long-deferred maintenance at other parks or to purchase additional parkland.

Scrapping this project’s current design and redirecting the funds to other pressing community needs like new community pools would NOT violate Arlington voters’ will. Although voters twice approved large park bond issues (portions of which were intended to fund this project), those votes now have little persuasive value for two reasons:

  1. Voters weren’t allowed to vote on a bond issue for the Aquatics Center as a separate line item on the ballot (isolated from other park spending), and
  2. Voters who approved either or both of the two park bonds weren’t aware of the Aquatics Center’s $4 million estimated annual operating subsidy.

Given Arlington’s forecasted population growth, we are definitely going to need more community pools and recreational space. With just 8.1 park acres per 1,000 residents, Arlington has less park space than D.C., Boston, New York City and other high-density communities. It may make sense for one or more new community pools to be co-located with a middle school and/or community center.

Conclusion

All of the money currently on hold for the Aquatics Center should be redirected now to more pressing community needs.

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

by Peter Rousselot — January 15, 2015 at 1:45 pm 401 0

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

Peter RousselotThe new Women’s Equality Coalition (WEC) launched last week. WEC is a promising initiative to improve Virginia women’s lives.

The founding members of WEC include ProgressVA, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network, Women Matter, and the American Association of University Women of Virginia.

WEC believes that women and girls everywhere deserve an equal opportunity to participate fully in civic, economic, and political life irrespective of race, class, income, immigration status, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or involvement with the criminal justice system.

WEC supports all Virginia women’s ability to:

  • Decide when and if to have a family and access the full range of health services necessary to support that decision without interference from government, organizations, or individuals;
  • Secure the education and resources necessary to support and better themselves and their families without sacrificing economic security;
  • Live, work, and attend school free from intimidation, abuse, discrimination, harassment, and violence;
  • Understand how the political process affects them personally and be empowered and motivated to participate and make their voices heard.

WEC initially will concentrate on three legislative areas: health and safety, economic opportunity, and democratic participation.

WEC’s 2015 Legislative Agenda

Health and Safety

  • Repeal mandatory ultrasound and waiting period prior to an abortion (SB733 Locke)
  • Close the coverage gap
  • Protect contraception access
  • Provide unemployment benefits for victims of domestic violence who are forced to leave their job (HB 1430 Herring)

Economic Opportunity

  • Establish universal paid sick days
  • Equal pay (SB772 McEachin)
  • Raise the minimum wage (SB681 Marsden)
  • Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (SJ216 Ebbin and HJ495 Surovell)

Democratic Participation

  • Establish no-excuse in-person voting (SB677 Howell)
  • Nonpartisan redistricting

Support for WEC

Virginia

  • Public officials from across Virginia, including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have endorsed the WEC agenda and released statements of support.

Arlington

  • As noted above, Virginia legislators representing portions of Arlington (Sens. Adam Ebbin and Janet Howell) already have introduced bills supporting WEC’s legislative agenda. Other members of Arlington’s delegation (Sen. Barbara Favola and Dels. Patrick Hope and Alfonso Lopez) have issued statements of support.

I agree completely with Del. Hope that:

Virginia’s record of women’s equality is abysmal and we must do better. … [I want my daughters] to know a Virginia that shows no favoritism and gives everyone an equal opportunity to compete, be successful, and to make their own decisions.

WEC’s formation is a great step in the right direction for Virginia.

You can get more information and sign up as a WEC supporter at http://vawomensequalitycoalition.org/.

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

by Mark Kelly — January 15, 2015 at 1:00 pm 1,074 0

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

Mark KellyDel. Rip Sullivan filed a bill to create a non-partisan redistricting process to draw the lines for representation in Richmond and Washington. The corresponding article here at ARLnow said it was a “long-shot” in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In reality, this bill is a long-shot under any party’s control in the General Assembly.

Back in 2011, Senate Democrats drew district lines that could only be explained by one thing — holding on to their tenuous majority. A non-partisan plan recommendation at the time would have created a single Senate district out of Arlington. In fact, Arlington is almost exactly the population of a Virginia Senate district according to the last census.

Instead, Senate Democrats carved Arlington into three districts, using the heavily Democratic tilt of the County to offset precincts all the way out to Loudon County to our West and Mount Vernon to our South.

How political is the process? At the time, Democrat Sen. Janet Howell “miraculously” found her announced opponent’s house drawn into the neighboring Senate district. This certainly did not happen by accident.

Ultimately, the Senate Democrats’ plan did not work as they lost most of the close contests in 2011, and then the outright majority earlier this year.

In the House, Sullivan’s predecessor Bob Brink was one of a handful of Democrats to vote for the Republican redistricting plan. Why? The 48th District was adjusted from the original Republican proposal to make it lean even more Democratic than it was before. Sullivan’s own special election results against a credible Republican challenger showed just how valuable Brink’s move was politically.

The larger point is the right to draw political boundaries has been determined by elections since the founding of our nation. While it may give an advantage to one political party over another for a short period of time, it has never led to a single political party shutting out another for long. The party out of control complains about “gerrymandering,” and then draws the lines to what they think will be their own political advantage when they are back in control. Often, they find themselves out of control a decade later under the new lines.

While voters when polled often say they favor non-partisan redistricting, just like they do with campaign finance reform, it is simply not an issue on which more than a handful of people make voting decisions. Redistricting reform makes for good talking points, press releases and news stories, but little else.

Delegate Sullivan’s constituents would be better served if he spent his time and energy working across the aisle on legislation that matters to their everyday lives.

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

by Dakotah Smith — January 15, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,444 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Dakotah SmithMany parts of our region have experienced a renaissance since I moved here six years ago. Neighborhoods once viewed as stagnant and neglected are being reimagined and revitalized. We see new destinations for employers and employees — around new transit stops or in areas where land is cheaper and road networks available.

New “it” places to work, live, meet friends and even to start families are coming onto the scene each year. Shaw, the D.C. neighborhood where I used to live, is but one of many examples. Young adults living in these neighborhoods are becoming engaged in their communities and putting down roots.

Will Arlington be able to keep pace? We have depended on a strong commercial sector to create great schools, fund popular services, build a safety net for those in need, and balance corridor growth with desirable neighborhoods.

I love Arlington, chose to live here, and have become a true advocate. Yet my enthusiasm for our diverse, enjoyable and convenient way of life is increasingly met with skepticism by colleagues who choose to remain downtown. And young adults who want to move outside of the District are increasingly looking beyond Arlington.

They will meet my enthusiasm for Arlington with remarks like “You’re just trying to rationalize” or “Why would I want to live there when there are so many other cool options?”

Whether we like them or not, these opinions matter. These are young people who are starting businesses, buying homes, energizing community organizations, and spending money at local shops, restaurants, and bars. They are the human capital upon which a county’s success is dependent.

Even as Arlington has attracted millennials over the past decade, we are now at risk of losing out to increasing successes of our surrounding jurisdictions. We’re surrounded by aggressive competition on all sides for business and employees — not just the hip D.C. scene but also Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince George’s County. Tysons Corner alone will expand dramatically over the next few decades with a vibrant, livable downtown based on transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly development.

Similarly, our neighbors in Alexandria just secured a $50 million loan from the Commonwealth to build a new Potomac Yard Metro station that will support up to 26,000 new jobs within a quarter-mile of the station.

What drives the growth in each of these places is vibrant economic development that meets the needs of growing new companies and a workforce that places greater emphasis on mobility, flexibility, social responsibility, connectivity, and convenience.

These economic and social drivers motivate people of all ages and backgrounds to build communities that celebrate inclusion, opportunity, innovation and diverse interests.

In these changing times, we can no longer bank on our location near the District, lower rents, and reliability of federal and government contractor jobs as the keys to success. With reduced federal spending leading to commercial vacancies, we must be more creative in diversifying our economy, much as Gov. Terry McAuliffe is doing at the state level.

Our county leaders recognized this new economic reality in their January statements. We need them to take this problem very seriously and to tackle it aggressively. (more…)

by Larry Roberts — January 8, 2015 at 3:00 pm 693 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Larry RobertsArlington has come through a year of divisive political rhetoric no closer to addressing the key challenges that face our county. Hopefully, we will see in 2015 a renewed commitment to tackling those challenges through a united community and not a divided one.

These key challenges exist outside of political party, the neighborhood one lives in, and one’s preference on the mode of transit for the economically-challenged corridor from Potomac Yard to Skyline through Arlington.

The challenges are not the result of current county policies, county spending priorities, or county politics.

And many of the challenges are due to our successes and not our failures.

More often than not, they are a result of the increasing number of people who choose to live in Arlington because they value our schools, parks, services, cultural amenities, neighborhoods, transit-oriented development and transportation options, diversity, and overall quality of life. They also result from increasing residential property values due to the steady demand for Arlington residences. And they result from growing numbers of families with children in Arlington, something most would consider a sign of success.

At the same time, these challenges arise due to forces beyond Arlington’s control, including a dampening of county revenues and a weakening of Arlington’s commercial tax base — through cutbacks in federal spending (and the job security of federal workers), federal BRAC and sequestration actions that have moved jobs out of Arlington and reductions in federal office space, and state budget cuts. This is in addition to increasingly effective competition from the District of Columbia and other Northern Virginia jurisdictions for businesses, workers and entrepreneurs.

Due to their nature, I believe addressing these challenges requires looking beyond the divisive issues of the moment and overemphasizing the importance of county government operations.

These challenges will not be solved by government only and cannot be solved merely by scrutinizing government performance. While it is important to focus on county government spending, we would face the same challenges even if we could succeed in wringing out every last efficiency from county government.

We will instead solve them by focusing on enhancing our competitive advantages and advancing core values that make Arlington an attractive place to live — not just the important core services of public safety, education and transportation, and sound financial practices — but also recreation, parks, human services, environmental stewardship, housing affordability (not just for lower income people but also for workforce housing and helping people stay in Arlington as housing prices rise), arts and culture, and diversity.

Success in tackling our challenges must involve moving Arlington forward or we will inevitably fall back. Many have fond memories of a past Arlington they may prefer to the challenges of today, but I arrived in a 1970s Arlington with schools closed due to declining overall population and student population, businesses leaving, services declining, and weak economic performance.

Fortunately, Arlington had already made wise and forward-looking land use, transportation, and investment decisions that positioned it to take advantage of increases in defense spending, a recovering economy, a technology boom, and the growing importance of Northern Virginia. (more…)

by Peter Rousselot — January 8, 2015 at 2:30 pm 557 0

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

Peter RousselotIt’s time for the County Board to adopt a new rule relating to significant Board votes.

Under the new rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which such a vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the county website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.

At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” would include votes on any of the following:

  • Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds;
  • Site plans/Amendments Review;
  • Ordinances, Plans and Policies.

At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” would include all information, reports, presentations, or recommendations from county staff, consultants, advisory bodies, or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.

Failure to comply with the proposed new 72-hour rule would require postponement of the Board’s vote on the item unless at least four Board members voted to waive the 72-hour requirement. Such waiver votes would only be justified in rare emergency situations.

Why the Board should adopt the new rule

Arlington voters and taxpayers have a right to transparent, complete and timely information with respect to significant government actions in order to have a fair opportunity to communicate with their elected officials before a vote is taken. Elected officials also ought to have complete, final information in a timely manner in order to make reasoned and effective decisions.

By definition, “significant Board votes” almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation. The new rule is necessary to improve county government’s transparency and accountability.

Why likely arguments against the new rule lack merit

The county manager, county staff and the county attorney likely will oppose the new rule. They may argue that it will require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. They just have to complete the same work earlier. Staff might contend that the County Attorney’s office is the bottleneck and extra staff will need to be hired. This is another false argument. Getting the material to the County Attorney earlier is the simple solution.

Though the manager and staff may also argue that Board members receive briefings about significant Board votes much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, such arguments miss at least two critical points:

  • Even if such briefings occur, the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to the underlying documentation that the rule would require, and
  • Last-minute substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny such access to Board members themselves. 

Conclusion 

Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.

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

by Mark Kelly — January 8, 2015 at 2:00 pm 521 0

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

Mark KellyLast Thursday, incoming County Board Chair Mary Hynes likened Arlington to a “Company Town” in reference to the federal government and its influence over our local economy. While the federal government does not provide all of the jobs, own all of the housing or run all of the stores, the concept Hynes referred to is something many of us have said for some time.

The federal government and its impact on Arlington is a constant. Washington, D.C., is the seat of power for our nation. It not only spends our tax dollars — federal tax revenue in the past fiscal year set a new record — but it attracts all of the lobbying shops, trade associations and law firms seeking to influence the spending of that money. And, it draws millions of tourists to our area.

Without the federal government, the spending decisions our County Board would have been forced to make during the economic downturn would have been more like those in the rest of the country. Despite a slowdown in revenue and fewer square feet of office space being leased by the government, Arlington still saw spending climb each and every year.

Yet, you would often hear the Board take credit for Arlington’s relatively unaffected economic status because of its own sound planning or prudent management. They rarely, if ever, credited the federal government as the reason for our overall economic stability.

The County Board has long been able to ignore a real review of what policies would make Arlington a better place to do business because they could rely on the old adage that in real estate it is all about location, location, location. With a 21.4 percent office vacancy rate — a rate that has been steadily rising — it looks like the old way of doing things cannot continue. It is particularly important to Arlington taxpayers moving forward because such a high percentage of Arlington’s tax revenue currently comes from the commercial property tax.

Yes, the impacts of BRAC closures did not help. No, it made no sense to move thousands of workers away from a Metro stop in Crystal City out to the Mark Center in Alexandria. But, we cannot reverse that decision now, and the Board has known it was coming for years.

Arlington will continue to get its fair share of tenants, both federal and non-federal, but our ability to compete effectively is an open question. Arlington needs to hang an open for business sign on its door.

We should not spend months or even years simply talking about it on a task force that leads to one or two cosmetic changes. That means taking real action as quickly as possible to address the needs of the business community, from tax rates or tax incentive, to zoning revisions, to streamlining permitting, to site plan negotiations.

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

by Ethan Rothstein — January 1, 2015 at 3:00 pm 598 0

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

Mark Kelly2014 certainly was an interesting year in Arlington, especially on the political front.

A Republican-turned-Independent won not one, but two elections. The budget-busting project that was the centerpiece of those two elections was then reluctantly canceled by the County Board.

Where do we go from here? Politically, what does this mean for the Garvey-Vihstadt alliance formed to stop the Columbia Pike trolley? Will Walter Tejada run for re-election, and, if so, what impact will being the lone holdout for the trolley project have on his prospects — including whether he will draw primary opposition?

The overriding question left for County budget watchdogs is whether the end of the trolley will spark a new era in fiscal responsibility or whether it was a one-time event?

The recent Signature Theater bailout was offset by the announcement that the Artisphere was slated to be closed in 2015. The Artisphere and its always suspect business plan was never going to stand on its own two feet despite repeated assurances from County Board members to the contrary. Hopefully Board Members will follow the County Manager’s recommendation to close it.

Then came the reminder the County was going to use our tax dollars to pay $350,000 to stick plastic in the water treatment plant fence next year. This is a drop in the bucket when it comes to money that could be better spent elsewhere, but certainly symbolic of too many Board priorities.

Speaking of priorities, will the aquatics center move forward in 2015 or will the Board give the controversial project longer to sit on the sidelines? And, when we go to taxpayers for bond approvals on major projects like this, should we require the Board to put them on the ballot as a separate question?

This leads to the next question for 2015, will an independent audit function ever truly get off the ground? Is it too much to ask that the County Board have an auditor who reports directly to them, rather than having findings filtered by the County Manager? Shouldn’t these spending decisions be subject to the highest level of scrutiny?

And when it comes to making spending decisions, will the Board look at the revenue estimating process? This process consistently underestimates revenue in order to give the County Board an excuse to collect more of our tax dollars and spend those dollars in the annual closeout process.

This morning at the annual Jan. 1 meeting, incoming Board Chair Mary Hynes said “Arlington stands at a crossroads.” She called on her colleagues to address the challenges that face us, among other things including rising school enrollment and vacant office space.

After the Macbook Air story over the summer, will the schools budget draw closer scrutiny from watchdogs next spring particularly as they are looking to meet new capacity needs?

Will the County Board solve the problem of the office vacancy rate by finding ways to make Arlington more business friendly from permitting processes to taxes instead of creating another task force or commission to talk about it?

In her speech Hynes also said we are “always better when we listen to each other.” Too often in the past that meant only listening to those who agreed with those in control of the Board. After voters spoke out this year at the ballot box, hope springs eternal that this time it will be different.

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

by ARLnow.com — January 1, 2015 at 2:00 pm 580 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The following is an excerpted version of a statement delivered at the Arlington County Board’s January 1 Organizational Meeting. The full text will be available on the County web site – countyboard.arlingtonva.us/county-board-members.

Mary HynesThe past year was a time of change in our community. Today is a day for reflection and making resolutions. I resolve to build upon our community values and to listen carefully to Arlington’s many voices as we strive to make Arlington an even better place for us all.

A challenge we face in 2015 as a community is how we move beyond our recent discord on key issues and work together to ensure that our County has the resources to meet our residentsfacilit yneeds while remaining the high-quality, caring community each of us has chosen to make our home?

We are always better when we listen to each other, seek to understand the breadth of the challenges we are facing, and work together to adjust our course.

So, in 2015, the County Board will work in partnership with our community to begin writing a new chapter in Arlingtons story. Joined by our School Board colleagues, supported by our many advisory commissions, the Civic Federation, civic associations, and PTAs as well as members of the business community, we are launching today the Arlington Community Facilities Study – a Plan for the Future. 

The Study Committee will be composed of Arlington residents and business leaders charged with developing a consensus framework to address our communitys need for additional schools, fire stations, and vehicle and other storage facilities in the context of our long-term economic and demographic growth. This Study is intended to give both Boards information needed to make critical decisions leading to adoption of an updated Capital Improvement Plan in July 2016.

This process will allow the community to address several key questions head-on: What are our facility needs for schools, fire stations, recreation, and transportation vehicle and other storage and how do we pay for them? What criteria should we use to decide their location? What opportunities and challenges are there in our aging affordable and workforce multi-family housing stock? What do changes in the Federal government presence and the residential and private commercial marketplace mean for County revenues?

The consensus framework the Study Committee will create, working with the larger community, will answer these questions as informed by our realities:

  • Arlington is small; no new land is being created.
  • We must use what we already have thoughtfully and equitably to serve Arlingtonians throughout the County.
  • Significant new funding is unlikely.
  • We must examine facility needs strategically and maximize use of available revenue.
  • We must have a sensible long-term financial plan for the County.

Our framework will acknowledge: change is unavoidable as our population grows; challenges loom as we reinvigorate our economy; and our available physical space limits some possible solutions.

Later this month at a joint public meeting with the School Board, the County Board will adopt the charge for this Study. The two Boards will stay involved. I am pleased to announce that John Vihstadt has agreed to join me as County Board liaison to the process.

Two especially important issues will intersect with the Study Committee’s work: housing affordability and business vibrancy.

Housing affordability – Some have wondered why housing affordability requires local government investment.  Simply put, a variety of home choices offers more opportunity to stay in the community. Those who live and work in Arlington share in the value that their work helps to create — rooting them firmly in the community. Through their work, volunteerism and engagement, they strengthen and enrich our community’s civic life.

Business Vibrancy – Arlington is experiencing unprecedented vacancy rates in our commercial sector. To help address the challenges facing the business community we will have on board a new Economic Development Director and we will host a quarterly Chairmans Breakfast with Business Leaders, joined by our County Manager. Thanks to the Chamber of Commerce for its support of this activity.

Good ideas can come from anywhere.I am grateful for the time so many have taken to share their views with me.  At the beginning of my year as Board Chair, now more than ever, I hope ideas will keep coming from all quarters of our community.

In a very real sense, government in Arlington is informed and driven by dialogue.

  • Dialogue within our neighborhoods, among friends, at PTAs, civic associations and other community meetings.
  • Dialogue among citizens involved in advising the County Board on the full range of issues.
  • Dialogue between citizens, businesses, the County Board and the County Manager and her staff.

It is this on-going, informed dialogue that makes us a better community.  Lets keep it going.

Mary Hynes will serve as 2015 Arlington County Board Chair. She was elected to the County Board in 2007. She previously served for 12 years on the Arlington School Board, including three times as Chair.

by Peter Rousselot — January 1, 2015 at 1:00 pm 838 0

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

Peter RousselotArlington is part of a regional economy that faces a serious economic crunch. Arlington must continue to adjust to our new economic reality.

Our New Economic Reality

Federal government downsizing “has seen the D.C. region’s gross regional economy shrink two years in a row beginning in 2013.” Average wages and average household incomes in Northern Virginia have been declining. Dr. Stephen Fuller of George Mason University concludes: “downsizing and repositioning are watchwords. …We are facing the need for a substantial reduction in things not important.”

Federal government downsizing has led to large increases in commercial office vacancy rates in Arlington and throughout Northern Virginia. There is no end in sight. This situation depresses the potential growth in the value of commercial property. At the same time, substantial increases in the value of Arlington residential property continue. County Manager Barbara Donnellan forecasts a 6 to 8 percent growth (slide 10) in the value of Arlington residential real estate during calendar year 2015.

These economic trends mean Arlington’s residential taxpayers will pay a higher and higher percentage share of the total cost to fund Arlington’s budget. But, the average incomes of those residential taxpayers are likely to be flat or declining. That’s why Arlington voters in 2015 will continue to insist that Arlington set priorities by concentrating spending on core services.

A More Rigorous Approach to Investing in Core Services

Arlington should adopt a more rigorous and systematic approach to investing in core services. That approach should be one in which core services receive a higher percentage share of their budget “wish list” compared to the percentage share received by non-core services.  

Other municipalities have provided guideposts that Arlington can use to move toward this more rigorous and systematic approach. One example is the core continuum approach to budgeting taken by the city of Regina, Saskatechewan. Arlington should use Regina’s approach as a starting point, and alter that approach as necessary to fit those aspects of Arlington that differ from Regina.

Arlington not only needs new approaches to setting priorities overall, it also needs new thinking and new approaches regarding development, education, and transportation.

Development

Do we care how much development we have? County Manager Donnellan forecasts that Arlington’s residential population will increase 25 percent from 2010 to 2030. There is no credible plan to pay for the public infrastructure (e.g. schools) that will be required. Arlington needs to have a transparent public conversation to prepare that plan.

All options must be on the table for discussion. We should not prevent discussion by saying, “that’s not how we do things in Arlington.”

Education

The need for such a transparent conversation is most evident in the area of public education. As I have written previously, county and APS demographers need to agree on a single, unified projection of APS enrollment growth. Then, the county and the schools need to develop a joint plan explaining how Arlington will pay for the construction of the new school facilities that will be required. Developer proffers for education should be part of that conversation.

APS also needs to apply a core services approach within its own budget.

Transportation

Arlington County needs to move forward quickly to present and implement a new plan for upgrading transit in the Columbia Pike and Crystal City corridors. Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) already has contributed to the public dialogue by presenting AST’s proposal for upgraded transit in these corridors.

Conclusion

We need new ideas and new policies to solve the unprecedented challenges we face in 2015.

by ARLnow.com — December 30, 2014 at 4:55 pm 3,672 0

It was a momentous year for Arlington, as demonstrated by the second of our three “Top Stories of 2014″ posts.

Perhaps the biggest Arlington story of the year, in terms of local policy significance, came in at No. 6 on our list (which ranks the most-read articles of 2014). The year’s only homicide in Arlington County also made this list.

Here are articles Nos. 6-10 on our countdown. (See Nos. 11-20 here.)

Eventide Restaurant10. Eventide Restaurant Closes in Clarendon (16,098 views) — Whenever a restaurant opens or closes in Arlington, it’s almost always a big story for us in terms of readership. Restaurants help to give neighborhoods character, serve as a gathering place and are a tangible part of the community. Losing a well-known and well-liked restaurant like Eventide hits home for many people. While this article had more readers, a follow-up article announcing Don Tito, Eventide’s successor, received more comments.

9. Westover Deaths the Result of a Murder-Suicide, Police Say (19,553 views) — The sad story of 31-year-old Kristy Flowers, a Westover resident with a promising future, pulled on the heartstrings of many readers earlier this month. Police say Flowers was murdered by her live-in boyfriend, Ray Savoy, Jr., who then turned the gun on himself. They were a seemingly happy couple in photos posted to Facebook just weeks before the shooting, making the shooting ever more senseless.

8. Police Investigating Possible Homicide in Westover (20,191 views) — ARLnow.com was the first to report on the tragic crime that was also the focus of our No. 9 story. It originally came in on the scanner as two people found dead in an apartment. While it wasn’t reported as a homicide over the air, we immediately sent a reporter to the scene. We waited for a source to confirm our suspicions before we published our report that police were investigating a possible murder-suicide.

7. Stabbing at Ballston Metro Station (20,508 views) — Any time you have a large number of police and fire department vehicles rush to a Metro station, it’s going to get a lot of attention. We reported on this brutal stabbing after receiving numerous tips from readers. A witness report that was retweeted by @unsuckdcmetro also caught our attention: “Someone was just stabbed on inbound platform at Ballston. Blood all over the platform.” We were able to get some initial information from Metro, then update the article with more details the next day.

Rendering of a streetcar along Columbia Pike6. Streetcar Project Canceled (23,411 views) — To say that this news was a surprise is an understatement. After many years of planning and a couple years of pitched controversy and political infighting, Arlington’s ambitious half-billion-dollar streetcar project was nixed with one somber press conference and a quick vote.

We were told that morning (Nov. 18) that a “significant” announcement regarding the streetcar would be coming at noon. But even Arlington insiders were caught off-guard at the sudden reversal. ARLnow.com editor Scott Brodbeck and Sun Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey took bets on what the announcement would be — and both were wrong. The one person who saw this coming was local Democratic political strategist and blogger Ben Tribbett, who told ARLnow.com that “the streetcar is dead” just hours after the historic re-election of County Board member John Vihstadt.

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by Mark Kelly — December 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm 707 0

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

Mark KellyAt last Saturday’s County Board meeting, Walter Tejada lashed out at the decision to derail the Columbia Pike trolley project.

In his lengthy diatribe, Tejada extolled the virtues of planning by Arlington County. One would think based on the tenor of Mr. Tejada’s comments that all the projects Arlington County embarks on turn out well — even the ones that have substantial opposition during the planning process.

Then on Wednesday, County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended the closure of the Artisphere. While millions were already poured into the project, this decision will stop the ongoing millions in annual taxpayer subsidies to an arts center that was supposed to be self-sufficient by now. Once again, it appears Arlington leaders are bowing to realities many of us saw coming before a single tax dollar was wasted on a project.

Yet, just 18 months ago, then-Chairman Walter Tejada had this to say about the Artisphere:

“The Artisphere is an ongoing investment in Arlington’s future,” he said. “It’s helping to building our arts and cultural community. This is a proven and documented economic development strategy that attracts the young, educated demographic who are the workforce for the technology and innovation sectors.”

“Artisphere is on its way,” he concluded. “We expect the Artisphere to become a self-sustaining organization.”

The Artisphere was a planning failure that could have been avoided had the County Board heeded the warnings of fiscal watchdogs at the time.

Now comes Wednesday’s decision to bail out the Signature Theater — again. In a disappointing 5-0 vote, the County Board forgave $411,000 in past due utility and lease payments and will not charge the theater anything for its $90,000 per year lease for the next 19 years. This move comes on top of a smaller $250,000 bailout 18 months ago. Total forgiveness of obligations due to Arlington County under the original Arlington Way planning process for Signature will be $2.371 million over 20 years — a pretty nice Christmas gift for the theater.

The Board also refinanced the theater’s loan at a rate of 1 percent per year in exchange for United Bank forgiving $2.7 million due to them. These new loan terms are a pretty good deal for the theater considering the Board on Saturday refinanced other County debt at 2.52 percent.

Last night as debate was wrapping up, Tejada and Chairman Fisette emphasized what was being done for Signature was not a “gift,” it was a “loan.” You could make the argument that initial planning had failed and cutting a deal to bail out Signature should be done, but saying it was only a loan does not make it so. Just like claiming the Columbia Pike trolley was a good idea that deserved to go forward because it had been planned for 15 years did not make it so.

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

by Max Burns — December 18, 2014 at 1:30 pm 703 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

MaxBurnsThis has been a year marked by a constant stream of contested political campaigns in Arlington that resulted in the election of new members of the School Board, County Board, House of Delegates and Congress.

During that time of intense internal political focus in Arlington, I also had a chance to participate in the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership — a program that promotes the values of trust, civility and respect in its graduates through direct engagement with communities around Virginia.

Over the course of 2014, as it has for 20 years, the Sorensen Political Leaders Program brought together each month professional, civic and political leaders and future leaders — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — from every region of the Commonwealth. The Sorensen Institute has long worked to provide meaningful conversation and consideration of the issues facing our localities and our Commonwealth. It stresses open dialogue, looking beyond surface and party/ideological differences, and clear, fact-based thinking about policy challenges we face.

My Sorensen experience has given me a broader perspective in which to view the eventful 2014 in Arlington. As we near the end of the year, it may also be worthwhile for our progressive community to step back and analyze the current political situation in our county.

It’s been a challenging year for the Arlington County Democratic Committee. We faced an unexpectedly strong challenge with John Vihstadt’s candidacy for the County Board. We struggled against the image of a local party so used to victory that no other outcome was possible.

Also, few political groups have to contend with normally dry discussions about membership bylaws and steering committee procedures becoming front-page news. Yet, ACDC found itself in that place this year when senior party officials decided to endorse and campaign for a non-Democrat contrary to national, state and local party rules. That difficult situation played out in a very public way.

While the rules were clear, we fell short in building understanding in the community about the way that party rules and ACDC procedures work, why those rules exist, and how few people they affect directly.

We now know that Arlington — like other parts of the country in 2014 — faced a shake up and increased skepticism about politics, elected officials and institutions generally.

Regrettably, this led to instances when civility broke down within ACDC and also within broader community conversations about the County Board, its policies and the 2014 election.

One of Sorensen’s most valuable lessons for me is that, difficult as it can seem, we are better served moving past our knee-jerk responses and exploring issues more deeply — even if the end result isn’t as self-validating as we’d hoped.

That is why I believe “The Arlington Way” deserves better than increasing derision in the community. While criticized as an empty buzzword, it does have the benefit of urging us to approach disagreements with civility and respect as we strive to make Arlington a better community.  Those core principles underpin good government regardless of party or candidate.

It’s time we reinvigorated the phrase and recommitted to building a community that takes seriously the input of a broader range of Arlingtonians, whether they are political activists or choose to spend their time contributing in other ways. How we conduct ourselves as we strive to build better schools and more responsive public services is every bit as important as the quality of schools and services we provide. So let’s set an example. (more…)

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