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by Peter Rousselot — February 26, 2015 at 3:00 pm 606 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 county manager and the Arlington Public Schools superintendent have released their proposed budgets. The County Board also advertised a proposed tax rate for calendar year 2015 that could be as much as 1.5 cents higher than the current rate.

Some of the major issues impacting the ability of citizens to participate effectively in public discussions about these budgets are the county’s funding level of APS and the real estate tax rate.

County Funding of APS

Under the “revenue sharing principles” adopted by both Boards in January:

The amount of the transfer to APS will initially be based upon the same percent of local tax revenue transferred to APS in the County’s last adopted budget. As budget deliberations continue, additional ongoing funding for critical needs identified by APS, including enrollment growth, will be a top funding priority.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed budget identifies what the superintendent says are critical needs, which would cost $13.6 million more than the amount of shared revenue to which the county manager’s proposed budget commits. In addition, the superintendent’s budget identifies a set of specific APS budget cuts that are the ones the superintendent recommends if the County fails to provide APS with any additional revenue.

Citizens should participate in a constructive debate about whether the particular set of proposed cuts the Superintendent recommends are the best way in which to make up the identified $13.6 million shortfall. But, the Superintendent should be commended for proposing:

  • a specific set of cuts with dollars attached, and
  • a budget that reverses the growth trend in per-pupil expenditures

As I have written previously, the “percent of local tax revenue transferred to APS in the County’s last adopted budget” was too low. For that reason, combined with APS’s projected explosive enrollment growth, the county should provide the entire additional $13.6 million to APS.

The County Manager’s proposed budget fails to identify, specifically, the dollar savings that could be achieved by cutting particular programs or services.

The County Board should direct the county manager to identify for the Board’s and the public’s consideration at least one — and preferably more than one — set of cuts in county programs and services that could be made in order to make up the $13.6 million APS shortfall.

Real Estate Tax Rate

Property tax bills will rise in CY 2015 even if the County Board adopts the same property tax rate as last year’s.

The County Board should direct the County Manager to identify for the Board’s and the public’s consideration at least one — and preferably more than one — set of cuts in County programs and services that could be made if the Board votes to cut the real estate tax rate by 1.5 cents.

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 — February 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm 908 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 Rousselot

A new report concludes that Arlington County charges excessive fees to Arlington residents participating in certain sports classes and teams.

In direct contravention of long-standing Arlington County policies, the participation fees substantially exceed 100 percent of the direct participation costs. Currently, the excess revenues are being funneled back into the County’s general fund operating budget.

A firestorm engulfed the Arlington County government last year — when the County Board initially adopted and then rescinded a 50 percent fee increase for nonresident participants on gymnastics and aquatics/swimming teams. That led to the new disclosure that resident participants are being overcharged for certain sports classes and teams.

A work group, comprising citizens, commission members and county staff, prepared the latest report. The new report reflects careful study, and contains thoughtful reform recommendations.

The work group also appears to be listening to citizens’ concerns:

As part of its process, the work group collected public feedback on a set of draft recommendations through an Open Arlington survey. The work group will continue its research to develop a recommendation regarding alternatives to the County operating the team program… This research will include opportunities for public input …

There are only two logical explanations for these county policy violations: The current, excessive fees were set

  • inadvertently, because the County lacks sufficient auditing and financial controls to detect errors like these, or
  • deliberately, as a backdoor way to generate additional revenue that would offset budget shortfalls in other programs or areas.

Neither explanation paints county government in a sympathetic light.

Assuming that these fee overcharges are inadvertent, a recent letter to the Sun-Gazette‘s editor makes the following observation:

All of this could have been prevented had an inspector general or internal auditor been present to conduct regular reviews of the finances of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The County Board owes it to residents to ensure that they are being charged fees in line with the policies it has established …

The growing demand for these youth sports programs illustrates that our public schools are not the only public facilities strained by Arlington’s rapid population growth. We have a youth sports capacity problem, too.

We must plan to accommodate more gymnasts and swimmers (among others). This provides yet another reason to deep-six the extravagant $80-plus million Aquatics Center, and redirect those funds to youth and other sports programs countywide.

CONCLUSION

Arlington County must take greater care not to violate its own policies by inflating user fees above what is needed to cover the costs in the program for which the fees are being charged.

Government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

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 — February 12, 2015 at 12:15 pm 312 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 RousselotLast September, Gov. Terry McAuliffe relaunched an effort to enact effective ethics reform. He appointed a bipartisan commission charged with making recommendations.

As we enter the last weeks of the 2015 legislative session, some progress has been made. But, one key reform — the establishment of a truly independent ethics commission with teeth — appears to be dead. That’s a shame.

Virginia’s very weak ethics laws have led to a culture of corruption in Richmond — including the recent McDonnell and Puckett scandals. The corruption has tainted both Republicans and Democrats.

Some improvements — now in the legislative pipeline — would cap gifts to legislators and their immediate family members at $100 (rather than the current $250). These pending bills also would close the notorious loophole allowing unlimited “intangible gifts” like vacations and event tickets.

But, one of the critical recommendations that came from McAuliffe’s bipartisan commission was the recommendation to create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. Setting up a permanent ethics commission with power to interpret and enforce ethics and anti-corruption laws is critical.

Virginia needs such a new commission with the:

  • resources to conduct investigations,
  • power to assess fines for violations, and
  • authority to make referrals to the attorney general or other prosecutors.

Regrettably, significant disagreement about the need for this type of strong ethics commission has led to the omission of such a provision from legislation adopted by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates. They appear to have been swayed by statements like this one from Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah):

“I think that’s a terrible idea, and I don’t think that either party wants to set up a framework where people can start and stop political vendettas through that process.”

In light of the persistent ethical problems in Richmond, the truly terrible idea is to omit this provision from the legislation.

A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, the Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

  • a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
  • a maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.

By carefully studying the different ethics commission models established in these and other states, Virginia legislators ought to be able to find a model that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

It’s a big mistake for legislators to leave Richmond this year without passing a comprehensive ethics reform package that includes a strong ethics commission.

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 — February 5, 2015 at 1:45 pm 1,677 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 County Board recently decided not to approve “for now” an APS plan to build a new elementary school at the Thomas Jefferson site.

Several critical lessons must guide our way forward to meet the APS goal of adding a minimum of 725 new elementary seats in South Arlington by 2018.

Three of those lessons are discussed below.

1. APS Can’t Choose The Best Option Unless It Knows What All The Options Are

The county and APS must share with each other – and with the public – an inventory of all site options that they know about. This inventory must include both County-owned sites and private sites (like vacant commercial office space).

2. APS Must Be Completely Transparent In Discussing All Options

After APS has all the information about potential options, APS must conduct an open and transparent process to share options with the community, explaining:

  • what APS’ preferred options are, and
  • why other options were not chosen.

This transparent process cannot be limited solely to sites. The process also must include programs. For example, APS must disclose whether it intends to use a new facility as a neighborhood school or a choice school or a combination.

New, updated forecasts for enrollment growth – jointly prepared with the county – must be part of the conversation. The public must have confidence that all of our new school facilities will be located in the areas in which both the county and APS agree that the greatest school enrollment growth is likely to occur.

New, less elaborate and lower-cost design options for new school facilities everywhere in the county must be part of the conversation. The public needs assurances that all APS designs are as frugal as possible.

3. Developers Must Be Part Of the Solution

The county must get developers to pay for part of the cost of new school seats. Financing new learning facilities will require more than bond financing.

For starters, Arlington must emulate other jurisdictions, like Fairfax and Loudoun, that require a separate school impact analysis and developer contributions as a condition of approval of development projects.

If the County Attorney believes that Arlington lacks the authority to emulate Fairfax and Loudoun, then he must spell that out now so that we can ask our legislators to seek necessary changes in state law.

Of course, we cannot expect developers to pay for everything. But they must foot the bill for their fair share of the cost of the public infrastructure needed to serve the increasing population their new projects attract.

CONCLUSION

Arlington leaders must:

  • consider all available sites,
  • share publicly all proposed options,
  • make developers pay their fair share.

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 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm 1,263 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 RousselotSeveral months ago, I wrote a column in which I concluded that Arlington Public Schools has failed to meet its burden to prove that it is ready to implement a plan to put a tablet in the hands of every student.

APS still has not met that burden.

For this plan to succeed, APS must demonstrate that it has credible YES answers to ALL of these questions:

  • Does APS have a long-term instructional vision for what this plan is intended to accomplish?
  • Does APS have a long-term budget to train staff to implement its long-term instructional vision?
  • Does APS have a long-term budget to replace the devices?
  • Given all the other priorities APS must weigh, has this 1:1 plan been assigned a high enough priority to receive the funding it requires to be successful?
  • Has APS obtained transparent feedback from all stakeholders with respect to its long-term instructional vision, its long-term budget to implement it, and the priority the 1:1 plan has been assigned?

In a helpful article, Alan November — an educational technology consultant — framed the challenge APS faces as follows:

[W]hile one-to-one computing might work as a marketing slogan…, it is a simplistic and short-sighted phrase… Adding a digital device to the classroom without a fundamental change in the culture of teaching and learning will not lead to significant improvement. …[I]t’s essential to craft a vision that giving every student a digital device must lead to achievements beyond what we can accomplish with paper. Otherwise, let’s just stick with the original one-to-one program: one No. 2 pencil per student.

Has APS addressed adequately the challenge Alan November posed?

This is what the APS website currently has to say:

Every school in the system is conducting a pilot which is focused on identifying instructional best practices which leverage personalization. These best practices will be woven into teacher professional development and the full project implementation over the upcoming years.

An accompanying paper on digital learning makes certain promises (pages 8-10) regarding these subjects. These include promises that a Digital Learning Steering Committee will develop a plan that will:

  • Provide instructional support
  • Provide and implement a short and long range professional development strategy
  • Provide guidance on technology and curriculum integration
  • Provide guidance to develop policy related to personalized digital learning

Conclusion

This plan needs to be:

  • created,
  • vetted and reviewed by all APS stakeholders,
  • transparently shared with the public, and receive strong public support.

Until all of the above steps are completed, we don’t know whether this plan will succeed.

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 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,629 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 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 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 Peter Rousselot — December 18, 2014 at 1:00 pm 707 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 past year was filled with revealing stories about Arlington and Virginia politics and government. Here are my top five:

5. APS Capacity Crisis Grew

County and APS demographers continued to present sharply differing forecasts of population growth and APS enrollment. The County and the schools failed to develop a unified plan that even came close to explaining how Arlington will pay for the construction of the new school facilities that will be required.  For no compelling reason, too many sites, designs, and financing options were not on the table for discussion.

4. Medicaid Expansion Failed

After Virginia Republicans gained control of the Virginia state Senate, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposal to expand Medicaid in Virginia was blocked by Republican majorities in both legislative branches. While Republican leaders in other states passed their own legislation to expand Medicaid, Republican leaders in Virginia failed to do so. The failure by Virginia Republican legislative leaders to present and lobby for their own alternative Medicaid expansion plan was a major disappointment.

3. McDonnell Convicted

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was found guilty of violating federal criminal law relating to public corruption. Most legal experts and political observers agreed that Virginia’s state criminal laws on public corruption are so full of holes that McDonnell could not have been successfully prosecuted under state law. Far from discouraging corrupt conduct, Virginia’s porous state laws continued to enable it. The McDonnell verdict highlighted the need for both Virginia and Arlington to strengthen their laws and ethics policies.

2. Streetcar Cancelled

The County Board’s decision to cancel the streetcar was the right decision as a matter of public policy. When the costs of a $500+ million project are so disproportionately greater than any possible benefits, no other decision would have made sense. A public majority correctly decided years ago that streetcars made no sense for Arlington. They could not understand the Board majority’s stubborn refusal to cancel the project. The abruptness with which the belated cancellation was announced reinforced the public’s conclusion of failed Board leadership.

1. Vihstadt Elected Twice

John Vihstadt’s elections to the County Board by landslide margins in April and November were a fitting recognition of his 30 years of community service. Independent Vihstadt’s decisive November victory, at the same time as Democrat Sen. Mark Warner also decisively carried Arlington, repudiated the insular thinking and policies of Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada on a wide range of issues. Arlington voted instead to prioritize spending our tax dollars on core services:

  • public schools,
  • basic infrastructure (sewers, water mains, roads),
  • sensible transit, and
  • public safety.

Conclusion:

These 2014 stories provide important background for 2015.

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 — December 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm 918 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 RousselotA recent ARLnow.com story asked the question: “Why doesn’t Arlington ask developers for school funding?” County leaders quoted in the story bobbed and weaved, but failed to provide convincing answers.

County Attorney Steve MacIsaac seemed to suggest that current state law severely limits the extent to which such developer contributions could be required. But, MacIsaac didn’t explain exactly why such developer contributions are not similarly limited in neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax.

Is MacIsaac claiming that, with respect to developer proffers, Arlington has a different legal status under Virginia law than Fairfax? If so, he needs to explain that fully. If that’s the situation, then any Arlington legislator could seek necessary changes in state law.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette was similarly opaque. Fisette was quoted as saying, “if we would have to undo our current structure to be able to replicate what’s done in Loudoun, I think that would be ill-advised.” Why would it be ill advised? Fisette didn’t explain.

Fisette was somewhat more candid on the Kojo Politics Hour. When a caller noted that projections of rapid school enrollment growth suggested Arlington would have real trouble financing the construction costs of seats for new students, Fisette admitted: “We are victims of our own success.”

Precisely because Arlington students and their parents indeed would be the victims of this kind of “success,” the public is rightfully calling for a completely transparent discussion of the developer proffer issue.

It was troubling to read several comments to the ARLnow.com story claiming that County Board members have threatened School Board members that there would be adverse consequences to the school system if the proffer issue were discussed publicly. Claims like these could be either true or false. But, the issue of developer proffers is real, and deserves a full, fair and extensive public discussion.

It was welcome news to learn that such a public discussion could take place at the January meeting of the Arlington Civic Federation. A Sun-Gazette story about the Civ Fed’s plans suggested that County leaders might be reluctant to open up this issue because developer proffers for new school construction might be “a zero sum game.” If so, such proffers might have to be offset by comparable cuts in developer contributions for other things, like affordable housing or public art.

We need a robust public discussion of questions like these:

  • Is it really a zero sum game?
  • Which priorities matter most?
  • If we can’t even afford to pay for the seats for new students required by recent development, why shouldn’t we slow future development until we catch up?

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 — November 20, 2014 at 12:15 pm 1,796 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 RousselotOn Nov. 18, four members of the Arlington County Board (Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt) voted to cancel Arlington’s $500 million+ streetcar projects. I commend Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes for this statesman-like vote.

For all of the reasons outlined on the website www.sensibletransit.org of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST), the vote to cancel Arlington’s streetcar projects also was the right decision as a matter of transportation policy — as Garvey and Vihstadt recognized previously.

On Nov. 18, the County Board also issued guidance to the County Manager to prepare the County’s FY 2016 operating budget.

Although a majority of the Board now has voted to cancel Arlington’s streetcar projects, the Board’s new budget guidance continues to reflect many other flawed priorities of County Board members Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada. Fisette, Hynes and Tejada still have the votes on our five-member Board to pass budget guidance that incorporates priorities that are wrong for Arlington.

Here are some examples of alternative budget guidance that our County Board should have given the County Manager, but failed to give:

  • our highest priority is to fund Arlington Public Schools (including incremental funds to address the school capacity crisis);
  • the School Board has asked the County Board to increase its transfer to APS to cover the cost of enrollment growth, a step increase for its employees and to eliminate early release days at the four remaining schools that still provide early release. The County’s actual budget guidance will leave APS with a shortfall of $23.8 million; that $23.8 million shortfall should be restored;
  • redirect funding toward other core services such as basic infrastructure maintenance (roads, water mains, sewers), sensible transit, and public safety; finance this redirection of funds by comparable cuts in other programs and operations;
  • working collaboratively with Fairfax and Alexandria, retain truly independent transportation experts to prepare an operating plan for a robust regional BRT system serving the Columbia Pike, Route 1/Crystal City, and other appropriate transit corridors;
  • provide alternative plans for use of the $80+ million currently set aside for the capital costs of the Aquatics Center because we have decided to cancel this project as it is currently designed; Arlington cannot afford to pay the currently estimated $4 million per year to operate such a facility.
  • provide a cut in the property tax rate of no less than 1 cent.

Conclusion

Like every other community in America, Arlington must set priorities for how it spends its money. If everything is a priority, nothing truly can be a priority. Leadership involves explaining why some programs and projects must be cut in order to fully fund other programs and projects that have a higher priority.

Many of Arlington’s priorities are right. Certain of Arlington’s priorities are wrong. Arlington should continue to change those of its priorities that are wrong.

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 — November 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm 1,779 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 Rousselot

Arlington is thinking far too narrowly about the APS capacity crisis.

Our options should not be limited to property currently owned or leased by APS. With the exception of parkland, all property currently owned or leased by the County also should be considered. Subject to a cost-benefit analysis, so should property not currently owned or leased.

No neighborhood should be immune.

We provided the tax revenue that enabled both APS and the County to acquire title to land, but APS and the County should not be treating that land like private property owners.

Jason Rylander, a leading community activist, has provided a valuable roadmap on how we might approach these issues. In an Oct. 23 letter, Rylander outlines a series of needed changes.

Below is a summary of some of Rylander’s best ideas (Much more detail is provided in his letter).

Expand Evaluation Criteria For New Schools

The current criteria for considering county-owned property as sites for new school facilities are far too restrictive.

For example, why should:

  • sites be limited to “an existing school site adjacent to more than one acre of County Board-owned property”?
  • there be a restriction on considering sites smaller than 3.5 acres?

Vacant office space should be considered.

Joint County-APS Planning Process To Locate Best Sites

We need a comprehensive, integrated vision regarding where our school facilities should be located and why. That vision should be developed by combining County and APS expertise in a master planning exercise.

The Arlington public justifiably lacks confidence that our current public institutions are doing the best job estimating future public school enrollment.

Based on the most recently available data, APS now appears to be planning for at least a 32,300-student system. But, because the goalposts keep moving so frequently, the public is rightly skeptical.

Improve Public Communication and Outreach on Potential Sites

It’s long past time to break down the silos between the County and APS.

The current lack of transparency in discussing these issues and presenting them for public discussion is unacceptable. As Rylander explains:

Repeatedly, citizens have been told that certain sites are not “on the table” or “cannot be discussed publicly” due to ongoing negotiations between our county and school governments.

CONCLUSION

Jason Rylander and I don’t agree on every aspect of how best to handle the capacity crisis. For example, we respectfully differ on the extent to which parkland should be part of the conversation. However, the community owes Jason a vote of thanks for his thoughtful recommendations on how best to proceed.

The County and APS need a new start on this issue.

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 — November 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm 1,735 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 RousselotIn Tuesday’s County Board election, Arlington voters again rendered a decisive verdict on major priorities and practices of the current majority on the Arlington County Board (Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada).

The verdict: change your priorities and practices, or we’ll elect others who will.

Independent John Vihstadt won another landslide election by again uniting tens of thousands of Arlington Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Independents into a broad-based coalition that shares Vihstadt’s policy priorities and rejects those of Fisette, Hynes and Tejada:

  • prioritize spending on Arlington’s core government services (e.g., overcrowded schools, basic infrastructure, sensible transit, and public safety),
  • end spending on wasteful and extravagant projects like streetcars, a gold-plated aquatics center, and more fancy dog parks,
  • provide far greater transparency and accountability in Arlington County government.

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS ELECTION

For Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada

The statesman-like thing you should do now is to vote to cancel extravagant, wasteful and unnecessary projects like streetcars and the aquatics center. Commit instead to redirect our tax dollars toward investments in:

  • public schools,
  • basic infrastructure (sewers, water mains, roads),
  • sensible transit, and
  • public safety.

Move forward aggressively with new initiatives to make Arlington’s government far more transparent.

For all other Arlington Democratic elected officials

Tell Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada it’s time to unite the community around the agenda outlined above. Renounce further plans to support a referendum on the streetcar because there is ZERO likelihood that Virginia will enact legislation forcing Arlington to hold a binding referendum on the streetcar.

For the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC)

You have lost the excuse that Vihstadt’s election in the spring was a fluke. Don’t make the same mistake again. Alan Howze lost both elections because he embraced policy priorities for Arlington (e.g., streetcars, aquatics center) that a majority of Arlington voters don’t want.

Because these policy priorities do not spring from core Democratic values, thousands of Arlington Democrats rejected the Democratic candidate who championed these failed policies. If you keep nominating candidates who advocate these failed policies, Arlington voters will continue to reject those candidates.

Some of the practices ACDC itself adopted after Vihstadt’s spring victory have subjected ACDC to justifiable ridicule. Examples:

  • telling Democratic elected officials and leaders they are not welcome at public ACDC meetings,
  • dropping Democratic elected officials and leaders from broad-based ACDC email lists,
  • placing a Democratic elected official on what the Sun-Gazette derisively called “double-blind secret probation.”

Unflattering comparisons to the Soviet politburo continue to circulate. ACDC leadership should renounce all such practices, and embrace the politics of addition instead of the politics of subtraction.

CONCLUSION

It is no longer enough to get elected to the County Board that you be the Democratic nominee. 

by Peter Rousselot — October 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm 1,026 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 RousselotI’m a proud Arlington Democrat. Like thousands of other Arlington Democrats, I will be voting on Nov. 4 to re-elect Independent John Vihstadt to the Arlington County Board.

On April 8, 57 percent of Arlington voters elected John as an independent voice on the Board. The other four Board members are Democrats. Having an Independent as one of the five Board members provides balance, oversight and accountability.

Reasons To Vote For Vihstadt

Thirty years of community activism and consensus-building

John’s record of public service and relationships built over three decades has provided a firm foundation for immediate effectiveness and accomplishment. This record shows him to be inclusive and open-minded.

Re-calibrating County Board spending priorities

John Vihstadt:

  • prioritizes long-term, cost-effective investments in our public schools, public safety, infrastructure maintenance and neighborhood quality of life;
  • opposes wasteful and extravagant projects like a $500 million streetcar, million dollar bus stops, a gold-plated aquatics center or another $1.6 million dog park.

Since Arlington already has the highest tax bills in Northern Virginia, setting priorities is essential.

Arlington’s current priorities have been set by a group of three long-term incumbent County Board members (Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes). They happen to be Democrats. Many of their priorities (streetcars, aquatics center, fancy dog parks) are wrong. Their wrong priorities are not core Democratic values.

By voting to re-elect John Vihstadt on Nov. 4, Arlington voters will send another strong message that we support John’s priorities and oppose these wasteful and extravagant projects.

Fresh perspective already making a difference

John has led the effort to hire an internal auditor to improve checks and balances. He will continue to advocate that the auditor report directly to the County Board, not the County Manager. He will work to ensure no backsliding in recent commitments to implement a fraud and abuse hotline and employee whistle blower protection. 

Conclusion

Some Arlington Democrats may be struggling with the decision to vote to re-elect John or vote for his Democratic opponent. I support John because being the Democratic candidate in this County Board election is not enough of a qualification.

Alan Howze lacks the stature to stand up to Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada, and to vote against their positions when he thinks they are wrong. Moreover, on major current and important issues, like the $500 million streetcar and spending at least $80 million on the Aquatics Center, he agrees with their positions.

You can read more about John Vihstadt’s extensive community service, the issues on which he is running, and his support from across the political spectrum here.

***

John Vihstadt deserves re-election to the County Board.

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.

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