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Peter’s Take: Virginia Flunks Ethics Reform

by Peter Rousselot | April 17, 2014 at 2:00 pm | No Comments

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 RousselotOne of the five most revealing stories of 2013 was the ethics scandal that engulfed the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wannabe successor Ken Cuccinelli. In the wake of that scandal, there were high hopes that Virginia would pass meaningful ethics reform in 2014. Sadly, Virginia flunked this opportunity.

Virginia legislators from both parties are responsible for the toothless “ethics reform” legislation that did pass in 2014. Their legislation “tightens conflict of interest rules on themselves just enough to say they did something to clean up Virginia’s soiled reputation.”

What did they do? Why did it do nothing to clean up Virginia’s soiled reputation?

The ethics legislation that passed this year imposes a $250 cap on gifts to Virginia legislators. Sounds good, right? Wrong. The $250 cap applies only to gifts made by registered lobbyists. It does not apply to gifts made directly by any individual or business that is not a registered lobbyist. Thus, the kinds of gifts made to McDonnell and Cuccinelli by disgraced businessman Jonnie Williams (e.g., shopping sprees to New York, Rolex watches, reimbursement for weddings of legislators’ children) are all permitted under the new ethics legislation just as they were before.

In fact, an early analysis of this legislation by ProgressVA showed that if it had been in effect in 2012, it would have prohibited NONE of the 756 gifts made to Virginia’s legislators in that year.

This legislation also “substitutes window-dressing for muscular enforcement by establishing an ‘advisory’ state ethics panel — with no staff or budget — instead of a commission with the resources and authority to investigate alleged violations.”

What role did Gov. Terry McAuliffe play regarding ethics reform this session? Where he had the unilateral power to do it, he put in place a strong ethics reform package for himself, his staff, and state agencies. This executive branch reform package establishes a $100 gift cap without the ridiculous loopholes in the bill passed by the legislature.

Some have criticized Gov. McAuliffe for failing to exercise his power to propose substantive amendments to the ethics bill passed by the legislature. That criticism is unfair. Given the huge bi-partisan support for this legislation, there was no reasonable prospect that the governor could have obtained any significant substantive changes in it.

Conclusion

The legislature thoroughly humiliated itself by what it did. The governor could serve no constructive purpose by heaping further humiliation on top of that.

For this “reform,” the Virginia legislature deserves a bi-partisan grade of “F.”

Give Terry McAuliffe a “B+.”

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.

Peter’s Take: Voters Not Buying What County Board is Selling

by Peter Rousselot | April 10, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 1,688 views | No Comments

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 rendered a decisive verdict on the budget priorities of the current majority on the Arlington County Board. The verdict: fundamentally change your budget priorities, or we’ll elect others who will.

Independent John Vihstadt won his landslide victory by uniting a broad-based, multi-partisan coalition that shared his policy positions:

  • prioritize spending on Arlington’s core government services (e.g., overcrowded schools, fire, police, sensible transit), and
  • end spending on wasteful vanity projects.

County Board Budget Priorities Repudiated

Vihstadt made his criticisms of the County Board’s budget priorities (e.g., $310+ million unnecessary Columbia Pike streetcar, $80+ million gold-plated Aquatics Center) the focus of his winning campaign. Democrat Alan Howze lost because he refused to repudiate those budget priorities. Howze hoped — falsely — that he could win simply because he was the Democratic candidate.

Implications for Arlington Democrats

Before the election, a few Democrats boasted that even if Vihstadt won the special, he would lose in November. Why? Because even if Howze’s policies on issues like Arlington’s budget priorities were repudiated by Arlington voters in the spring, Howze would win in the fall because he would get enough more votes from Democrats who care only about state or national issues. The size of the Vihstadt tsunami casts serious doubts on this hoped-for scenario. Much worse, these Democrats’ reasoning reflects an unbecoming smugness about the irrelevance of local policy to Arlington Democrats.

As a proud Arlington Democrat myself, I reject their reasoning. I do care — a lot — about the policy positions on local issues of any candidate seeking an Arlington local office. As Tuesday’s election shows, lots of other Arlington Democrats agree with me. Between now and November, we’ll all be aggressively explaining why to other Arlington Democrats who didn’t vote Tuesday.

What about the politics of it? What are the implications for the Arlington County Democratic Committee if it continues to nominate or endorse candidates for County Board who have policy positions on local issues that are both wrong and very unpopular? This is politics 101: those implications are highly negative.

Voters to ACDC: this time, we didn’t buy what you were selling either. It’s not because you don’t excel at the electoral mechanics, or because we don’t like you personally, or because someone is feuding with someone else. It’s because policy positions on local issues matter. Don’t be insular like the current County Board majority which anointed Alan Howze and pushed him over the finish line in the ACDC caucus. Their principal goal is to perpetuate their own budget priorities.

The County Board’s budget priorities are dragging ACDC down.

It’s time for ACDC to do some serious soul searching. Get out of your bubble and into the community. Don’t become zombie Democrats.

There are some great, positive lessons that ACDC can learn from this campaign.

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.

Peter’s Take: John Vihstadt for County Board

by Peter Rousselot | March 27, 2014 at 5:30 pm | 1,908 views | No Comments

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, and I am voting for Independent John Vihstadt in the April 8 special election for County Board. You can read about John’s extensive community service, the issues on which he is running, and his support from across the political spectrum here.

This election is about Arlington’s core spending priorities not about core Democratic Party values.

When John Vihstadt announced his candidacy for County Board on December 12, 2013, he stated:

Something is seriously wrong when schools across Arlington are over capacity and fighting for funding, while County leaders continue to plow millions into high profile projects beyond the scope of core community needs like education and public safety.

I agree. These are the bread-and-butter issues that our local government has the responsibility to solve.

Arlington’s current budget priorities have been set by a group of long-term incumbent County Board members who happen to be Democrats. Their budget priorities are wrong for Arlington. Those priorities would be wrong regardless of the political affiliation of any Board member who sought to perpetuate them.

Whether to spend $310+ million on an unnecessary Columbia Pike streetcar is not a core Democratic Party value. Whether to spend $80+ million on a gold-plated Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park is not a core Democratic Party value. Whether to spend $1 million on a bus stop is not a core Democratic Party value.

The harder issue for some Arlington Democrats is whether to vote for John Vihstadt or vote for his Democratic opponent simply because that opponent is the Democratic candidate. Before deciding to support Vihstadt, I tried and failed to convince two other prominent Arlington Democrats to run for election to this seat. I then decided to support Vihstadt because simply being the Democratic candidate in this election is not enough of a qualification.

Arlington Democrats should join me and many other Democrats in voting for Vihstadt because the current County Board has grown so insular and set in its ways that it needs someone like Vihstadt, who has the independence and experience to change the Board’s current dynamic. Vihstadt’s Democratic opponent does not have sufficient independence and experience to do that.

I have never in my lifetime voted for anyone other than a Democrat for any elected office. On April 8, I am going to vote for John Vihstadt because it is more important to me to change the dynamic on the current Board than to preserve my 50-year record of voting only for Democrats.

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.

Peter’s Take: Arlington’s Property Tax Bills Highest in NoVa

by Peter Rousselot | March 20, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 1,783 views | No Comments

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 Washington Post story last week revealed that Arlington County’s property tax bills (as distinguished from Arlington County’s property tax rate) are at the very top of all localities in Northern Virginia.

A graphic accompanying the Post story compares average property tax bills from the respective NOVA jurisdictions. Arlington has surged to No. 1.

Arlington County Board members continually try to obscure this fact by boasting that Arlington’s property tax rate is in the middle of the NOVA pack or lower. Jay Fisette said this again in his 2014 New Year’s Day speech. The Post graphic confirms it.

However, the vast majority of Arlington’s property owners care about their bottom line — their property tax bills – not the property tax rate in isolation. If the property assessment system is working fairly, the County Board cannot directly control assessments. But, the Board can control our property tax bills by lowering the property tax rate. The Board did just that in the early part of the last decade.

This Board has made it very hard for itself to lower the property tax rate because of the Board’s own past misspending — and commitments for future misspending — on vanity projects like:

At the same time this Board is wasting our money on projects like these, it is not spending a large enough share of the tax money we provide for:

If the County Board were to lower the property tax rate for FY 2015, while at the same time pressing forward with its vanity projects, then funding for core services would suffer even more than such funding is suffering now. Alas, there is no sign that a majority of current County Board members intend to pull back from their commitments to their vanity projects.

Although we are not coming close to getting the value we deserve for our No. 1 ranking, I would not like to see this Board cut the property tax rate unless it simultaneously drops all of its vanity projects.

It’s time to alter the insular status quo on the current Board by electing new members whom we can confidently conclude will:

  • vote to end wasteful spending on all vanity projects, and
  • concentrate spending on core services.

Then we could get a break on our surging property tax bills.

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.

Peter’s Take: Empowered Women International

by Peter Rousselot | March 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 374 views | No Comments

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 occasionally like to highlight nonprofits who are offering valuable services and programs in Arlington. Today, I’m focusing on Empowered Women International (EWI).

EWI creates jobs and economic empowerment through entrepreneurship training, mentoring and support services for immigrant, refugee, and low-income women throughout the D.C. metro area, including in Arlington. EWI core services include:

  • Yearlong entrepreneurship training incubator,
  • Mentoring and support services for micro-enterprises,
  • Access to professional networks, investment capital and public marketplaces.

Immigrant and refugee women represent a source of potential economic enrichment and multicultural understanding for their communities; however too often they are marginalized and their capabilities under-utilized. A survey of EWI’s women beneficiaries showed that 80 percent were working professionals in their home countries, but had an annual income of less than $5,000 when they first came to EWI.

In the past five years, EWI has launched 180 micro-enterprises — 70 percent of which are still in existence. Graduates’ increased income supports economic growth in our region through tax revenue, additional job creation and purchasing of supplies and services from other local businesses.

Graduates become volunteers and leaders within their communities through EWI’s required “each one, teach one” community enrichment program. EWI programs transform women from a population in need of support to an income-generating population giving support and leading change in their communities.

On March 18, EWI will be providing an opportunity for women to earn a scholarship into their business entrepreneurship program. Participants will have three minutes to verbally present a concise, clear and powerful description of their business idea. A panel of business experts then will provide feedback and select those who will participate in the program.

To pitch your business idea, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be an immigrant, refugee or low-income American-born woman,
  • Have a business in idea stage, hobby business, or 24-36 months into the business,
  • Be able to participate in online and offline training and mentoring program,
  • Have a good command of both written and spoken English,
  • Have basic computer skills for writing and online research.

“Being a part of EWI makes you feel part of a larger whole,” Sushmita Mazumdar, an Arlington resident and owner of Studio Pause, says, and “it gives you credibility as an entrepreneur because so many people, businesses and professionals are part of EWI’s network.”

With support from EWI, Mazumdar received a micro-loan of $5,000 to open Studio Pause, a community art and cultural studio that brings together adult and children alike to create art, write and tell their stories.

If you are looking for other ways to get involved in EWI’s activities, those are summarized here.

EWI is performing a valuable community service here in Arlington and throughout the D.C. metro region.

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.

Peter’s Take: Arlington’s Commercial Assessment Fiasco

by Peter Rousselot | March 6, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 1,488 views | No Comments

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 RousselotWhy?

That’s the key question after ARLnow.com broke the story last week about Arlington’s skyrocketing commercial property assessments.

Fair market value can rise or fall from year to year, but as Ellis Schaeffer commented last week:

[H]ow do you explain an average of [a] 65.8% increase on the 11 business survey provided in the article? Is it merely a change in methodology? Did I miss the singular event in the past 365 days (i.e., mineral deposits, or a new casino) that made Clarendon properties suddenly SIGNIFICANTLY more valuable?

In one fell swoop, Arlington’s commercial assessment fiasco has cast a dark cloud over all of the following:

  • the new initiatives for economic competitiveness touted in the County Board Chair’s New Year’s Day speech,
  • the integrity of Arlington’s commercial property assessment process (is it properly insulated from politics?), and
  • the reliability of the revenue forecasts in Arlington’s FY 2015 budget (which depend upon the validity of the valuation of Arlington’s commercial real estate).

In the wake of this ARLnow.com bombshell, these are the elements of the public statement that the County Board should have issued:

We

  • are alarmed by the enormous annual increases in so many commercial property assessments,
  • are determined to get to the bottom of this, and
  • have directed the County Manager to analyze and share with the public relevant information about each of these categories of commercial property:
    1. all properties assessed at a value 50 percent or more than last year,
    2. all properties assessed at a value that is between 40 percent and 49 percent more, and between 30 percent and 39 percent more, than last year, and
    3. all properties which experienced value increases in those same three percentage brackets (30 to 39, 40 to 49, and 50 or more), for each of the prior two years (from FY 2012 to FY 2013, and from FY 2013 to FY 2014).

ARLnow.com profiled 11 commercial properties in Clarendon alone. But, Michelle Cowan, Arlington’s Director of Management and Finance, advised the County Board there were about 90 commercial properties County-wide that increased in value by 50 percent or more.

I find both numbers (11 and 90) to be large and disturbing. But, limiting any review only to those 90 properties — as the County Government is planning — is far too narrow an approach.

To really get to the bottom of this, and ensure transparency, we need a much broader compilation, analysis and public discussion.

The County Board should step up now, and direct the County Manager immediately to broaden the inquiry to include all of the additional categories of commercial property — noted above — that are now conspicuously missing from the announced plan.

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.

Peter’s Take: Board Continues Shortchanging Our Schools

by Peter Rousselot | February 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 1,658 views | No Comments

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 proposed FY 2015 Arlington County Budget continues the Arlington County Board’s pattern of providing too small a share of our tax dollars to Arlington Public Schools (APS).

Background

While school enrollment is projected to continue to surge, and while educational challenges are continuing to rise, APS’ share of the tax revenue we provide to the County was shrinking even prior to the latest County-proposed budget:

“The share of revenue that APS has received from the County has declined in recent years, from 46.1 percent in FY 2011 and FY 2012 to 45.6 percent in FY 2014,” School Board Chair Abby Raphael wrote in an open letter to County Board Chair Jay Fisette.

The FY 2015 Budget

Despite repeated pleas last fall from parents to the County Board to rectify this inequity — pleas that were rudely and inappropriately criticized by some County Board members — the latest proposed County budget fails to rectify the inequity. It still proposes the 45.6 percent shrunken share.

On Feb. 21, the School Board once again requested that the share be restored to 46.1 percent.  If granted, this increase would produce an additional $4.8 million in revenue in FY2015.

Why is the County Board continuing to shortchange our public schools?

Why have we gotten to the point where the School Board feels compelled to write a public letter to the County Board asking the County Board to restore APS’ historic share of the tax dollars we pay? Why do some members of the County Board tell members of the taxpaying public (who fund our government 24/7/365) that there are only certain months each year when the public can ask the County Board for more resources for our schools?

If anything, the School Board was too deferential when its Chair noted in her letter that “the School Board understands that the County Board has many priorities to balance in meeting the needs of our residents.” The persistent problem the School Board faces is that the County Board has the wrong priorities.

The County Board’s priorities are wrong because the County Board is:

  • committing our money to vanity projects like an unnecessary $310+ million Columbia Pike streetcar, a gold-plated $80+ million Aquatics Center, and an extravagant $1.7 million Clarendon dog park;
  • pouring our money into tax increment financing schemes (TIF). Under TIF, increased revenues amounting to millions of dollars are no longer available to fund any other services such as schools;
  • failing to give first priority to using our money to fund core services like schools.

In these times of surging enrollment and new instructional challenges, APS deserves an even higher share of our money than the School Board seeks in its Feb. 21 letter. 

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.

Peter’s Take: Reforming Virginia’s Mental Health System, Part II

by Peter Rousselot | February 20, 2014 at 1:00 pm | No Comments

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 a January column, I outlined why Virginia’s mental health system desperately needed reform. I mentioned a series of recent tragic incidents of violence perpetrated by mentally ill individuals.

In one of those incidents, the 24 year-old son of state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) stabbed his father multiple times, and then shot himself to death. “Gus” Deeds had been released from an expired emergency custody order 13 hours before the incident. He was released because an appropriate psychiatric bed for him could not be found before the emergency custody order expired.

In January, efforts were just getting underway to address some of these issues in this year’s Virginia legislative session. We now have passed the mid-point (known as “Crossover”) in the legislative session. Progress is being made toward enacting some of the mental health reforms that are needed.

Both houses of the legislature are calling for significant new investments in the portion of our mental health system that offers mental health treatment to people in crisis situations. This includes new initiatives to:

  • fund more beds at state psychiatric hospitals for patients who are held under temporary custody orders,
  • fund more therapeutic assessment centers to serve individuals in psychiatric crisis situations,
  • reduce the amount of time law enforcement must devote to emergency custody cases, and

The House of Delegates version of the legislation proposes new funding to add 17 new therapeutic assessment centers in the next two years. These centers are locations to which law enforcement personnel can transport people in crisis for psychiatric evaluation to determine whether they pose a threat to themselves or others. The centers are tied to other proposals — referenced above — to expand the duration of emergency custody orders without placing an undue burden on police and sheriff’s departments who transport people in crisis. These law enforcement personnel now have to wait in the center until the evaluation is complete.

This bipartisan legislative progress deserves our support and praise.

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.

Peter’s Take: Water Main Breaks

by Peter Rousselot | February 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 911 views | No Comments

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 Feb. 7, ARLnow.com reported on two separate water main breaks – one on Arlington Ridge Road and one on Lee Highway.

These two water main breaks illustrate yet another respect in which the County Board’s budget priorities are badly out of whack. The County Board has spent, or is proposing to spend, millions of dollars on extravagant design elements at a dog park in Clarendon and an Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park, while Arlington’s water mains and classrooms are bursting.

On Jan. 28, ARLnow.com posted another story on water main breaks. That story highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older”, with the oldest dating to 1927.

A county video accompanying the Jan. 28 story sometimes strikes a condescending tone. It proceeds from the faulty premise that water main breaks are “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!

What Arlington County needs is a much more aggressive program of water main replacement, not the Que Será, Será attitude displayed in this county video. Of course, some water mains would still break even with a more aggressive replacement program. But, we would avoid many other breaks. The County Board knows this. The Board simply is devoting far too little of our money to replace water mains, while devoting far too much of our money to its vanity projects.

In May 2013, the County Board approved a $1.8 million project for water main “rehabilitation.” “These rehabilitation projects help the County extend the life of water mains and lines, stretch tax dollars and prevent expensive and disruptive main breaks,” Walter Tejada boasted.

The county’s press release went on to explain that “every year, the County selects water mains based on age, frequency of main breaks, and reduction in flow capacity for rehabilitation at a fraction of the cost of new construction and with minimal disruption to the community.”

Translation: we are putting lipstick on a pig because we are squandering your money elsewhere. We are adopting this rehabilitation program because we don’t have enough money left over to replace our aging water mains as fast as we should.

“Rehabilitating” water mains and providing more “relocatable” classrooms is a cop out. Arlington County needs to get back to basics by prioritizing the needs of its core services like water mains and schools.

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.

Peter’s Take: Back to Basics

by Peter Rousselot | February 6, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 625 views | No Comments

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 possible cancellation of construction of a new South Arlington elementary school demonstrates yet again why Arlington must refocus its budget priorities on basic core services like schools.

ARLnow.com recently posted a story about a plan by Arlington Public Schools to scrap the construction of the new Glencarlyn Elementary School. The story explained that APS is “looking at diverting that investment to prepare for middle school overcrowding in the coming years, which is projected to be more serious than the capacity issues in elementary schools.”

APS CAPITAL BUDGET

If middle school overcrowding is projected to be more serious than elementary school overcrowding, and if Arlington can’t address the future capital needs at both the elementary and middle school levels, well then the decision to scrap the construction of this elementary school might make sense. But, that would be true only if we assume APS is getting the share of Arlington’s overall capital budget that APS deserves.

APS certainly is not getting the share of Arlington’s overall operating budget it deserves. And, APS cannot be getting the share of Arlington’s overall capital budget it deserves so long as Arlington persists in wasting our money on the extravagant features of the proposed Aquatics Center and other vanity capital projects.

APS OPERATING BUDGET

It still remains unclear whether the Arlington County Board will step up to the plate to restore to APS the share of Arlington’s operating budget APS must have in order to provide a 21st century education and to address the classroom impacts of the enrollment surge.

In trying to prop up its crumbling justification for the Aquatics Center, the County Board keeps saying Arlington “needs” a “world class” facility like the Aquatics Center. But, the County Board hasn’t been willing to give APS the resources APS says it needs to extend the Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) program to all the elementary schools that lack FLES.

The County Board says extending the FLES program is a policy decision for the School Board, while the School Board says it can’t extend FLES without additional money from the County Board.

The children at the elementary schools that lack FLES are stuck in the middle.

This is not a world class way to govern.

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.

Peter’s Take: Reform Virginia’s Mental Health System

by Peter Rousselot | January 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm | 308 views | No Comments

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 tragic incident in Bath County, Va. — in which the son of State Sen. Creigh Deeds attacked his father with a knife and subsequently shot himself to death — once again has exposed the many flaws in Virginia’s public mental health system.

In another tragedy earlier last fall, a mentally-unstable employee of a government contractor, who had worked on many assignments around the Metro area (including in Arlington), shot multiple victims to death at the D.C. Navy Yard.

The Deeds incident brought into sharpest focus flaws in Virginia’s record keeping regarding the availability of openings to hold mentally ill individuals who might pose a danger to themselves or others. It also highlighted the need to re-examine standards for involuntary detention. However, I believe the mental health area that is most in need of reform is the longer-term care and treatment of individuals who cannot afford care for themselves.

At various points during their lives, large numbers of the mentally ill can be:

  • in school
  • in hospitals
  • in jail
  • living in a home
  • homeless
  • employed part time
  • unemployed

In any of those settings, these individuals can be: improving, stable, declining, or dangerous to themselves or others.

The challenge for Virginia is to develop a mental health system that provides comprehensive, consistent and continuous treatment for all eligible residents — regardless of in which of the above categories they happen to fall at any given time.

One key to improving treatment is to develop an electronic records system to capture critical information about diagnoses, past treatment and recommendations for the future. We must avoid a “silo” approach in which one or more Virginia public or non-profit institutions treat an individual for mental health issues, and then keep the information stored away where it cannot be accessed later by other mental health professionals. With due deference to patients’ privacy rights, such a records system must be accessible electronically by subsequent treatment providers.

A second key to improving treatment is a combination of increased state and local funding so that eligible individuals can receive appropriate care while living in the setting that best fits their mental health status.

Any of us could be the next victim of an act of violence perpetrated by a mentally-disturbed person. Let’s work together in a bipartisan way to reform Virginia’s mental health system.

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.

Peter’s Take: Aquatics Center Sinks Even Deeper

by Peter Rousselot | January 16, 2014 at 12:30 pm | 1,227 views | No Comments

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 weeks ago the news broke that the annual operating subsidy Arlington would have to provide to the Aquatics Center had ballooned from $1.9 million to $3.8 million. Just three years ago, the County’s “high” estimate of the annual operating subsidy was $450,000.

On Dec. 12, I recommended that the County Board direct the County Manager to “halt all further work on the Aquatics Center… and develop a new, cost-effective design for a sensible recreation center at Long Bridge Park (including a swimming pool).” Little did I know when I wrote that December column that the construction bids to build this facility also would come in so much higher than anticipated.

In the face of more and more new information about the vastly higher operating and capital costs of this facility, it is very disappointing that some of our current elected leaders, and some of those who want to succeed them, stubbornly cling to the belief that all of the design elements in this project are sacrosanct.

For example, ARLnow.com quotes County Board Chair Jay Fisette as attempting to justify his continued support for the project because “more than a decade was spent on the Center’s design” and “exaggerations about the exact extent of the cost increases have been ‘celebrated by long-time opponents of the facility.’”

Our elected leaders should be offering us a contrite acknowledgement that despite over a decade of planning, they have allowed the current design to proceed laden with so many extravagant features. Planning should be judged by the wisdom of the final decision—not the length of time it takes to make it.  In the new normal of Arlington’s economy, with 20 percent commercial office vacancy rates and our public schools bursting at the seams, sticking with the current design is a luxury we cannot afford.

Similarly out of touch is Alan Howze — one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the County Board seat soon to be vacated by Chris Zimmerman. ARLnow.com quotes Howze as saying there “clearly is a need in the community” for the Aquatics Center, and “we should move forward… if we can do it within the budget we’ve allocated for it”. With so many other competing priorities, the community does not “need” this gold-plated Aquatics Center, and we should not move forward with it even if we could do so within the whopping $80 million price tag we thought it would cost as recently as one month ago.

It’s long past time for the Aquatics Center to downsize or die.

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.

Peter’s Take: Support the Virginia Dream Act

by Peter Rousselot | January 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm | 623 views | No Comments

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 last week’s column, I outlined the reasons to support Medicaid expansion in the 2014 session of the Virginia legislature. Today, I’d like to highlight the reasons why Virginia should pass the Dream Act this year.

The Virginia Dream Act will enable a student who is a child of undocumented immigrants to pay the in-state tuition rate at Virginia colleges and universities—if that student meets certain criteria. In a bill proposed by Arlington Democratic Delegate Alfonso Lopez, a student will be eligible for the in-state tuition rate if he/she:

  1. has attended a Virginia public or private high school for at least three years;
  2. has graduated from a Virginia public or private high school or received a General Education Development (GED) certificate in Virginia;
  3. has registered as an entering student or is enrolled in a public institution of higher education in Virginia;
  4. has provided documentation that the student has been approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and
  5. has submitted evidence that the student (or, in the case of a dependent student, at least one parent, guardian, or person standing in loco parentis) has filed Virginia income tax returns for at least three years.

Fairfax Republican Del. Tom Rust again will work with Del. Lopez to generate bipartisan support for this legislation.

The moral reasons to support this legislation include:

  1. These students were brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents, and had no say in the decision to come here. They never made a choice to disregard U.S. immigration law; and
  2. The vast majority of these students are as American as native-born citizens. They speak English, and understand American life and culture.

As explained by Delegate Lopez, we also should support this legislation because Virginia currently has invested taxpayer dollars in these students “from kindergarten through 12th grade, but put up a barrier after graduation that only serves to drive away top talent from Virginia.”

Let’s support passage of the Virginia Dream Act.

It’s right for Arlington and right for Virginia.

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.

Peter’s Take: Support Medicaid Expansion in Virginia

by Peter Rousselot | January 2, 2014 at 2:15 pm | 389 views | No Comments

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 RousselotOne of the most important issues to come before the Virginia Legislature in its 2014 session is whether to expand Medicaid. There will be an enormous financial impact regardless of whether Virginia expands Medicaid or not.

Fairfax County has prepared a helpful three-page white paper summarizing the issues at stake. You can access that white paper here.

I support Medicaid expansion, as does our Arlington legislative delegation. I am particularly hopeful that a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates can form to work with Governor-elect McAuliffe to expand Medicaid.

As a practical matter, it’s very hard to see a bill that can pass both branches of the legislature and be signed by the Governor if the only test every politician applies is: “I will automatically oppose Medicaid expansion if I opposed the Affordable Care Act,” or “I will automatically support expansion if I supported the ACA.” Instead, the most constructive way for our legislators and our governor to approach Medicaid expansion is: “regardless of what I think of the ACA, what is the right way now to analyze the benefits and costs of expanding or declining to expand Medicaid?”

The Virginian-Pilot editorial board got it right when it concluded that the cost of resisting Medicaid expansion in Virginia would be “ruinous.” Citing Bill Hazel, the highly-respected Health Secretary originally appointed by Bob McDonnell, and recently re-appointed by Terry McAuliffe, that editorial board summarized our choices this way:

Virginia lawmakers can preserve the financial health of hospitals across the commonwealth, save state tax dollars, strengthen local and state economies, extend managed health-care to nearly 400,000 people, many of them working poor, and recoup nearly $10 billion in federal taxes paid by Virginians over the next five years.

Or they can continue the reckless political theater destined to grow more costly with every passing year, a play that will cause a financial crisis at hospitals all across Virginia.

The right choice for Virginia is to expand Medicaid.

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.

Peter’s Take: The Five Most Revealing Stories of 2013

by Peter Rousselot | December 26, 2013 at 2:00 pm | 1,246 views | No Comments

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. NSF Leaves Arlington

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it was moving its headquarters from Arlington to Alexandria. Arlington’s public reaction was troubling. County Manager Barbara Donnellan foolishly questioned whether NSF properly understood its own self-interest. Board member Jay Fisette admitted he underestimated the new competitive environment for commercial office space. Every current and aspiring County Board member needs to understand the significant negative implications for Arlington of the large, long-term glut of commercial office space.

4. McDonnell & Cuccinelli Ethics Scandals

Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli were crippled by scandals involving the CEO of a dietary supplement company. The scandals highlighted the laxity in Virginia’s ethics laws. Closer to home, the Arlington School Board demonstrated strong leadership by tightening its ethics policies. Regrettably, the County Board failed to follow suit.

3. $1 Million Superstop Fiasco

ARLnow.com broke the story of Arlington’s $1 million Superstop. The story led to national ridicule. It exposed major weaknesses in the ways in which Arlington decides upon and oversees major transportation projects. Arlington promised an independent review of this fiasco, but nine months later no plans regarding reforms have been made public.

2. Extremism of Republican Statewide Ticket

Using a convention process dominated by a handful of party extremists, the Republican Party of Virginia nominated a statewide ticket far outside the mainstream. The views of moderate GOP leaders like former Congressman Tom Davis and former Arlington School Board member David Foster were disregarded. All three Republican statewide candidates lost in November. Democrats now hold all five statewide offices. The jury is out as to whether Republicans have learned the correct lessons.

1. Arlington’s Flawed Budget Priorities

The most revealing story of 2013 is the persistent failure of the Arlington County Board to adopt budget priorities which reflect Arlington’s values. Despite cascades of new information exposing the many fatal flaws in projects like the Columbia Pike streetcar and the Aquatics Center, the County Board seems determined stubbornly to plow ahead with them. At the same time, the Board continues to devote far too small a share of the County’s budget to Arlington Public Schools.

*****

Let’s turn things in a better direction in 2014.

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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