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The Right Note: A Victory for Taxpayers?

by Mark Kelly | April 10, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 888 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyDespite all of the spin by Democrats about low turnout (50 percent higher than the last special election) causing Tuesday’s loss, the message from voters was clear — it is time to shake things up.

One week earlier, Arlington Civic Federation delegates voted by a two-to-one margin to call on the County Board to lower the property tax rate by at least three cents. In the face of rapidly rising assessments, the Civic Federation decided that keeping tax rates level was simply not good enough.

What would that mean to the average homeowner? About $200 less in taxes for the upcoming year.

That level of tax relief might still keep us in first place for highest property tax bills in the region, but it may keep us from permanently cementing our top spot.

One of the first orders of business for new County Board member John Vihstadt will be to vote on setting the tax and spending levels for fiscal 2015. Vihstadt’s convincing 16 percent margin of victory came in a county that just five months ago handed Democrat Terry McAuliffe a 49 percent margin. The result was clearly a mandate to rethink the status quo in county government.

Looking back, Arlington County has not had to make really tough budget decisions like so many local governments have, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Arlington was largely insulated from the worst of the recession because our economy is dependent on the federal government and the contractors, law firms, trade associations and service industries its presence in the region supports. Even with federal spending restraint over the past three years, Arlington’s real estate tax receipts continued to rise.

Because the Board did not have to make really tough decisions, they did not have to take a long hard look at budget priorities. They were able to continue subsidizing the failed Artisphere experiment. They spent more than $1.5 million on a dog park. They moved forward on million dollar bus stops and then drug their feet on producing the report on why it cost so much.

Is it any wonder that long time civic activists finally said enough is enough?

We have very real issues to address moving forward, like school capacity and maintaining our aging infrastructure. If the Board wants to make room for these spending priorities in future budgets, they should re-examine spending priorities now.

Between excess tax revenue already identified for the current year budget, reserve funds, and closeout dollars, the Board can cut the tax rate without endangering any essential services. The only thing providing this tax relief will do is make the County Board work a little harder to finalize the budget and plan for the future.

The voters asked for more fiscal discipline on Tuesday, now we will see if they get it.

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

The Right Note: When You Cast a Vote for County Board

by Mark Kelly | March 27, 2014 at 4:30 pm | 630 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyConsider voting for a change.

Last week I attended my neighborhood community forum, which featured the leading County Board candidates — Alan Howze and John Vihstadt. After the forum, I spoke to one of my neighbors who made a simple observation. He told me that the message was clear to those in attendance. If you want to continue with the status quo, you will vote for Alan. If you want to put someone who will change things up, you will vote for John.

The candidates difference on their approach to government is exemplified by their positions on the Columbia Pike trolley. Howze made the case to move forward with it as planned. Vihstadt, a regular bus rider, countered that bus rapid transit would provide the same value in moving people at a fraction of the cost.

Howze will almost certainly chase the shiny ball of vanity projects. Vihstadt will take a more common sense approach that keeps value for our tax dollars in mind.

John Vihstadt, in making his case for running as an Independent, noted that potholes, water mains, trash pickup and street lights are not partisan issues. He also noted that the three candidates for the 2012 special election — Libby Garvey (Democrat), Audrey Clement (Green) and me — all had endorsed him in this campaign.

Alan Howze twice, in his opening and closing statements, called his Independent opponent a Republican — both times to audible jeering from the audience. Howze’s standard talking point fell flat. He was standing in the middle of three precincts where a majority of voters had voted for me running as a Republican two years earlier.

Calling Vihstadt a Republican seems to be one of the key pillars of Howze’s campaign strategy. The Howze campaign is using it online, while knocking on doors and making phone calls. It seems as though it is the worst thing Howze can think of to say about an opponent who spent 30 years giving back to his community on countless boards, commissions, and civic organizations. Vihstadt worked with Arlingtonians from all political stripes in those activities, and in return he has received significant endorsements from across the political spectrum.

It is not a new strategy for Democrats. Back in 2012, a Democrat volunteer called one of my supporters and said that Republicans were responsible for what was wrong in Arlington. My supporter reminded him that Democrats had controlled the County Board for nearly three decades and asked how it was possible Republicans could be held responsible?

Whatever party you identify with, one thing is clear — Democrat County Board members own every issue you have with how Arlington County operates. The trolley, the million dollar bus stop, red tape for businesses, the gold-plated aquatics center, the neverending Artisphere subsidies, the failure to maintain our roads, our aging infrastructure and the failure to take community input into account despite having more meetings to do so, are because of Democrat decisions.

If you want things to change after April 8, you have to send a clear message to the Democrats who have run Arlington for 30 years. Electing John Vihstadt, a proven independent voice, will send that message.

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

The Right Note: Another Surplus Won’t Be Returned to Taxpayers

by Mark Kelly | March 20, 2014 at 1:30 pm | 915 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyA Sun Gazette editorial this week joined me in calling for the inevitable tax revenue surpluses to be returned to taxpayers. As I have written more than once here, it appears as though County staff intentionally underestimates revenue every year in order to make the case for higher taxes.

At the end of the year, the Board then uses close out spending to increase spending outside of the annual budget process. They are on track to dole out tens of millions again this year while our average tax burden will rise with the rising assessments.

Yet, even with millions more to spend, it is unlikely that our Board will get the job done on basic infrastructure maintenance needs to prevent future pothole and water main break outbreaks. On the flip side, paying for another million dollar bus stop that will not keep you dry when it rains or snows is not out of the question.

Next week, you will have an opportunity to testify before the County Board on behalf of lower tax rates. A few hearty souls will most likely join you Thursday evening on your quixotic quest. Not only does the Board’s track record of raising taxes make it quixotic, but two days earlier, the Board will have heard from ten times as many people about how to spend even more of your hard-earned tax dollars.

In what you may not necessarily think of as a related story this week, I was reminded that the Arlington Chamber of Commerce is searching for a new president. We need a strong and vibrant business community in Arlington. Not only will it provide jobs for our residents, but it will maintain a strong commercial real estate tax base which ensures our residential tax rates do not skyrocket even higher.

The next Arlington Chamber president will need to step up the pressure on the County Board to make business formation and expansion easier in Arlington. These efforts are needed in order to make our community more attractive to job creators. Working with the County Board to make Arlington more business friendly will be a tough job for sure, but one that will benefit us all in the long run.

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

The Right Note: Make Medicaid Expansion a Separate Issue

by Mark Kelly | March 13, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 651 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyLast fall, as the fiscal year closed in Washington, Republicans in Congress asked President Obama to consider repealing or delaying, part or all of, the Affordable Care Act. President Obama refused to negotiate on the issue. The result of the impasse was a 17-day partial government shutdown.

Republicans, arguing the president’s signature legislative initiative might not be ready for prime time, were panned for holding the federal budget hostage over Obamacare. As it turns out, the initial sign-up phase was a mess. Since then, the Obama Administration has announced several additional delays for employers and individuals necessitated by unfortunate realities of the law.

Now, Democrats in Richmond, lead by Governor Terry McAuliffe, are threatening not to agree to a state budget unless Republicans relent and agree to expand the Medicaid provisions of Obamacare into Virginia. This a reversal of the Democrat’s previous talking point that holding up a spending bill over legislation relating to Obamacare is unacceptable.

Expanding Medicaid would bring more borrowed federal dollars into Virginia initially, but those 90-100 percent federal subsidies will not last indefinitely. As Congress faces long-term budget realities and inevitably must lower the subsidies below 90 percent, Medicaid expansion would begin to crowd out other state budget priorities like education, transportation and public safety at an even faster pace than it is currently.

Currently, Medicaid costs almost $9 billion a year and consumes about 22 percent of our general fund budget in Virginia. It is the fastest-growing part of our budget, growing at an average of eight percent annually.

Moreover, it may not just be the subsidies themselves that drive up the costs of providing health care through Medicaid in Virginia. According to some, around one-third of doctors are already unwilling to accept Medicaid patients due to reimbursement rates that are substantially lower than private-sector health care coverage. Flooding an additional 400,000 Virginians into the existing pool of doctors will drive the percentage who can see a primary care physician down even further. This will leave many Medicaid patients with no option but to use emergency rooms for acute needs.

A Harvard study that looked at outcomes of a 2008 expansion of Medicaid in Oregon confirmed that it dramatically increased emergency room use — driving people into the highest-cost health care option. This finding goes against the promise of the Affordable Care Act that expanding Medicaid would help bend the health care cost curve down.

Low Medicaid reimbursement rates coupled with increased use of both emergency rooms and doctor visits will also shift even more costs for providing health care to private sector health plans. This will force more middle class Virginians to make more tough choices in their family budgets as premiums rise in the coming years.

All told, there are simply too many unanswered questions surrounding Medicaid expansion in Virginia to demand it be included in this budget. Governor McAuliffe and Democrats in Richmond should accept the budget that has been agreed to, and then take Republicans up on their offer to hold a special session to fully debate Medicaid expansion.

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

The Right Note: Per Pupil Spending to Go Up

by Mark Kelly | March 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 983 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyLast week, Arlington Public Schools’ Superintendent Patrick Murphy released his proposed budget. The total price tag is $539.4 million. Murphy reported per pupil spending would climb to $19,244. Those numbers were reinforced in a presentation by Arlington School Board members at this week’s Civic Federation meeting.

By way of comparison, tuition and fees this year at Marymount University are $26,430. Full-time tuition and fees for Spring 2014 at George Mason University are $5,129 for a new, in-state student — just over $10,000 total for a school year.

The APS budget proposes to make an iPad or tablet available to every second grader as well as a Chromebook for every sixth grader. It looks at the future possibility of providing foreign language instruction at every elementary school. And, it reflects higher health-care costs.

It is likely there are many line items in the budget that will come under intense scrutiny over the coming weeks and months before it is finalized in May. The purpose of this column is not to question specific line items within the school budget, but to question whether the presentation of the budget should under-report the actual total per pupil cost in our school budget?

The projected enrollment for the next school year is 24,153. If you divide $539.4 million by the projected enrollment, the per pupil cost is $22,333 — not $19,244.

It goes without saying that $3,089 per student is not a small difference. It adds up to more than $74 million that would not be accounted for in the total budget when you multiply the difference by the enrollment.

There is almost certainly an accounting rationale for Superintendent Murphy’s use of a per pupil spending figure that is $3,089 less than it actually is. However, if you are going to claim you are giving the taxpayers a per pupil cost, it should actually reflect the total cost per pupil to provide education to Arlington students.

The questions remains then, why does the APS budget report per pupil costs this way? It is a question our School Superintendent and School Board should answer.

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

The Right Note: Your Tax Dollars at Work

by Mark Kelly | February 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 1,228 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyThe argument was never really about whether or not Arlington would have a year-round homeless shelter. It always centered around whether or not to spend $2-3 million to retrofit the old shelter versus moving it to 2020 14th Street N. where neighbors did not want it, and spending considerably more than the retrofit would cost.

This week, the County Board approved the construction contract to begin the extensive work on the new location. The construction price tag is as much as $6.6 million. This is on top of $1.5 million in design and administrative costs, and over $750,000 for furnishings, security and IT equipment.

These are not the only costs that should be considered when looking at the shelter. The Board paid just over $27 million for the building in late 2012. Just two months later, it was assessed at just $21.4 million – which was an increase of nearly $3.5 million over the year before. For 2014, the assessment is up to $22.9 million.

Whether you think the Board paid 50 percent too much for the building based on the 2012 assessment, or just 26 percent too much based on the 2013 assessment, one thing is clear — the Board overpaid for the property. And, at nearly $36 million when all is said and done, the Board may have paid over 10 times more than a retrofit would have cost.

In the same week we hear from Arlington County staff that a big reason there are so many potholes is that the roads have not been properly maintained.

It is the same modus operandi I write about often in this space — our County Board is not ashamed about overspending on the big ticket items while pushing some of the basics to the back burner. Sometimes it makes you wonder if Arlington County means “spend indiscriminately” in Latin?

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

The Right Note: Pothole Problems

by Mark Kelly | February 20, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 1,069 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyWe have a pothole problem in Arlington. Whether your preferred mode of transportation is a bike, car or bus, you know what I am talking about.

If you drive around Arlington much these days, the pothole slalom is happening multiple times per trip. I even saw one pothole today that someone had put an orange traffic cone in, presumably to alert drivers of just how bad it was.

Unfortunately, there is only so much swerving you can do and still remain in your lane of travel to avoid them. Sooner or later, your tire will drop in. You will hear a loud thud. And, you will hold your breath hoping you didn’t leave a piece of your car behind.

Cars are getting flat tires, bent rims, and damaged suspensions. Potholes are a problem only a car service station owner doesn’t mind so much.

With colder than usual temperatures and higher than normal amounts of snow, we cannot blame the Arlington County Board for the existence of potholes. However, we should be watching to see how quickly the problem is remedied.

The changing temperatures this winter have also brought on a series of water main breaks – two within a block and a half on my street alone. My counterpart at Peter’s Take covered this issue at length last week.

Replacing aging infrastructure and other ongoing maintenance issues often seem to get the short end of stick in the budget. Instead, we tend to focus on debates over the cost of swimming palaces, trolleys and arts centers. This is what you could call the “shiny new toy” syndrome. Elected officials often like to point at grand building projects and say “look what I did.”

What the shiny toy debates teach us is that the problems with addressing basic infrastructure needs is not a money problem — it is a priority problem.

Like it or not, if you are a local office holder you are responsible to the voters for street lights, trash pickup, potholes, and many other unglamourous issues that impact people’s everyday lives. The level of constituent service you provide when it comes to seemingly mundane problems is the true test of the type of public servant you really are.

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

The Right Note: Open for Business?

by Mark Kelly | February 13, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 630 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyWhile school-aged kids love a good snow day, it can be hard on small businesses. If you are operating on a relatively low profit margin, the loss of a day’s revenue can really put a squeeze on your bottom line for the month.

When Jay Fisette said he would make economic development a priority for his year as chairman of the Arlington County Board, many in the business community sat up and took notice. It was met with cautious optimism, maybe even a little skepticism, based on the record of Fisette and the all-Democrat Board over the last two decades.

Democrat candidate for the County Board Cord Thomas made making Arlington more business friendly one of the centerpieces of his campaign. Thomas, a small businessman himself, certainly experienced first-hand many of the issues small business owners shared with me when I ran for the Board.

These job creators and tax base expanders want Arlington to hang a big “open for business” sign on the front door of the county government. They want to comply with reasonable county laws and regulations, but they do not want compliance to be an ordeal that steals time, resources and energy from making their business successful.

Independent John Vihstadt makes the point in his stump speech that Arlington now faces stiffer competition for business from a revitalized District of Columbia as well as the coming development accompanying the Silver Line.

Arlington Democrats put forward Alan Howze as their nominee for County Board. He carried an overwhelming number of endorsements from current and former local elected Democratic officials. In short, he is the choice of the status quo.

On the issues page of his website, there is not even the slightest nod to the importance of our business community to Arlington’s success. Howze does cite the Columbia Pike trolley as an “investment.” However, Columbia Pike redevelopment is governed by the form-based code. It has already started to happen and will continue with or without the trolley.

Many business owners along the Pike argue the trolley will not be a net positive for development. The traffic headaches from the construction will reduce revenue for existing businesses. After its completion, a fixed rail trolley system running down an existing lane of traffic during rush hour will almost certainly increase traffic congestion. As we have seen from the current traffic headaches, changing traffic patterns is a valid concern.

The trolley is symbolic of the mentality of the status quo board — trust us, we know better. On April 8, voters will decide whether they wish to trust the status quo when it comes building a stronger local economy.

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

The Right Note: Special Election Coming Into Focus

by Mark Kelly | February 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm | 441 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyChris Zimmerman’s official resignation on Monday will mark the kickoff of a two-month race to replace him. It appears the field will include five candidates.

Evan Bernick, a Libertarian. Bernick strikes familiar libertarian themes, running against County Board over-spending.

Stephen Holbrook, an Independent who ran a write-in campaign for County Board last fall on the issues of high taxes, too much spending, and a County Board that does not listen.

Alan Howze, winner of the Democrats’ firehouse primary. Howze supports building the trolley and aquatics center.

Janet Murphy of the Independent-Green Party. Murphy has previously run for the Virginia House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives.

John Vihstadt, Independent, and winner of endorsements from the Republicans and Greens. Two years ago that coalition would have been enough to defeat Libby Garvey, who received less than 50 percent of the vote. Garvey is supporting Vihstadt this time around, primarily because he would join her in opposing the trolley.

The boondoggle trolley, as exemplified by the $1 million super stop, may not be stopped by ending one-party rule in this special election. However, electing a Board member opposed to the trolley makes stopping the trolley possible. A vote for Howze would be construed by the Board as a vote to continue the status quo.

The midway point of the campaign will occur at the March 4 Civic Federation debate. Howze, as the only candidate defending the Board’s plans on the big spending projects, should be prepared to defend against incoming fire from the other four candidates on both the pool and the trolley.

The sleeper issue in the race could be the growing community concerns over school enrollment, which is increasing by hundreds each year. While all parents are concerned about projected overcrowding, South Arlington residents are concerned it may be worse south of Route 50, particularly at the elementary school level; see Abingdon, Claremont and Oakridge.

When I met with the Arlington Education Association in early 2012 to discuss their special election endorsement, I asked them to consider ending the revenue sharing agreement. The current plan requires a few numbers to be plugged into what amounts to an excel spreadsheet plus a couple waves of a magic wand by the County Board. I argued that both schools and taxpayers would be better off if they came in and asked for what they needed rather than relying on a formula.

Currently, the Board claims the revenue sharing agreement covers school needs. However, if the County Board was forced to justify spending nearly $80 million on a swimming pool center versus more trailers rolling onto school campuses, they might better prioritize spending decisions.

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

The Right Note: You Have Been Assessed

by Mark Kelly | January 23, 2014 at 1:00 pm | 975 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyYesterday, Arlington County released its real estate assessments. Your tax bill is going up by roughly 5 percent unless the County Board reduces tax rates later this spring. You can look up your home’s assessment here if you want to see what it means to you.

Some may argue that the rise in assessments is good news because your home is now worth more. While true, and certainly helpful whenever you decide to sell your home, we all know that we pay these taxes while we live in our homes. So, the tax increase is effectively a tax on your income, which is one of the reasons you can deduct it from your federal tax return.

Back in November, county budget staff estimated real estate assessments would go up by 2.6 percent, leaving a $20-25 million so-called “budget gap.” They now believe that number is 5.8 percent — a dramatic increase that was clearly unexpected. County Manager Barbara Donnellan said yesterday the increase will narrow the “budget gap,” but the County still faces “pressures” for increased expenditures.

As I have previously written, the “budget gap” is essentially a myth. Every year in recent memory, Arlington County takes in excess revenue over and above the budget that is then spent, rather than returned to the taxpayers. It is spent to give the illusion that the County has spending “pressures” for the following year’s budget so that the Board can then raise our taxes again.

The bottom line is that no real spending cuts would be necessary to allow the County Board to simply hold the tax increase on homeowners to the 2.6 percent anticipated assessment increase level rather than 5.3 percent level. Unfortunately, no County Board member is likely to make that case.

This is because the pressures to spend more are the creation of County Board policies. And, the Board is planning to bring more of these pressures online by locking in huge future subsidies for both the trolley and the aquatics center. These ongoing subsidies will come out of the general fund and will be spent on these priorities rather than on roads or schools or public safety — just like they did for the Artisphere.

Not to worry, when the Board’s priorities run up against the “budget gap”, they will just raise the tax rate to pay for it. As long as Arlingtonians keep voting for people with the same priorities, the cycle will continue.

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

The Right Note: Aquatics Center Sticker Shock

by Mark Kelly | January 16, 2014 at 1:15 pm | 871 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyIn November 2012, voters approved a bond that was titled “Local Parks and Recreation.” The primary part of that bond package was $50 million to complete funding for a new south Arlington swimming center which had a total price tag estimated at $75 million.

As it turns out, that still may not be enough. County Manager Barbara Donnellan had to halt forward progress on the new facility when bids came in well over the already-generous cost estimates. This was on top of the recent announcement that annual taxpayer subsidies for the ongoing operational costs of the project were ballooning dramatically over the original cost estimates. The new estimate is that the aquatics center will operate at a deficit of $4 million per year.

In 2012, the voters did give the “parks and recreation” bond 10 percent less of the vote than the community infrastructure bond, and 17 percent less than the schools and Metro bonds. It seems a larger percentage of voters than usual had concerns about the swimming facility than they usually do over local infrastructure spending. However, it is still tough to defeat a ballot measure that sounds as benign as “Local Parks and Recreation.”

As I was standing in line to vote 15 months ago, I recall hearing a mom explaining the bond votes to her elementary school-aged daughter. “We need good parks,” she said in explaining why she was voting for the bond. Maybe she knew the aquatics center was included and just wanted to simplify it for her daughter, or maybe she did not.

Either way, this is a perfect case in point for the need to have large bond issues stand on their own for votes. If the County Board is proposing a bond for more than $10 million on a single project, why not let us vote it up or down as a standalone measure?

The answer is quite simple. If the bond description had been “$50 million to complete a $75 million community swimming facility,” the County Board may have lost the vote. And, it is the same rationale by which Board members have resisted allowing even a token straight up or down vote on the Columbia Pike trolley.

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

The Right Note: Talk is Cheap

by Mark Kelly | January 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm | 439 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyI ended last week’s column with my New Year’s resolution for the County Board, a no waste county budget. It reminded me of the first column I wrote for ARLnow.com one year ago.

In it, I commented on the false choice Chris Zimmerman often offers to Arlingtonians. If you have listened to his speeches, he often paints a picture that people either believe the government is capable of doing good things or nothing at all.

Nearly all Americans believe that government is necessary. On the local level for example, that means public safety, transportation, infrastructure, schools and parks. At the same time, most Americans also believe government at all levels can be inefficient and, at times, wasteful.

So, when fiscal conservatives object to projects in Arlington like the Artisphere or the trolley, it is not because we do not like for government to do anything. Rather, it is because we prefer a government that is more fiscally responsible with our tax dollars.

The Board Members do recognize the fact people want government to spend their tax dollars wisely — at least in their speeches. If you listened to what was said at last week’s meeting, you may have noted an interesting line in Walter Tejada’s nomination speech of Jay Fisette. In it, Tejada half-jokingly referred to his colleague as “cheap” — to suggest that Fisette is prudent with taxpayer resources.

Both Fisette and Mary Hynes repeated the “prudent” theme in their speeches — pointing to the County’s triple-AAA bond rating as proof. That, next to citing low tax rates when our actual tax bills are not the lowest in the region, is one of the most-used pieces of spin by Board Members to look like they are fiscally disciplined in their governance.

If you know much about the bond rating agencies, they are much like personal credit rating agencies. The number one issue for them when looking at Arlington’s “credit worthiness” is our ability to pay our debts in the future. The Washington, D.C., region was given a negative outlook when the federal government pulled back its spending levels because the federal government is our main “industry.” Arlington’s rating remains the same because our elected officials are willing to continually raise our taxes to pay our bond obligations.

A million dollar bus stop, or ongoing subsidies at the Artisphere, or the doubling of subsidy requirements for an aquatics center (now on hold because of escalating cost estimates) are what you get from a County Board that talks about fiscal discipline without a real commitment to it. It seems that in reality — talk is cheap, but our County Board isn’t.

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

The Right Note: Ringing in the New Year

by Mark Kelly | January 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm | No Comments

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

Mark KellyWhile millions of Americans were settling in to watch the Rose Parade on Wednesday, I fired up the computer to stream the 90 minute New Year’s Day meeting of the Arlington County Board. The Board offered a handful of new insights.

We learned that the Board has jettisoned the idea of using any federal dollars for the Columbia Pike trolley project. Outgoing Chairman Walter Tejada even suggested accelerating the process now that federal dollars were no longer in the equation. Each defender of the trolley repeated a core message in their speeches yesterday: we decided to build this boondoggle project over the past decade — to question us, or turn back now, is unacceptable.

Of course, the Board has largely ignored all of the legitimate objections over that time — including the Board’s rejection of trolley opponents’ claims their cost estimates were low. The Board insisted the projections were correct right up until the time the federal government rejected the grant request over cost concerns. The federal government rejected the $250 million cost estimate. Instead, the cost was pegged nearly 25 percent higher, at $310 million.

Outside of their positions on the trolley, little new was offered in the speeches of Walter Tejada or Mary Hynes. Libby Garvey, the lone voice against the trolley project, responded predictably. Chris Zimmerman spoke briefly, saving his farewell speech for a later date.

Most of the time on Wednesday was taken by Jay Fisette in a lengthier than usual speech by an incoming Board Chairman. The speech had a few interesting elements, including an emphasis on economic development. As one who believes strongly we should hang a big “open for business” sign on our door in Arlington, I will watch this initiative with cautious optimism. At the same time, Fisette’s agenda may be far more ambitious than a single year as chairman allows time for.

While reviewing my other notes on Chairman Fisette’s speech, I received an email from civic activist Wayne Kubicki. In his message, Wayne asked if I heard Chairman Fisette’s call for Arlington to move to generate “zero waste” in regards to trash. Then Wayne asked, “does the zero waste concept apply only to trash? Why not the county budget?”

And that is my New Year’s resolution for the County Board — a zero waste county budget.

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

The Right Note: Opening Day

by Mark Kelly | December 26, 2013 at 3:15 pm | 505 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyNext Wednesday, County Board members will hold the traditional New Year’s Day meeting. I started attending, or watching live online, a few years back. If you don’t mind sitting through five political speeches, it can give you some insight into the priorities of Board Members.

Another thing to expect from the Jan. 1 speeches is some good old fashioned Republican-bashing. County Board members usually spend some quality time blaming Republicans in Washington and Richmond. In general, all failures of leadership will be declared to be Republicans’ fault. This is always an interesting perspective from an all-Democratic County Board who rarely takes responsibility for its mistakes.

If you have never experienced it in person, you should consider a trip to the County Board room at 11:00 a.m. on Jan. 1. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see whether the normally collegial dynamic of the opening meeting changes now that Libby Garvey has endorsed Independent John Vihstadt for the upcoming special election.

The 2013 opening day meeting set up an interesting trolley debate for the year as well as saw Jay Fisette’s announcement he would start a personal crusade against single use water bottles. Since Fisette is about to assume the Chairmanship, we will see where this crusade goes in 2014.

The 2013 meeting also offered a preview of incoming Chairman Walter Tejada’s plans. Chairman Tejada wanted a Columbia Pike TIF and to approve chickens in backyards. Tejada was successful in moving the trolley-induced TIF forward, but the chickens did not make it across the road.

As we know, Chris Zimmerman’s upcoming departure once again gives Arlingtonians an opportunity to elect a Board Member with real political independence. Looking back at the columns I wrote over 2013, I identified a number of reasons to make the change, but here are five:

1. Arlington needs more transparency and fiscal accountability. Summed up in a few short words — $1 million bus stop. Or, the never-ending Artisphere subsidies. Or, to shed light on the close-out process.

2. The Board’s reputation of not listening to us is well-earned.

3. Arlington should be open for business. While the latest federal budget deal will put more (borrowed) money back into the local economy, we should not bank on federal dollars alone for our fiscal future.

4. In general, new perspectives are needed.

5. Because it is not too late to stop the trolley.

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

The Right Note: Recount

by Mark Kelly | December 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm | 673 views | No Comments

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

Mark KellyThis week I had the opportunity to act as an observer for state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26) in the Virginia Attorney General recount. While the Virginia-wide recount did not produce the result Republicans hoped for, Arlingtonians can be proud of the way in which the recount proceeded at the courthouse on Tuesday.

With security provided by Arlington County Sheriff’s Deputies, Clerk of the Court Paul Ferguson oversaw the recount. Ferguson swore in two of the Electoral Board members as Recount Coordinators and ten Officers of Election at 7:00 a.m. to conduct it. Registrar Linda Lindberg and her staff provided guidance to all of the officials as they opened the sealed envelopes containing Nov. 5’s results.

Each campaign named five observers to watch the counting process. All in all, 22 people — 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans — officially conducted and observed the ballot counting. The process was orderly, collegial, and most importantly, accurate.

At the end of the day, there were just two additional votes counted, with one challenged vote produced for review. The additional votes were a result of paper absentee ballots where votes for Attorney General were not read by the optical scan machine during the original counting process. That’s three votes in a race where 66,805 had initially been certified in Arlington.

The Electoral Board and Registrar’s office deserve credit for their commitment to getting it right the first time. And, they deserve credit for the organization and professionalism in conducting the recount.

One of the Democrats observing the process on Tuesday noted that Mark Obenshain was a well-respected member of the Virginia Senate. I could not agree more. Sen. Obenshain’s record in the Senate and his professional experience made him well-qualified to serve as Attorney General. Also, after getting to know him and his family, I came to trust his character as well.

Sen. Obenshain’s character was evident again yesterday. When it became increasingly clear the recount would not change the result in his favor, Obenshain called his fellow Senate colleague, and now Attorney General-elect, Mark Herring to concede. Obenshain ended the process despite having the right to let it play out.

Running for office is no walk in the park. When you decide to run, you know you are making real sacrifices for yourself and your family — and those sacrifices ratchet up substantially when you are running for statewide office. Even with this in mind, I hope Sen. Obenshain continues to serve Virginians in the Senate, and that he will run for higher office again in the future.

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

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