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by Mark Kelly — May 21, 2015 at 1:45 pm 511 0

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

Mark KellyThumbs Up to the County Board for delaying consideration of the proposal to extend parking meter hours from 6pm to 8pm. After watching ground floor retail space sit empty, hopefully the Board will scrap this idea altogether when they reconsider it this fall.

Thumbs Up to Board Members Vihstadt and Garvey for refusing to vote for the Washington Redskins resolution.

There is no shortage of strong opinions as to whether the Washington Redskins should change their name. But when it comes to Members of the Arlington County Board, their personal opinions on the matter have nothing to do with their responsibilities to take care of the needs of Arlington County. Our fortunes will not rise or fall on the name of Washington’s professional football team whose stadium is in Maryland.

The resolution did support the team’s move to Virginia, provided it had a new name. Of course, when FedEx Field was constructed Arlington’s elected leaders ultimately opposed a site in the County and would almost certainly do so again.

Thumbs Down to meaningless resolutions from our County Board.

Telling a football team what to do with its name is not the first time the Board has taken up this type of resolution. In 2012, for example, the Board called on Congress and the American people to pass a Constitutional Amendment limiting the ability of corporations to enjoy the protections of the First Amendment and make political contributions. That resolution essentially called the Citizens United Supreme Court case a threat to our democracy. Though to my knowledge, no County Board Member who voted for that resolution ever refused to accept corporate contributions to their own campaigns as allowed by Virginia law.

Thumbs Down to the Board for unanimously adopting a plan to build an inadequate ART bus facility. As the County’s press release noted, “The new ART bus facility will not be large enough to meet all the County’s projected needs for ART facilities. It can house neither the entire existing ART fleet, nor accommodate all of the buses that will expand the fleet over the next decade.”

The total cost of the ART facility and surrounding street improvements will cost at least $17.6 million, but will only save the taxpayers $57,000 per year.

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

by Peter Rousselot — May 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm 308 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

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe continues to display effective leadership by tirelessly promoting economic development. McAuliffe is:

1. Working to end Virginia’s over-reliance on federal defense spending, and
2. Seeking to diversify Virginia’s economy to take up the slack.

McAuliffe was here in Arlington two weeks ago highlighting cybersecurity and biotechnology as two areas particularly poised for growth.

According to the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, the decline in federal spending has contributed to a region-wide shift from higher-paying jobs — government contractor and subcontractor — to lower paying jobs:

The shift has helped drive down the region’s gross regional product, an indicator of an economy’s health, by nearly $243 million since last year. Fewer highly paid workers, in turn, has led to … higher office vacancy rates and–year after year–reductions in the projected flow of tax dollars that help pay for schools, roads and other government services.

Stephen Fuller, the Director of the Center for Regional Analysis, underscored the problem:

“We’ve just had it easy for so long that we’ve never had to work at this.” Steady increases in federal spending, which reached a peak of $80.7 billion in 2010, kept the Washington region relatively stable during the recession. But it also fostered a false sense of security. “The message is clear: We need to rebrand ourselves and promote our assets.”

Fuller’s message is exactly the gospel that McAuliffe relentlessly continues to preach:

We have to build our own new economy, less reliant on the federal government, bring in new businesses, new interests. That’s what [my] focus has been since taking office in 2014. In slightly more than a year as governor, there have been 350 economic development projects and $6.3 billion in economic activity.

McAuliffe has stressed the importance of workforce development, credentialing, and apprenticeships: “Virginia needs to keep pace with employers’ needs if it wants to retain large companies. [We] need to cater to the large veteran population in Virginia by offering certifications for skills learned in the military.”

He is working closely with Senators Kaine and Warner to block the next round of federal automatic across-the-board sequestration cuts. Those cuts currently are scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2015. In a nutshell, McAuliffe’s message on sequestration is: “there have to be smarter ways to cut the federal budget.”

Conclusion

The Arlington County government cannot rely on the federal government gravy train the way Arlington has in the past. We need to spend every one of our tax dollars wisely. Kudos to Governor McAuliffe for:

  • candidly explaining the situation, and
  • highlighting what all Virginia leaders must do to adjust to our new economic realities.

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

by Mark Kelly — May 14, 2015 at 1:15 pm 945 0

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

Mark KellyThis Saturday’s Arlington County Board Agenda will take more money from your pockets, raise your debt unnecessarily, and spend irresponsibly.

Parking is About to Get More Expensive

If the County Manager’s proposal on parking meters is adopted, Arlington hopes to add over $1.6 million annually to its coffers. The rates have not been changed since 2011, so it is not unreasonable to give them another look.

The more troubling part of the proposal is the effort to extend the hours from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The extended hours certainly do not create a welcoming environment for evening patrons to our retail and dining establishments.

Yes, people will ultimately feed the meters after 6:00 p.m., but is the extra $675,000 per year really necessary in a county already flush with cash?

Bonds to be Issued

There is a strong argument to be made that many of the items the County Board issues bonds for should be funded out of the regular budget. Parks and facilities maintenance, HVAC and roof repairs for our schools, and non-construction improvements to the Water Pollution Control plant should not be funded in the same way as infrastructure like school construction or replacing aging sewer lines.

Maintenance should be treated as regular and ongoing operating costs that the county and School Boards should budget for each year rather than borrowing money to pay for it. If you build a school or put a park in service, you should expect to have to pay to maintain it rather than adding to our already hefty debt service burden.

The county noted the bonds will not be issued until we get our annual bond ratings check-up that reaffirms our highest possible debt rating. Yes, that is in order to get us the lowest possible interest rates — a good thing when borrowing money.

But, the county often touts this rating like it is a measure of fiscal discipline. It’s not. It is a measure of the County’s ability to raise taxes on us to pay off the debt.

New ART Bus Facility

According to the County’s press release, building our own bus facility will save Arlington $57,000 per year. It will cost $14.2 million to build it.

In other words, in about 250 years this bus facility will have paid for itself. That’s one very generous definition of “long range planning.”

No one should argue with a straight face that this is some sort of cost saving measure. Sure, the funds to pay for the facility are not all at the expense of local taxpayers as Virginia is kicking in state funding. However, Arlington taxpayers are paying for that, too.

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

by Mark Kelly — May 7, 2015 at 12:15 pm 2,262 0

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

Mark KellyAround 2000, I sat down to eat in the now-closed Taco Bell on Wilson Boulevard. A few minutes later, one of my fellow patrons sprinted out of the restaurant as his car was being hoisted into the air by a tow truck. Later we learned an “unmarked spotter” had identified his car for towing because he had first walked to the ATM next door to get cash before ordering his Taco Bell dinner.

The car owner showed the tow truck driver his Taco Bell receipt, but was told it did not matter because he had left the premises. Once the tow truck was called, the driver explained, it was his job was to tow the car. So, the car owner stood directly in front of the tow truck refusing to move for more than 15 minutes until the tow truck eventually dropped the car and left.

Needless to say, reports of “predatory towing” are not a new problem in Arlington. But, with social media and some cases recently going viral, the practices have been thrust into the spotlight. Almost certainly, today a video of the car owner standing defiantly in front of the tow truck at Taco Bell would have been posted to YouTube or Facebook and retweeted on Twitter.

Enter County Board Member Jay Fisette, who this week said he would look at changes to these towing practices. Specifically, he said it may be in order to have the property owner sign off on each tow.

While towing companies will oppose any changes to the regulations that impact their business model, Fisette’s approach is worthy of consideration. It protects a private property owner’s unquestioned rights to control their parking spaces while ensuring that same property owner cannot simply blame a tow on a third party spotter who gets it wrong.

As Fisette noted, it is not in a retail property owner’s best interest to get it wrong when it comes to towing. There is a good chance the car owner never went back to that Taco Bell after the parking incident. Why patronize a business that appears to care more about its parking spaces than its customers?

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

by Mark Kelly — April 30, 2015 at 1:45 pm 932 0

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

Mark KellyOur education record in Arlington is a pretty good one. According to the Washington Post, we spend the most per pupil in the region, and second place is not close. Our average teacher salary ranks first. Our average class size is below the regional average. And, our average SAT scores rank third.

Arlington is proud to do it again next year for $18,558. That is the cost per pupil trumpeted by both the Arlington School Board and Arlington County Board as they passed the FY 2016 budgets.

Except $21,814 is the actual total cost per pupil. You arrive at the more accurate figure when you divide the projected enrollment of 25,626 by the total spending of $555.9 million.

$3,256 is the difference when you subtract what we are told our cost per pupil is with what it actually costs taxpayers for every child in the public schools. $83.4 million is the total amount of spending reflected by the difference of the reported per pupil cost and the actual per pupil cost.

Yes, Arlington reports the numbers this way because that’s the way everyone else does it — in accordance with some bureaucratically defined formula. Whether everyone else does it that way or not, should not be the point. The average person who takes a county-generated press releases at face value almost certainly believes it represents the total cost per pupil.

Would Arlingtonians demand more spending accountability from the School Board based on the use of a higher number? That is an open question.

There are certainly questions being raised about when and under what conditions every APS student will receive a notebook or laptop. Who gets them and when? How much will it cost? What safeguards will be in place? How will we equip teachers to carry out the digital learning plans?

What of the rest of the APS budget? Class sizes will remain the same and staff will receive raises. Washington-Lee, which rolled in trailers when it opened because it was not built big enough initially, will soon undergo a costly expansion.

And, the School Board allocated $67,000 to hire temporary help to communicate better with the community. Certainly, it is not on the same scale as the PR campaign employed by the County Board to try and save the trolley. But, shouldn’t the School Board already be able to communicate the rationale for the policies they vote to implement?

Bottom line, we could probably better spend the $67,000 in the classroom.

Arlingtonians certainly support their schools and deserve maximum transparency and accountability in return.

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

by Mark Kelly — April 23, 2015 at 1:00 pm 689 0

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

Mark KellyWith the passage of the budget, the average property tax burden will rise in Arlington by 4 percent. Last year, it increased by 4.6 percent, even with the rate cut.

John Vihstadt summed up his first year on the County Board with this statement, “the problem is not that we are taxing too little but that we are spending too much.” After a year on the Board and looking at how Arlington budgets, Vihstadt understands that more could be done to spend our tax dollars more wisely.

With big ticket projects now shelved or eliminated altogether, other areas of the budget should be subjected to greater scrutiny. It may not be as newsworthy to find $100,000 examples of wasteful spending as a $1 million bus stop, but they are equally as important. It is one of the reasons Vihstadt pushed so hard for the independent audit function in Arlington.

Vihstadt also called for re-evaluating how we build our budgets. Fiscal watchdogs agree. It is no secret that I believe Arlington should revamp the revenue estimating process and start returning closeout funds to taxpayers rather than always using them to increase spending.

But, Mr. Vihstadt cannot do it alone. It is clear from statements from other Board Members, there is no rush to lower tax rates again any time soon. With two seats open on the Board this fall, it is time for another fiscally responsible Republican or Independent to join Vihstadt, perhaps even two.

It is not just the two Board seats that are open. Each of Arlington’s Constitutional Offices are up for re-election as well, including the Clerk of the Circuit Court, which is elected once every eight years.

Electoral competition is healthy and brings greater accountability. But, voters will not be able to truly examine the job each of these elected officials are doing unless a challenger emerges to contest each office.

For years, qualified, community-minded Republicans and Independents did not step up to the plate and run in Arlington. The conventional wisdom was that the Democrats’ nominee would secure the general election victory. Last year’s results made it clear that voters are open to a clean slate and will give them a fair look.

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

by Mark Kelly — April 16, 2015 at 1:00 pm 509 0

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

Mark KellyEach year, somewhere around the time in between when your federal and state taxes are due here in Virginia, the Arlington County Board passes its budget. While the final vote will be on Tuesday, many of the decisions will be made at tonight’s final work session where the Board will “mark-up” the budget with the county manager.

Unlike Congress, Arlington is bound by law to pass a budget that is balanced. Many of us are unhappy with the resulting tax increase we pay each and every year, and we may argue our debt levels need to see some additional scrutiny. But, at least our Board must be prepared for the consequences of a vote to raise taxes in order to pay for any additional spending and debt service they propose.

One item in particular to watch on Tuesday, is whether the Board will adopt the recommendation of the county manager, and most fiscal watchdogs, to end the failed Artisphere experiment. It was a prime example of over-promising and under-delivering on an unneeded vanity project.

We will also know whether the Board will raise our taxes, just not as much, by slightly lowering our tax rate again. Will they vote to raise our taxes by holding the rate level? Or, will they completely reverse course from last year and raise our taxes even more than anticipated by passing the rate as advertised?

A safe bet is the Board will hold the rates level. Based on the fact that once again very few showed up to protest the tax rate increase at the late March public hearing, most Arlingtonians seem resigned to believe they have little real say in the decision.

One of the handful of those who spoke at the hearing did remind the Board that many Arlingtonians find that their incomes are simply not rising as fast as their taxes. And, of course that many in Arlington are retired and on fixed incomes. His larger point was that too many Arlingtonians who have owned their homes for years are finding the taxes increasingly difficult to pay.

In his remarks, he also called for a cap on real estate taxes for long-time Arlington residents. It is an interesting idea that merits a second look, particularly for those aging in place on fixed incomes.

And finally, the Board’s Saturday agenda includes a proposal to reduce the penalty if a real estate tax bill is paid less than 30 days after its due. This proposal to lower the penalty for those who pay within 30 days from 10 percent to 5 percent makes sense. Provide an incentive to pay on time but also a grace period of sorts for those who may have missed the deadline for what could be a very good reason.

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

by Mark Kelly — April 9, 2015 at 12:45 pm 1,031 0

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

Mark KellyVirginia ranked 12th for Economic Outlook when compared to the other 49 states in the latest “Rich States, Poor States” study released by the American Legislative Exchange Council. It does not sound too bad — holding on to a spot in the top 25 percent of the nation.

The study looks at 15 factors, from labor policies to tax rates that historically predict economic success. But, it looks like we may be headed in the wrong direction in the Commonwealth.

Last year, Virginia ranked 11th. The year before Governor McAuliffe took office, we were fifth.

The governor can take some of the responsibility for the decline. So too can the Democrats who controlled the Virginia Senate from the 2007 elections until the resignation of Sen. Puckett last year. But, Republicans have firmly held sway over the House of Delegates for some time and shared in the policy-making decisions that brought us to this point.

Some may discount this ranking because ALEC is known as a conservative organization. So, how do we fare in other rankings for comparison?

In Forbes latest ranking, Virginia took the fourth spot overall in best states to do business. However, if you look at the portion of the ranking called “Growth Prospects” we ranked 33rd.

CNBC ranked us in a tie for eighth, but down three spots from the year before.

Chief Executive ranked us at 11th, down four spots from the year before.

Virginia is by no means in dire straits, but the trendline in these rankings should concern us. Our governor and General Assembly certainly have work to do if our goal is to be No. 1.

In the Chief Executive study, one CEO was quoted as saying, “Virginia has a significant level of local taxes, particularly in jurisdictions in Northern Virginia that constantly nick away at profitability. While the state tax structure is low, the business property taxes, taxes on gross business income and other related taxes of the local jurisdictions eat away at [revenue].”

Arlington Board Members have publicly recognized the fact that we cannot count on federal government spending to fuel future local economic growth. The proximity to our nation’s capital will always be our home court advantage but new businesses do take note of how our local taxing decisions impact their bottom line.

It is past time to make Arlington a more inviting place for businesses to locate. First step for the Board, ignore the calls for a property tax rate increase. Next step, get rid of the BPOL.

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

by Mark Kelly — April 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm 982 0

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

Mark KellyCounty leaders agree: they want to to decrease the office vacancy rates in Arlington. One way to start, abolish the BPOL tax.

What is the BPOL? BPOL stands for Business, Professional and Occupational License, and it is also known as a “business privilege tax” or “gross receipts tax.”

Why is it a prime candidate for abolishment? Because it is a tax for the privilege of operating your business in Arlington. The taxes are based on your gross receipts, not your profits. The lower your profit margin, the more the tax hurts your bottom line.

If you look at the website or listen to a proponent of keeping the tax, you have probably seen the bullet points that show how much you pay. Nothing is due under $10,000; $30 up to $50,000 and $50 up to $100,000. It is only those over $100,000 who pay more, depending on what type of business you run.

This looks somewhat fair to the naked eye until you remember the tax is on every dollar you bring into your business regardless of your expenses. It is truly a tax only an accountant or County Board member could love.

In the 2013 campaign, both Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli said they could support eliminating the authority for the tax in Richmond. But, Arlington could do it on its own. And after the fiasco of the almost, not quite, sort of, elimination of the car tax, it would be better to let localities figure their own way out of the BPOL if they so choose.

Proponents of keeping the tax are primarily concerned about keeping the revenue stream. Last fall, the county treasurer pegged it at $60 million.

Arlington could absorb the revenue “loss” by phasing it out over a period of three years. As has been pointed out multiple times, Arlington collects more than it budgets for in tax revenue each and every year. The County Board could simply designate a portion of the close out funds for the next three years to cover the phase out without raising a single dollar in new taxes from elsewhere.

And, if it truly is a priority to hang an “open for business” sign on Arlington’s front door, then this is a tangible place to start. Bringing more businesses to Arlington would have positive revenue effects not measured by the Treasurer. Presumably, more workers each day would be buying sales-taxed lunches and dinners. It stands to reason that commercial property values, and the corresponding tax revenues, would go higher as the demand for space increases as well.

Board members could quickly give Arlington a competitive advantage on our neighbors in Northern Virginia. And, they would not need a task force or listening session to figure it out.

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

by Mark Kelly — March 26, 2015 at 12:45 pm 720 0

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

Mark KellyA few years back I went to the Arlington County tax rate hearing to listen to the comments of my fellow citizens. So few showed up to comment on the rate that the Arlington County Board actually took a recess while it waited to see if anyone else would come to speak.

If memory serves, all but one of the handful who did come asked the Board not to raise the rate.

Some would argue this shows most Arlingtonians like the level of taxes they pay and are always willing to pay more. Many more of us would argue that in the years immediately pre-Vihstadt, we had given up hope the Board would do anything but raise our annual out-of-pocket costs.

Last month, the Board voted unanimously to advertise a higher rate. If you do not show up tonight and ask for the Board to reject its advertised rate, they may just feel like you are OK with paying even more.

We need to get to the bottom of it

A deaf man with limited English proficiency was held for six weeks in the Arlington County jail last year for allegedly stealing an iPad. He eventually entered into a plea deal for time served.

He claims he was denied access to a proper interpreter, was not aware of why he was arrested for 24 hours, was given medical care without his consent, and frequently missed meals because the system in place at the jail requires inmates to hear. The Sheriff’s Department is not commenting on the specifics of the claims, but does note that services for the hearing impaired are offered.

It is safe to say that it is too early to assign any guilt or blame based on what we know so far. But, these allegations are serious and deserve a thorough review by county officials.

What will this survey really tell us?

Arlington announced it will be conducting another survey to assess the satisfaction with government services. The 2012 Survey claimed that 89 percent of residents were generally satisfied with the services provided. Of course, the 2014 elections spoke very differently.

Digging into the 2012 results, you can find more specific data. What policy makers should note are the areas where residents think they are doing a less than satisfactory job. In 2012, it was roads and traffic.

Forty-eight percent of Arlingtonians who took the survey did not rate the maintenance of county streets as satisfactory or very satisfactory. Fifty percent said they were less than satisfied with traffic management. By comparison, the next worst scoring area was code enforcement at 32 percent who were not satisfied.

It will be interesting in 2015 to see if the county learned anything from the last survey and improved specific areas local residents believed to be lacking.

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

by Mark Kelly — March 19, 2015 at 1:45 pm 1,026 0

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

Mark KellyFor years, Republicans in Arlington have spoken out against wasteful spending projects and the need for more transparency and accountability from our local government. Things have taken a turn for the better in the past year.

Tax rates were lowered — albeit just a little. The aquatics center was put on hold. The trolley projected ended — it looks like other communities are rethinking their plans as well. And, soon subsidies for the ill-conceived Artisphere are slated come to an end as well.

This week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe cleared the way for the county to hire an independent auditor to take a deeper look at our spending. With any excuse removed that Arlington lacked the authority to make this change, the Arlington County Board should move to establish this office immediately. Doing so would mark a great end to a year of positive change.

Recently, outgoing Board Member Walter Tejada made a rather tone-deaf speech to Arlington Democrats with his insights on how Arlington is faring. It is safe to assume his call for “progressive and Democratic values” was targeted to the base in his own party. But, after voters rejected the path Arlington’s elected officials were taking us, such a speech demonstrates why it was time for a change in leadership.

It also harkens back to one of his former colleagues, Chris Zimmerman. Zimmerman was famous for making speeches about Arlington’s success being dependent on “progressive” values. The speeches always deride Republicans as those who are simply opposed to any government.

Mr. Tejada intimated that we are allowing “. . . ourselves to become a new Arlington of rich, entitled people, lacking in compassion, empathy and a sense of community, viscerally opposed to government of any kind, opposed to everything in alleged overspending on every front?”

This line of thinking shows a complete lack of understanding of the overwhelming majority of Republicans. Republicans believe government decisions are best made closest to the voters. Local governments, we believe, have a tremendous role to play in our everyday lives. Schools, roads, safety, and infrastructure decisions are best made closest to home.

Sure, Republicans are also the party that puts a strong emphasis on making these decisions in a fiscally responsible manner. We oppose waste. We think taxes should remain as low as possible to meet our needs.

What Arlington Democrats discovered last fall is that a growing number of Arlingtonians agree with Republicans on how our local government is spending our money. Mr. Tejada may not like it, but if he really was that passionate about his positions, maybe he would be running again instead of retiring.

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

by Mark Kelly — March 12, 2015 at 12:45 pm 659 0

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

Mark KellyLast week, Sweet Briar College, located about 12 miles north of Lynchburg, made national news. It was not for academic or athletic success, but for announcing it would close its doors after 114 years.

The private, liberal arts women’s college with 760 students continued to see declining enrollment and annual operating losses. The tuition and fees alone were nearly $35,000 annually, but according to reports, that rate was being discounted nearly 60 percent on average. Even with the heavily discounted rates, Sweet Briar could not attract enough new students to fill the gap. The school was increasingly relying on an endowment where a majority of the funds were restricted to specific uses.

Sweet Briar College may be an outlier, but the evidence suggests it is the symptom of something much bigger. Sweet Briar is not alone among small private colleges in feeling economic pressures. According to this Washington Post story, the average tuition discount is 4 percent and enrollment is down at “half of small private colleges and regional public colleges.”

The average total annual cost for private four year colleges is $42,419. Twenty years ago, that number was $26,487. And, while public universities are still more affordable, their tuition costs are rising at faster rates over the past 20 years than their private counterparts.

At the same time, median family incomes that are simply not keeping up with rising college costs. So, as parents and students look at costs that could potentially reach $70,000 per year — see Georgetown in D.C. — they have to ask themselves if it is really worth it. Forty million Americans have student loan debt. Total student loan debt is $1.2 trillion, an all-time high.

The question for lawmakers in Richmond is, will Sweet Briar’s closure inspire them to take a fresh look at the future of higher education here in the Commonwealth?

Virginia already has guaranteed admission agreements. This helps students keep total four-year costs down by allowing them to complete their first two years at community college. But, is there an increased role for community colleges?

Can we encourage public-private partnerships in Virginia where more degree programs are created to fulfill industry needs? Along these lines, should Richmond lobby Washington to break up the current accreditation system? Shouldn’t we consider allowing each state to establish its own, giving Virginia more flexibility to create innovative education solutions.

Are there other good ideas out there that simply do not rely on increasing student loans or a federal mandate requiring taxpayers to pay for two years of community college, or worse: requiring us to bail out the growing mountain of student loan debt?

A college education is still the key to better job opportunities. But, parents and students should not feel trapped by the current higher education system that is piling up debt on future generations.

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

by Mark Kelly — March 5, 2015 at 2:00 pm 635 0

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

Mark KellyStories abound about the results of the new federal school nutrition standards. Since their implementation, usage of the program is down, food waste is up, and many students simply go home hungry at the end of the day.

It is not that the health of our children is not an important concern. But, the point of the school lunch program at its inception was to feed kids who do not have enough to eat at home.

The larger argument about the wisdom or practicality of these standards is for another time and forum. One issue surrounding them did rise to the surface again recently. Can kids have “bake sales” during school hours to raise money for their various causes?

Yes, the new school nutrition standards have rules about bake sales. Cookies, brownies, donuts and pizza do not meet the standards. Therefore, they are prohibited from being sold at school.

There is an exception. Each state may allow them, but they have to set rules for doing so. Otherwise, students would be left to sell whole grain, sugar-free, and taste-free muffins to raise money for band uniforms and field trips.

For some reason, Virginia’s State Board of Education had not set forward any rules. So, it led to a debate in the Virginia General Assembly on a bill to determine how many each school could have in a given year.

Maybe in Arlington where the median income is over $100,000, most of us are simply OK with writing a check to cover the extras the school budget does not. But, not every school district is so lucky. And, banning the bake sale takes away the opportunity for kids to learn lessons about working for money in order get things they want or need or to be able to donate that money to a charitable cause.

One Republican Senator said her kids gravitated toward unhealthy foods and therefore she would not support any exceptions for fundraisers. Of course her kids do. Unhealthy food tastes good. Many of us like a good slice of pizza, a Saturday morning donut, or a good bowl of ice cream.

But as a parent, it is our responsibility to teach our kids to eat right. The purchase of a giant chocolate chip cookie at school one afternoon will not dramatically alter a child’s eating habits. Neither will prohibiting it.

The bill to allow bake sales passed the Senate with 17 Senators voting “no” and one voting “present.” I am not sure which is worse, that 17 Senators thought bake sales should be prohibited or one who could not seem to make up their mind.

The bill to free the bake sale now awaits Gov. Terey McAuliffe’s signature. His wife is a proponent of the nutrition standards, so it will be interesting to see if he signs it.

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

by Mark Kelly — February 26, 2015 at 2:30 pm 833 0

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

Mark KellyAfter campaigning last fall on his work to cut the tax rate by 1 cent, John Vihstadt voted to advertise a rate for 2015 that is 1.5 cents higher than last year. The voters could have rightly anticipated a 4-1 vote with Vihstadt voting no.

With the increase in assessments, the average homeowner is slated to see a tax increase of $266 on the real estate rate without a rate increase. If the Board adopts the rate increase, it would tack on an additional $87.

Some may ask, is 97 cents a day more too much to pay for everything we have in Arlington? A fair argument if we had not wasted so much money on boondoggle projects.

And, it ignores the fact that the average homeowner saw a $256 increase in 2010, $66 increase in 2011, $155 increase in 2012, $234 in 2013 and $223 in 2014. That would total $1,287 in annual tax increases in six years.

Think of it another way: cumulatively, the average homeowner will have paid an additional $3,987 from the six years of increases over 2009 tax levels if a rate increase goes into effect in April.

Sure, the Board does not have to implement a higher tax rate, but they have made no case that they need the extra money.

This leads to the second point. The County Board gave guidance to the County Manager to present a balanced budget that did not raise the tax rate. Something Ms. Donnellan managed to do with relative ease.

Yet, by advertising a higher rate, the Board has once again ignored its own guidance. Board Chair Hynes acknowledged this fact, but said the Board unanimously wanted more flexibility. That is code for, if we think you will allow us to take more of your money, we would be happy to spend it.

While the case can easily be made for another tax rate cut, the likely outcome is that the Board will reshuffle some priorities and leave the rate unchanged. They can claim they made some “tough choices” and in the end “saved” the taxpayers some money by not raising the rate.

But, none of the current Board members will face the voters again until 2016. Hynes and Tejada will not face them again at all. After the unanimous vote to advertise the higher rate, you just never know.

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

by Mark Kelly — February 19, 2015 at 1:30 pm 616 0

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

Mark Kelly

(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) On Saturday, the Arlington County Board will determine the maximum tax rate for real estate, vehicles, and business improvement service districts in Ballston, Crystal City and Rosslyn. The final rate will not be determined until April, and you can have your say at a hearing in March, but this Saturday the Board will set the cap.

If you have never dug into a County Manager’s report, you could count yourself lucky. In this case, Attachment II of the report on the property tax rate provides a decade’s worth of history. Including 2015, the average homeowner’s annual tax bill has increased by $1,676 over the past 10 years.

If the current tax rate does not change, the average residential tax bill will go up $281 this year over last — the largest increase since 2006.

Today, the Manager sent out a press release indicating she would recommend no tax rate increase which is in line with the Board’s guidance to “present a balanced budget that assumes no increase in tax rates.” The Board can accept or ignore her recommendation to keep rates level. Best bet is the Board will not raise the rate. Whatever the Board decides, however, it will not impact Ms. Donnellan’s checkbook as she does not live in Arlington.

Two years ago, Patch reported on the salary for county employees. Roughly 1 in 10 earned $100,000 or more. In most places in America, this would be an above average sum. Not here in Arlington. So, it’s not surprising that a majority of county employees live outside of Arlington.

However, there is no reason that top county staff, most importantly the county manager, should not be required to live in Arlington. When Ms. Donnellan makes recommendations to the Board on what tax rates will be or any other important issue, it should be with a more personal perspective. That applies to the school superintendent as well — who already lives in Arlington voluntarily.

For the rest of county staff, the Board could use some objective income level as a standard to require residency, say 125 percent of the median income for the county, and phase-in the requirement for them as well. It would make an excellent addition to the budget.

Correction: The original version of the column said the average salary for a county employee was “north of $100,000.” That was an incorrect reading of the original Patch story. I regret the error

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

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