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by Mark Kelly — March 5, 2015 at 2:00 pm 495 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.

by Mark Kelly — February 12, 2015 at 1:45 pm 686 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 KellyJohn Vihstadt spoke regularly about hiring an independent auditor in the county government during his campaigns and throughout his brief tenure on the Board. The credit for originally identifying the need goes to the Arlington Civic Federation. The Civic Federation raised the idea back in 2011, calling for an independent “Inspector General.”

While candidates from the Republican and Green parties raised the issue in previous election cycles, the idea did not really seem to take hold until the infamous $1 million bus stop made national news. Along with the ongoing Artisphere subsidies, a $1 million dog park and an aquatics center price tag that seemed to be spiraling out of control, the need became apparent to the voters as well.

Enter Del. Patrick Hope. Delegate Hope’s bill would remove any doubt as to whether the County Board could hire a truly independent auditor who will not report to the county manager, but directly to the Board itself.

With its unanimous passage in the House of Delegates, it seems on track to become law. Delegate Hope deserves kudos for pushing the bill towards passage.

With this in mind, the Board should be building this office into its FY 2016 budget with the anticipation it will be approved. The Board should ensure the office is adequately staffed and has broad enough authority to examine county spending in a truly independent fashion.

It seems as though the Board or the county manager had been dragging their feet on hiring an internal auditor under the current staffing structure as approved last year. The position is still vacant. So, the Board should set a self-imposed deadline to have an independent auditor in place of not later than July 1.

The Board should also grant the office authority to examine how county staff estimates revenues. While the White House chronically over-estimates revenue growth to make projected federal deficits look smaller, the staff at Courthouse seem to chronically underestimate revenue growth to drive tax rates higher.

The Board and county manager like to say they are budgeting conservatively, but there is nothing conservative about creating “revenue shortfalls” on paper as an excuse to drive up taxes and spending.

Providing transparency and accountability from outside the normal chain of command in Arlington is a good idea with broad support from across the partisan spectrum. Provided the Hope bill passes the General Assembly, the Board should follow through on it promptly.

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

by Mark Kelly — February 5, 2015 at 1:00 pm 688 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 KellyAcross America, there is a move to encourage states to call for a Constitutional Convention. That debate has moved to our General Assembly in Richmond.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution states in part:

The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, . . .

This means a minimum of 34 states would be required to petition Congress to set a date and venue for new Constitutional Convention. Any proposed amendments would then need to be ratified by 38 states.

Much of the beauty of our Constitution is in its simplicity, both in length and wording. Its 4,000 plus words have rarely been amended since it was drafted in 1787. By comparison, the European Constitution contains over 156,000 words, the King James Bible contains over 780,000 words, and the tax code and regulations are over 4 million words and counting. Nothing about the tax code or regulations can be argued to be simple or straightforward.

Amending the Constitution is serious business, which is why our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to make it difficult. In fact, our Constitution has never been amended as a result of a Constitutional Convention subsequent to its ratification.

Proponents, who tend to be on the conservative side of the political spectrum, are pushing for a balanced budget amendment and limitations on executive power, among other things. Their fiercest opposition also seems to be among conservatives who do not want to open up the Constitution to mischief by states that would send liberal contingents to a convention. And if my email inbox is any indication, both the proponents and critics are extremely passionate about their positions.

Whatever your view, there really seems to be no path to finding 34 states to petition for an Article V convention — at least not in the near future.

At the same time, a public debate about how, when and why to amend the Constitution is a healthy thing. If nothing else, maybe it has caused Virginia, birthplace of its primary author, to take a second look at the Constitution and to think about what it would mean to amend it. Hopefully more than a few teachers viewed it as an opportunity to use current events to study one of the best foundational documents ever written.

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

by Mark Kelly — January 29, 2015 at 12:15 pm 775 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 KellyWe may never know the content of the conversation between Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes that caused them to ultimately arrive at their votes to cancel the Columbia Pike trolley. However, it looks like the Board may still be split 3-2.

By all accounts, Democrat Libby Garvey should be up for Board Chair or Vice Chair. She was elected in a 2012 special election when Mary Hynes last chaired the Board. Hynes was followed in the middle seat by Tejada, then Fisette. Yet, Garvey was passed over this year to give those spots to Hynes and Tejada.

With Tejada’s announcement yesterday that he would not seek re-election, it is possible the move was a final nod to his service from his colleagues. It certainly explains why he remained defiant over his trolley vote. But, it is worth watching whether Democrats will ever accept Garvey back into the fold.

It is also worth noting that the father of the trolley, Chris Zimmerman, has remained strangely silent on its demise. Maybe Zimmerman saw the writing on the wall before he left the Board a year ago. He certainly was astute enough to jump off the Metro Board before it began a series of drastic rate hikes and service reductions.

Speaking of considering your political future, next week’s meeting of Arlington Democrats may see Hynes announce her electoral intentions for 2015. Her reversal on the trolley points to another run, particularly since Tejada’s pending departure opens up a seat for ambitious Democrats looking to run.

One Republican relayed to me recently that he thought it would be tough for a non-Democrat to win another race in Arlington without the trolley and the aquatics center to run against. My response: three of the same people who thought those projects were a good idea are still there — at least for the rest of this year. So, the penchant for putting the taxpayers on the hook for vanity projects still holds a majority on the Board. Voters were satisfied with the Vihstadt test run on the Board and elected him to a full term. They may be ready for another independent voice.

The County Board agreed to a revenue sharing agreement with the School Board. It reads like a lot of common sense, but it is not groundbreaking. Schools, public safety, roads and other basic infrastructure needs are the key spending priorities for any local budget. At around $22,000 per child, when you don’t “exclude” certain spending, maybe we ought to focus more time talking about how the schools are spending the dollars they already receive.

And finally, if you live near Reagan National Airport, you watched the County narrow a portion of S. Eads Street from two lanes in each direction to one. If the Board’s goal was to create more traffic congestion during rush hour and cause drivers to consider making use of neighborhood streets instead of a more major thoroughfare, then congratulations are in order.

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

by Mark Kelly — January 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm 691 0

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

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

Think it is not much to complain about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mark Kelly — December 11, 2014 at 1:30 pm 398 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 KellyGov. Terry McAuliffe’s office recently announced that he has closed 228 economic development deals since January. This is a carryover from a similar push by the McDonnell administration to bring jobs to Virginia.

In a report by the Watchdog, the latest deal merely shifted jobs from one Virginia county to another. Regardless of the quality of all the deals, bringing business to Virginia is a laudable goal. This is especially true as Virginia must adjust to a federal government that will not go back to 2009 stimulus spending levels any time soon — if ever.

The question is should Virginia’s priority be to play let’s make a deal, or should we improve the baseline for our business climate?

According to the Tax Foundation, Virginia ranks 27th in overall business tax climate. Virginia ranked 23rd in 2012. Virginia’s elected officials have not done anything to make us significantly less competitive, but we are now in the bottom half of states rather than the top.

Governor McAuliffe issued a lengthy report outlining what he wanted to do to increase economic growth in 2015. It purports to outline a “New Virginia Economy” and is chock full of buzz words.

Included is a small section to “right size regulations” — though it is short on specifics and seems short on any real regulatory reforms. What is not in the report under any of the “goals & strategies” is making Virginia the number one business tax climate. The section mentioning taxes highlights that we are better than average by some measures — hardly a real selling point.

When competing with Maryland for businesses looking to locate in the greater Washington, DC area, Virginia is still ahead when it comes to the tax climate. But, if we want to truly compete nationally, we have to do more on the fundamental tax issues because every state competing for businesses is offering incentives like those currently being handed out by Governor McAuliffe.

Making Virginia number one for its business tax climate would be a real opportunity for the governor to work with the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the next three years. Unfortunately, it does not look like it will be a priority.

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

by Mark Kelly — December 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm 587 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

Earlier this week, a story appeared here on ARLnow posing a question of whether the County Board should require developers to make a contribution to schools as one of the community benefits required for additional density.

Though the exact number varies from year to year, roughly 46 cents of every tax dollar in Arlington goes to the school system per a loosely defined revenue sharing agreement. One could argue developers could do more for schools, but for each additional tax dollar generated by new development, the schools already receive a significant ongoing, rather than one-time, benefit.

This ongoing property tax revenue benefit works this way except for the two areas operating under a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF). Arlington currently has two TIFs in Crystal City and along Columbia Pike — not coincidentally in the areas that would have been impacted by the now-cancelled streetcar system.

When there is a TIF in place, a percentage of future tax revenue is set aside to be used in the areas covered by the TIF. In other words, those tax revenues are no longer shared with the schools, or the rest of the general budget, in the same way as they are throughout the rest of the county.

For the Crystal City TIF, 33 percent of additional revenue moving forward from January 2011 will stay in Crystal City to pay for infrastructure. Along Columbia Pike, 25 percent of additional revenue will be used for affordable housing on the Pike.

By taking these revenues off the table for decades into the future, it builds in an automatic squeeze on the schools budget, in addition to reducing money available for roads, parks, public safety and other services. And, if past history is any indicator, the solution will be for the County Board to come to the taxpayers throughout the county and tell us they have no choice but to raise all of our taxes again.

Now that the streetcar project has been tabled, it is time for the County Board to revisit the the two TIFs. The Board should eliminate them altogether and fund any needs through the regular budget and bonding processes. A less desirable option is to debate a reduction in the percentages that were originally calculated with the streetcar in mind.

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

by Mark Kelly — November 20, 2014 at 1:45 pm 803 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 KellyThe Arlington streetcar is no more. It came just one year after the father of the project, Chris Zimmerman, announced he was resigning. Even the most hopeful of opponents found themselves surprised at the announcement on Tuesday.

Over the course of nearly a decade, a small vocal minority became a silent majority, which became a voting majority against the project. After losing two elections in a row, two of the Board members finally acknowledged public sentiment. Walter Tejada ignored the election results and voted to keep moving forward on the project.

The streetcar project was emblematic of the way the County Board has made decisions in recent memory. When you only talk to people who largely agree with you, you get a feedback loop that too often ignores public sentiment. See also the Artisphere and aquatics center.

Arlingtonians are generally willing to pay more than their fair share of taxes, but now the Board knows they have their limits. Arlingtonians should turn their attention to smaller ticket items in the budget and should hold the Board to account for how they make spending decisions in general. As we dig in further, I think we will find that too often, our elected officials chase a shiny object rather than focus on core services.

So, while defeating a half-a-billion dollar project is good for taxpayers, it is time to get that independent audit function up and running to find savings elsewhere in the budget. We certainly should not be buying the argument that times are tight when Arlington’s per capita spending is $4,623 — or $461 more than our similarly situated neighbor — Alexandria.

On Tuesday, the County Board completed the annual closeout process where they made over $240 million in spending decisions. Included in that process was approval to spend an additional $28.5 million in underestimated real estate tax revenue and $4.2 million in extra personal property tax revenue.

Once again, the revenue estimates on which County Board members based annual budget decisions were way off. Real estate taxes ran 4.7 percent ahead of initial estimates, even with the rate decrease we received in April.

So, it is of little consolation when the Board offered budget guidance Tuesday that would hold tax rates steady. If not a tax rate cut, maybe it is time for a County Board member to call for an annual rebate process. For instance, if real estate revenues ran more than 1 percent ahead of budget, the excess would automatically be rebated to taxpayers rather than spent.

If we start to limit the revenue the Board has available to spend, it will force them to make better budget decisions. A rebate may be a bold proposal for Arlington, but now is the time for bold.

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

by Mark Kelly — November 13, 2014 at 1:30 pm 585 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 KellyOn Tuesday, the Arlington County Board will give its annual budget guidance to the County Manager.

First, and probably most importantly, this guidance is almost always ignored when it comes to building the final budget. It is a jumping off point to the six-month budget building process. The Board will not be bound by what it says now when it comes to taxes or spending levels.

As we enter budget season, we hear a lot of terminology thrown around. One of my favorites is “shortfall.”

It does not mean what you think it means. We do not have shortfalls in Arlington. Our spending goes up every year — every single year in recent memory. And nearly every year, it goes up faster than the rate of inflation plus population growth — a standard measure for whether your government is spending a higher percentage of your income each year than it needs to maintain current levels of service.

Think our schools have shortfalls? Not really. Case in point, Arlington schools shook the couch cushions and found enough to buy MacBook Air computers for every 9th grader at three high schools this summer, all from unspent funds.

At the end of every year, the County Board also has tens of millions in extra tax revenue available to spend on non-budgeted items in what is known as the closeout process. The schools get a cut of the closeout money every year as well. This process will also take place at Tuesday’s meeting, but the report outlining how much it will be was still not available online.

Since this revenue underestimation of revenue happens every year, one might think the County Manager would adjust her estimating process. But, she doesn’t. A working theory is that the County likes for projected revenues to create so-called “shortfalls” in order to increase public pressure to raise taxes.

The Board did trim the property tax rate by one penny per hundred dollars in assessed values in the spring. But, our real tax bill still went up by $324 on average this year.

Based on initial estimates reported in the Washington Post, the average single family tax bill is slated to go up by 8 percent next year, or $440, if the tax rate remains the same. It never sounds like too much each year, but it adds up over time.

It is time to stop the annual rite of passage of public relations maneuvers that keep raising our taxes far faster than is warranted. We should see guidance to trim the tax rate again next spring. And, we should start the discussion of permanent guidance to the County Manager to cap revenue and spending growth at the rate of inflation plus population.

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

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