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The Right Note: Some People Just Can’t Help Themselves

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

County Board members made it clear at the recent Arlington Civic Federation meeting that they were leery of cutting back on capital spending because they are getting such good deals on construction costs.

This reminds me of a shop-a-holic going hog wild with their credit card because they are getting so-called “good deals.” They come home and announce to a spouse, friend, or roommate, “I saved a lot of money today.”

In reality, they borrowed a lot of money today, probably on several things you didn’t really need now — or ever.

Our board’s shopping spree includes a lot of spending on plenty of unnecessary things:

  • The purchase and rehab of a new building for a homeless shelter at more than ten times the cost to retrofit the current shelter
  • An $80 million state-of-the-art aquatics center
  • A trolley that will cost five times more than a new and improved bus system
  • And, the black hole known as the Artisphere

The difference between the shopper who maxes out their credit card and our County Board is that the shopper cannot force their friends to pay for the spending spree. The board can just stick the taxpayers with the tab. This week, we learned that the County Manager is proposing a 3.2% real estate tax rate increase for this year.

We also discovered that the county will likely cut its workforce. It seems the County Manager, who was recently given a generous raise, is going to give out as many as twenty pink slips to county staff to match anticipated spending with projected revenue.

Year after year, our County Board has spent well over the rate of inflation and population growth and put our budget in this position. They are leery of even slowing down when it comes to capital projects.

Unfortunately, we have become a nation of debt. Our federal debt is over $16.5 trillion — over $52,000 for every man, woman, and child. Our personal debt is over $15.7 trillion. While it is primarily mortgage debt, credit card debt in the United States is nearly $850 billion. The average college graduate’s debt is over $26,500.

Our Arlington debt seems paltry by comparison — about $1 billion, or $5,000 for every Arlingtonian. However, it simply adds to the mounting legacy of debt we are creating for future generations.

I spoke at length with a Democratic neighbor while working at the polls in November. While he was not a fan of the trolley, he had this to say when I asked about adding as much as $250 million more in debt to pay for it: “Our county can handle the debt.”

This culture of growing debt may be our new normal, but should it be?

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

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