Peter’s Take: The New Normal of Arlington’s Budget Choices

by Peter Rousselot February 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm 1,155 24 Comments

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column published on Tuesdays. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotEven Arlington can’t have it all.

How Arlington decides what it can afford says a lot about the realism of our leaders. Are they making the hard choices, or just struggling to preserve the illusion that some choices are unnecessary?

I’ve been thinking about this since I received a political fundraising letter earlier this month saying the following:

“Our goal should be to balance the short-term budget adjustments with the long-term needs of our community. We should ensure that our schools remain among the very best, that we maintain a strong social safety net, and that we continue to provide affordable housing options. We must also continue to make needed capital investments in transportation and infrastructure that will improve the quality of life and protect the future vitality of the community.”

It’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t:

  • balance short-term budget adjustments with long-term needs, or
  • ensure that our schools remain among the very best, or
  • maintain a strong social safety net, or
  • continue to provide affordable housing options, or
  • make needed capital investments in transportation and infrastructure

But, we need to move far, far beyond the framing of this particular fundraising letter and ask ourselves questions like these:

  • What’s a short-term budget adjustment and what’s the new normal?
  • In the new normal, what projects and services should be cancelled?
  • What’s a needed capital investment and by what criteria should need be measured?
  • What must be done to ensure that our schools remain among the very best?
  • When the only way to ensure that our schools remain among the very best is to do without other county services or capital investments, will our leaders step up and say so?

We must define or redefine what our core services are because those are the services that ought to be guaranteed funding. Some of the other services and projects must be placed in a “so sorry, no can do” category. We must take these steps because the likely rate of growth in the value of Arlington’s commercial real estate tax base will be flat or very low for many years compared to the past. This is the new normal.

As the budget season unfolds, I will use this framework to define which specific Arlington services and projects (or categories of services and projects) should be retained, and which should be set aside to adjust to the new normal.

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

  • bemused bystander

    So, Peter … when are you running for the Board so you can actually make those hard choices instead of pontificating from the sidelines?

    • speonjosh

      Huh? All political speech is “pontificating from the sidelines?”

      • bemused bystander

        Never said “all” is. Just his.

        • speonjosh

          Ahhh. Got it.


    where does an indoor lazy river fall in the ‘new normal?’

  • John Fontain

    I agree with Peter’s column. It’s time to evaluate our priorities and make some hard decisions. It’s also time to spend more wisely, even on what we deem our priorities.

  • SoVaSteve

    No comments or 4 comments: what is going on? The article listed “no comments” but I open the article and magically there are four comments.

    • Lisa

      Something very odd is going on with the improvements because the site is not user friendly. Is the site now designed to track and block commenters who might not like the paid bloggers who infect the comment sections?

  • OverDC

    I think all the Board members should take a pay cut. I also think we need to reprioritize. I do agree that we need to start living within our current budget or the budget we had several years ago. You can’t ask people to pay more and more in taxes when they are already taking less and less home, just so Arlington can say we have X,Y and Z. We don’t need a Artisphere and 20 (exaggeration) community centers and a ton of public pools, etc. We need to spend less and find ways to bring more businesses back into Arlington.

    • speonjosh


      Aside from a moral stance on your part, why?
      What public good would come from using a budget from “several years ago?” What would be the point?

      How do you get to say what we “need?”
      Businesses “back into Arlington?” What is the ratio of businesses that have left Arlington in the last, oh, ten years, to the number of businesses that have come to Arlington in that time?

  • Even Arlington will be hurting when the US Dollar comes apart thanks to nearly unlimited money printing…the rest of the country?…Detroit-esque…

    • novasteve

      Money goes on trees adn we can just tax the few productive people 90% of what they earn! nothing will stop our progressive agenda!

      • Mom Brenda

        Glad you are concerned about others, because we all know that you do not fall under the category of productive people.

  • Abe Froman

    Calling the street cars needed transportation infrastructure is just a farce. Needed? I think not. I’m not even sure that they are nice to have’s.

    • drax

      Are you saying we don’t need streetcars, or we don’t need anything?

  • Courthouse Diva

    love the idea of defining core services —- everything does not need to be core.

  • TransitRider

    Right on, Peter! Unfortunately, many politicians are incapable of making the hard choices and/or do not educate themselves sufficiently to distinguish between good solutions and poor solutions. The streetcar is a perfect example. A number of board members claim that only a streetcar can meet the capacity needs on Columbia Pike. Yet, just a few minutes of research would reveal to them many existing bus systems that far exceed the expected capacity of the streetcar, and do so at much lower cost. We should be looking at these options and discussing how the savings could be invested in more important priorities, like schools and affordable housing.

    • oscar

      OK, but please don’t keep us in suspense – which ones did you find in a few minutes of research?

  • Courthouse Diva

    OMG – the next article talks about all the wonderful improvements to be made to Potomac Overlook. I love the park but do we really need treehouses, a bus drop off plaza/welcome area with information kiosk and covered area for up to 75 persons,etc. These things would destroy the park! And force spending money on unnecessary items.

    • JimPB

      Potomac Overlook Park is located within Arl Co but is not a ARLCo park.

  • ArlRes

    “As the budget season unfolds, I will use this framework to define which
    specific Arlington services and projects (or categories of services and
    projects) should be retained, and which should be set aside to adjust to
    the new normal.”

    Really? And what makes you the expert to define what our New Normal should be again and act as the arbiter of what should stay and what should go? Awfully high opinion of yourself. Sheesh!

  • JimPB

    President Obama’s dictum in his SOTU address seems relevant: “We don’t need a bigger government; we need a smarter government.” In other words, are we doing what’s important to do in the most efficacious and cost-efficient way? For example, in education,
    are we making maximum use of the science base on learning? One example: Have high school start time been adjusted to fully reflect the robust science that adolescents get sleepy later and need more sleep? Moving back start times to reflect this science has resulted in increased attentiveness in class, especially first period classes, better grades, and higher educational achievement scores. Another example: Do our interventions for children from disadvantaged families reflected the science: from Head Start up, evaluations find that the interventions have little or no impact on higher achievement, and when they do, the benefit dissipates quickly, but that an intensive (20 hrs./wk) in-home intervention focused on verbal engagement with little ones from 8 mos. to 3 yrs. of age, based on NIH funded research, has a transformative and enduring impact: At 4th grade, average IQs of 100 (vs. around 80 otherwise) and educational achievement at grade level (vs. several or more grades behind). (For more information about the NIH research and evaluation of its use, see the little, data rich but readily read book, Meaningful Differences, by Todd Risley and Betty Hart.)

  • Overtaxed

    This County Board is in a perpetual tax and spend mode and have no problem reaching deeper into our pockets every year. They keep approving expensive unecessary projects like streetcar, aquatic center, Artisphere, overpriced community centers, etc etc, that will ensure we will have future tax increases to operate them. I don’t consider this Board a good steward of my tax money. I want a tax cut for a change and i don’t even think they know what that is. Time to vote in some new people and we can start with Jay Fisette who cracks me up by calling himself fiscally conservative. What a joke!

  • Mike

    Unfortunately, our leadership seems to believe teh new normal is just the old normal again. Streetcars, the Artisphere, aquatic centers, raises for the Manager, on and on. Sadly, they will probably be right, judging by the crowd that showed up at the Board meeting last Saturday – all of 4 or 5 people (about .00002 percent of the population).


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