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Peter’s Take: Childcare Fiasco is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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 RousselotAs ARLnow.com reported last week after an enormous public outcry, the Arlington County Board has decided not to accept a proposal by the Arlington County Manager to save roughly $250,000 annually by cutting the additional staff Arlington needs to enforce stricter child care standards for Arlington childcare facilities.

What prompted the County Manager to make this proposal in the first place? What are the most important lessons to be learned from this experience?

The County Manager made this proposal because she was instructed last November to make recommendations for cuts in the County’s operating budget that added up to one half of the then estimated $50 million shortfall in the budget. She was looking for ways to cut about $25 million out of the operating budget. This proposed $250,000 cut represented only one percent of the savings she was trying to achieve, yet she proposed the cut anyway.

I believe the County Manager made this recommendation in good faith because it was her way of trying to cope with the lack of willingness by the County Board to reduce or eliminate the huge expenses associated with financing projects like the Artisphere, the Aquatic Center, and the Clarendon dog park. With those projects and others like them “off the table”, the Manager was forced to reach out for a relatively small projected saving in an area like this.

The many Arlington consumers of child care services revolted and shone a light on the risks of gutting Arlington’s child care guidelines. But, those risks were well known, or certainly should have been well known, beforehand.

This $250,000 skirmish over childcare guidelines is just a taste of much more dire cuts to Arlington’s social safety net that are in the offing in future battles over the FY 15, 16, and 17 budgets unless the County Board fundamentally alters its current trajectory of layering one overly-costly capital project after another onto a budget beset by revenue shortfalls due to the flat commercial real estate sector of Arlington’s economy.

Claims that some of these capital projects, like the Columbia Pike streetcar, don’t impact Arlington’s operating budget because they are funded by a “special surtax on commercial property that can only be used for transportation”, are just plain wrong. These supposedly special capital projects do indeed affect Arlington’s operating budget adversely. There is “no such thing as a free lunch.”

The same commercial property owners who pay this special transportation surtax also pay the regular real estate tax that funds the bulk of Arlington’s operating budget. If the Board continues to impose this special transportation surtax at the maximum rate, while also continuing to raise the regular real estate tax rate that directly funds the operating budget, these commercial property owners will pass these costs on to Arlington consumers of their products or services, or they will move to greener pastures in Tysons.

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

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