The Right Note: Spinning Arlington’s ‘Low’ Tax Rate

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

Mark KellyAs we countdown to Election Day Nov. 5, we are reminded that in politics, facts and figures are thrown around quite often. One thing is certain: the numbers a politician uses will be the ones most likely to make their point.

One of my favorites is when Arlington’s elected officials extol the virtues of Arlington’s “low” tax rate. Chris Zimmerman was quoted in one article earlier this year saying Arlington is “eating everyone else’s lunch” on tax rates. Zimmerman credited “smart growth” for bringing in commercial projects and keeping taxes “low.”

While it’s true Arlington has a relatively low tax rate, it is our prime location that is responsible for bringing in relatively high commercial property tax revenue compared to our neighbors. Thanks to the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport, the U.S. Capitol, and federal agencies situated just over the river, no jurisdiction in Northern Virginia or Maryland is more well positioned geographically than Arlington.

What our board never talks about is the average out-of-pocket cost of Arlingtonians relative to our neighbors’. The median home value in Arlington is around $524,700. The new tax rate for the year is $1.006 for every $100 in assessed value. So, the average tax bill for Arlingtonians is $5278.48. In Fairfax, the average tax bill is $5052.98. In Alexandria, the average bill is even lower at $4885.48. So, the average Arlingtonian is paying more out of pocket, not less.

I had the opportunity to run against Chris Zimmerman in 2010 for County Board. On the campaign trail he liked to say that you pay more in taxes for the same house in other jurisdictions. But, I think we all know that, with the exception of Alexandria, a $500,000 house in most neighboring Virginia jurisdictions is substantially larger than one in Arlington. How many people do you know that moved out of Arlington to get “more house for the money”?

Over time, I guess elected officials just start believing their own spin. Between School Board and County Board terms, County Board members have been thinking of ways to spend other people’s money for over 15 years on average. This long-term penchant for driving up taxes lead to an astonishingly high cash on hand surplus — news our Board tried to quickly brush aside.

We should keep this in mind as our Board starts talking about spending so-called “closeout,” also known as surplus tax, dollars from the fiscal year that just ended, rather than returning them to us in the form of lower taxes next year. Or, you can just plan on eating lunch out a little less to pay your low tax rate.

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

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