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Peter’s Take: Questions Remain About Arlington’s Cash Surplus

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 RousselotIn a column last month, I urged Arlington County to explain the enormous growth in the size of its cash surplus relative to its operating budget.

Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz took the time to write a detailed response. Mark deserves kudos for providing it.

Mark’s response presents some explanations that make sense, but provides other material that is cause for significant concern. Since Mark has referenced too much material to address adequately in one column, I’ll discuss today two aspects of that material: general cash management policy and the transportation capital fund.

General Cash Management Policy

The material Mark presented reveals the lack of a coherent, consistent policy for when, how, and under what circumstances taxpayer-funded cash ought to be accumulated in, and then spent from, the multiple different types of Arlington County funds he described.

Some funds have very specific purposes, accumulate cash for a short time, and then spend that cash on the purposes specified. That’s good, but the county ought to have a policy to do that for all its cash surplus funds.

By contrast, Arlington Public Schools does have a coherent, consistent cash management policy that is designed to apply to all its cash surplus funds: At APS, the fund balances don’t just sit there and grow indefinitely.

Transportation Capital Fund

Arlington County’s Transportation Capital Fund (TCF) is an example of a fund that is accumulating taxpayer cash without any adequate explanation for how and when the money will be spent.

Moreover, the following critical TCF details are missing:

  1. the expected cost of each of the individual projects specifically mentioned;
  2. how the total cost of all projects specifically mentioned compares with the total amount of money accumulated in the fund;
  3. the financing plans for any shortfall between the total cost of all projects specifically mentioned and the total amount in the fund, and
  4. how the county proposes to pay for other known and desired, but unmentioned, projects that are eligible for payment out of the fund.

Frankly, this lack of transparency with respect to the TCF suggests one of two things:

  1. lack of effective planning, or
  2. a cynical attempt to hide the county’s true intentions for deploying scarce taxpayer dollars.

Either way, this is not good financial management.

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

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