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Peter’s Take: Budget Guidance Fails

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 RousselotThe Arlington County Board’s budget guidance for FY 2015 fails to provide appropriate guidance on important issues. The guidance was adopted after a flawed process. The guidance reflects a status quo mindset in an era crying out for a new direction.

Process

The County Board needs a completely different, more open and more transparent process for adopting its annual budget guidance. Here is an example of a better process:

  • publish a draft set of guidelines 60 days prior to the target date for final adoption;
  • invite all citizens and citizens advisory groups and committees, like the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, to comment in writing within 30 days of publication of the draft guidelines;
  • post all such public comments on the County website;
  • hold a public hearing on the draft guidelines and all written comments, then
  • adopt final guidelines.

Substance

In significant part because of the flawed process the County Board followed, this year’s budget guidelines fail to provide appropriate guidance on important issues.

Here are some examples of important issues that are not adequately addressed, or not addressed at all, in this year’s guidelines:

  • the seriousness and long-term nature of Arlington’s escalating office vacancy rate;
  • the impact on Arlington’s residential tax payers of the long-term stagnation in the valuation of Arlington’s commercial tax base;
  • the long-term declining share of Arlington’s operating budget dedicated to Arlington Public Schools even before enrollment increases are taken into account;
  • the need to devote a higher share of Arlington’s operating budget to APS (even higher than historic levels) to account for surging enrollment;
  • the need to introduce rigorous, unbiased cost/benefit tests to evaluate major capital projects like the Aquatics Center;
  • the impact on the operating budget, and Arlington’s AAA/AAA credit rating, of the rising debt payments needed to finance the escalating cost of Arlington’s capital projects;
  • the failure to impose adequate cost controls or caps on Arlington’s long-term commitment to affordable housing;
  • the adverse impact of all of the foregoing trends on Arlington’s ability to fund basic social safety net services, and
  • why all of the foregoing trends lead to the conclusion that Arlington needs to re-focus its budget to ensure that core government services are given priority for funding.

Conclusion

The County Board is treading water at a time when it needs to swim vigorously and resolutely in a better direction.

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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