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 ARLnow.com.
Back in January, I wrote about Chairman Tejada’s call for a Columbia Pike Tax Increment Financing district, or TIF. Some have suggested privately that a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing was a “condition” for Tejada’s trolley support. Regardless of the TIF’s genesis, the Board will hear public comments on it next Saturday.
First, a reminder of how a TIF works. Essentially, Arlington County freezes the tax base of a defined area and dedicates tax revenue from that base to the general fund. The additional future revenue, or a percentage of it, is then earmarked to spend solely in that area, presumably with a pet project in mind. The general fund, on the other hand, is used to pay for the ongoing county services we all use: schools, transportation, police, fire, parks, and other services.
In this case, the Board is proposing a set-aside of 25 percent in the TIF to put toward the construction of affordable housing projects in the Columbia Pike corridor for the next 30 years. Regardless of what you think about the need to fund additional affordable housing in Arlington, the TIF automatically removes 25 percent of the additional real estate tax revenue along the corridor in the future from the general fund. There is nothing to prevent this percentage from going higher in the future to pay for more affordable housing needs or another project in the area.
This is the second TIF proposed in the county, both begun in large part to help get the Columbia Pike trolley project built. The first was put in place for Crystal City — presumably to help finance bonds for that portion of the trolley line. Those bonds would allow financing without a requiring vote by Arlingtonians.
The Board’s willingness to move toward financing projects with TIFs seems to be setting us on a path toward multiple TIFs throughout Arlington. In effect, the new board policy is that they are willing to create long-term earmarks for pet projects. While we will almost certainly never reach Chicago-style TIF levels, with more than 100, what I wrote nearly 11 months ago still holds true today:
The use of special interest TIFs to avoid future public debate, scrutiny, and up or down votes on such projects is a bad idea, plain and simple. It will not only avoid additional public input, but it will inevitably lead to higher tax rates for all of us. When schools, roads, public safety and other services face a squeeze in future budgets, the Board will tell voters they simply have to raise taxes to pay for it.
The County Board should not lock Arlingtonians into this fiscally irresponsible path.
If you are concerned about the long-term earmarks that TIFs will create, you should consider attending the hearing on Dec. 14 to voice your concerns.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.