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The Right Note: Aquatics Center Sticker Shock

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.

Mark KellyIn November 2012, voters approved a bond that was titled “Local Parks and Recreation.” The primary part of that bond package was $50 million to complete funding for a new south Arlington swimming center which had a total price tag estimated at $75 million.

As it turns out, that still may not be enough. County Manager Barbara Donnellan had to halt forward progress on the new facility when bids came in well over the already-generous cost estimates. This was on top of the recent announcement that annual taxpayer subsidies for the ongoing operational costs of the project were ballooning dramatically over the original cost estimates. The new estimate is that the aquatics center will operate at a deficit of $4 million per year.

In 2012, the voters did give the “parks and recreation” bond 10 percent less of the vote than the community infrastructure bond, and 17 percent less than the schools and Metro bonds. It seems a larger percentage of voters than usual had concerns about the swimming facility than they usually do over local infrastructure spending. However, it is still tough to defeat a ballot measure that sounds as benign as “Local Parks and Recreation.”

As I was standing in line to vote 15 months ago, I recall hearing a mom explaining the bond votes to her elementary school-aged daughter. “We need good parks,” she said in explaining why she was voting for the bond. Maybe she knew the aquatics center was included and just wanted to simplify it for her daughter, or maybe she did not.

Either way, this is a perfect case in point for the need to have large bond issues stand on their own for votes. If the County Board is proposing a bond for more than $10 million on a single project, why not let us vote it up or down as a standalone measure?

The answer is quite simple. If the bond description had been “$50 million to complete a $75 million community swimming facility,” the County Board may have lost the vote. And, it is the same rationale by which Board members have resisted allowing even a token straight up or down vote on the Columbia Pike trolley.

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

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