The Right Note: Surplus Questions Remain

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

Mark Kelly

This past week, Treasurer Frank O’Leary updated a chart showing county cash-on-hand. According to the Treasurer, over the past five years, the County’s April cash-on-hand has approximately doubled.

O’Leary caused a splash with last year’s version. Initially he called for using a growing cash surplus to provide taxpayers with a rebate. Within days, O’Leary explained his comments were meant as a private citizen, not as an elected official.

Spending less money than you take in is a laudable goal. Creating a rainy day fund from taxpayer surpluses is important when our local government has to actually balance its budget every year. At the same time, the trend line is moving in a direction that should concern Arlingtonians.

We currently have about $360 million in the bank — an amount equal to roughly one-third of our annual budget. O’Leary picked April to study because it is typically the lowest cash-on-hand month of the year. The monthly cash-on-hand has peaked at over $600 million in the fall.

At the very least, a transparent government should provide an accounting and an explanation for the overflowing coffers. Here are four questions the County should answer about the surplus.

  1. What are the surpluses earmarked for, if anything? Trolley, aquatics center, school construction, anything at all? If the money is in the accounts, presumably the County can tell us about the intended purposes.
  2. Will the County Manager reveal the process by which they estimate revenue projections since they continuously underestimate actual revenue collections? I have written about this on multiple occasions, and this year the Board used the revenue surplus as its rationale for the token tax rate cut.
  3. Why didn’t the growing surpluses warrant a larger tax rate cut? Many fiscal watchdogs have called for a rebate to taxpayers, not just Treasurer O’Leary.
  4. Will you publish the county’s “check register” online? Arlingtonians should be able to track revenues, expenditures, and accounts on a regular basis without relying on annual reports from the Treasurer. This can be done in a manner that would both provide maximum transparency while protecting privacy.

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

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