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The Right Note: How the County Plans to Add to Our Debt

by Mark Kelly September 25, 2014 at 1:30 pm 0

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 ARLnow.com.

Mark Kelly

Last night, Arlington Republicans passed recommendations on the bond questions Arlingtonians will see on the ballot this year.

In terms of dollars and cents, voters will be asked to approve just over $218 million in new debt on Nov. 4. That is roughly $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Arlington — plus interest. It is part of a $2.7 billion, 10-year spending plan on infrastructure projects.

For further perspective, in FY 2015 we will pay $60.7 million to service our current debt obligations. That is roughly 9 percent of our general fund budget.

Republicans recommended a “no” vote on the parks bond. With the aquatics center in an indefinite holding pattern, there are millions of unallocated dollars that were passed by voters under the guise of “parks and recreation.” The Board may have them earmarked for a pool, but this currently available bond authority can be used for the 2014 projects.

Once the Board sorts out the new plans for the pool complex, they can come back to the voters and ask them to approve the final amount. The Board could even try a novel concept, a straight up or down vote on the pool, rather than lumping it in with other “parks and recreation” projects.

Arlington Republicans recommended a “yes” vote on the other three bond measures — each recommendation coming with reservations.

We have a capacity problem in our schools that must be addressed, but a $105.78 million blank check to the School Board is disconcerting to many. Parents and local neighborhoods are feeling left out of the planning process. And, with millions just lying around to buy MacBook Airs for students, many are questioning the way our schools put their budgets together.

The Metro and transportation bond is a lot like “parks and recreation.” Voters vote for it in large part because they support Arlington’s commitment to the Metro. The other transportation projects have often proven questionable. The County Board’s transportation priorities and funding streams should be under a microscope as the Board just approved a $26 million contract for the Columbia Pike trolley. A better way to do transportation bonding would be to approve the Metro bond separately, so that the other transportation projects included could be evaluated on their own merits.

The community infrastructure bond will fund things like 911 communications — certainly tough to vote against. But one could ask why at least some of these items could not be paid for out of the millions in annual closeout funds available to the Board, rather than added to our indebtedness?

Arlingtonians would be well-served to educate themselves on how the County plans to spend their tax dollars and arrive at their own conclusions on the merits of these bonds. They should also consider asking County Board members why controversial projects are often lumped in with other bonds rather than standing on their own merits.

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

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