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The Right Note: Trim the Tax Rate

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 KellyOn Tuesday, the Arlington County Board will give its annual budget guidance to the County Manager.

First, and probably most importantly, this guidance is almost always ignored when it comes to building the final budget. It is a jumping off point to the six-month budget building process. The Board will not be bound by what it says now when it comes to taxes or spending levels.

As we enter budget season, we hear a lot of terminology thrown around. One of my favorites is “shortfall.”

It does not mean what you think it means. We do not have shortfalls in Arlington. Our spending goes up every year — every single year in recent memory. And nearly every year, it goes up faster than the rate of inflation plus population growth — a standard measure for whether your government is spending a higher percentage of your income each year than it needs to maintain current levels of service.

Think our schools have shortfalls? Not really. Case in point, Arlington schools shook the couch cushions and found enough to buy MacBook Air computers for every 9th grader at three high schools this summer, all from unspent funds.

At the end of every year, the County Board also has tens of millions in extra tax revenue available to spend on non-budgeted items in what is known as the closeout process. The schools get a cut of the closeout money every year as well. This process will also take place at Tuesday’s meeting, but the report outlining how much it will be was still not available online.

Since this revenue underestimation of revenue happens every year, one might think the County Manager would adjust her estimating process. But, she doesn’t. A working theory is that the County likes for projected revenues to create so-called “shortfalls” in order to increase public pressure to raise taxes.

The Board did trim the property tax rate by one penny per hundred dollars in assessed values in the spring. But, our real tax bill still went up by $324 on average this year.

Based on initial estimates reported in the Washington Post, the average single family tax bill is slated to go up by 8 percent next year, or $440, if the tax rate remains the same. It never sounds like too much each year, but it adds up over time.

It is time to stop the annual rite of passage of public relations maneuvers that keep raising our taxes far faster than is warranted. We should see guidance to trim the tax rate again next spring. And, we should start the discussion of permanent guidance to the County Manager to cap revenue and spending growth at the rate of inflation plus population.

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

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