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.
The Arlington streetcar is no more. It came just one year after the father of the project, Chris Zimmerman, announced he was resigning. Even the most hopeful of opponents found themselves surprised at the announcement on Tuesday.
Over the course of nearly a decade, a small vocal minority became a silent majority, which became a voting majority against the project. After losing two elections in a row, two of the Board members finally acknowledged public sentiment. Walter Tejada ignored the election results and voted to keep moving forward on the project.
The streetcar project was emblematic of the way the County Board has made decisions in recent memory. When you only talk to people who largely agree with you, you get a feedback loop that too often ignores public sentiment. See also the Artisphere and aquatics center.
Arlingtonians are generally willing to pay more than their fair share of taxes, but now the Board knows they have their limits. Arlingtonians should turn their attention to smaller ticket items in the budget and should hold the Board to account for how they make spending decisions in general. As we dig in further, I think we will find that too often, our elected officials chase a shiny object rather than focus on core services.
So, while defeating a half-a-billion dollar project is good for taxpayers, it is time to get that independent audit function up and running to find savings elsewhere in the budget. We certainly should not be buying the argument that times are tight when Arlington’s per capita spending is $4,623 — or $461 more than our similarly situated neighbor — Alexandria.
On Tuesday, the County Board completed the annual closeout process where they made over $240 million in spending decisions. Included in that process was approval to spend an additional $28.5 million in underestimated real estate tax revenue and $4.2 million in extra personal property tax revenue.
Once again, the revenue estimates on which County Board members based annual budget decisions were way off. Real estate taxes ran 4.7 percent ahead of initial estimates, even with the rate decrease we received in April.
So, it is of little consolation when the Board offered budget guidance Tuesday that would hold tax rates steady. If not a tax rate cut, maybe it is time for a County Board member to call for an annual rebate process. For instance, if real estate revenues ran more than 1 percent ahead of budget, the excess would automatically be rebated to taxpayers rather than spent.
If we start to limit the revenue the Board has available to spend, it will force them to make better budget decisions. A rebate may be a bold proposal for Arlington, but now is the time for bold.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
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