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Peter’s Take: What Arlington Should Do in 2015

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotArlington is part of a regional economy that faces a serious economic crunch. Arlington must continue to adjust to our new economic reality.

Our New Economic Reality

Federal government downsizing “has seen the D.C. region’s gross regional economy shrink two years in a row beginning in 2013.” Average wages and average household incomes in Northern Virginia have been declining. Dr. Stephen Fuller of George Mason University concludes: “downsizing and repositioning are watchwords. …We are facing the need for a substantial reduction in things not important.”

Federal government downsizing has led to large increases in commercial office vacancy rates in Arlington and throughout Northern Virginia. There is no end in sight. This situation depresses the potential growth in the value of commercial property. At the same time, substantial increases in the value of Arlington residential property continue. County Manager Barbara Donnellan forecasts a 6 to 8 percent growth (slide 10) in the value of Arlington residential real estate during calendar year 2015.

These economic trends mean Arlington’s residential taxpayers will pay a higher and higher percentage share of the total cost to fund Arlington’s budget. But, the average incomes of those residential taxpayers are likely to be flat or declining. That’s why Arlington voters in 2015 will continue to insist that Arlington set priorities by concentrating spending on core services.

A More Rigorous Approach to Investing in Core Services

Arlington should adopt a more rigorous and systematic approach to investing in core services. That approach should be one in which core services receive a higher percentage share of their budget “wish list” compared to the percentage share received by non-core services.  

Other municipalities have provided guideposts that Arlington can use to move toward this more rigorous and systematic approach. One example is the core continuum approach to budgeting taken by the city of Regina, Saskatechewan. Arlington should use Regina’s approach as a starting point, and alter that approach as necessary to fit those aspects of Arlington that differ from Regina.

Arlington not only needs new approaches to setting priorities overall, it also needs new thinking and new approaches regarding development, education, and transportation.

Development

Do we care how much development we have? County Manager Donnellan forecasts that Arlington’s residential population will increase 25 percent from 2010 to 2030. There is no credible plan to pay for the public infrastructure (e.g. schools) that will be required. Arlington needs to have a transparent public conversation to prepare that plan.

All options must be on the table for discussion. We should not prevent discussion by saying, “that’s not how we do things in Arlington.”

Education

The need for such a transparent conversation is most evident in the area of public education. As I have written previously, county and APS demographers need to agree on a single, unified projection of APS enrollment growth. Then, the county and the schools need to develop a joint plan explaining how Arlington will pay for the construction of the new school facilities that will be required. Developer proffers for education should be part of that conversation.

APS also needs to apply a core services approach within its own budget.

Transportation

Arlington County needs to move forward quickly to present and implement a new plan for upgrading transit in the Columbia Pike and Crystal City corridors. Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) already has contributed to the public dialogue by presenting AST’s proposal for upgraded transit in these corridors.

Conclusion

We need new ideas and new policies to solve the unprecedented challenges we face in 2015.

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