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Peter’s Take: Deep Six the Aquatics Center Now

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 RousselotNow — not “mid-2015” — is the time to cut bait on the extravagant $80+ million vanity project known as the Arlington Aquatics Center.

According to Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz, despite the loss of potential new funding associated with the 2024 Summer Olympics, “Arlington is ‘still committed’ to building the Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Center ‘without any new taxpayer funds.'”

To the contrary, Arlington should not spend one more dime of any new — or old — taxpayer funds to build this gold-plated project. This decision should be made now — during the County’s upcoming FY 2016 operating budget review process — not in “mid-2015” as Schwartz suggests.

The estimated annual operating subsidy for the Aquatics Center, as currently designed, has skyrocketed from $450,000 in 2011 to almost $4 million today. Discussing the Aquatics Center’s fate in conjunction with the FY2016 operating budget review will help the public answer questions like these: Where should budget cuts likely be made? How much would the tax rate have to increase to cover this swimming palace’s projected $4 million annual cost?

The Aquatics Center also is relevant now because it is already costing us money even though the project’s construction is “on hold.” Some Aquatics Center funds already have been borrowed and are sitting unused. We are paying interest on this debt out of current Arlington County operating funds. Because the project remains on hold, this money cannot be reallocated to construct neighborhood community pools on the Long Bridge site or elsewhere. This money cannot be used to perform long-deferred maintenance at other parks or to purchase additional parkland.

Scrapping this project’s current design and redirecting the funds to other pressing community needs like new community pools would NOT violate Arlington voters’ will. Although voters twice approved large park bond issues (portions of which were intended to fund this project), those votes now have little persuasive value for two reasons:

  1. Voters weren’t allowed to vote on a bond issue for the Aquatics Center as a separate line item on the ballot (isolated from other park spending), and
  2. Voters who approved either or both of the two park bonds weren’t aware of the Aquatics Center’s $4 million estimated annual operating subsidy.

Given Arlington’s forecasted population growth, we are definitely going to need more community pools and recreational space. With just 8.1 park acres per 1,000 residents, Arlington has less park space than D.C., Boston, New York City and other high-density communities. It may make sense for one or more new community pools to be co-located with a middle school and/or community center.

Conclusion

All of the money currently on hold for the Aquatics Center should be redirected now to more pressing community needs.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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