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The Right Note: The Budget Game

by Mark Kelly January 22, 2015 at 1:45 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 KellyUnless the County Board acts to lower the tax rate, and they should, the average homeowner’s bill will increase by $270 this year.

Think it is not much to complain about?

Just three years ago the average single-family residence was valued at $519,400. Today it is $579,800. The average out of pocket increase over that time is slated to come in at $550.

What does $550 a year mean to a family? Here is one example. If a young family had a child in 2012 and could save that amount every year, they could save over $10,000 to pay for college with moderate interest.

Unsurprisingly, the County’s press release announcing a $270 increased average residential tax bill noted the so-called budget gap to cover projected expenditures. This is what we could call the “we know it seems like a lot, but we actually need more” gambit. It is the same line we hear every year.

We start hearing about the gap during the budget guidance process in November. It is reinforced when property tax assessments come out. Then, in every public statement about the fiscal year budget process.

The gap is what the County Board relies on to sway residents to believe they need to pay more for county services. More to bailout the Signature Theatre. More to pay for the next boondoggle project like the Artisphere or trolley.

The gap is also what the County Board uses to say they made “tough budget decisions.”

It is actually quite audacious to talk about a projected funding gap during the same Board meeting you are spending the previous year’s surplus. But, the Board did just that again in November.

The County admitted once again that revenues came in higher than estimated last year — $31.8 million higher. This is in addition to millions that were not actually spent, even though they were projected to be spent.

In other words, there was no funding gap last year because all of the projections were wrong — even with expenditures going out the door for the trolley and Artisphere. They were wrong in such a way that caused us to ultimately spend and pay more, not less. This is just like every year in recent memory. You can go to county website and search “closeout” for every year for proof we never really have a funding gap.

Now that we have cleared some of the shiny objects out of the budget, it is time for a serious County Board candidate to emerge who wants to dig even deeper into County revenue and spending. County residents deserve someone who will shed light on the revenue estimating process and help put an end to the myth of the funding gap.

In the meantime, maybe the question for County Board members during the budget process this spring should be, how much of the $550 annual tax bill you have tacked on the past three years do you actually need?

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

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