On the next Arlington County Board meeting agenda is the annual close-out process. Despite it being just seven days away, the recommendation from the County Manager is not even online. This process often allocates $100 million or more in spending and no one outside of County Staff — and presumably Board Members — has seen it yet.
For years, I have railed against this process. In effect, the County Board has a slush fund every fall that they can dip into and spend with almost no public input. While this process may not get the attention of a Columbia Pike trolley project, it has spent far more of our tax dollars and few county residents even know the process exists.
Last year, around $32 million came from revenue over and above what was budgeted for in the spring. In fact, year after year, revenue estimates come in far below actual revenue collections. The County argues this is fiscal prudence. I remain convinced they take the low end of the estimate range so they can advocate for higher taxes to pay for their spending priorities.
What should the County Board do to improve the close-out process?
First step: make it more transparent. The County Board should not vote to spend $100 million with only seven days, or less, notice.
Second step: create a section of the annual budget in the spring of anticipated priorities with close-out funds. Tell the community specifically what you will spend money on if some things you are budgeting for end up costing less than you anticipated. Let people speak to it as part of the budget hearings.
Third step: as part of the new independent audit function, the County Board should ask for a report as to why revenue estimates continue to be off by such a wide margin every year.
Fourth step: start returning excess revenue to taxpayers. Property taxes, not rates but actual tax payments, go up every single year in Arlington. Few of us would object to paying a little less.
With fresh faces on the County Board and a new County Manager on the way, it as good a time as any to bring a more transparency and accountability to the spending process. With any luck, it will lower our tax bills as well.