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Peter’s Take: Board Right on Bond Ballot Wording

by Peter Rousselot August 4, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Last month, the Arlington County Board unanimously voted to approve the wording of four bond referenda totaling $315.7 million.

These four referenda will be on the November 8, 2016 general election ballot:

Peters Take Aug 4 Table

Taking into account factors such as the large sums of money involved, the number and complexity of the projects in each category, the opportunities for public comment on all of the projects, and the opportunities for comment on this year’s entire 10-year capital improvement plan (CIP) , the County Board arrived at a fair and reasonable determination regarding the degree of specificity of the ballot wording of each of these four categories.

Discussion

Under Virginia state law, any time a local government proposes to use general obligation bond financing to pay for capital projects, such proposals must be submitted to the voters for approval. The law grants the County Board the right to determine the wording and dollar amounts of such bond proposals.

This year’s wording represents a substantial improvement over recent prior practice. For example:

While in 2014 a typical ballot question sought $105.8 million in bonds to “fund the design and construction of various school facility projects including new elementary schools, building additions for additional classroom space and maintenance capital projects,” a question on the ballot this fall for $138.8 million in school construction will spell out five specific schools or projects, with costs attached to each.

This year’s push to provide more ballot detail also is a welcome response by current County Board members to a 2012 County Board decision regarding a Parks bond proposal. In that earlier case, the ballot wording of a $50.5 million Parks bond failed to disclose that 80% of the funds were earmarked for the construction of the original grandiose design of the proposed Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park. Voters in 2012 easily could have thought they were voting simply to acquire critically necessary new parkland.

Criticism of the vagueness of the wording of the 2012 Parks bond was a major issue properly raised by independent John Vihstadt in his successful 2014 campaign for County Board. The wording of that bond also led to passage of a 2015 resolution by the Arlington County Republican Committee urging that any individual capital project involving general obligation bond spending of more than $25 million be listed separately on the general election ballot–rather than aggregated into a broader generic category.

The Arlington GOP’s resolution raises reasonable issues for continuing community discussion. The resolution poses legitimate questions regarding:

Singling out a large project for a separate vote (how expensive should it be to deserve separate treatment?), and

Bundling proposed capital expenditures into larger generic categories (how many generic categories should be chosen?).

Conclusion

During the period of public comment on the merits of future capital projects involving general obligation bond financing, it could become clear that the dollar amount of any particular project is so large, or the community is so divided on the project’s merits, that the project deserves a separate line item on the ballot. None of this year’s individual projects deserved such separate treatment.

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