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The Right Note: Tis the Season of Giving?

Mark KellyThe 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.

Every December our leaders in Arlington begin talking about a mythical budget gap. It is the first step in building a case with the public to pay more next year in taxes.

It’s a mythical gap because every year, at about the same time, the County Board is spending tens of millions of dollars in the closeout process. This year end budget boost comes from additional tax revenue and reallocation of other unspent funds in the budget.

With only a $5 million “gap” on the horizon for the next fiscal year (practically a rounding error), Arlington’s County Manager is using a different tool in the public relations game — Metro. He’s “worried” Arlington may have to chip in a substantial, and still unknown, amount in the coming year.

Mr. Schwartz did go out of his way in his recent Civic Federation presentation to take Metro to task for putting itself in this position. And I would hope the County Board would not come to the taxpayers for more money without first requiring real reforms from the flagging system.

But in case Metro’s woes were not scary enough, the schools have announced they may need as much as $25 million more than last year’s budget — about half for projected enrollment increases. In case you missed it, the schools just received $8.6 million from excess revenues collected in FY 2016 as part of the closeout process. A similar unbudgeted amount is sent their way every year.

Schools and Metro are certainly core line items in the budget, and they are extremely popular with the public. This is precisely why they are being used as the rationale for us to pay more (again) in 2017.

And if there is any doubt as to the bent of our leaders to tax and spend more, you need only look at the legislative package being considered by the Board in the coming days. It includes support of a change in Virginia law to allow localities to raise their meals tax to 8% without a referendum vote.

It’s hard to make a case that Arlingtonians would ever defeat such a proposal at the polls, as it almost certainly would be sold to the public as an “investment” in schools or Metro or parks.

Maybe the Board just feels bad for neighboring jurisdictions after the November meals tax referendum in Fairfax went down to such a resounding defeat. A recognition, perhaps, that not everyone has such accommodating taxpayers.

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