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The Right Note: It’s Rigged to Spend More

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.

At the end of February the Arlington County Board voted 3-2 to advertise a 2-cent tax rate increase. The two members who voted no did so because they wanted to advertise a higher rate.

As the County Board discussed advertising the increased rate, Chairman Jay Fisette called the County Manager’s budget the “best professional recommendation.” In reality, Arlington County rigs the budget game to ensure they can spend not only what they propose in the annual budget, but the closeout slush fund created by chronic underestimation of revenue.

In FY 2016, Arlington took $29 million more in revenue than it had projected in its fiscal year budget. The County also did not spend $6.4 million it had budgeted. That’s $35.4 million in tax revenue over and above the needs of the budget. And year after year, the County Manager and County Board spend it during the closeout process right before going to the public and saying they have budget shortfalls for the next year.

To put the closeout funds in perspective, if left unspent it would take no residential property tax increase to meet the revenue needed for the next county budget.

Taxpayers would appreciate a one-year pause on their escalating property taxes. Under the County Manager’s latest budget proposal, taxes on the average single family homeowner would increase by around 5 percent for 2017 when you account for higher assessments and a two cent tax rate increase. The tax burden is retroactive to January 1 of this year.

Annual spending over the last 15 years or so has regularly outpaced inflation plus population growth — a measure which should ensure more than adequate continuation of county services. The annual revenue spending is supplemented by the unlimited willingness of voters to approve bonds to take on about $1 billion in debt.

Many Arlingtonians express a willingness to pay even more, which should not be a surprise in a county that has elected exactly one non-Democrat to the County Board in the last 17 years. At some point however, a majority of the public may balk.

Wages for the third quarter of 2016 rose by 3.9 percent in Arlington. So not only do taxes continue to outpace population growth and inflation, they are growing faster than wages. It means most of us will probably be paying more and taking home less.

County Board member John Vihstadt rightly asked the County Manager for budget options at a lower tax level. But taxpayers should be dubious that the Board will approve any tax increase lower than the maximum two cents.

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