Join Club

Peter’s Take: Does Arlington Have Too Much Debt?

Peter Rousselot

Peter’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

At its May 23 meeting, the County Board authorized the issuance of $185.3 million in new bonds for various spending, added to $552.4 million in outstanding bonds issued since 2008. There are an additional $281.8 million in bonds already authorized, but not yet issued. Plus, there are $49 million in bonds that have been issued, but not yet spent.


Does the County Board’s latest action leave Arlington with too much total debt?

For many years, the standard answer from county government has been and continues to be “no.” The reason given has been and continues to be that Arlington is one of the relatively few municipalities in America that has maintained the highest possible credit rating (AAA/AAA).

Whereas this is certainly one legitimate way to evaluate Arlington’s status, there are other legitimate ways — some of which raise cause for concern. A more extensive county government explanation of our current and projected future debt levels, followed by a full public discussion, is in order.

Arlington can maintain its current credit rating — despite having roughly $1 billion in total debt (including revenue bonds and other debts) compared to roughly $1.2 billion in total annual revenue (83 percent leverage) — because the bond/credit rating agencies have confidence in Arlington’s ability to continue raising property taxes to generate sufficient revenue to service (repay) its mounting debt load.

An authoritative municipal finance source  lists 10 financial ratios (e.g., per capita debt, total debt to fair market value, and total debt to average individual personal income) that should be analyzed and discussed publicly in determining the relative risks of a municipality’s debt load.

In a 2014 opinion column, the Sun-Gazette examined Arlington’s debt level in terms of these ratios, concluding:

Think the Arlington government’s debt has gone up significantly over the past decade? You have a 75-percent chance of being right. There are (at least) four ways to measure the county government’s bonded debt. Three of them show a significant increase, while the fourth shows almost no jump at all.

A 2014 study in The Connection Newspapers concluded that “Arlington County has one of the highest per capita debt loads in Northern Virginia”:

The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that government “issuers undertake an analysis of their debt capacity prior to issuing bonds” because a “comprehensive and routine analysis of debt capacity provides assurance that the amount of debt issued by a government is affordable and cost-effective.” In so doing, government officials can keep debt at affordable levels.

Further, assessing debt capacity on an ongoing basis is essential for effective debt management and ensuring that debt-planning activities are integrated into the capital improvement process. This assessment, in short, ensures that “an appropriate balance is struck between a jurisdiction’s capital needs and its ability to pay for them.”


By continuing to focus on maintaining our AAA/AAA credit rating as the determinant for deciding whether to incur more debt, we are making a mistake. Attaching too much weight to this factor ignores other county debt. It also assumes that borrowing the maximum amount allowed by the ratings agencies is wise, and that Arlington’s tax base has a virtually unlimited capacity to absorb ongoing tax-rate and assessment increases without suffering ill effects.

Recent Stories

Good Friday evening, Arlington. Today we published articles that were read a total of 5266 times… so far. 📈 Top stories The following are the most-read articles for today —…

A water rescue operation is underway along Four Mile Run after reports of a drunk man falling down an embankment. The incident happened shortly before 4 p.m. behind the Virginia…

With the Yellow Line bridge and tunnel work complete, Metro is upping service on the line. Starting Sunday, Yellow Line trains will arrive every eight minutes all day, the transit…

In honor of the one-month anniversary of this article, we give you a new Mike Mount cartoon. In case you don’t get the reference, it also riffs on some of…

Join MoCA Arlington Summer Camps at Marymount University and learn the fundamentals of handbuilding, throwing on a wheel, glazing, and much more. In this two-week course, students will explore hand building techniques, wheel throwing, and strengthen ideas that exemplify individual artist expression guided by professional working artists. Students of all skill levels are welcome!

Visit MoCA Arlington’s Website here and the registration page to secure your space today!

Submit your own Announcement here.

Please join us on Saturday, June 3, from 2 to 4 pm for the Glencarlyn Home Tour in Arlington’s historic Glencarlyn neighborhood.  Among the featured homes will be a sparkling new home by A&N Builders at 5604-4th St. South. The inviting front porch opens to a light-filled space featuring high ceiling, wood floors, gas fireplace,  Pella windows, Shrock cabinets, Quartz countertop, and JennAir appliances.  Doors from the family room open to a large covered porch with a few steps to the level, landscaped rear yard.  Upstairs, there are four bedrooms, three bathrooms, laundry room, and linen storage.  The big lower level has a rec room, gym space, and a fifth bedroom and bathroom plus even more storage.  After leaving the home, stroll to the Ball-Sellers home, the oldest residence in Arlington, the community gardens at the library, Carlin Hall, and the 94 acre Glencarlyn Park. A lovely way to while away a late spring afternoon.

Submit your own Announcement here.

Homebuying 101: Steps to Getting Pre-Approved

Are you ready to jump into homeownership or started considering it but don’t know where to start? Financial preparation is key when thinking about purchasing your first home and the first step to getting pre-approved.

Join ACFCU’s mortgage loan officers

4th of July Celebration & Fireworks

Treat yourself this Independence Day with a world-class, private 4th of July extravaganza at the Military Women’s Memorial – a premier National Capital Region site.

Great food, fun, and the best views of Washington DC’s spectacular fireworks display. Relax, enjoy,


Subscribe to our mailing list