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The Right Note: Do We Need to Borrow Another $60 Million?

The 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.

It was a busy week for the County Board. They made the final allocations of the $25.5 million of revenue that came in over the original budget projections for the 2017 fiscal year, as well as the $5.2 million of unspent funds in the closeout process.

The Board also approved borrowing for an additional $60 million for the new aquatics center.

Granted, the previous cost of the proposed project was inching closer to $100 million. Assuming that this project is at or near the top of “must-haves” for Arlington, the Board should not hurt their arms patting themselves on the back for saving money. We still have no reliable estimate for what the ongoing operating costs for the pool will be. A safe bet is more than the $1 million figure currently being discussed.

Also, it is important to remember the bond funding proposal approved by voters never included the words “aquatics center” or “pool.” It said “parks and recreation.”

This is why many of us have called for projects of this size to be the subject of stand-alone bond votes. If Board members are so sure county residents want the project, then they should have the political courage to let the project rise or fall on its own merits.

Borrowing money because you can is not only a terrible reason to do it, it puts you in a box for future project that are “needs” not “wants.” Board Member John Vihstadt essentially pointed this out when he outlined his opposition to the aquatics center plan.

But the Board does not even need to use new borrowing to pay for the pool. They had two other options that seemed to receive no serious consideration.

  1. Add the pool to a new middle or high school. Contrary to the sales presentation from county staff, this new pool is not walkable for many people, and it is certainly not close to any school.
  2. The no new bonding authority option. Using some of the closeout funds this year and the next two years, along with reprogramming from existing bonding authority to cover the costs of the project.

Yes, using some or all of the closeout funds would mean less bonus revenue would be transferred to the schools the next two years. But like the county, the schools are running a revenue to expenditure surplus in their budget already.

Contrary to tales of woe the School Board may tell, APS is not scraping by financially even with the influx of students. And by saving room for bonding authority, it would ensure no future school building is held up because we are spread thin by borrowing for county projects.

It was also disappointing to see the Board continue its tradition of putting forward budget guidance documents that assume a fictional “budget gap” despite taking in more than $25 million of additional tax revenue last year (just like every year).

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