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The Right Note: Budget Priorities

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.

On Tuesday night, the County Board room was packed with people asking for budget dollars.

Granted, a large number of police officers and firefighters were in attendance to make the case for higher pay, a cause certainly worthy of consideration. However, it is not an uncommon occurrence for the Board to hear about multiple ways to spend more taxpayer dollars.

With the tax rate question settled — unless the Board wants to lower it, which would be fine with many of us — the Board has a relatively big, but finite universe of spending to do this year. I have already made the case that the auditor’s office needs additional resources to truly be effective.

If we want to help relieve future budget constraints, let’s speed up the process of reviewing how the County spends our money.

The County Board should also constrain the closeout process now, as part of the budget. Calls in this column for the closeout funds to be used to lower tax rates have amounted to nothing. But what about an approach that takes our expenditures, tax rates and debt into account?

Total debt for FY 2019 is projected to reach nearly $1.2 billion by the end of the fiscal year. That is $5,193 for every Arlingtonian. Debt service is projected to cost taxpayers about $126 million in FY 2019 between the schools and the county government.

That is 9% of the county budget, which is close to the 10% threshold credit rating agencies look at when evaluating whether we maintain our high bond rating. And with upward pressure on interest rates, the days of uber-cheap financing may be coming to an end.

Here is a suggested constraint on the County Board’s year-end actions for the next five years:

25% of closeout funds, for unforeseen needs in the county or school system.

25% of closeout funds set aside in a reserve fund and earmarked to pay cash for some or all of a future school building.

25% of closeout funds set aside in a reserve fund and earmarked to pay cash for some or all of a major project in the Capital Improvement Plan.

25% of closeout funds given back to homeowners as a tax rebate.

Meeting unforeseen needs, saving to pay cash for purchases instead of putting them on the “credit card,” and giving money back to the people paying the bills sound like a pretty reasonable allocation of excess resources.

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