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Peter’s Take: Aquatics Center Wrong Priority in Tight Budget Times

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 ARLnow.com.

In presenting his proposed new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the County Board last month, County Manager Mark Schwartz appropriately stressed fiscal prudence and making tough choices among competing priorities.

The Manager also correctly noted the incremental needs in capital spending that have arisen since Arlington’s last CIP was adopted two years ago, including for:

  • APS
  • Metro
  • Other transportation and core community infrastructure

But, as ARLnow.com reported, the Manager tried to defend moving forward with the construction of a $60 million aquatics center at Long Bridge Park. He argued that it would be a “breach of faith” to cancel it. He also claimed:

“If we back out… nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years… We’d probably… be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company]… and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”

The benefits of cancelling the aquatics center substantially outweigh the costs

The Manager’s conclusions about the contracting community and protracted litigation are alarmist. Contractors will continue vigorously bidding against each other for our business. We can reach a fair settlement with the construction company. At a minimum, county government should produce a redacted version of the construction contract so that it can be evaluated by disinterested, independent experts.

As for the “breach of faith,” we must weigh the great disappointment of aquatics center advocates if this project is cancelled against the lasting opportunity costs to the entire Arlington community of proceeding forward.

I share most of the sentiments expressed in the most up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com news story:

“The aquatics center is a boondoggle that should be stopped immediately. Just because it has been worked on for a few months does not mean we should continue to throw good money after bad… Arlington taxpayers will be on the hook for the deficit forever.”

I don’t agree this project is a boondoggle, but I do agree with the rest of this comment.

While school enrollment is growing at the equivalent of one new elementary school per year, and our vital Metro system still needs more funding, we should take pressure off our CIP’s 10 percent debt service limits by cancelling the aquatics center project. The costs to service our bonded indebtedness are already rising too close to those limits.

The Manager estimates net taxpayer support for aquatics center operations at something north of $1.1 million annually. This estimate is highly speculative because County government has never operated such a facility. The actual annual operating deficit could be much higher.

The net savings from cancelling the aquatics center should be re-directed toward other legally permissible uses

The Manager has confirmed that the County Board legally could reprogram the approved bond monies for the aquatics center to other park and recreation priorities. These include:

  • land acquisition for new parkland (the Manager’s CIP contains $0 for acquisition of new parkland over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period)
  • park infrastructure (including a smaller community pool) at Long Bridge or elsewhere

Conclusion

County government has cancelled the 4thof July celebration at Long Bridge Park due to “budget constraints” while insisting that the aquatics center be built despite budget constraints. Each of those decisions should be reversed.

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