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.
Here is what we know. In Arlington, our property taxes go up every year. The county takes in more revenue every year than the year before. Not only that, but the county takes in more revenue than they estimate when they pass the budget every year. And as they approach each new budget year, the county estimates their will be a “budget gap” every year in order to justify rising assessments and tax rates.
Next year is no exception to any of these things. The difference this time around is talk of large “unknown” costs on top of the estimated gap is larger for next year. While the guidance to the county manager says the gap will be $20-35 million, the county is hinting it may be looking for as much as $78 million.
What are the driving factors of the gap according to the county?
Medicaid expansion, which was supposed to be “free money” from the federal government, is going to cost the county nearly $2 million in direct costs and cuts to other state funds.
Second, Arlington wants to raise the pay for its workforce.
Third, the county is anticipating more money going to Metro.
Fourth, despite borrowing millions, the county is going to spend more money out of the regular budget for ongoing maintenance. Paying for routine maintenance from the regular budget is the right thing to do, so long as we stop borrowing money on top of it.
Finally, the county is going to dedicate more money to new school facilities.
Yet, instead of setting aside the maximum amount of money from this year’s budget surplus to put towards next year’s gap, the County Board put $2 million toward a slush fund for the county manager and $6.4 million in new spending as part of the closeout spending process. The slush fund alone could have paid for the increased Medicaid costs next year. Instead, it will be new tax dollars.
To top off the messaging effort, the guidance raised the specter of layoffs for county staff. In the past, the County has been much more likely to leave current open slots unfilled than to lay anyone off. But, it sounds like service cuts to the public.
Needless to say, the county is setting the stage for a tax rate increase next year on top of the revenue increase from rising assessments. The Board did not offer any cap to the rate increase in their guidance to the county manager, so they are leaving open the possibility of it being a big one.