Arlington, VA

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. 

Last week, the County Board adopted its FY2020 budget. The County Board approved a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, effective January 1, 2019. The Board earmarked 1.5 cents of that tax rate increase for Arlington Public Schools (APS).

APS long-range operating budget remains unsustainable without significant tax rate increases

By designating 75% of the projected tax rate increase proceeds to APS, even though APS is only entitled to 47% of locally generated tax revenues under its revenue sharing agreement with the County, the County Board simultaneously:

  • enabled APS this year to avoid the most painful cuts to important programs APS said it would have to make without those newly designated funds, but
  • did nothing to address the fact that APS’ operating budget is unsustainable over the next ten years without significant further tax rate increases throughout the decade

Why the County Board said APS should get such a large percentage of the new tax revenue

Here’s what the County Board said:

“The Manager had proposed a tax rate increase of one-and-a-half cents (including one cent to Arlington Public Schools to address the cost associated with opening new schools, including Alice West Fleet Elementary School, Dorothy Hamm Middle School, and The Heights Building), when he presented his proposed FY 2020 budget to the Board in February. The Board added another 0.5 cents to increase funding for Arlington Public Schools.”

“The Board closed the funding gap in the Arlington Public Schools by adopting a 1.5 cent tax rate dedicated to APS, and allocating an additional $0.6 million in one-time funding.”

Why this isn’t a “one-time” situation

APS currently projects that school enrollment will increase 24.6% over the next decade.

Last year, the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) prepared an excellent report on future school facilities’ needs. That report was prepared prior to the latest APS enrollment projections. But, even without the benefit of those new projections, the FAC report systematically and correctly documents that APS continuously is going to be opening new schools throughout the next decade and beyond to educate this large body of new students.

Because APS enrollment is growing so much more quickly than Arlington’s overall population, that means more students per taxpayer, which means higher taxes if there are no significant changes in the ways in which APS operates its schools.

As I explained in a column a few weeks ago:

If [APS’] $20,012 per-pupil expenditure level remains constant, it will add $132,079,200 to APS’s operating budget by 2028–solely to support the 6,600 increase in APS enrollment.It will require an additional tax-rate increase of at least 17 cents–so a home assessed at $800,000 in 2018 (and $823,200 in 2019) will have a tax bill of at least $9,907 in 2028, even if there were NO additional assessment growth (highly unlikely) between 2019 and 2028.

Thus, the current 47% revenue sharing percentage will fall far, far short of APS’ current operating budget requirements throughout the next decade. One-time offsets like the one the County Board just approved will not fix this serious long-term structural problem.

Conclusion

In response to that earlier column in which I predicted a tax rate increase of at least 17 cents over the next decade, some commenters noted that I had presented a mostly static analysis (true), and that a more dynamic analysis is needed. I agree that a more dynamic analysis is critically important.

Such an analysis should account for the anticipated new revenues attributable to Amazon’s arrival and other revenue growth attributable to future development. It should also account for the incremental costs related to the need to provide all the new schools and other new public infrastructure that will be required to support the population growth for which the Arlington County government is planning.

The burden now is on the County government, in close collaboration with APS, to develop and share for discussion with the community ASAP, a 10-year operating budget forecast that fairly and reasonably takes these dynamic factors into account, and explains how the County and APS propose to pay for APS enrollment growth over the next decade.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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