Arlington, VA

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Around this time each year, I remind readers that county officials annually underestimate revenue and overestimate spending. The result is tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent each November in the closeout process with little public input.

Despite county officials making the case earlier this year that the County Board had no choice but to raise our tax rate in the face of “tough budget times,” this year’s closeout process is essentially a repeat of last year.

Last month the County Board allocated a total of $24.7 million from FY 2019 to the schools after all the accounting was complete. The schools received $7.8 million from excess tax revenue Arlington collected and received back $18.4 million in unspent funds. In other words, despite making the community believe times were tight, the school system did not spend nearly 3% of its budget.

The County Board also decided on what to do with $23.2 million in discretionary funds for the rest of the county budget. The good news is they set aside $13.9 million for the FY 2021 budget process. The bad news is they provided the unelected County Manager with another $2 million slush fund to spend as he sees fit.

The taxpayers received nothing except guidance that there might not be another rate increase next year. This of course does not take into account that real estate assessments are expected to rise by as much as 4% beginning in January which means the average homeowner will probably be paying over $250 more in 2020.

In the words of Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, get ready to “scrub your family budget” to find 4% more for the county on top of the 5% last year.

What the County Board should have done was to set aside $31 million for FY 2021 and committed to cut the real estate rate by at least one of the two cents they raised it last year. The full two cents would be better — and the Board could do it if they scrubbed the county budget — but we have to start somewhere.

In this scenario, the schools still would have received nearly $17 million, leaving them in a solid financial position headed into next year when they are slated to receive a bigger share of county revenue. And the County Board still would have over $20 million to use for next year’s budget.

The net result of this plan is that next November the County Board might have less revenue to spend in the closeout process. And maybe the County Manager would not get his slush fund. But taxpayers would be better off.

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