Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In an October column, I explained why the Arlington County Government’s (ACG’s) four-year delay in developing a long-range, site-specific public-facilities plan has hampered APS’s ability to identify the costs for the new school seats APS projects it will need over the next 10-15 years.

In that column, I noted that successful long-range, site-specific public facilities planning should follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Preparing a long-range, site-specific public facilities plan is critical for Arlington’s sustainable future. Such a plan will have to balance APS’s needs for new seats against other major public facilities’ needs (e.g., for parks, fire stations, community centers, stormwater infrastructure) to accommodate Arlington’s continuing population growth and increasing density.

What ACG should do now

While we wait for the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to propose a long-range public facilities plan, there are some steps that ACG should take now to improve significantly the quality of decision-making regarding APS’s upcoming Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Two months ago, APS released an updated Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP Plan”), and posted this presentation outlining it. This presentation contains APS’s latest estimates of enrollment growth and the new seats our community will need over the planning period to accommodate the substantial enrollment growth forecast.

In this new, expanded AFSAP Plan, APS has taken some important steps to define more accurately APS’s capacity/capital needs and to plan to address those needs. Page 43 of the AFSAP presentation provides an outline of APS’s current CIP priorities. For example, the AFSAP Plan recommends for Middle School (MS) 500+ new seats in 2024-25 and for Elementary School (ES) 700+ new seats in 2024-25.

Why ACG should provide APS with financial parameters now

In the last CIP cycle, ACG did not provide APS with financial parameters for the CIP until Spring 2018–only a few short weeks before APS had to provide the County with its final CIP recommendations. In 2018, ACG’s many months of delay in providing those financial parameters to APS led to discord and much-too-short-decision-making timetables once many in the community realized that projects they initially believed possible turned out not to be affordable. APS and the community together could have arrived at better, more accurate decisions two years ago if ACG had provided APS with those financial parameters earlier than it did.

Based on the new AFSAP, we can already identify CIP “crunch” years illustrating why having financial parameters in hand now is critical. In the last CIP (p.12), the 800+ seats at the Career Center were expected to open in 2024-25, and in 2025 APS exceeded its desired debt repayment ratio at 9.93%. In the new AFSAP, 2024-25 is the same time frame during which APS proposes to prioritize the creation of both MS and ES new capacity, in addition to the Career Center project. Will this be financially feasible?

The kind of financial parameters ACG should provide APS now

ACG already has enough information to provide APS now with rough financial parameters. The fine tuning can happen in May 2020 when ACG will provide APS with final budget numbers. But APS should receive a solid framework of what is affordable now. All ACG needs to provide APS now are rough, best-estimate numbers that are based on rough calculations grounded in the last CIP and other known information such as, for example, the average increase in CIP funding over the past five years. ACG should also provide APS with ACG’s recommendations regarding ceiling numbers–the likely maximum revenue which APS will be able to access in each year of the new 10-year CIP projection period.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, Arlington still won’t have a long-range, site-specific public facilities plan by the time ACG approves the next CIP. But, ACG now should provide APS with rough CIP financial parameters. This will better enable APS and the community to understand the opportunities and challenges we face.

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