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The Right Note: County Spending, Debt and More

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

As expected, the County Board put more pressure on Arlington taxpayers’ checkbooks at its July meeting. The Board voted unanimously to adopt a prevailing wage for contracts over $250,000. That is expected to add 15% to the cost of almost everything we build and buy moving forward.

Then the Board voted to increase our annual debt service obligations by $10.7 million by authorizing an additional $86 million in bonds. Technically the voters will have to approve it in November, but local Democrats will endorse the bond measures on their sample ballot which means it is all but certain to pass. Presumably, the latest round of borrowing would have cost taxpayers just $75 million before the prevailing wage vote.

The Board also voted to adopt collective bargaining which is estimated to cover up to two-thirds of its public employees. Instead of taking responsibility for hiring and paying county staff appropriately, the County Board is punting the accountability to a labor negotiation process which time and again has put local and state governments under financial strain.

While it is difficult to estimate the long term impacts of labor agreements, there is little doubt that it will ultimately result in millions of dollars of additional spending each year down the road with little flexibility afforded to future County Boards to make reasonable adjustments. As Chairman Matt de Ferranti said, “elections have consequences.” In this case, it will be higher taxes to cover the costs.

Higher prices for contracts, more debt, increased labor costs and higher tax rates are on the way. The County Board’s inflation is going to be added on top of climbing gas prices, grocery bills, housing costs and higher health expenses. One might ask what does driving up the cost of living do for equity in Arlington?

Speaking of public employees, the County Board voted to implement a civilian oversight board for the Arlington Police Department, complete with an independent auditor. No doubt this auditor will have more financial resources than the County Auditor who is tasked with examining the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of Arlington government overall. If so, it’s another reminder that the Board does not place a high priority on responsible spending.

The County Board also voted away its subpoena power for the investigative process to this unelected administrative panel. And the Board ignored warnings that this new panel could put unhelpful pressure to recruit and retain good officers on a department that should be focused on the recent uptick in crime. One thing is sure, when added on top of the removal of School Resource Officers from schools, the signals being sent to the men and women of law enforcement is that Arlington’s elected officials do not trust them.

And finally, Arlington released its latest set of logos for public consideration. The new set is a very slight improvement over the previous set released earlier this year. You can vote here for your favorite. The winner will last until the County Board decides to change our name altogether.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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