The Right Note: Here we go again

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

The annual closeout process, or second round of spending, is upon us again. Tonight, the County Board will formally receive the excess funds available report and recommendations on how to spend all $284.9 million from the County Manager.

While real estate revenues once again soared past estimates by $16 million and taxes collected from businesses were up by $12.5 million, overall revenue inched up by just $3.7 million in the past fiscal year. As you might imagine, sales taxes, hotel taxes and meals taxes were off by about $27.7 million.

The recommendation from the County Manager is to spend $1.8 million on a one time pay adjustment for county employees. The remainder would be set aside to supplement the Fiscal Year 2023 budget. While taxpayers would be better served with real estate tax relief than increased spending next year, the funding would in theory keep pressure off the so-called – though never materializing – budget gap.

After already allocated projects are accounted for and we send our reserves to $95.5 million, the County has just over $20.5 million in excess funds available to spend for the non-schools portion of the budget. This comes from the $3.7 million in excess revenue plus $16.8 million in unspent budget items. And, it is roughly equivalent to last year’s figure.

The more eye-popping numbers are on the school side of the ledger. Despite a public posture that the schools were approaching bad financial footing, Arlington Public Schools had $58.7 million in unspent funds last year. If the County Manager’s recommendations are adopted, the schools will have $62 million available to spend as they see fit as part of the closeout process.

What is the bottom line?

First, even in the face of an unprecedented pandemic and the government’s economy-crippling response to it, Arlington taxpayers still provided record levels of revenue to fund our local government. Also, it proves once again that county staff habitually underestimates property tax revenue in order to help create the annual “budget shortfall” narrative.

Second, Our schools’ budget was off by roughly 10% last year, even further off than their current enrollment estimates were.

How can voters send a message in the November 2nd elections?

To the School Board: Vote NO on the $23 million school bond. The schools have the cash available to pay for it now and still have $39 million left over. Why go further into debt when there is no longer the estimated upward pressure on enrollment?

To the County Board: Vote for anyone but the incumbent. Takis Karantonis is about as virtual a lock as you can get in politics, so sending a message that we want a better process for spending taxpayer funds, or better yet returning excess funds to the taxpayers, is all we can do.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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