Arlington, VA

by Peter Rousselot October 26, 2017 at 10:30 am 0

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.

In last week’s column, I discussed the County’s General Fund (GF) Fund Balance. The County Manager subsequently posted a proposed FY 2017 Close-Out Report and 5-year budget forecast.

The 5-year budget forecast projects ballooning deficits in the out years.

Past Practices and Policies

Based on past County Board actions and policies, the County Manager historically has allocated the majority of any close-out surplus either to a spending category or, if needed, to keep the County’s reserves at the current required minimum (5 percent of operating expenditures).

The Manager also typically has identified a small remaining portion of the surplus (the available balance) that has not yet been allocated to any purpose. Over a seven-year period, this unallocated surplus has ranged from $36.1 million (FY 2012) to $11.1 million (FY 2017). Every penny of surplus revenue exceeding the dedicated 5 percent minimum operating reserve gets allocated to spending.

Last week, I posed this question:

Does County government commit or earmark too much surplus revenue for spending rather than beefing up reserves or offsetting tax or fee increases?

The answer is: yes. Therefore, the County Board should act this November to change or clarify the County’s policies regarding both allocated (particularly the “assigned” or earmarked portion) and unallocated close-out surplus funds. This transition might take more than one year because organizations and individuals have planned based on the County’s current seriously-flawed approach.

Increasing Reserves

Because the County holds a large balance of earmarked/assigned funds in its GF Fund Balance ($51,946,981 million in FY2016), it has argued that it has sufficient flexibility, and doesn’t need more than a 5 percent operating reserve.

The credit/bond rating agencies (Fitch, S&P and Moody’s), however, view this earmarked money as being of questionable availability to pay debts. So, they recommend that the County raise its dedicated operating reserve toward 10 percent. 

Offsetting Tax Increases

In 2016, the Civic Federation passed a resolution asking the County Board to use a “fair and reasonable” portion of the close-out surplus to offset tax increases.

Why? Because the cumulative impact of successive real estate tax increases (a combination of assessment and/or tax-rate increases) has become burdensome for many County residents and businesses, as The Washington Post has documented:

These cumulative increases — assessment or tax rate, or both — make housing less affordable for all Arlingtonians, and render our expensive commercial office space less competitive (as tax increases are passed along to tenants by property owners).

Real estate tax increases disproportionately harm residents living in the County’s committed “affordable” housing units — undermining the housing subsidies the County provides — as well as those lower/middle-income and fixed-income residents who receive no County housing subsidy.

Conclusion

The County Board should act this November to change or clarify Arlington County’s current seriously-flawed approach to allocating close-out surplus funds. This is a major issue that extends far beyond the unallocated surplus (this year: $11.1 million).

Whether the County Board chooses to lessen the impact of tax increases in the upcoming fiscal year, add to dedicated reserves or simply stash the cash in a flexible “unassigned” category, Arlington County’s current approach of spending or earmarking every penny of surplus revenue isn’t in our community’s best interests.

The current “budget roundtables” could be strengthened substantially if the public were offered a manageable number of choices, each of which would eliminate the ballooning five-year deficits forecast by the Manager.

by Peter Rousselot April 8, 2020 at 3:00 pm 0

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

APS teachers, parents, students, and staff have responded heroically to the shock to their routines presented by the Governor’s decision to end classroom learning for the current academic year. Our community is very fortunate to have educational leaders who have created these full-time distance learning options until in-school instruction can resume.

However, for a variety of reasons — all of which were apparent prior to the coronavirus crisis — APS must transition to revised ways of delivering its educational services. APS’s existing instruction and construction models cannot be sustained long-term.

The Arlington County government also must step up right now and play a proactive role in helping APS plan this essential long-term transition.

Current instruction (operating budget)

On April 6, the County Manager released his revised FY 2021 operating budget, estimating that the revenue available to APS under its revenue-sharing agreement with the County will be $21.6 million lower than estimated in February. This leaves APS with a current $48.6 million operating budget deficit.

But, the balanced operating budget the County Board finally approved last year illustrates why APS’s current instructional model is fiscally unsustainable. In that pre-coronavirus budget year, APS received 75% of the revenue from a 2-cent tax rate increase even though APS currently is only entitled to 47% of locally generated tax revenues.

The County Board unsuccessfully tried to rationalize last year’s decision by pointing to those APS expenses attributable to opening new schools, implying that 2019 was a one-time thing. However, because of very large projected increases in APS enrollment throughout the next decade, APS will have to provide new seats for new students throughout that decade.

Based on last year’s APS enrollment projections, budget, tax rate, and real estate assessments, I explained why Arlington would have to raise its real estate tax rate by about 17 cents over 10 years simply to pay to educate the new students (6,000+) arriving solely due to enrollment growth.

Because APS enrollment is growing even more rapidly 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.

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by Peter Rousselot October 23, 2019 at 2:30 pm 0

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.

On October 16, ARLnow reported on the Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR’s) proposed project at Bluemont Park (601 N. Manchester Street).

In the article, the county explained more about the renovations, writing that:

“The goal of this Parks Maintenance Capital project is to replace the tennis court complex, lighting, restroom/storage, shelter, parking lot, site circulation, section of Four Mile Run Trail, site furnishing, drainage and landscaping in the Upper Bluemont area.”

The County has scheduled a meeting on Tuesday, October 29, 7-8:30 p.m., at Ashlawn Elementary School (5950 8th Road North) to enable the public to comment on DPR’s current plans for Bluemont Park upgrades.

Some DPR park upgrade proposals make sense and should be pursued.

As Boulevard Manor Civic Association President Chris Tighe noted in a comment to the ARLnow.com story:

“The [tennis] courts are indeed in bad shape due to large cracks, water damage, and unlevel playing surface. […] The gazebo structure is also in dire need of rehabilitation.”

DPR should be commended for planning and responding appropriately to maintenance concerns like these.

According to a County Bluemont survey, most respondents asked for upkeep, lighting and benches.

The survey drew around 350 responses when it asked for suggestions on what should be changed in the park. The majority of responses asked the County to:

  • Preserve and plant more trees
  • Resurface the tennis courts to fix cracks and improve drainage
  • Improve lighting, and add more light poles near the baseball diamond
  • Install more benches at the tennis courts and elsewhere
  • Better maintain the restrooms and water fountains by the picnic shelter

The current parking lot does not need to be replaced

Other proposed DPR “upgrades” are overkill and should be cancelled; the money saved should be redirected to higher priority, better uses.

Contrary to DPR’s current plans, the existing parking lot at Bluemont Park simply needs resurfacing, and it would be a waste of our tax dollars to replace it entirely.

As the image to the left illustrates, the parking lot is level and the existing pavement is in reasonably good shape.

Also, County policy has consistently reduced off-street parking requirements and emphasized shared parking arrangements.

The existing tennis-court footprint doesn’t need expansion

The needed tennis-court repairs should be made within the existing tennis-court footprint; the site is already built out, and the existing footprint should not be expanded.

The recently completed Public Spaces Master Plan documents a substantial surplus of tennis courts in Arlington. In our severely land-constrained County, it makes no sense to waste our scarce bond capacity and limited tax dollars to expand the tennis courts in flood-prone Bluemont Park.

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by Peter Rousselot October 9, 2019 at 3:30 pm 0

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.

If the County Manager follows recent practice, he soon will propose how to spend any budget surplus remaining after closing out Arlington’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which ended June 30.

What percentage of this “close-out surplus” will the Manager propose to spend immediately?

What’s been happening

Typically, 47% of surplus dollars are automatically allocated to APS under a revenue-sharing agreement. Most of the remaining surplus is often allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written statement explaining how, when and why such “commitments” were made. Also missing is a written, publicly available policy clearly defining a “one-time” expenditure, and why “one-time” surplus funds are frequently spent on recurring needs.

Recently, the County Manager has reduced the close-out-surplus amount somewhat from previous years — when annual close-out surpluses ran as large as $36 million. But neither the Manager nor the County Board has fully adopted a key reform proposal recommended by the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed):

In 2016, Civ Fed passed a resolution urging “the Arlington County Board to annually consider setting aside a fair and reasonable amount of any surplus for the reduction of real estate taxes.”

Because the Board has allowed the Manager to allocate, or spend, almost all surplus cash at closeout without waiting until the following Spring when needs or shortfalls in the coming fiscal year are known with greater certainty, decisions on how millions of dollars are spent remain largely beyond taxpayers’ scrutiny.

Beyond the “close-out surplus”

What the Manager and the public generally call the “close-out surplus” reflects only a small part of the County’s overall surplus cash on hand. Once allocated, surplus funds end up in what is called the County’s “Fund Balance,” similar to what we would think of as a savings account. With these huge cash surpluses accruing year after year (some of which remain allocated but unspent for long periods of time), the size of Arlington’s Fund Balance has grown very large.

For example, as of June 30, 2018, the County reported combined fund cash balances of $634.8 million.

Do you know if, when, where, and how Arlington plans to spend the current Fund Balance?

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by Peter Rousselot October 2, 2019 at 2:30 pm 0

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.

On September 23, APS posted the latest version of its Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP plan”). This 78-page plan is based on APS’ latest estimates of enrollment growth.

Highlights of the AFSAP plan include huge projected seat deficits at the elementary and middle school levels over the next Capital Improvement Plan time horizon. There are no specifics about exactly where many of these needed new seats will be located nor how they will be financed.

Elementary school seat deficit

The elementary school seat deficit is particularly troubling.

The 10-year projections establish a need for nearly 2,500 more permanent elementary school seats county wide in Fall 2028-29.

Initial social media commentary on the AFSAP plan criticized APS for not being more creative about design options:

“WHY IS KEY ELEMENTARY 2 STORIES? Seriously, though, we own property practically beside the Metro, in the shadow of 10+ story buildings. Build up! (And I’m a Key parent-the lot could host Key and a neighborhood school).”

APS certainly needs a design makeover: up not out; preservation of mature trees and green space right at design outset; provide only facilities critical to instruction. But the core problem the AFSAP plan exposes is the glacial pace of County and School Board members in producing a long-range plan locating new school seats at specific sites–four years (!) after the Community Facilities Study Group’s recommendations.

Amazon

Amazon’s new HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into providing the missing plans.

In a late 2018 interview, then County Board Chair Katie Cristol tried to downplay Amazon’s impact on our schools:

“[T]he increasing tax base coming from [Amazon]…will more than supplement [the increase in student population attributable to new Amazon employees living here].”

But Cristol didn’t address whether these incremental revenues would be more than offset on net by increased costs attributable to new residents (both Amazon employees and others).

Moreover, APS won’t be the only public claimant for the incremental revenues we hope Amazon will generate. There will be enormous other public claims on those revenues. Arlington is dragging its feet by failing to produce a long-range public facilities financing plan that resolves these competing claims in a site-specific way.

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including, but not limited to, schools)

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), schools, parks, fire stations, affordable housing and other public investments that will be required? Will we have such bond capacity under several different, but all plausible, alternative economic scenarios? Note: as taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate the costs of many other items, including “affordable” housing. Are there one-time alternatives to bond financing, e.g., the County’s huge surplus cash reserves

When asked to choose among needing more new school seats, new acres of park open space, and new units of affordable housing, we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices because the community hasn’t been asked.

Conclusion

The APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) prepared an excellent 2018 report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to the lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range facilities planning must 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

Arlington lacks such a long-range plan today because it has failed to follow these principles.

A highly credentialed and knowledgeable APS activist provided me with this assessment of the new AFSAP plan:

“What’s not discussed here is that we need to create 3,347 additional seats over the last CIP. That roughly translates to another $250M (not including land acquisition costs) over the [last] CIP.”

When, where, and how soon will the missing plans be provided?

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.

by Peter Rousselot October 25, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

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.

Like thousands of other Arlington Democrats, I support independent John Vihstadt for re-election to the County Board.

Having an independent as one of the five Board members provides oversight, accountability, checks and balances.

John helped redirect the Board’s priorities

The Board is now more focused on core services:

  • Ended or scaled back many extravagant projects, like the streetcar, the aquatics center, the Artisphere, $1.6 million dog parks and million-dollar bus stops.
  • Prioritized funding for schools’ capacity and Metro while improving roads, parks, and public safety.

John’s community-centered vision for the future

Arlington’s population is forecast to continue to grow. That growth is a sign that we are considered a desirable place to live.

John commutes to work daily via public transit. He is the only County Board candidate who put children through Arlington Public Schools.

John has the many years of community experience necessary to implement his vision for Arlington’s future by properly managing growth.

Here’s how:

Developer contributions for schools and parks

John already has led the way to get the county soon to begin conducting development impact studies. John wants to reform developer contributions received in return for added density so that more money can go towards public facilities such as schools and parks.

Better coordination with our public schools

John is working to bring down Arlington’s high cost of school construction, to deliver new seats more quickly, and to help ensure educational equity for all Arlington communities through sound planning and adequate funding.

Community engagement from the start

John believes development impacts are better addressed when the full range of residents and stakeholders are made part of the discussion from the start, not as an afterthought.

Lowering the office vacancy rate

Free-market macroeconomic forces beyond county government’s control are a significant factor in our office vacancy rate. But, it’s still imperative that we lower that rate to hold down the tax burden on residents. John believes we must make the business environment more attractive through carefully structured economic incentives and minimizing red tape such as further reforming our permitting systems.

Improved environmental management

John believes we must do everything within our legal powers to address the negative effects of increased impervious surfaces on water run-off, our green space, and our tree canopy.

Stronger fiscal discipline

Continued funding pressures from needed school capacity and Metro repairs means it’s more essential than ever to spend our limited tax dollars wisely on core services – not extravagant projects. John is leading reforms to our approaches to end-of-year budget surpluses and to neighborhood infrastructure improvements.

Conclusion

Tribal partisanship has no place in local government decisions.

Extravagant projects like streetcars, a hyped-up aquatics center, million-dollar bus stops and fancy dog parks are not core Democratic Party values. Yet such projects sprung from group-think on a five-person Democratic County Board.

John has brought together voters from across the political spectrum, striving to take partisanship out of local issues. He has rightly questioned “the way we’ve always done things”.

We need a reliably fiscally conservative voice on the Board to evaluate the serious budget challenges coming next year and in following years.

You can read about John’s years of community service, more details on the issues on which he is running, and his support from across the political spectrum here.

Independent John Vihstadt should be re-elected on Nov. 6.

by Peter Rousselot April 12, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

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.

In two columns last fall, I asked: Does County government commit too much surplus revenue for spending?

Progress on unallocated closeout surplus

In his proposed FY 2019 budget, County Manager Mark Schwartz notes that he has whittled down the level of surplus funds available at closeout.

“[T]he amount of funds that are ‘discretionary’ for allocation at closeout have been reduced annually ($11.1 million in FY 2017, compared to $17.8 million in FY 2016 and $21.8 million in FY 2015). Of those closeout funds that have been made available, immediate spending has been limited to commitments already made by the Board or for emergency needs,” the budget wrote.

This is a positive step.

More budget reforms

However, of these closeout funds, the majority remaining after allocating the APS revenue-sharing portion is automatically allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written policy explaining how, when and why these other “commitments” were made.

The County Board essentially has allowed the manager to allocate/spend the remaining closeout funds without adequate opportunities for residents to weigh in on millions of dollars of spending.

The Civic Federation has asked that a fair and reasonable portion of surplus funds be plowed back into the coming-fiscal-year budget to reduce the need for a tax-rate increase. County officials, however, claim that best practices dictate that surplus funds be used only for “one-time” purposes since the county cannot rely on future surpluses to meet ongoing needs.

But there is no written, publicly available policy clearly defining what a “one-time” expenditure is, and this “one-time” money is often spent on recurring needs.

What experts say

At a County Board work session last spring, Public Financial Management, Inc. (PFM) described how other jurisdictions manage their fund balance accounts.

PFM noted that Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have a 10 percent operating/contingency reserve, twice Arlington’s level.

PFM also observed that:

  • Arlington’s General Fund reserve policy levels are below the median level and among the lowest in the triple-A group (Arlington’s bond-rating peer group).
  • FY 2016 is the second consecutive year of decline in the General Fund balance ratio, and this could begin to concern Moody’s, if it becomes a trend.

More County Board oversight

Too often, committed and allocated funds are established in the fund balance with substantial cash accumulating over time, apparently with little or no monitoring of the reasonableness of the balances. New York State’s Local Government Management Guide on Reserve Funds warns against this.

“Reserve funds should not be merely a ‘parking lot’ for excess cash or fund balances,” the guide wrote. 

The County Board should answer questions like these:

  • Has the financial purpose served by each reserve fund been identified and published?
  • Has a written reserve fund policy been developed and published?
  • Has the Board reviewed all reserve funds currently established, and determined if the balances in each are reasonable?

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by Peter Rousselot December 28, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

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.

In last week’s column, I explained that the Arlington County government is forecasting that in 2040 Arlington will have 55,300 more residents than it does today.

I noted these challenges:

  • Where will they live?
  • How well will Arlington serve them and at what cost?

Last week, I summarized seven initiatives that the County Board should pursue in 2018 to address these challenges.

Today’s column summarizes eight more initiatives that the Board should undertake to plan for Arlington County’s 25 percent population growth.

Growth and Development

  1. Dedicated funding stream for Metro: Metro’s success is central to the future growth and development of Arlington. A new dedicated funding stream for Metro is critical for Metro’s success. Departing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) proposed package of reforms and new taxes has elements that seem promising. But, actually getting a new dedicated funding stream will require bipartisan support for tax increases from Republicans in Congress and in Richmond.
  2. Buck/VHC properties: The County Board (and APS) should utilize the Buck and Virginia Hospital Center properties (and any other parcels in a similar state of transition) as interim sites for school bus parking, flex/swing classroom space, infrastructure project staging areas, etc. Leaving such properties vacant and unused while spending years developing final community-based land use plans is imprudent in these fiscally challenging times.
  3. Permitting and Inspections: Finally fix this seriously-flawed process. What’s taking so long? What’s the deadline?

Fiscal Responsibility

  1. New accounting/budget software: Invest in a new, modern, reliable accounting/budget software system rather than continuing to spend large sums of money supporting Arlington’s outdated PRISM system (a legacy program that the vendor no longer supports). Allocate adequate funding to county staff training on the new accounting/budget system.
  2. Carryover surplus: In spring 2018, prior to the conclusion of deliberations over the FY 2019 operating budget, the County Board should direct the County Manager not to plan on spending any amount from any FY 2018 budget carryover surplus unless the proposed expenditure is for a genuine emergency. Instead, the Board should direct the Manager to defer any final decisions regarding what to do with any such surplus for consideration in Spring 2019.

Openness and Transparency

  1. Sexual harassment/youth protection training: The county (and Arlington Public Schools) need to provide the best available sexual harassment and youth protection training for all employees. The County and School Boards should act collaboratively and transparently to adopt the appropriate policies. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) already has taken the regional lead on these issues.
  2. Focus new civic engagement resources on key priorities: The County Board should advise the County Manager that it wishes to focus the County government’s promising new civic engagement resources (headed by Bryna Helfer, Engage Arlington) to engage with Arlington residents on key priority choices which drive major amounts of budget dollars. E.g.: “We have enough money for Option A or Option B, but not both. Which do you prefer?”
  3. Adopt 72-hour rule: The County Board formally should adopt a comprehensive 72-hour rule for posting on its website key documents relating to decisions on the agenda for County Board meetings. Failure to comply with the rule should mean the decision must be deferred unless at least four Board members vote to waive the rule.

Conclusion

Arlington needs to demonstrate that it has fiscally-sustainable longer-term plans to accommodate its projected population growth.

by Peter Rousselot October 19, 2017 at 10:30 am 0

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.

In September, I explained why county government should temporarily defer until the following spring allocating any annual close-out surplus.

Here’s that column’s most up-voted comment (24 up votes):

Spend a $17.8M surplus one year, then raise taxes the next year by $11.1M. I don’t care who you are…this single fact should make smoke spurt out of your ears.

Today, I pose a related question: does County government commit or earmark too much surplus revenue for spending rather than beefing up reserves or offsetting tax or fee increases? (The final 2017 close out report was not available when this column was submitted.)

An October 3 Arlington County Civic Federation report (drafted by former Deputy Arlington County Treasurer John Tuohy) analyzes the County’s FY 2016 General Fund (GF) Fund Balance, an account that receives surplus close-out funds (collected revenues minus budgeted expenditures) at the end of the June 30 fiscal year.

Below, you can see how money in the GF Fund Balance is allocated:

What Portion of the Fund Balance Is Reserves?

Of this $191,243,859 in the GF Fund Balance, the County Board sets aside a “no-touch” operating reserve of $59,885,262 — or about 5.16% of budgeted revenues — for the County AND Arlington Public Schools. Board policy restricts use of these reserves to unforeseen emergencies (e.g., natural disasters, economic emergencies).

There is an additional $5 million self-insurance reserve and a small, separate “economic stabilization” contingency reserve within the GF Fund Balance.

Experts, including bond rating agencies, set 5 percent as the minimum operating reserve, but many recommend reserve levels as high as 10 percent of operating expenses. (Even when the percentage remains constant, the bigger the budget, the more you must set aside for reserves.)

Committed Vs. Assigned

By County Board action or policy, the rest — $131,358,597 — is committed or assigned (earmarked) for spending. Committed funds (approved by Board action) cannot be reallocated without a new Board action. Assigned funds (earmarked by the County Manager based on Board policy) can be reallocated.

Allocating Unallocated Close-Out Funds

During the close-out process, the Manager has historically identified a modest amount of surplus funds that are not yet allocated for spending or reserves:

Using County Board policy guidelines, the County Manager recommends how these unallocated surplus funds could be allocated.

Conclusion

By policy and practice, the County Manager does not recommend allocating a portion of the unallocated close-out surplus to offset increases in taxes or fees for the coming fiscal year. (Each 1-cent increase in the real estate tax rate currently generates roughly $7.4 million in ongoing revenue.)

Should the County Board take a different approach next month? Should the county allocate less for spending and more for reserves or to offset tax/fee increases?

I will discuss these questions further in next week’s column.

by Peter Rousselot September 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’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 year, responding to years of community pressure, the county government finally adopted a new review process in which the County Manager’s close-out surplus recommendations were first proposed in October, but not voted upon until November.

I strongly recommended last fall that almost all of last year’s $17.8 million close-out surplus be kept in reserve until the FY 2018 budget was approved.

Despite support from Board member John Vihstadt for such a reserve, the Board voted last fall to spend most of the surplus. When it came time to approve the FY 2018 budget this spring, the Board approved a tax rate increase of 1.5 cents, estimated to produce $11.1 million.

Discussion

Arlington should follow certain principles to guide its decisions in allocating any close-out surplus.

  1. A fair and reasonable percentage (i.e., a percentage higher than 0 percent) of any close-out surplus always should be allocated to moderate the tax rate and/or reduce bonded indebtedness

Adopting this principle would mean only that a fair and reasonable percentage of any FY 2017 close-out surplus would be earmarked for property tax rate moderation in calendar-year 2018. Adopting this principle would not necessarily mean that the calendar-year 2018 property tax rate would fall, rise or remain the same.

What is “fair and reasonable”? That should depend upon the close-out surplus amount in any given year and careful consideration of public input. But the fair and reasonable percentage should be multiplied against the entire surplus, and set aside for consideration next year before any final decisions are made regarding how to allocate any remaining surplus.

Similarly, we should consider using some percentage of any close-out surplus for early debt retirement when that makes financial sense. Retiring debt early will help free up more bond capacity in addition to reducing interest expense.

  1. The remainder of any close-out surplus (after setting aside a percentage for tax rate moderation and any debt reduction) should next be considered to address any emergency that requires funding before final adoption of the FY 2019 operating budget

An “emergency” expenditure is one that simply cannot be deferred until the FY 2019 operating budget is approved in April 2018. Reasons for not waiting until April 2018 might include the complete loss of a current vital opportunity or the strong likelihood of sharply escalating costs to meet a core government function.

However, before using surplus close-out funds, the county should first determine whether it already has an appropriate reserve fund set aside which it could tap to cover the emergency.

  1. All other proposed uses of any close-out surplus automatically should be deferred, and the remaining funds’ allocation should be decided in conjunction with the FY2019 budget process

Close-out surpluses are one-time funds rather than ongoing revenue. They exist solely because the County collected more tax revenue than required to meet its budgeted commitments. Therefore, these funds should be used for nonrecurring expenditures (e.g., replacing a bridge, acquiring land).

Conclusion

In its final FY 2018 budget guidance adopted this spring, the County Board directed the Manager “to provide an option for County Board consideration that would direct all carryover funds to consideration in the FY 2019 budget process, except for what the Manager deems to be emergency or unanticipated needs that, in his best judgment, require immediate allocation or appropriation.”

At a minimum, the Board should adopt that option this fall.

by Peter Rousselot March 9, 2017 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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.

ARLnow.com reported last week that the County Board has approved the County Manager’s request to advertise a property tax rate for 2017 up to 2 cents higher than the current rate and potentially the highest tax rate since 2001:

County Manager Mark Schwartz said the hike would pay for what he described as the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the board in increasing costs for APS and Metro.

Failing to Carry Over Last Fall’s Close-Out Surplus

The Manager’s proposed FY 2018 budget is supposedly driven by “extraordinary circumstances” attributable to increased funding demands from APS and Metro. To close this “gap,” the Manager’s proposed budget incorporates a 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million.

The Manager fully highlighted these “extraordinary circumstances” last fall, but he and the County Board failed to act then to address that potential budget gap.

Metro is critical to Arlington and our entire region, and our critically-important schools are experiencing dramatic enrollment increases. Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlington’s property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.

However, any need to increase that rate in 2017 is entirely attributable to Arlington’s failure to follow recommendations that John Vihstadt, the Civic Federation, I and others made regarding last fall’s $17.8 million “close-out” surplus.

In a column last October, I proposed that the Board defer almost all of the proposed expenditures that the Manager recommended for that $17.8 million surplus, and hold in reserve virtually all those funds for first-priority use to bridge any budget gap for FY 2018. Instead, the Board approved spending almost all that surplus. That was a mistake that should not be repeated.

Necessary Changes at APS

As John Vihstadt noted at the County Board’s February 25 meeting to advertise a 2017 tax rate, APS’ exploding enrollment will require substantially increased funding over time, but APS should no longer be permitted to rely on a blank check from the County to provide funds for APS enrollment growth just because our schools are — and we want them to continue to be — top ranked.

Instead, the time has come for the County Board to condition increased funding on APS’ willingness to implement changes — particularly with respect to new school construction — to reduce substantially the per-student cost of new seats.

Current APS practices regarding per seat construction costs for new schools are neither necessary to sustain excellent schools nor fiscally sustainable unless other core County services are to be “crowded out” and/or we are to incur successive annual property tax rate increases that further degrade affordability for all Arlington residents.

Necessary Changes at Metro

Arlington should go on record now in support of fundamental reforms of Metro funding and governance at the interstate compact level, such as those recommended by the Federal City Council.

Conclusion

Before the FY 2018 budget review process ends this April, the County Board should:

  • direct the Manager to reserve almost all of any fall 2017 close-out surplus to lessen upward pressures on the 2018 tax rate,
  • condition any increased APS funding on APS implementation this year of reforms to lower per-seat construction costs substantially, and
  • express support for Metro reforms at the interstate compact level.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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