79°Clear

by Peter Rousselot July 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.

As ARLnow.com reported, the County Board is scheduled to vote on July 14 on changes to a program that provides real estate tax relief to low-income seniors. This RETR program has been in effect since 1991.

According to a county staff report:

The RETR program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners who are age 65 or older, or who are permanently and totally disabled. The current… program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners whose annual household income is at or below $99,472, and whose household assets (excluding the value of their Arlington home) are at or below $340,000… In calendar year 2017, [the county] approved 915 households for RETR, resulting in $4,139,872 in foregone revenue.

$3,744,588 (90 percent) of that $4,139,872 of foregone tax revenue was for exemptions.

The ARLnow.com story explains that the County Board has been asked to make these changes to the program (among others):

  • increase the asset limit to $400,000… and allow the County to adjust that amount annually as property values and the area’s median income level changes
  • For the very top earners… — households making anywhere from $80,000 to $99,472 per year — restrict them to only applying for a deferral from the taxes, not a full exemption

County Board Chair Katie Cristol is quoted as saying:

“The goal is to tighten it and make it more effective as a program, not lower obstacles for participation. This is not a large-scale policy change.

The county should convert this program as rapidly as possible into a 100 percent deferral program

It is inequitable and unfair to Arlington taxpayers to provide the heirs of low-income Arlington seniors with the permanent windfall those heirs now are receiving from the exemption component of the current program.

In a convincing recent letter to the Sun-Gazette, Arlington activist Kathryn Scruggs captured some of these inequities:

Many other cities and towns throughout the country offer programs that freeze real-estate taxes for qualifying elder households so that they still pay taxes, but with no annual increase. That way they continue to provide revenue for the jurisdiction… The community is desperate for more schools and will need more teachers, resources and staff. Yet the county government was forced to cut staff positions and programs for [the] upcoming fiscal year because it did not have enough money.

In his most-up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com story, Arlington activist Dave Schutz similarly was spot-on when he stated:

I am absolutely unconvinced that we should be exempting ANYONE from property taxes under this program. Deferral is just fine, and it lets granny stay in her vine covered cottage, that’s an absolutely generous and appropriate thing to do. Then the taxes come [to] the county at the end… But exempting simply bumps up the inheritance for her kids in Chillicothe after she dies — why do we have any interest in doing that?

The exemption component of the current program cannot be justified out of concern for mortgage lenders

An extensive report from an RETR working group noted (Recommendation 6) that some mortgage lenders object to a deferral program, claiming it threatens their creditors’ rights. Arlington taxpayers should not be held hostage to such objections.

Conclusion

Arlington’s RETR program needs a swift, large-scale, prospective policy change: no more exemptions.

by Peter Rousselot June 28, 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.

On June 19, the Arlington County Board unanimously approved County Auditor Chris Horton’s Audit Work Plan.

Serving the independent audit function, Horton prepares performance audits, and reports directly to the County Board (not the County Manager) with guidance from the Audit Committee. The Audit Committee — comprising two County Board members, the County Manager, the Deptartment of Management and Finance Director plus three citizen-volunteers –oversees Horton’s work.

County Board member John Vihstadt played a leadership role in establishing the County Auditor position. He and Erik Gutshall serve as the current Board liaisons to the Audit Committee.

Off to a strong start

Horton’s latest report analyzes overtime payments at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC). This audit makes important recommendations to improve efficiencies, and underscores the value and usefulness of performance audits.

Differences between the County Auditor and other auditors

The County Manager’s internal auditors look only for technical problems in the County’s financial and control systems:

  • Are things being accounted for and entered into financial systems correctly?
  • Are internal control systems operating to catch errors and irregularities?

Even the county’s external auditor issues only periodic, boilerplate opinion letters that reinforce the limited scope of its review.

Reporting responsibility outside of the normal management lines of authority provides an important check on our financial systems. See: “How should the audit committee be structured?”

County Auditor needs more resources

Horton’s Work Plan contains a series of hierarchical audit tiers, totaling approximately 18 potential audits. Based upon Horton’s own comments before the Board and logic, Horton, operating alone, probably will be able to prepare and publish only three, comprehensive audit reports between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019.

Thus, it would take Horton — operating alone — about 6 years to complete all 18 of the potential audits. Obviously, there are more than just these 18 audits that could yield significant dollar savings and efficiencies.

Nonpublic information I obtained from an Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) member confirms that an organization similar to Arlington County, with a $1.3 billion annual operating budget, should be devoting more than one, full-time, qualified auditor to the independent audit function.

Auditor/inspector general staffs that report directly to elected officials — if adequately funded — can identify savings that would more than cover their operating costs. Fairfax’s Office of Auditor of the Board has three auditors (including the Auditor of the Board). With three full-time auditors, you can see how much work it is possible to accomplish.

Conclusion

With Horton’s current constraints (e.g., no staff, a very limited budget, etc.), the county is underutilizing this important resource at the very moment it is needed most.

This is a concern. See “Why Government Watchdogs Are Worried”:

ALGA deals with these concerns all the time. When performance auditors rile mayors and department heads with negative audits, retaliation can come in the form of budget cuts, slow action on personnel requests or even suggestions that auditor functions be eliminated. David Jones, Seattle city auditor and chair of ALGA’s advocacy committee, says, “We frequently find that local government auditors are under attack.”

To get the best bang from our finite bucks, Arlington must add at least one (and eventually two) full-time, qualified assistant auditors to support the County Auditor and increase the annual performance audit output.

by Peter Rousselot June 21, 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 presenting his proposed new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the County Board last month, County Manager Mark Schwartz appropriately stressed fiscal prudence and making tough choices among competing priorities.

The Manager also correctly noted the incremental needs in capital spending that have arisen since Arlington’s last CIP was adopted two years ago, including for:

  • APS
  • Metro
  • Other transportation and core community infrastructure

But, as ARLnow.com reported, the Manager tried to defend moving forward with the construction of a $60 million aquatics center at Long Bridge Park. He argued that it would be a “breach of faith” to cancel it. He also claimed:

“If we back out… nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years… We’d probably… be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company]… and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”

The benefits of cancelling the aquatics center substantially outweigh the costs

The Manager’s conclusions about the contracting community and protracted litigation are alarmist. Contractors will continue vigorously bidding against each other for our business. We can reach a fair settlement with the construction company. At a minimum, county government should produce a redacted version of the construction contract so that it can be evaluated by disinterested, independent experts.

As for the “breach of faith,” we must weigh the great disappointment of aquatics center advocates if this project is cancelled against the lasting opportunity costs to the entire Arlington community of proceeding forward.

I share most of the sentiments expressed in the most up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com news story:

“The aquatics center is a boondoggle that should be stopped immediately. Just because it has been worked on for a few months does not mean we should continue to throw good money after bad… Arlington taxpayers will be on the hook for the deficit forever.”

I don’t agree this project is a boondoggle, but I do agree with the rest of this comment.

While school enrollment is growing at the equivalent of one new elementary school per year, and our vital Metro system still needs more funding, we should take pressure off our CIP’s 10 percent debt service limits by cancelling the aquatics center project. The costs to service our bonded indebtedness are already rising too close to those limits.

The Manager estimates net taxpayer support for aquatics center operations at something north of $1.1 million annually. This estimate is highly speculative because County government has never operated such a facility. The actual annual operating deficit could be much higher.

The net savings from cancelling the aquatics center should be re-directed toward other legally permissible uses

The Manager has confirmed that the County Board legally could reprogram the approved bond monies for the aquatics center to other park and recreation priorities. These include:

  • land acquisition for new parkland (the Manager’s CIP contains $0 for acquisition of new parkland over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period)
  • park infrastructure (including a smaller community pool) at Long Bridge or elsewhere

Conclusion

County government has cancelled the 4thof July celebration at Long Bridge Park due to “budget constraints” while insisting that the aquatics center be built despite budget constraints. Each of those decisions should be reversed.

by Peter Rousselot May 31, 2018 at 3:15 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 the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) he unveiled last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting the funding of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC) from $60 million in the last CIP to $36 million in the new CIP.

The NC program should be ended because it cannot be reformed.

Why the NC program should be ended

The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our neighborhoods, but the NC program cannot meet these critical needs. The NC program has insoluble problems in at least two key areas: equity and timeliness.

Equity

NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements because they are:

  • Living in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association
  • Required to have a County Board-approved NC Plan documenting all potential projects
  • Lacking consistent NC volunteer representatives to complete projects

But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly.

Timeliness

The NC program’s labor-intensive volunteer requirements, including monthly meeting attendance — often for years — to gain “funding points,” and outreach and notification efforts, mean a complete NC project “process” can take anywhere from five to 10 years. If an association’s volunteer NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.

A former member described her NC experience to me this way:

“[I]t is a crazy incentive system where the only way you can even get your project considered — even if you have an organized civic association (CA) — is to attend and get points for attending every meeting… Then the arguments were literally a well-organized CA with a plan that took a couple of years to do with dedicated resources from the county… vs. a couple of neighbors who don’t want a sidewalk… or a sign or a light or a something. There is no framework… to guide the conversations prior to it getting to the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee (NCAC), so the NCAC becomes the breeding ground for chaos.”

But, Arlington cannot mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC process.

What should replace the NC program

In 2007-2008, county staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. Revised and updated NIPs can provide the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects, and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding.

A revised and updated Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient for street-related infrastructure. An alternative to the current NC process could include:

For sidewalks:

  • High priority areas, schools and urban Metro corridors could be addressed by engineers and county staff first
  • For missing links, neighborhoods could propose sidewalks directly to staff for analysis and priority

For park beautification:

A reformed Department of Parks and Recreation could allocate small sums annually and equitably so that neighborhoods could spend on their parks as they decide. Neighborhoods could request to withdraw funds for small improvements like flowers or trees or benches.

Conclusion

Arlington County should take complete control from the NC over the new construction or restoration of neighborhood infrastructure.

The county then should proceed to use its new extensive public engagement process to deal directly and fairly with neighborhood residents regarding neighborhood conservation projects.

by Alex Koma May 18, 2018 at 10:45 am 0

If large new developments are going to put a strain on Arlington’s schools or eat up more of the county’s green space, why doesn’t the county require developers to chip in some cash to offset those impacts?

It’s a question on the minds of many Arlingtonians, particularly as the county grapples with budget cuts and increasingly overcrowded classrooms. “Peter’s Take” columnist Peter Rousselot even addressed the issue in his May 3 opinion piece, urging county leaders to require that any developer looking to add density to a property through a zoning change first send Arlington money (or even land) for schools and parks.

But county attorney Steve MacIsaac says Arlington isn’t likely to adopt Rousselot’s recommendations any time soon. He believes there’s a lot of nuance that often gets missed in discussions of the issue, starting with the fact that Arlington generally secures money from developers for things like nearby transportation improvements during any negotiation over new construction.

“Think about widened sidewalks and streetscapes you see, new Metro station entrances, things of that nature,” MacIsaac told ARLnow. “The goal of Arlington has been to try to make great places, and that will cause businesses to want to locate here, and then they generate a large amount of tax revenues to offset the cost of other services it has to provide. So if we flipped things around, the county would have to pay more for creating the great place… Things developers pay for now, wouldn’t be paid for, and the county would have to pick up those costs.”

MacIsaac notes that state law limits local governments from exchanging cash or donated land for schools, roads or parks for zoning changes, a process commonly referred to as the “proffer system.” In fact, many other localities across Northern Virginia have chafed at the current state framework for proffers, after a 2016 change to state law set new strictures on what local governments can ask developers to pay for.

MacIsaac points out that Arlington has largely been immune from those headaches, as the law still allows local officials to extract various concessions from developers — from public art contributions to affordable housing commitments to transportation improvements — if they build through the site plan process. (The 2016 changes exempted projects in certain areas, including those around Metro stations.)

Yet MacIsaac believes the proffer law does illustrate the way state lawmakers in Richmond view this issue, and why the county remains broadly limited in how it dictates terms to developers.

“The General Assembly is very stingy in giving us authority to deal with these kinds of things,” MacIsaac said. “New development imposes costs on localities, and the General Assembly believes localities should pay for those costs with the tax revenues they raise from that development.”

Rousselot writes in his column that no state laws or county ordinances “expressly prohibit Arlington County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these kinds of schools and parks impacts,” and MacIsaac concedes that this point is largely accurate.

Yet he believes moving to such an approach would not only deprive the county of the contributions it currently wins from developers — MacIsaac points out that builders typically pay for everything from transit improvements to public art — but would also fail to make the sort of impact Rousselot and others envision.

(more…)

by Peter Rousselot May 17, 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.

Arlington’s Jennie Dean Park is named after Jennie Serepta Dean:

“A former slave, Dean … was a skilled fund-raiser, securing money from African American and white donors in Virginia and in northern cities to support her plan to open a school that would teach skilled trades to young African Americans.”

As part of the Four Mile Run Valley planning process, the County Board has been asked to choose this month between two alternative concept design options for Jennie Dean Park.

Options 1 (PDF pp. 13-14) and 2 (PDF pp. 15-16) are portrayed in a County staff report.

If the Board must decide between these two options this month, the Board should choose Option 2.

Principles for decision

The most reliable evidence of Arlington residents’ county-wide preferences for parks and recreation improvements is captured in the cross-tabs of the statistically-valid ETC survey. Every age group, as well as every geographic group, even households with children, had the same top two choices for improving our park and recreation system:

    1. Preserve trees and natural areas
    2. Acquire new parkland for passive — as opposed to active — uses

Option 2 more accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences

As explained in a recent letter to the editor, the Nauck Civic Association, via its President Portia Clark, unanimously supports Option 2 because:

“[T]he front of Jennie Dean Park, the portion fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive [FMRD], will be left open for casual use. We want this area to be a gateway for the community to enter the Park. We want it to be green. We want it to be landscaped. We want it to have flowers and trees and open space.”

Option 2 would ensure that both sports fields are more distant and face away from homes in Nauck. Jennie Dean Park is entirely (100 percent) located within the boundaries of the Nauck Civic Association.

Option 1 less accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences

The Shirlington & Douglas Park Civic Associations support Option 1. In an online petition these two civic associations argue that choosing Option 1 “will say a lot about whether [Arlington] is a progressive community interested in planning for the future of families in Arlington.” But, neither Option 1 nor Option 2 is more “progressive” or “family-friendly” than the other option.

Some organized sports groups also believe that Option 1 is preferable because Arlington ultimately may not be able to acquire the current WETA site to incorporate into Jennie Dean Park. But, interestingly, the only option that removes playing space is Option 1. Option 2 retains all of the amenities currently there with notable upgrades in Phase 1.

Finally, the impact of new high Kelvin LED lights on the Nauck neighborhood has been glossed over. The proposed smaller lighted youth softball field 75 feet from 4MRD would become the dominant feature of the park facing Nauck after sundown under Option 1. This option would still result in unacceptable light pollution affecting park users, including Nauck residents.

Conclusion

Although no data about the costs of either option have been presented to the County Board, there appears to be a belief that if Arlington doesn’t spend or commit the money by the end of this fiscal year it will be gone forever. That seems an odd assumption, but if it is correct, then the Board should choose Option 2.

by Peter Rousselot May 10, 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.

As our County Board Chair, Katie Cristol, said in an eloquent personal statement last month (after Arlington approved its Fiscal 2019 operating budget), the current rate of growth in our expenditures for the many things we value is no longer sustainable.

Our Chair elaborated:

“We can’t grow per-pupil annual increases in the transfer to Schools when the number of pupils are growing at the rates we’ve seen. We can’t increase the general fund contributions to Affordable Housing Investment [AHIF] fast enough to support every compelling affordable housing project, when projects a decade ago required $5 or $6 million in gap financing and current projects need $20 million.”

To enable our community to participate effectively in the hard budget decisions that lie immediately ahead, Arlington needs new approaches to quantify both the short-term and the long-term fiscal impacts of the population growth Arlington expects.

Short-term fiscal impacts

We need project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each discretionary development project. New, large multi-unit residential projects do not pay for themselves. They produce more new costs than new revenues.

A recent “cost of community services” peer-reviewed survey of 125 jurisdictions nationwide found that the mean ratio was $1.18 of incremental costs incurred compared to every $1.00 of incremental revenues generated.

Project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements were among the key recommendations of the 2015 Community Facilities Study Group (CSFG), chaired by former County Board member John Milliken. Such statements are important because they will inject vital, new, objective input into the County’s planning and budgeting.

Kinds of project-specific impact analyses

Most of our Northern Virginia neighbors already are using these tools. Examples include Stafford County, Loudoun County, Fauquier County and the City of Falls Church.

The noted regional economist, Dr. Stephen Fuller, prepared an analysis for Stafford County, and confirmed that residential development does not pay for itself. His analysis also informed an Urban Development Area presentation.

These kinds of analyses are ones that Arlington County staff could and should do internally. Advanced software is available that can be tailored to Arlington’s circumstances.

Arlington’s first steps toward fiscal impact analyses

At its April 21 meeting, under the leadership of John Vihstadt, the County Board took some first steps in the direction of fiscal impact analyses.

As part of its budget guidance, the Board directed the County Manager to develop for Board review by the end of this calendar year a plan for preparing and making public periodic, retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial developments on an aggregate rather than a project-specific basis.

But, greater progress is being blocked once again by the Arlington County attorney’s resistance to the CFSG recommendation for prospective, project-specific fiscal impact analyses. He is unwilling to publish his detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.

Longer-term fiscal impacts

The County and APS should collaborate to develop financial projections out to 2035 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case, optimistic case(s), pessimistic case(s).

The results of these projections, together with the major assumptions underlying them, should be published and shared for discussion with the community.

Conclusion

The County Board needs to deploy new approaches to the fiscal impacts of development. This will enable Arlington residents to weigh in knowledgeably on how much we should spend on each thing we value.

by Peter Rousselot April 26, 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.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) currently plans to add more than 800 high school seats at the Career Center site between 2022-2024.

Late last year, APS and the County appointed a joint working group to consider alternative options for the future development of this site.

In parallel, APS is considering what the instructional focus of this high school should be and what it will cost to build it.

The charge provided to the Career Center Working Group affirms that both the County Board and the School Board are committed to “a process to analyze, evaluate, and plan how to optimize the site in the long term within the context of existing Arlington Public Schools (APS) high schools and the broader Arlington community.”

How to decide

The final decision regarding what kind of high school should be located at the Career Center site must be made with a full understanding of the long-term fiscal implications for the broader Arlington community of APS’ seat needs at every grade level (K-12).

Any decision to commit too many financial resources to any one kind of school at any one site will mean that there may not be adequate funding for future seat needs.

Neighborhood Comprehensive High School 

One of several possible high school instructional options at the Career Center site is a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities. There appears to be significant support for this option in the surrounding neighborhood. Other communities are beginning to weigh in with a mix of perspectives.

STEAM Option High School, with neighborhood enrollment preference

A STEAM option high school, with neighborhood enrollment preference, might be a better option at the Career Center site if the direct and opportunity costs of a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities — field space, aquatic center, performing arts facilities — prove too high.

Imagine a high school with a focus on project-based learning that could utilize the existing specialized Career Technical Education (CTE) facilities and enhance them with new state-of-the-art classrooms and academic programs.

An expanded program of studies could offer AP courses, fine arts electives and classes that span diverse subject areas, in addition to the existing Dual Enrollment classes for high school and college credit at Arlington Tech and the Career Center.

Arlington has a unique opportunity to build upon its strong and growing CTE programs which align very well with Virginia’s evolving “Profile of a Graduate.”

As a specialized option high school open to all students, with a broad base of course offerings, it could have a small attendance zone to encourage walkability and neighborhood support, much like a neighborhood high school.

It also could have a broad selection of sports and extracurriculars–either Virginia High School League sponsored sports or intramural sports and activities. Rooftop field space should be studied as part of the design for this unique, multistory, urban campus.

Ideally, students from the other Arlington high schools and programs could still take CTE classes at the Career Center. This STEAM high school could be a valuable resource for all Arlington families and a forward-looking civic landmark for the communities along Columbia Pike.

Conclusion

No final decision regarding the nature of the kind of high school to be located at the Career Center site should be made without a full, transparent, county-wide discussion regarding the direct and opportunity costs of each alternative compared to other alternatives.

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?

(more…)

by Peter Rousselot March 29, 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.

A helpful new Future Facilities Needs Report (“Future Facilities report”) from the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (“FAC”) makes a compelling case for new approaches to school facilities planning.

This new report was first presented to the School Board at its March 22 meeting.

Better seamless collaboration between APS and the Arlington County government is critical.

Longer-term school facilities planning, 2029-2035

As explained further in the new report, the best population and enrollment estimates available to APS and Arlington County demonstrate that APS will have significant needs for additional new seats and new schools beyond the conclusion of the planning horizon of APS’ new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), i.e., from 2029-2035.

If APS student enrollment reaches any of these levels, these are the number of additional new schools that may be required (over and above current and planned capacity):

As of today, there are no plans regarding where these students will attend school.

We must engage now in longer-term planning to answer that question. The pressures of growing enrollment, budget restraints, limited land, space and bonding capacity mean it is no longer responsible to make these decisions in isolation from other decisions on where to locate county facilities.

APS Capital Improvement Plan, 2019-2028

The new CIP that APS now is preparing is intended to guide investments in new school facilities over the next ten years. Every decision APS makes on capital projects must examine both short-term needs and long-term implications. APS must address the needs for new seats in a way that provides the additional capacity on time and on budget.

On March 22, FAC Chair Stacy Snyder summarized the FAC’s views regarding the new CIP:

The projections, timing and seat needs we have identified are as follows:

  • 725 new elementary school seats in 2025 or 2026
  • A need for additional middle school capacity in 2022, 2023 or 2024
  • 500-600 high school seats in 2021 and an additional 700-800 in 2023, 2024 or 2025

We have not recently been in an environment in Arlington in which we haven’t been able to afford to build new schools exactly how we want them or to find a place for them. But, that is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

We should seize this opportunity to develop positive, new and innovative solutions so that before we reach a certain population size we are prepared, and have positive, cost conscious and forward thinking solutions in place.

Every decision must be made transparently in the context of understanding the impacts on APS’ overall seat needs, and how that decision fits within APS’ overall budget. It’s critical for APS to “show your work,” and make it clear to the community what APS’ financial and physical constraints are. Cost must be an important consideration at every stage.

Conclusion

APS must pivot to a new way of thinking and decision making about capital projects.

APS and the County Board must collaborate to develop a comprehensive and strategic long-range plan for land use and capital projects across the county.

Residents and taxpayers must participate in decisions that explicitly recognize the trade-offs and the impacts of APS’ proposals on the entire Arlington community.

by Peter Rousselot March 15, 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.

At a February 20 work session, the County Board reviewed and discussed the latest draft of the Public Open Spaces Master Plan (POPS plan).

The Board properly decided to delay final adoption of the POPS plan until fall 2018. The latest draft is based on some serious methodological flaws and faulty data.

A revised draft is expected to be posted for public comment later this spring.

The final POPS plan should serve as a suitable guide to make investments in priorities that are analytically sound. This requires that the final plan be evidenced-based, internally consistent and responsive to the expressed priorities and needs of the entire community.

Draft POPS plan ignores the most important statistically-valid ETC survey findings

A major flaw in the current draft is its failure even to discuss the most reliable evidence of Arlington residents’ preferences for parks and recreation improvements. That evidence is captured in the cross-tabs of the statistically-valid ETC survey.

Each age group was asked to rank their priorities 1-8 for park and recreation system improvements. Every age group, as well as every geographic group, even households with children, came up with the same top two choices for improving our park and recreation system:

  1. Preserve trees and natural areas
  2. Acquire new parkland for passive–as opposed to active–uses

The final POPS plan needs to be designed around, and be responsive to, this vital information in the ETC survey.

Much increased clarity is needed concerning proposed Levels of Service for park uses

The current draft plan contains a chart which proposes future Levels of Service (LOS) for recreational and park activities. The draft also contains vague language about how the results were obtained, including “tak[ing] into account” some variables (pp. 241- 243). But, the draft does not explain how each variable was calculated, nor how each variable was weighted against each other variable. This is especially true for “resident priorities,” listed only as “high” “medium” and “low.”

The LOS comparisons between Arlington and what are alleged to be Arlington’s “peer cities” also are seriously flawed. The current LOS for sports fields in Arlington already is significantly (33-300%) better than those provided by all but one of the four peer cities identified. The only exception is St. Paul, Minn. which has triple the amount of parkland and twice the amount of overall land as Arlington.

The Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks group published two newsletters discussing other variables, parkland totals and field capacity. That discussion demonstrates that a disproportionate ratio of Arlington’s parkland is dedicated to fields compared to its peer city and national averages.

Conclusion

Attempts to set unrealistically high LOS goals for Arlington would be a profound mistake.

Such a mistake would be even more disturbing because the millions of dollars in costs/losses the community would be asked to absorb are unnecessary. Without sacrificing trees, natural areas or casual use open space to build excessive sports infrastructure, Arlington can continue to rival top-tier communities nationwide throughout the POPS planning horizon by:

  • increasing transparency in scheduling
  • optimizing utilization and monitoring it more closely
  • doing a better job of maintaining the sports fields we already have

The current draft POPS plan addresses none of these opportunities to be the best possible stewards of Arlington’s park and recreation system resources. The final POPS plan must do so.

by Peter Rousselot March 1, 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.

On February 22, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz presented his proposed FY 2019 Annual Operating Budget. It’s balanced at the current real estate tax rate.

Some aspects of the manager’s budget are commendable, particularly the short-term focus on core services, coupled with many sensible cuts, to close a $20.5 million budget gap.

Other aspects are troubling, exposing a lack of long-term financial planning relating to many of the same core services.

Commendable

The manager’s budget appropriately focuses on several core service areas, including:

  • increasing public safety personnel salaries and benefits to remain competitive in recruitment and retention
  • Metro
  • Arlington Public Schools (APS)

The manager notes his proposed budget “includes the first installment of a multi-year plan to gradually reduce the workweek for firefighters.”

The manager observes that his budget meets the Metro request “for a 3 percent increase in operating funding, while relying on a comprehensive solution (among Virginia, Maryland, and the District) to meet our capital obligations.”

His budget “meets the commitment to Arlington Public Schools articulated as part of the Revenue Sharing Principles (local taxes split with 53.4 percent to the County and 46.6 percent to APS) and provides an additional $13.4 million in ongoing funding compared to FY 2018.”

Troubling

Both the manager and the APS superintendent dance around the operating budget implications of APS’ projected enrollment growth. That’s troubling. This is an example–but only one example–of both the manager and the superintendent failing appropriately to engage the community regarding many important long-term financial issues at stake.

The manager states: “increasing taxes each year to meet school enrollment needs is not sustainable.” He’s right, but he fails to provide the community with a quantitative explanation why increasing taxes each year to meet school enrollment needs is not fiscally sustainable.

Moreover, he has not provided the community with a manageable number of alternative options that are fiscally sustainable. Finally, the manager should explain why continuously increasing APS’ current 46.6 percent share of local tax revenues is not sustainable.

Meanwhile, the superintendent says that because APS is on pace to grow to 30,000 students by 2021, “we’ve got to begin to think about a sustainable future.” He also fails to provide the community with a manageable number of alternative quantitative options that achieve a fiscally sustainable future.

The time merely “to begin to think” about these financial issues is over. The time to think about these financial issues extensively, involving the community at every stage of the process, is now!

An over-simplified example is illustrative. The superintendent’s proposed operating budget assumes per-pupil expenditures of $19,235. APS’ latest enrollment projections show enrollment growing from 28,020 in 2017 to 32,666 by 2027. If that projected enrollment growth of 4,646 students is multiplied by the assumed per-pupil expenditures, that would add $89,365,810 of expenditures into the operating budget by 2027 solely to support the increase in enrollment.

Conclusion

It is highly unlikely that County tax revenues will rise sufficiently by 2027 to cover an $89,365,810 increase in spending solely to support an increase in current APS enrollment. What are the major alternative options available to address such a projected budget gap, and which ones command the greatest community support?

The County Board and School Board should collaborate quickly to present the major alternative financial options to the community, inviting the community to say which options the community prefers.

by Peter Rousselot February 15, 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.

ARLnow.com reported last Thursday that Arlington County has posted for public comment a 54-page draft “Framework” document that is intended to guide future development of the Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) area.

Public comments must be posted by tomorrow, Friday, February 16.

Current draft very confusing

The current draft Framework is confusing, redundant and contradictory, making it impossible for an ordinary Arlington resident to know what it means, or which proposed action items might be implemented.

This failure might be welcome if it were clear that the Framework couldn’t be relied upon as justification for proceeding with any of the poorly conceived suggestions that were floated earlier in the 4MRV planning process: for example, adding excessive density, disregarding the community’s preferences for Jennie Dean Park, or creating an arts district.

Unfortunately, the Framework’s substantive ambiguity lends itself to justifying almost any iteration of the often-competing goals and alternatives listed in the Framework, including those noted above.

Excessive density

Appropriately, the draft acknowledges the unsuitability of dense redevelopment for most of the 4MRV area, which lies in a floodway/floodplain. Yet, the Framework lacks any actual plans to reduce runoff by removing hardscape or buildings — instead, planning to add more.

Also discussed are the extensive measures that are needed to remediate decades of environmental damage to the two streams (Four Mile Run and Nauck Branch). However, the majority of the draft discusses how to carve up and develop all this land.

Compared to the earlier versions staff/consultants presented to the 4MRV Working Group, there seem to be fewer/smaller areas to add a lot more density/housing. And, the proposal to retain the existing industrial area for continued industrial use — for which we have great need — would be a plus, if confirmed.

For any particular parcel, however, an ordinary resident cannot determine, in most cases, which potential use the plan will apply to that parcel after the plan’s adoption — or how that use might differ from today’s use.

Prior to the County Board’s final plan adoption, it should direct County staff to provide the community with the numbers of new housing units staff expects will be added with and without this draft plan’s adoption. In addition to these useful metrics (to assess the plan’s likely impact), the public should also receive ratios of added density to added parkland acres within the plan’s boundaries.

Jennie Dean Park

Given the community’s desire that the “portion of the park fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive be left open for casual use” and avoid locating fields or courts adjacent to Four Mile Run Drive, the County Board should direct staff to honor those preferences.

Arts district

As I wrote recently, the County Board should adopt a comprehensive, easily understood, 21st century arts policy determining when, where and how Arlington should subsidize the arts before entertaining proposals to create an arts district in the 4MRV area.

Conclusion

Given the current draft Framework’s nebulous state, more work needs to be done to clarify the plan. Residents have a right to know exactly what is and is not being proposed, and to give County Board members meaningful feedback. Only then will Board members be able to make an informed decision as to the likely costs, impacts and desirability of the Framework’s outcomes.

by Peter Rousselot January 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.

Last Friday afternoon, Arlington County issued its annual information on the assessed value of Arlington property as of January 1.

As per that release, the top line numbers are:

  • Overall increase of 1.9 percent (compared to 3.0 percent last year)
  • Average residential property up 3.8 percent
  • Most commercial property values up, but office values down 6.8 percent

Office properties represent about 18 percent of the overall tax base.

Discussion

As the county’s press release acknowledges, last Friday’s news is sobering:

This past fall, County officials projected a 3.2 percent increase in the value of all residential and commercial real estate–and a comparable increase in tax revenues. With actual growth of 1.9 percent, the County will face a greater shortfall as it works to develop a balanced budget.

At the end of 2017, the County Board directed the County Manager to “propose a balanced budget within the existing tax rate” for FY 2019, after having raised the tax rate by 1.5 cents for CY 2017. Within that appropriate framework, the tough budget choices the Board is going to have to make in 2018 are tougher after last Friday’s news.

The good news is that the public already has provided many constructive ideas to help the Board make these tough choices. Late last fall, the Manager asked Bryna Helfer and her Engage Arlington team to solicit the public’s suggestions to help prepare the FY 2019 operating budget. Some of the public’s responses have been compiled and posted on the Engage Arlington website.

For example, check out the public’s suggestions grouped there under these headings:

  • Fiscal problems have roots in poor planning and decision-making
  • Focus on the big $$$ issues, not the micro stuff
  • Smart spending
  • Close-out funds
  • Laundry list of budget-related suggestions

Another interesting indicator of the public’s priorities can be found in an online poll conducted by ARLnow.com beginning January 2. A large number of responses — 3,345 — were recorded.

Here are the top 8 vote-getters from among the 16 options offered in that poll:

With the important caveat that the foregoing results are not derived from a statistically-valid public opinion survey, they are nevertheless useful indicators of the relative priorities of a large number of recorded votes.

As I wrote in December, it’s also important for the County Board and our community to address FY 2019 budgeting tasks in the context of longer-term financial modeling.

The Board should direct the Manager to develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The results and assumptions underlying this exercise should be published, and the public should be invited to comment on those results.

Conclusion

Arlington should set its budget priorities:

  • giving careful consideration to the public’s priorities
  • using data-driven information regarding what the County (and APS) are likely to be able to afford in the long term

by Peter Rousselot January 11, 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.

There is a continuing controversy over whether to create an “Arts District” in the Four Mile Run Valley area.

Latest arts subsidy controversy

The Chairs of the Sports Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission recently wrote a withering joint letter to the chair of the Four Mile Run Valley Working Group sharply criticizing a proposal to create an Arts District in that area:

“It remains unclear how the proposed arts hub would be financed or managed over time to become self-sustaining,” said the letter writers. “We do not want to repeat a costly mistake [like the Artisphere].”

The latest controversy over this Arts District is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Arlington lacks a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

Instead, Arlington has a confusing patchwork of programs, initiatives, studies, task forces and partial policies that make it impossible for the ordinary Arlington resident to understand when, how and under what circumstances taxpayer money will be used to promote Arlington arts.

Can you explain to the ordinary Arlington resident how these things fit together?

  • A 27-year old general policy statement regarding taxpayer support for the arts
  • The role of the Arlington Arts Commission
  • The role of a non-profit organization, Arlington Arts
  • The goal of the Cultural Affairs division of the Arlington County government, part of Arlington Economic Development, in using taxpayer dollars to sponsor a weekly column on ARLnow.com
  • The County Manager’s new policy of “making low-cost, high-impact investments in performing arts and maximizing the use of existing venues, including schools”
  • The recently-adopted “Enriching Lives: Arlington Arts and Culture Strategy”
  • The “Artspace Phase II Market Study”

A 21st century arts subsidy policy should reflect current fiscal realities

It is long past time for a 21st century arts subsidy policy because Arlington is facing a completely different fiscal environment today than it did in 1990, such as the capacity crisis in our public schools and our lack of adequate unprogrammed open green space for our surging population.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor an appropriate level of continued public subsidies for the arts reflective of the nature and purpose of specific arts programs. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the needs for schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety than the share the Board funds for the needs of the arts community.

As I wrote in December, Arlington should measure all of these needs (core and non-core) through the lens of longer-term financial modeling, setting priorities using data-driven information regarding what the County and APS are likely to be able to afford in the context of tax rate stability.

Conclusion

Utilizing the highest level of its new public engagement resources, Arlington should adopt a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

The City of Boston only launched its recent arts plan after a year-long public engagement effort.

To facilitate a community conversation to develop Arlington’s arts subsidy policy, the County should promptly publish a detailed listing of all current County-supported arts activities and the corresponding direct and indirect County subsidies.

Arlington should not try to replicate arts options that are easily accessible in the region.

×

Subscribe to our mailing list