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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 again last week, Arlington Public Schools (APS) is pursuing a highly controversial plan to swap the building currently providing the Spanish immersion program at Key Elementary with the building currently providing the science-focused program at Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) Elementary.
According to APS Spokesman Frank Bellavia:
- It remains unclear just how the process of swapping the buildings actually will work
- APS has yet to work up a cost estimate for the process
- Questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019
The School Board must own or disown this proposed swap
The proposed decision to swap these two school buildings was publicized in these comments by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy at an August 28 School Board meeting:
” ‘This decision is a wise decision because we’re a growing school division, we’re adding capacity, and we really have come to this point,’ Murphy told the Board….He added that he doesn’t see any need for the Board to formally sign off on the plan…but the Board will get to help APS decide when the move happens.”
Large segments of the community are, and should be, upset by this casual description of a decision of this magnitude. The community now has witnessed elected School Board members being told by the APS Superintendent that the School Board only will “get to help APS decide when the move happens.”
This shouldn’t work this way.
School Board members themselves were taken aback on August 28:
Board Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out, “That’s going to create problems if and when boundaries are drawn.”
“If the Arlington Science Focus building is smaller and the immersion program is bigger, we’re not going to be able to grow [the] immersion program,” said Vice Chair Tannia Talento.
This is an unacceptable process.
The School Board itself should decide IF the move should happen at all. The School Board’s decision should be based upon transparent long-term strategic planning for all of APS’s programming and facilities’ needs. The School Board owes the community an extensive discussion regarding how all these plans fit together:
- what is APS’s 15-year school facilities plan?
- what is Arlington County’s 15-year county facilities plan?
- what is APS’s 15-year instructional plan?
- where do the programs now offered at Key and ASFS fit into these 15-year plans?
- what other options besides the current proposed building swap were considered?
- why is the proposed building swap the best available option?
The School Board must engage the community on whether this proposed swap makes sense
According to Frank Bellavia, “questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019.”
Yet again APS is proposing to engage the community on the wrong question. The right question is whether the swap makes sense in the first place. Only after that question is posed to, and thoroughly discussed with the community, should the discussion proceed to the mechanics of how any swap should occur.
In one of the most famous scenes in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts, over Alice’s protests, proclaims: “Sentence First, Verdict Afterword.”
With this proposed school swap, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy threatens to displace the Queen of Hearts.
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) is in the early stages of what is currently envisioned as a very small-scale and limited evaluation of its justifiably controversial 1:1 digital device program.
At the same time:
- There is accumulating evidence regarding the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and developmental risks of these devices, particularly in the elementary years
- Superintendent Murphy has announced that APS currently is projecting a $43 million operating deficit in FY 2020.
The latest evidence of the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and childhood developmental risks of these devices is disturbing
The fact that children’s use of digital devices (aka “screen time”) can be harmful isn’t news. We are bombarded almost weekly with mounting evidence that the more time children spend using electronic devices, the greater the risk of physical, psychological and developmental harm.
This evidence may explain why:
- Silicon Valley parents are raising their children tech-free
- China’s Department of Education has begun to regulate the sale and use of digital devices marketed to children for noneducational purposes in an attempt to prevent myopia (nearsightedness)
A 2015 study reviewing school IT programs in over 36 countries worldwide (not in the United States) concluded that less is better when it comes to using technology, both for reading scores and particularly for math scores.
A 2017 study used MRI scanning technology to compare functional brain connectivity patterns when children were using screen-based media versus reading a book. It concluded: “brain connectivity is increased by the time children spend reading and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.”
The combination of the questionable educational effectiveness and the costs of the 1:1 program require a thorough and extensive review
Both Arlington County and APS are currently reviewing their budgets to identify potential cuts that will help plug significant budgetary shortfalls. APS should be completely transparent about the total costs and per-pupil costs associated with these devices, including insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. This information is critical to enable Arlington taxpayers to evaluate costs vs benefits.
The public is entitled to a comprehensive and transparent program review to determine the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of 1:1. This is the only way for the public to make informed choices regarding our priorities regarding expenditures that provide the best return on our investment.
For example, APS should prepare and seek public feedback on the costs and benefits of transitioning to a:
- 2:1 elementary program (at p. 3) and related March 15, 2018 work session video (beginning at 1:11)
- 4:1 elementary program (at p. 2-3)
The currently envisioned APS 1:1 program evaluation should be modified in significant ways to produce a meaningful analysis that can lead to major reforms
It appears that APS has no current plans to seek data or input from parents — and even more to the point, from education and health experts who rely on the most current data and research — to evaluate the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of the 1:1 digital device rollout to children as young as 7-8 years old.
APS needs to conduct and share with parents and the entire Arlington community a thorough, complete and objective evaluation of all the costs as well as the benefits of its current 1:1 program. All options must be on the table.
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 my dockless vehicle column last month, I noted that Arlington County Transportation spokesperson Eric Baillet had told ARLnow that “county government plans a [dockless vehicle pilot] framework for County Board review in September.” Board member John Vihstadt stated he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”
I then suggested that Arlington familiarize itself with the details of the dockless vehicle pilot programs already begun or completed in other localities, citing Washington D.C., and Denver as examples.
Although I don’t agree with all its features, the Denver dockless vehicle pilot program has addressed many of the issues that Arlington is likely to face. Arlington should focus particularly on how Denver has handled those issues.
Arlington’s dockless vehicle pilot program should adopt these features
Each dockless vehicle permit holder should be required to:
- provide indemnification, liability, and insurance coverages similar to Denver’s
- provide a unique vehicle identifier on each vehicle
- adopt an equity program, as in Denver, by submitting a plan outlining how its services will be available to those without smart phones
- have each user sign a form providing critical information (e.g., “rules of the road”, including “do’s and don’ts” regarding where and where not to operate the dockless vehicle, and where and where not to leave the dockless vehicle after the user finishes)
Note that the Denver rules of the road prohibit the use of E-scooters in bike lanes. I believe that all dockless vehicles, including E-scooters, should be permitted to use bike lanes.
- share certain categories of data with Arlington
The Denver data-sharing requirements include but are not limited to: utilization rates; total downloads, active users & repeat user information; total trips by day of week, time of day; origin & destination information for all trips; trips per bike by day of week, time of day; average trip distance; incidents of bike theft and vandalism; complaints; accident/crash information.
- pay a dockless vehicle permit fee
The Denver dockless vehicle permit fee schedule seems fair and reasonable:
- Bicycles/E-Bicycles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $20 per vehicle deployed
- E-scooters/Other Approved Dockless Vehicles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $30 per vehicle deployed
In any event, the permit fee schedule that Arlington adopts for its pilot program should represent Arlington County’s best estimate of amounts sufficient fully to recapture all costs which the County might incur to retrieve dockless vehicles left in locations that are prohibited on the form that each user has to sign.
Quite a few of the other pilot programs include regulatory features that I believe Arlington should reject — at least when it comes to choosing the final regulatory framework after the pilot program ends.
For example, for that final regulatory framework, Arlington County staff should not be picking, choosing, or limiting to any arbitrary number:
- how many dockless vehicle permit holders there are
- how many bikes and/or scooters each dockless vehicle permit holder can operate
- how many total bikes and/or scooters all dockless vehicle permit holders can operate
The marketplace should sort that out over time.
Dockless vehicles have great potential, but also pose significant risks. Arlington should adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework) that maximizes the potential and minimizes the risks.
Two stories recently chronicled testimony at the July 14 County Board meeting by representatives from the Arlington Tree Action Group (ATAG). ATAG works to preserve and grow Arlington’s urban forest to keep Arlington green, fulfilling the vision in Arlington County’s Urban Forest Master Plan (2004).
In one story,”Our Man In Arlington” columnist Charlie Clark cast ATAG’s testimony as presenting the Board with “tough choices between the pursuit of green (as in money) and the pursuit of green (as in environmentalism).”
In the other story, Arlington Sun-Gazette reporter and editor Scott McCaffrey noted:
“Arlington County Board members on July 14 took significant flak — yet again — from tree-preservation advocates. And as has been the case in the past, the board’s collective response has been: Don’t blame us; we don’t make the rules.”
Arlington should exercise its existing powers to preserve more mature trees
County Board members are correct that Virginia’s Dillon Rule limits Arlington’s legal powers to preserve trees in some circumstances. However, ATAG and Arlington activists like Suzanne Sundburg also are correct that there are other things that Arlington currently isn’t doing, but that Arlington has the legal power to do, to preserve trees.
Here are just a few of many examples:
- “Build up, under and over rather than out” on public sites to minimize land disturbance, tree loss and the proliferation of hardscape and impervious surfaces, as recommended by the Community Facilities Study Group (at p. 12).
- Strengthen enforcement of existing permitting rules on public as well as private sites. Don’t give APS or County Government a free pass on adhering to permit requirements, as the county did when APS cut down more trees than permitted on the Ashlawn school site, and the County Board simply changed the permit instead of imposing penalties.
- Identify and nominate more “specimen” trees on public land. Out of the 11.6 sq. mi. of public land, there must be more than the current 10 specimen trees worth saving. (On the 14.4 sq. mi. of private land, there currently are 16 specimen trees.)
- Integrate stormwater management/impervious surface reduction principles into lot coverage restrictions, and apply lot coverage restrictions to all housing, not just to single-family properties.
- Adopt a tree preservation ordinance (as Fairfax County already has) based on an existing Virginia Code provision that grants the authority. (This provision relates to conservation of trees during the land-development process in localities belonging to a nonattainment area for air quality standards.)
- Fully fund land acquisition for public natural space. The draft Public Open Spaces Master Plan (POPS) states (at p. 24) that acquiring 204 additional natural acres is needed to serve Arlington’s growing population. But, the Board and manager have delayed funding and acquisition of these lands until 2025 or 2035 (at p. C-7). There is no guarantee that any such parcels will still exist in 2025 or 2035.
The County Board should embrace publicly this comment (by Gavrilo2014) to last week’s Salt Dome column:
“Healthy mature trees should not be destroyed unless there’s absolutely no alternative.”
Arlington County government can make the rules to save mature trees.
Lots more mature trees could be saved if Arlington County only would exercise the powers it already has.
The County Board should instruct the manager to ask this question: have I saved a tree today?
On July 18, the County Board set September public hearings on a “short-term North Arlington salt storage plan” to address a rusting salt storage tank (aka the “Salt Dome”) located at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive.
Having acknowledged their failure to plan for the Salt Dome’s replacement — despite obvious, long-standing rust problems — county staff publicly declared an emergency last month, dumping the problem into the County Board’s lap while pleading for:
- an emergency rezoning of portions of this site from S-3A to P-S;
- construction of a temporary, new storage structure on a different portion of this site.
Not all of N. Arlington’s road salt must be stored at the Salt Dome site, making this emergency rezoning request unnecessary
County Board Chair Katie Cristol stated: “Board members agree that Arlington County must be prepared to efficiently and effectively handle snow and ice to keep our roads and residents safe this winter.”
But there is a cheaper, more efficient solution to achieve the Board’s goal. Staff’s proposed solution seemingly involves taking three weeks to empty the dome and trucking the site’s stored salt up to Baltimore. Instead:
- a portion of existing salt reserves can remain on the Salt Dome site without removing trees and paving over green space to construct a new, temporary structure there;
- the balance of N. Arlington’s salt reserves can be stored temporarily on the Buck site (which is already zoned for this use) or on another N. Arlington site; and
- once the Salt Dome is empty, its demolition and replacement can begin.
As resident Rob MacKichan recounted in his July 17 Board testimony (at 4:18:58), county staff executive George May has confirmed Arlington’s road salt inventory:
– 2,500 tons of salt now inside the Salt Dome;
– 1,500 tons of salt under a tarp next to the Salt Dome;
– 3,500 tons of salt in S. Arlington.
Thus, of the 8,000 tons the Manager’s FY19 budget says we need for the coming winter, the county already has roughly 7,500 tons of salt on hand.
The simplest solution is to transfer the salt now stored in the Salt Dome to an industrially zoned, centrally located, temporary site in N. Arlington. The Buck site is one existing alternative that meets these criteria. As the Manager has indefinitely delayed long-term planning for the Buck site, temporarily storing salt there won’t delay or alter the site’s ultimate redevelopment.
Staff claims that temporarily storing salt (in a canvas teepee) on the Buck site would “break faith with the community.” Unexplained is why a temporary use consistent with current zoning constitutes “breaking faith” with Buck site neighbors, whereas summarily rezoning public parkland and converting it into paved industrial space does not constitute “breaking faith” with Salt Dome neighbors.
County staff must be held accountable
Arlington residents deserve answers to these questions:
- Why didn’t this “conversation” take place last year, as the County Manager acknowledged it should have?
- Which specific steps will the County take to prevent staff from–in County Board member Libby Garvey’s words –“doing this to us or our community again”?
It’s tough to understand why such a disruptive “emergency” solution is required when a simpler, cheaper, more efficient alternative is readily available. Temporarily storing some salt on the Buck site during the new dome’s construction still allows for appropriate long-term planning.
ARLnow.com reported last week that Arlington County plans a pilot program for dockless vehicles.
Spokesperson Eric Baillet “told ARLnow that officials are planning to unveil a ‘pilot demonstration project’ to test all manner of dockless vehicles this fall.” Baillet believes this will help to “provide structure to the deployment, operation and use of scooters and dockless bikes within the county… and gauge the impacts of these mobility devices.”
Baillet says county government plans to present a framework for County Board review in September.
Board member John Vihstadt is quoted as saying he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”
A pilot program for dockless vehicles
Dockless vehicles present some of the same and some different challenges for municipalities compared to earlier iterations of the mobility sharing economy like Uber and Lyft. (Uber and Lyft now also are in the dockless vehicle business.)
What can Arlington learn from other municipalities?
Pilot programs for dockless vehicles in other municipalities
Other municipalities already have pilot programs. They include:
DC’s pilot program was launched in September 2017 and was recently extended through August 2018, WTOP reports:
Seven private companies are currently operating dockless bike and electric scooters in the District. The bike companies are Jump, Spin, ofo and Mobike. Waybots and Bird operate electric scooters. LimeBike has both scooters and bikes.
Complaints since the pilot program began have been largely about where the bikes and scooters are being left — often in the middle of sidewalks or on private property.
San Francisco (SF) has established a 12-month pilot program under which up to five permits may be granted. For the first six months, a total of 1,250 scooters may be permitted. If the first six months go well, the total may increase to 2,500 in months seven through 12. The increase is tied to how well permitted operators meet the standards set out in their permits.
Under the SF pilot program, per the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:
[SF] is looking to the companies themselves to develop robust user education so that their customers know how to properly ride and park the scooters.
The goals of the just-launched pilot program in Denver are described here.
Virginia state law on dockless vehicles
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington will need to determine the scope of its existing power to adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework).
One relevant existing state law is § 46.2-908.1 of the Virginia Code which enables local governments like Arlington to regulate some aspects of dockless vehicle operations.
Is every desirable aspect of the pilot program (and regulatory framework) Arlington might like to adopt currently authorized under Virginia state law?
A carefully-designed pilot program (and regulatory framework) for dockless vehicles is a good idea.
Dockless vehicles have great potential, but also pose significant risks.
Arlington should adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework) that maximizes the potential and minimizes the risks.
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.
Arlington’s RETR program needs a swift, large-scale, prospective policy change: no more exemptions.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
“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:
- Preserve trees and natural areas
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?