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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.

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

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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

I noted these challenges:

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

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

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

Growth and Development

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

Fiscal Responsibility

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reliable accounting/budget software system rather than continuing to spend large sums of money supporting Arlington’s outdated PRISM system (a legacy program that the vendor no longer supports).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

Openness and Transparency

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

Conclusion

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

by Peter Rousselot December 21, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Arlington County government’s best estimate is that Arlington will have 55,300 more residents in 2040 (278,100) than we have now (222,800). Where will they live? How well will Arlington serve them and at what cost?

Discussion

This 25 percent population increase will require many substantial investments in new or refurbished core public infrastructure. We should make those investments.

However, although Arlington is a wealthy community that can invest in many things, Arlington cannot afford to invest in every possible thing.

Arlington’s investment requirements extend well beyond the 2028 end date of the next- scheduled capital improvement plan.

In 2018, we should place a renewed emphasis on longer-term planning. We should evaluate alternative options using the best available longer-term financial modeling software. Longer-term forecasts are subject to greater potential for error. But, the solution is to be flexible, not to refuse to develop and publish the forecasts.

In this column, I’ll summarize some of the initiatives that the County should pursue in 2018:

Growth and Development

  1. Project-specific impact statements: As the Community Facilities Study Group recommended, Arlington should prepare project-specific impact statements for each special-exception site plan project. Anyone claiming that Arlington lacks the legal power to do this (e.g., the County Attorney) should be required to publish their detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.
  2. Broaden community benefits categories: Arlington should broaden the scope of the “community benefits” it asks developers to provide as part of applicable projects. Community benefits should include compensation for the costs of incremental school enrollment directly attributable to the project. Again, anyone claiming that Arlington lacks the legal authority to do this (e.g., the County Attorney) should be required to publish their detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.
  3. Parks: Many practices at the Department of Parks and Recreation need a complete makeover:
  • compliance with County environmental policies concerning maintenance and capital projects
  • stop installing new facilities until you can adequately maintain existing facilities
  • much larger budget for (a) maintaining existing facilities, (b) tree canopy retention and restoration and (c) land acquisition
  • civic engagement

Fiscal Responsibility

  1. Longer-term financial modeling: 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). Publish the results and assumptions. Setting priorities in the context of this kind of data-driven information regarding what the County (and APS) are likely to be able to afford is a vital part of longer-term planning.
  2. To protect affordability, maintain stability in property tax rates.

Openness and Transparency

  1. Open data portal: Arlington must pick up the pace to rectify the many serious shortcomings that residents already have identified in Arlington’s open data portal. Arlington has a lot to learn from the more effective and informative open data portals used in other jurisdictions like Montgomery County.
  2. Consent agenda: Relax the rules for the County Board’s public comment period to permit members of the public to speak on consent agenda items.

Conclusion

The Arlington County government should make greater use of longer-term planning. Arlington needs to demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable longer-term plans to accommodate the substantial population growth and development that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.

Next week, I’ll summarize more initiatives.

by Peter Rousselot November 9, 2017 at 10:30 am 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

At the November 2 School Board meeting, Arlington Public Schools staff “pumped the brakes” on an instructional focus for the Ed Center site.

Staff recommended to defer until the summer of 2018 after APS develops its new Strategic Plan.

Discussion

APS expects 500-600 high school students to enroll at the Ed Center site by September 2022.

Approximately twenty different instructional focus options already have been discussed for this site. Those twenty were narrowed to 10, and then again to the top four.

The top four (Slide 11) are:

  • STEAM High School*
  • Creative and Performing Arts High School*
  • Early College*
  • Expansion of Washington-Lee (W-L) to include additional International Baccalaureate (IB) seats**

* Stand-alone, new county-wide program requiring self-selecting demand and common spaces in the facility. Expected to limit the number of available seats to 500.

** Such an expansion of W-L can leverage already existing common spaces, thereby providing 600 available seats.

The first two options will require much more extensive internal building conversion changes than the second two.

The viability of the first three options depends critically on the willingness of students voluntarily to enroll in a new APS specialized program. Because of the capacity crunch, the School Board should select an option that will fully utilize all available seats as soon as the building is open to relieve anticipated high school overcrowding elsewhere.

STEAM High School

STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student critical thinking (Slide 12).

Would this new program cannibalize Arlington Tech? Would the best site for a STEAM high school be at the Career Center?

Creative and Performing Arts High School

A Creative and Performing Arts High school specializes in teaching performing and visual arts, combined with academics, preparing students for a career in the arts or conservatory study as well as a pursuit of higher education (Slide 13).

How would implementing such a new program affect the performing and visual arts departments at the current comprehensive high schools?

Early College

Early College High School provides an opportunity for students to earn both a high school degree and a two-year associate’s degree (or up to two years of college credits) in four years (Slide 14).

Arlington Tech already offers students Early College Credit. Would there be sufficient demand to maintain full enrollment capacity at both programs?

Expansion of W-L to include additional IB seats

Increase the number of seats available for the International Baccalaureate full IB Diploma program (Slide 15). This program already is offered at W-L.

This is the only one of the four options that doesn’t rely 100 percent on students self-selecting a new specialized program. By leveraging common-area spaces in the main W-L building, the Ed Center space could be designed to accommodate 600 seats as opposed to only the 500 seats anticipated with the other three options.

Conclusion

The November 2 meeting concluded without persuasive answers to these questions:

  • Why the decision to wait until after the completion of the Strategic Plan wasn’t made in the summer of 2017
  • How much worthwhile building conversion planning can be done before the final instructional focus decision is made

The School Board should provide a more complete explanation why deferral is the best way to proceed.

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

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

by Mark Kelly April 6, 2017 at 3:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Just as with our county budget, no one can argue with a straight face that our school budget is strained. We are consistently tops in the region in per pupil spending.

In the past I have asked for an explanation of what makes up the difference between the reported $18,957 per pupil spending and the $22,032 of actual spending. Per pupil spending would increase by $564 under the proposed FY 2018 budget.

It might also be interesting to see a study on budgetary savings from ending homework. There has to be some savings on paper and copier toner.

Last week, Peter’s Take discussed long range budget planning at Arlington Public Schools. His ideas to increase community and County Board engagement would represent a common-sense step in the right direction.

Here are two specific ideas to spark conversation about the APS budget:

Scrap the Revenue Sharing Agreement

As a candidate for County Board, I met with the Arlington Education Association Board and fielded their questions. One of the questions that day was whether I supported a revenue sharing agreement that guaranteed APS would receive 46.5 percent of county revenue.

I answered no.

As you might imagine, the answer met with shocked looks at the table. Why come to this meeting where I was supposedly seeking an endorsement and turn down one of the top requests?

My argument was simple. Why reduce the needs of Arlington schools to a few lines on an Excel spreadsheet? Why not leave open the possibility that sometimes they may need more, or less?

So instead of writing a school budget to an arbitrary 46.5 percent share of revenue, APS should write a budget based on demonstrable needs.

This approach could result in the school receiving a larger share out of the annual budget in some years. It might mean they no longer automatically receive a share of closeout funds, which would take away an administration slush fund.

This line of thinking would certainly require a closer relationship between the County Board and the School Board. It also would shine a brighter light on the APS budget, by requiring another layer of accountability for its spending.

Give APS Maximum Flexibility on Student-Teacher Ratios

Arlington’s enrollment is increasing. However, the growth has slowed down over the projections from a couple years ago. As Arlington works to deal with the uncertainty in increasing enrollment to determine the construction of new buildings, the community should give school administrators some room to make commonsense decisions in the short run.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy included increasing the ratios by one student per classroom as a way to find budget savings in this year’s budget proposal. Based on how the community has reacted in the past, the idea will almost certainly be shot down again.

This issue simply causes reflexive reactions from people who have been conditioned to think that any increase in ratios will have a devastating impact on educational outcomes. However, academic studies have not always backed up this view.

by Peter Rousselot March 30, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In a March 9 column, I analyzed County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million to close a gap in the FY 2018 operating budget.

According to the Manager, that gap is attributable to an “unanticipated” increased funding requirement from Metro and a supplemental funding request from Arlington Public Schools. The APS request exceeded the monies otherwise available to APS under the County-APS revenue sharing allocation formula.

As I noted in that column:

Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlingtons property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.

On March 15, at the direction of the County Board, the Manager proposed cuts to the County budget to offset 1 cent of the proposed 2-cent tax rate increase.

The Manager’s proposed cuts are just the latest illustration that unless fundamental reforms are implemented, we will be confronted year after year for the foreseeable future with:

  • increasing property tax rates (further decreasing the affordability of Arlington for new and existing residents), and/or
  • crowding out of core County services.

The fundamental reforms should include:

APS operating model

As indicated by the latest APS supplemental funding request, there is a justified basis for concern that APS will not be able to support its dramatically increasing enrollment under its existing operating model within APS’ fixed budget allocation. The solution cannot be either to continue routinely to increase APS’ share of the budget (because that would crowd out core County services) or to increase the tax rate (because that would make Arlington less and less affordable).

The School Board should launch a broad community process, including engaging residents outside the schools’ community, to review APS’ operating model to determine how to maintain school quality while permitting APS to continue operating within a reasonable budget share. For example, this new petition offers compelling reasons why every APS elementary student does not need a taxpayer-funded iPad.

APS Construction Costs

As I wrote in December, the County and School Boards should adopt appropriate revisions to the design standards, construction processes, and community review processes for constructing future new schools, with a specific percentage numerical target for per-seat cost-cutting. Both APS and County projects need off the shelf designs, increased competitive bidding, and benchmarks from multiple similar jurisdictions.

Increased County Board Engagement Regarding APS Fiscal Matters

The last several years have seen a welcome and dramatic increase in cooperation between the County and School Boards, including work sessions, the Joint Facilities Study and now the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission.   However, the fixed budget allocation between the County and APS should not continue to be an unqualified delegation of decision-making from the County to APS.

New initiatives should be undertaken to enable the County Board to increase its oversight and input into APS’ utilization of capital and operating monies provided by the County.

As I also wrote in December, the County Board should develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least 3 assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The Board should publish the results and the assumptions, invite community input and publicize what the community says.

Conclusion

Stop pretending we are confronting “unanticipated” circumstances. Start enacting fundamental reforms to anticipate our recurring circumstances.

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

Peter Rousselot

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Necessary Changes at APS

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

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

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

Necessary Changes at Metro

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

by Peter Rousselot October 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Arlington County seeks public input on the Manager’s recommended allocation of $17.8 million in surplus “one-time” close-out funds (from FY2016) and on the Board’s proposed budget guidance to the Manager for FY 2018.

The Board will vote on both matters in November.

Discussion

Kudos to the Board and Manager for embracing reform in choosing to discuss the surplus close-out funds’ allocation and the Board’s budget guidance in October and wait to adopt them in November. This gives the public more time to weigh in before decisions are made.

Submit public comments on both matters here.

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

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

Adopting this principle would mean only that a fair and reasonable percentage of the FY2016 close-out surplus would be earmarked for property tax rate moderation in calendar-year 2017. Adopting this principle would NOT necessarily mean that the calendar-year 2017 property tax rate would fall, rise or remain the same. A final decision on that would be made next year.

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

Similarly, we should consider using some percentage of the close-out surplus for early debt retirement when that makes financial sense. The County’s bond capacity is limited, and retiring debt early will help free up more capacity in addition to reducing interest expense.

  1. The remainder of the close-out surplus (after setting aside a % for tax rate moderation and any debt reduction) should next be considered to address any emergency that requires funding before final adoption of the FY2018 operating budget.

An “emergency” expenditure is one that simply cannot be deferred until the FY2018 general fund (operating) budget is approved in April 2017. Reasons for not waiting until April 2017 might include the complete loss of a current vital opportunity or the strong likelihood of sharply escalating costs to meet a core government function.

However, the County should first determine whether it already has an appropriate reserve fund set aside to cover an emergency before tapping surplus close-out funds.

  1. All other proposed uses of the close-out surplus automatically should be deferred, and the remaining funds’ allocation should be decided in conjunction with the FY2018 budget process.

County Board action on all other proposed uses of close-out surplus funds should be automatically deferred until more is known about the County’s financial position in the coming calendar year. Close-out surpluses are “one-time” funds rather than ongoing revenue. They exist solely because the County collected more tax revenue than required to meet its budgeted commitments. Therefore, these funds should be used for nonrecurring expenditures (e.g., replacing a bridge, acquiring land, etc.) rather than for supplementing the County’s ongoing operating expenses.

Conclusion

The County Board should direct the Manager to reconsider his current recommendations by applying the guiding principles discussed above.

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