62°Mostly Cloudy

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.

by Peter Rousselot December 11, 2014 at 2:00 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.

Peter RousselotA recent ARLnow.com story asked the question: “Why doesn’t Arlington ask developers for school funding?” County leaders quoted in the story bobbed and weaved, but failed to provide convincing answers.

County Attorney Steve MacIsaac seemed to suggest that current state law severely limits the extent to which such developer contributions could be required. But, MacIsaac didn’t explain exactly why such developer contributions are not similarly limited in neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax.

Is MacIsaac claiming that, with respect to developer proffers, Arlington has a different legal status under Virginia law than Fairfax? If so, he needs to explain that fully. If that’s the situation, then any Arlington legislator could seek necessary changes in state law.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette was similarly opaque. Fisette was quoted as saying, “if we would have to undo our current structure to be able to replicate what’s done in Loudoun, I think that would be ill-advised.” Why would it be ill advised? Fisette didn’t explain.

Fisette was somewhat more candid on the Kojo Politics Hour. When a caller noted that projections of rapid school enrollment growth suggested Arlington would have real trouble financing the construction costs of seats for new students, Fisette admitted: “We are victims of our own success.”

Precisely because Arlington students and their parents indeed would be the victims of this kind of “success,” the public is rightfully calling for a completely transparent discussion of the developer proffer issue.

It was troubling to read several comments to the ARLnow.com story claiming that County Board members have threatened School Board members that there would be adverse consequences to the school system if the proffer issue were discussed publicly. Claims like these could be either true or false. But, the issue of developer proffers is real, and deserves a full, fair and extensive public discussion.

It was welcome news to learn that such a public discussion could take place at the January meeting of the Arlington Civic Federation. A Sun-Gazette story about the Civ Fed’s plans suggested that County leaders might be reluctant to open up this issue because developer proffers for new school construction might be “a zero sum game.” If so, such proffers might have to be offset by comparable cuts in developer contributions for other things, like affordable housing or public art.

We need a robust public discussion of questions like these:

  • Is it really a zero sum game?
  • Which priorities matter most?
  • If we can’t even afford to pay for the seats for new students required by recent development, why shouldn’t we slow future development until we catch up?

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 November 20, 2014 at 12:15 pm 1,796 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.

Peter RousselotOn Nov. 18, four members of the Arlington County Board (Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt) voted to cancel Arlington’s $500 million+ streetcar projects. I commend Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes for this statesman-like vote.

For all of the reasons outlined on the website www.sensibletransit.org of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST), the vote to cancel Arlington’s streetcar projects also was the right decision as a matter of transportation policy — as Garvey and Vihstadt recognized previously.

On Nov. 18, the County Board also issued guidance to the County Manager to prepare the County’s FY 2016 operating budget.

Although a majority of the Board now has voted to cancel Arlington’s streetcar projects, the Board’s new budget guidance continues to reflect many other flawed priorities of County Board members Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada. Fisette, Hynes and Tejada still have the votes on our five-member Board to pass budget guidance that incorporates priorities that are wrong for Arlington.

Here are some examples of alternative budget guidance that our County Board should have given the County Manager, but failed to give:

  • our highest priority is to fund Arlington Public Schools (including incremental funds to address the school capacity crisis);
  • the School Board has asked the County Board to increase its transfer to APS to cover the cost of enrollment growth, a step increase for its employees and to eliminate early release days at the four remaining schools that still provide early release. The County’s actual budget guidance will leave APS with a shortfall of $23.8 million; that $23.8 million shortfall should be restored;
  • redirect funding toward other core services such as basic infrastructure maintenance (roads, water mains, sewers), sensible transit, and public safety; finance this redirection of funds by comparable cuts in other programs and operations;
  • working collaboratively with Fairfax and Alexandria, retain truly independent transportation experts to prepare an operating plan for a robust regional BRT system serving the Columbia Pike, Route 1/Crystal City, and other appropriate transit corridors;
  • provide alternative plans for use of the $80+ million currently set aside for the capital costs of the Aquatics Center because we have decided to cancel this project as it is currently designed; Arlington cannot afford to pay the currently estimated $4 million per year to operate such a facility.
  • provide a cut in the property tax rate of no less than 1 cent.

Conclusion

Like every other community in America, Arlington must set priorities for how it spends its money. If everything is a priority, nothing truly can be a priority. Leadership involves explaining why some programs and projects must be cut in order to fully fund other programs and projects that have a higher priority.

Many of Arlington’s priorities are right. Certain of Arlington’s priorities are wrong. Arlington should continue to change those of its priorities that are wrong.

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 November 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm 1,779 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.

Peter Rousselot

Arlington is thinking far too narrowly about the APS capacity crisis.

Our options should not be limited to property currently owned or leased by APS. With the exception of parkland, all property currently owned or leased by the County also should be considered. Subject to a cost-benefit analysis, so should property not currently owned or leased.

No neighborhood should be immune.

We provided the tax revenue that enabled both APS and the County to acquire title to land, but APS and the County should not be treating that land like private property owners.

Jason Rylander, a leading community activist, has provided a valuable roadmap on how we might approach these issues. In an Oct. 23 letter, Rylander outlines a series of needed changes.

Below is a summary of some of Rylander’s best ideas (Much more detail is provided in his letter).

Expand Evaluation Criteria For New Schools

The current criteria for considering county-owned property as sites for new school facilities are far too restrictive.

For example, why should:

  • sites be limited to “an existing school site adjacent to more than one acre of County Board-owned property”?
  • there be a restriction on considering sites smaller than 3.5 acres?

Vacant office space should be considered.

Joint County-APS Planning Process To Locate Best Sites

We need a comprehensive, integrated vision regarding where our school facilities should be located and why. That vision should be developed by combining County and APS expertise in a master planning exercise.

The Arlington public justifiably lacks confidence that our current public institutions are doing the best job estimating future public school enrollment.

Based on the most recently available data, APS now appears to be planning for at least a 32,300-student system. But, because the goalposts keep moving so frequently, the public is rightly skeptical.

Improve Public Communication and Outreach on Potential Sites

It’s long past time to break down the silos between the County and APS.

The current lack of transparency in discussing these issues and presenting them for public discussion is unacceptable. As Rylander explains:

Repeatedly, citizens have been told that certain sites are not “on the table” or “cannot be discussed publicly” due to ongoing negotiations between our county and school governments.

CONCLUSION

Jason Rylander and I don’t agree on every aspect of how best to handle the capacity crisis. For example, we respectfully differ on the extent to which parkland should be part of the conversation. However, the community owes Jason a vote of thanks for his thoughtful recommendations on how best to proceed.

The County and APS need a new start on this issue.

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 November 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm 1,735 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.

Peter RousselotIn Tuesday’s County Board election, Arlington voters again rendered a decisive verdict on major priorities and practices of the current majority on the Arlington County Board (Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada).

The verdict: change your priorities and practices, or we’ll elect others who will.

Independent John Vihstadt won another landslide election by again uniting tens of thousands of Arlington Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Independents into a broad-based coalition that shares Vihstadt’s policy priorities and rejects those of Fisette, Hynes and Tejada:

  • prioritize spending on Arlington’s core government services (e.g., overcrowded schools, basic infrastructure, sensible transit, and public safety),
  • end spending on wasteful and extravagant projects like streetcars, a gold-plated aquatics center, and more fancy dog parks,
  • provide far greater transparency and accountability in Arlington County government.

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS ELECTION

For Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada

The statesman-like thing you should do now is to vote to cancel extravagant, wasteful and unnecessary projects like streetcars and the aquatics center. Commit instead to redirect our tax dollars toward investments in:

  • public schools,
  • basic infrastructure (sewers, water mains, roads),
  • sensible transit, and
  • public safety.

Move forward aggressively with new initiatives to make Arlington’s government far more transparent.

For all other Arlington Democratic elected officials

Tell Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada it’s time to unite the community around the agenda outlined above. Renounce further plans to support a referendum on the streetcar because there is ZERO likelihood that Virginia will enact legislation forcing Arlington to hold a binding referendum on the streetcar.

For the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC)

You have lost the excuse that Vihstadt’s election in the spring was a fluke. Don’t make the same mistake again. Alan Howze lost both elections because he embraced policy priorities for Arlington (e.g., streetcars, aquatics center) that a majority of Arlington voters don’t want.

Because these policy priorities do not spring from core Democratic values, thousands of Arlington Democrats rejected the Democratic candidate who championed these failed policies. If you keep nominating candidates who advocate these failed policies, Arlington voters will continue to reject those candidates.

Some of the practices ACDC itself adopted after Vihstadt’s spring victory have subjected ACDC to justifiable ridicule. Examples:

  • telling Democratic elected officials and leaders they are not welcome at public ACDC meetings,
  • dropping Democratic elected officials and leaders from broad-based ACDC email lists,
  • placing a Democratic elected official on what the Sun-Gazette derisively called “double-blind secret probation.”

Unflattering comparisons to the Soviet politburo continue to circulate. ACDC leadership should renounce all such practices, and embrace the politics of addition instead of the politics of subtraction.

CONCLUSION

It is no longer enough to get elected to the County Board that you be the Democratic nominee. 

by Peter Rousselot September 11, 2014 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.

Peter RousselotLast week, a jury rendered its guilty verdict in the trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The jury found the McDonnells guilty of multiple violations of federal criminal law relating to public corruption.

The jury answered decisively the question I raised in an Aug. 7 column: a crush does NOT excuse a crime.

Most legal experts and political observers agree that Virginia’s state criminal laws on public corruption are so full of holes that the McDonnells could not have been successfully prosecuted under those state laws. Far from discouraging corrupt conduct, Virginia’s porous state laws enable it.

Any tightening of Virginia’s criminal laws on public corruption must be done at the state level. Under Virginia’s Dillon Rule,” individual localities like Arlington cannot adopt ordinances that conflict with current state criminal law. But, that does not mean that Arlington has no room to act on its own.

For example, earlier this year the Arlington School Board adopted a new gifts policy. Under the School Board’s new policy:

Employees may accept gifts valued at a total of $100.00 or less during a school year from any one student, individual, family or organization, including PTAs and Booster organizations. In no instance shall an employee accept a gift given for services performed within the scope of the employee’s duties or given with the intent to influence an employee’s actions. Any single gift valued at more than $100.00, or gifts totaling more than $100.00 from one giver during the course of a year, must be returned to the giver.

I commend the School Board for the positive example it set by taking this action. As I have written previously, now it’s time for the County Board to step up to the plate.

The current County Board Ethics Policy is much too vague and weak. On the subject of gifts, for example, the current County Board policy simply urges its employees to “ensure that no favors, gifts, gratuities or benefits are received for actions taken.” This provision simply urges County employees not to violate the toothless provisions of current Virginia state criminal law.

The County Board can and should do much better.

To get started, the County Board should follow the lead of the School Board and adopt a gifts policy. Emulating the School Board, the County Board ought to adopt a $100 limit on gifts.

It’s time for the County Board to send a strong signal that it is committed to the highest ethical standards.

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 September 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm 2,245 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.

Peter RousselotOn Aug. 27, ARLnow.com revealed that Arlington Public Schools (APS) has decided to give a new Macbook Air computer to every ninth-grader at Wakefield, Washington-Lee and Yorktown high schools.

Regardless of whether APS’ decision is right or wrong, the decision badly flunks any reasonable test of transparency.

Whether to undertake this initiative cries out for a thoughtful, careful process of advance consultation with parents and the public. The failure to have such a process precede the decision reflects remarkable tone deafness.

Here are just some of the reasons why the decision is wrong according to angry ARLnow commenters:

  • There is too large a mismatch between the way the current curriculum is structured and the ability to use a personal computer in the classroom effectively, so it is premature to introduce personal computers in the classroom until this mismatch is corrected;
  • Too many teachers cannot use effectively the technology tools they already have (Smartboards and TVs), so it is not realistic to believe those teachers will be able effectively to integrate the new personal computers into their classroom instruction;
  • Being prepared for the 21st century means learning how to budget one’s financial resources, and the message we’re sending kids by paying for them to have free Macs is that everyone can just have what’s very expensive and hip at everyone else’s expense;
  • Even if a requirement that all HS Freshmen have a Macbook Air is appropriate, that requirement should be imposed first on the parents, with financial assistance made available to every family that cannot afford to purchase one;
  • Given the capacity crisis APS faces, the money spent on purchasing these personal computers is better spent directly alleviating that crisis.

If you are part of APS’ management, and you believe that you have excellent answers to every one of the points noted above, and therefore that the public reaction to this decision is overblown, you are missing the point.

When you are using our taxpayer dollars to implement a decision like this one, you should be willing to stand up before the public, justify your decision, and engage with the public regarding its concerns.

APS management seems to be fixated on large-scale programs placing PCs in the hands of students. Remember the 1:1 initiative? More recently, at least one elementary school — Campbell — is planning to give iPads to all second graders — apparently without consulting parents or the public.

But, APS management hasn’t engaged with the Arlington community as to why APS thinks it can do better with these PC initiatives than Hoboken, N.J. Like many other school districts, Hoboken tried, but now has abandoned, its PC-for-every-student program.

APS has failed to meet its burden to prove it is ready to implement such programs in an effective way.

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.

×

Subscribe to our mailing list