Arlington, VA

The 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.

Tonight the County Board is going to consider building four more bus stops on Columbia Pike at a total allocated cost of $1.65 million, or roughly $412,000 per stop. The current Capital Improvement Plan contemplates the construction of 23 new transit stops for a total of $16.9 million, though Arlington taxpayers would not be on the hook for the entire bill.

It seems like an eternity ago that the $1 million model for these stops caused a political firestorm and even garnered national attention. The coverage put into perspective the magnitude of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, helped elect Independent John Vihstadt, and eventually lead to project’s cancellation. For those who may have forgotten, the rather small stop does not really keep you dry when it is raining and the “state-of-the-art” screen that was supposed to provide riders with information is often out of commission.

That the County Board thinks spending around half a million dollars each to build another 23 is a good fiscal decision still boggles the mind. The decision to proceed only looks fiscally responsible relative to $1 million, not relative to what else you could spend $13.3 million on, or not spend it at all.

In a larger sense, after the Board raised taxes and found no real budget savings this Spring, it is yet another piece of evidence that the once again all-Democrat County Board is slipping back into old habits when it comes to spending our money.

Speaking of watching spending decisions that are supposed to benefit the community, the Washington Business Journal recently reported that business incubator 1776 was unable to come to lease terms with JBG Smith and is relocating to the District. In 2015, the County Board voted to give 1776 up to $450,000 in economic development grantsto create 300 new jobs in the county. Four years later, those jobs are leaving the county.

Economic development incentives (giveaways) are a game that all states and major metropolitan areas play. This case serves as a reminder that they do not always work out over the long run.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

Seeing all of the reports from the flooding throughout Arlington County yesterday reminds me of the responses Arlingtonians have made to previous natural disasters in the area.

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel wiped out power throughout much of the county and the region. However there were areas where houses on one side of a street had power and their neighbors on the other side had none. We live on one of those streets.

We asked a neighbor if we could run an extension cord across the street to run a few essentials, including a mini refrigerator to keep a few things cold, a couple of lamps and a fan for sleeping through a few warm nights. All of this came in especially handy as we had a toddler running around the house.

Soon, we noticed extension cords running all over the neighborhood. And then we heard stories of it happening all across the area as power outages stretched out for a week.

During one of the more severe winter storms a couple years back, a neighbor told another that his wife was in the hospital with late term pregnancy complications. Next thing you know, there was a small army shoveling out the street so he could get his vehicle out of the neighborhood.

These things happen regularly here in Arlington, not just in my neighborhood. It is what living in a community is all about.

Two weeks ago, the author of the Progressive Voice suggested Republicans represented a “cacophony of terrible.” It does not quite rank up there with Senator Barbara Favola’s 2017 line that Republican candidates were “evil”, but it does reflect a troubling partisan tribalism in our society today.

Both sides have been guilty of falling into it. But, this attitude is dangerous to the social fabric of our communities.

As neighbor helps neighbor again this week, may we all feel more connected and invested in making Arlington a great place to live, work and raise a family. May it also be a time to re-evaluate the emphasis we put on politics. And may it be a reminder to treat each other the way we want to be treated at all times, not just in times of crisis.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

It is a big summer for Arlington Public Schools. It started with the June 12th announcement that Superintendent Patrick Murphy is leaving his post September 3rd after a decade at the helm.

Yet, according to incoming School Board Chair Tannia Talento, the search for his replacement still has not begun, nor have they named an interim superintendent who can be an active part of the transition. Talento noted the School Board plans to hire an executive search firm, but has not done so yet. In fact, Talento says the search firm may not be in place until sometime in the fall.

Murphy’s decision must have caught the School Board members off-guard. Three weeks have already gone by, and apparently it will be three months before the search begins.

This is the second instance that calls into question the priorities of the School Board when it comes to staffing APS. Just a couple months ago, we heard that APS does not have an effective exit interview system in place to determine why staff leave.

This is a school system with a budget that will approach $700 million next year, but may not have a new leader in place when budget negotiations commence. Regardless of whether you agree with the outcome or not, Superintendent Murphy was able to shepherd through the request for a tax rate increase to give the School Board nearly everything it could have asked for in the most recent budget process.

The School Board should have a contingency plan in place for these circumstances. Even if they did not, they should have made starting this search process a higher priority. If the School Board does not get more serious about finding a permanent replacement, it will not help their cause as the next budget is being written next spring.

Speaking about getting serious, APS is taking another step toward school security by testing a visitor management system this summer that would require a photo ID for those wishing to enter a school. Acceptable forms of ID can include any ID, regardless of where it was issued, so long as it contains your full name, date of birth and photograph. APS will work out the kinks before the system is rolled out county-wide in the fall.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

Reading through the remarks of Chairman Christian Dorsey from last week’s “State of the County” address to the Arlington Chamber, I was not surprised to find that the Chairman pronounced our status as “excellent.” But what is his report card so far?

Once again, the Chairman predictably talked about our bond rating and the customer satisfaction survey. He also talked about a desire for county officials to collaborate with the community. He took credit for ongoing improvements in public safety, economic incentive deals, and the county’s yet to be launched efforts to streamline the permitting processes. For keeping the trains running on time, Dorsey gets a C. This grade would have been a B if the Board had not claimed financial hardship before passing a 6.2% spending increase and a potentially massive pay raise.

Nothing new has really been accomplished when it comes to affordable housing, despite promises to the contrary. This is not unique to Chairman Dorsey. Every Board member talks about the rising costs of living in the county. In a 2018 speech, Dorsey himself previewed support for increasing housing density and reducing the size of single family houses that could be built on lots in order to combat market forces. However, little ever seems to change except for raising our property taxes, making it more expensive to live here. Grade: F.

Keeping an eye on Amazon. The county approved the package to finalize the deal and can claim a small victory as the online retailer agreed to send $3 million back to the county’s “efforts” on affordable housing. A lot is still to be determined here. Grade: C+.

Equity remains a high priority buzzword for Chairman Dorsey. No one really knows for sure what new policies he is seeking to implement or goals he is seeking to achieve, though he did discuss child care and public health.

Last year, Dorsey suggested Arlington should create a consumer protection bureau to make sure everyone is treated fairly. He also suggested it might mean an examination of county housing policies to ensure diversity is being achieved. Maybe we will need to wait till Dorsey’s wrap-up speech at the end of the year to find out what equity outcomes he accomplished? Grade: Incomplete.

Last but not least, Dorsey also gets an Incomplete for glossing over the subject of our schools in his speech. Despite the fact that the County Board cited the schools budget as a primary reason for increasing our property tax rate this year, Dorsey did not address it in his speech, except for brief mentions while discussing equity and diversity.

You can assign your own grades to Dorsey’s chairmanship so far. And remember, he still has six months to pull them up.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

Thumbs Down. After Chairman Christian Dorsey said earlier this year it was not the right time to consider a pay raise, the Arlington County Board will vote to raise its pay cap tonight. Members will choose between three options. Will it be 10%, 63% or 135%?

One can assume the Board would not vote to raise their salaries up to $129,429, but at least one Board Member, Libby Garvey, will almost certainly make the case for it. Garvey believes the County Board is already a full-time job, not a part-time job.

There is a strong case to be made that we benefit from the perspective of people on the Board who continue to hold down another full-time job. And the idea of turning the County Board into a full-time position has not been thoroughly debated with the public. It would raise a number of interesting questions. Would Board Members be allowed to hold outside jobs? If so, would there be a cap on their outside earned income? Would they provide additional services to constituents to correspond with the pay raise?

The staff report laying out the options revealed that an overwhelming majority of Arlingtonians who participated in the survey urged the Board to stay closer to option 1 than option 3. However, the Board has hinted that they were headed for $80,000 more since they released the news that the pay raise would be on the June agenda.

Assuming the County Board opts for a new cap of $89,851, Board Members would not necessarily get a 63% raise all at once. They could incrementally raise it over the next four, or more, years.

Chairman Dorsey should not have said it was not the right time for a pay raise if he did not intend to keep his word, but here we are. So, the Board should stay part-time and choose option 1. Ten percent is enough to provide a COLA for the next four years until the cap could be revisited again.

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The 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.

If you are having trouble scrubbing the family budget enough to help pay for the rising tax rates here in Arlington, try this solution: just raise your salary.

That is apparently what the Arlington County Board plans to do this month.

This is not just any old cost-of-living adjustment mind you, but a raise that could be more than 40%. Libby Garvey speculated the pay could rise from around $57,000 to $82,000.

To put $25,000 into perspective, it would take this year’s tax increase on roughly 60 average homeowners to fund one Board Member’s pay raise. It would take more than 300 homeowners to fund the raises for the entire Board.

One could reasonably argue that from time to time the County Board should adjust its pay upward to reflect the hours they work and inflation. This post is not necessarily about what is reasonable, though $25,000 seems clearly beyond reasonable for what is supposed to be a part-time Board. Instead, it addresses the dishonesty of the arguments from our elected officials and the timing of the vote.

Let’s go back all the way to January. That is when Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey said about a pay raise, “I don’t actually think it’s appropriate this year.” The comments came in the context of the so-called “tight budget times” that the Board claimed necessitated a 5% tax increase on homeowners for 2019.

Dorsey’s words were clearly designed to make Arlingtonians think he and the Board wouldn’t dream of considering a raise as they were asking taxpayers to fork over more of their hard-earned money to the five spendthrifts. And the Board proceeded to go through the annual budget process without discussing a pay raise as part of that package.

It is clear what Chairman Dorsey actually meant was, the right time to vote on a pay raise is after the deadline for candidates to get on the November ballot. Pushing the pay raise consideration till late June was presumably aimed at avoiding the looming threat of a John Vihstadt run.

The willingness to even consider the pay raise proves that any claim that Arlington is struggling with “tight budget times” is a complete and total sham. If the 6.3% budget increase passed in April didn’t convince you, the County Board’s willingness to turn around and vote themselves a pay raise as high as 44% should.

If the Board wanted a pay raise, the honest, accountable and transparent thing to do would have been to put it in the annual budget. Let the public weigh in on balancing priorities between a pay raise for the Board and cuts to arts funding, transportation needs or additional school spending.

The County Board is emboldened. They clearly believe you have written them a blank check to do absolutely anything they want with no electoral consequences.

Chairman Dorsey should go back and revisit his own words. It is not the right time to consider a massive pay raise. The Chairman should publicly commit not to put it on the June agenda. Otherwise, taxpayers may need to think about rallying around a challenger to defeat him.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

Republicans have yet to field a candidate for any countywide office in Arlington this year. Unfortunately, fielding no candidates lets the Democrats sitting in office completely off the hook.

There would be no accountability for the tax increase that is putting the squeeze on homeowners and businesses alike. The two Board Members up for re-election would not have to answer for the 6.3% spending increase. They would not have to explain how that spending falls in line with their rhetoric that this was a “tough budget year.” The $2 million slush fund given to the County Manager gets the voters’ stamp of approval by default.

Christian Dorsey would not have to answer for his comments earlier this year that suggested that he does not want to work as hard as other Board Members. Dorsey has also served on the WMATA Board for years. If you think he has failed to demonstrate real leadership qualities in these capacities, you can just give him a piece of your mind during the next public comment period.

If you didn’t like how the County Board handled the Amazon deal, you can write a letter to the editor.

If you are unhappy with how the county processes permits and zoning, you can keep complaining to your neighbors.

If you think the County Board should do more to hold the School Board accountable during the budget process, you can write-in a friend when you go to the polls in November.

If you want answers to why the County Board approved a $50 million line of credit as a new mechanism to finance projects, you can send them a strongly worded email about the pitfalls of taking on too much debt.

But there is still time for someone to get on the November ballot.

Having run as a Republican in a November general election myself, it is certainly understandable that qualified people sit out of the process. If you are serious about running, you are committing to work the equivalent of a second full-time job for several months in the face of extremely long electoral odds.

While running against the party that controls everything is tough, there are some benefits to becoming a candidate.

You would gain a new appreciation for candidates who are willing to put in the hard work of running for office.

You would meet a lot of nice people and visit parts of the county where you may not spend much time. Most people, including the ones not voting for you, appreciate having an informed conversation about what is happening in their neighborhood. (You also learn how to deal with difficult people, but these are the exceptions.)

You would also get a lot of exercise knocking on doors. If you have never gone door-to-door here, you probably don’t realize just how hilly Arlington really is.

In all of this, you would learn a lot about yourself and the community in which you live. And, you would perform an invaluable public service by holding your elected officials accountable and by giving voters a choice.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

Arlington School Board members are asking for information about staff turnover. Superintendent Patrick Murphy doesn’t have it. That fact is rightly causing the School Board to push for more information.

If you have ever left a professional job voluntarily, you have probably been asked to provide an exit interview. Many employers do this because they want to keep good employees. The information they gain in these exit interviews is designed to help them understand what they can do to make the work environment better.

Is it pay? Is it opportunity for advancement? Is the commute too long, causing someone to miss family time? Is there a toxic manager or staff member who is making it hard to come to work each day? Knowing this information and adjusting your policies accordingly may not keep the last employee who left, but it might help you avoid losing the next one.

According to Superintendent Patrick Murphy, APS is still “gearing up” to do some form of one-on-one exit interviews. Departing employees, not surprisingly, are generally not responding to what sounds like requests for participation in online surveys.

While the exit interview can help you after the fact, hopefully School Board members are asking other management and work environment questions.

How is Murphy training principals and other management level staff to regularly check in with the people who report to them? Are they encouraged to do regular one-on-one meetings with staff members to get feedback? Is Murphy doing the same thing with the staff members who report directly to him?

In other words, do staff at all levels feel like they have regular and open lines of communication to the person who is providing leadership to them on the organizational chart? Or is the environment one where they only communicate when there is a problem from below or a directive from “on high?”

And how is Superintendent Murphy held accountable for the level of communication?

While it seems like investing time in opening lines of communication might not seem to fit into a busy calendar, it can save so much time later in dealing with the crises caused by problems left bubbling below the surface. And ultimately, the information you gain by gathering input from your team on a regular basis is far superior to the information you gain from an exit interview after someone has already decided to leave.

If a change in the communications culture is in order at APS, it is never too early to start.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

According to the Washington Post report on emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington Business Journal, Arlington County officials created a “cozy” working relationship with Amazon and developer JBG Smith.

“We tend to go to great lengths to find areas of cooperation.” Those were Christian Dorsey’s words describing his approach to attracting Amazon.

The emails and text messages showed that Arlington officials provided Amazon representatives with a copy of questions they planned to ask at a public hearing on the deal. Board member Erik Gutshall provided all of his questions.

The Post story went on to report that “Arlington officials helped tailor communications, delay a request for an expansion of a higher-tax business improvement district, and arrange hearings in front of friendly civic and business audiences.”

The existence of such emails and a friendly reception by county officials should not come as a surprise. It was no secret that Arlington was making a significant push to land the retail giant.

It does give Arlingtonians a look into the kind of relationship the county created with Amazon. You can then compare it with any experiences you had with county officials when trying to discuss an issue in your neighborhood, get a permit, or work within (or around) confusing county rules and regulations. Did county officials “go to great lengths to find areas of cooperation” with you?

Newest Board member Matthew de Ferranti seemed to suggest this may be a signal that the county was taking a new tone toward business saying, “For a long, long time, Arlington was alleged to be too oppositional with business.”

If the county is aggressively seeking to clear unnecessary hurdles to running a business here, it is good for Arlington. If it is merely a shift in attitude toward new, big employers, then the county still has work to do. Arlington should be known as a place that serves its current employers well, not just as a place working to attract new ones.

Maybe the Arlington Chamber of Commerce could anonymously survey its members to see if existing businesses are seeing positive changes?

Amazon’s presence is likely to help bring down the commercial vacancy rate by attracting related employers. For example, the University of Maryland may be looking to bring a hub to Crystal City according to a Washington Business Journal story this week. However, Arlington officials must work to create a more competitive business climate overall.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

The post budget spin offered by Arlington officials defies common sense.

As both the general budget and the school budget increased by 6.3%, here is what
Board Chairman Christian Dorsey had to say,

“I would think about this not as government getting smaller, but as government getting
smarter.”

What he should have said:

Arlingtonians should not think of government getting smaller, because it got bigger.

Not to be outdone, Erik Gutshall county leaders went over the budget with a “fine tooth comb” and the result is a budget without “an ounce of fat.”

What he should have said:

A majority of the “savings” we found in the budget were achieved by essentially eliminating vacant staff positions.

Even if you don’t write off the savings as a budget gimmick, the Board spent 99.4% of what it wanted to spend on the county government side of the budget. And, there’s a good bet there is more than one ounce of fat left in it.

While we have come to expect this from a group of people who call spending 6.3% more than last year a “difficult” budget process, Christian Dorsey said something even more disturbing. WMAL aired a clip of Dorsey talking about how Arlingtonians can pay for the 5% tax increase. Dorsey’s reply was to suggest that Arlingtonians “scrub their family budgets.”

What Dorsey is essentially saying:

We didn’t do the hard work. You guys should just suck it up and find a way to pay for it.

Then I was reminded of something Dorsey said earlier this year. In January, he was answering questions about raising the pay of Board Members. Dorsey seemed to suggest that Board Members could scale back their workloads and focus more on big picture responsibilities.

He went on to reflect on some Board Members who dig into the nitty gritty of how the county is run, saying “An individual board member exceeding his responsibility is not helpful.” In other words, when someone else works really hard, it makes the rest of us look bad.

So, the idea that the Board did not really roll up their sleeves and work hard to build a better budget on behalf of taxpayers should not be surprising.

And the failure to rein in spending did not just result in a tax increase on homeowners. The Board also raised taxes on commercial real estate even more. They did this in the face of a commercial vacancy rate that remains high, putting even more upward pressure on the cost of doing business in the county.

All five Board Members have talked about addressing the vacancy rate. The only response thus far is to spend more of our tax dollars to subsidize big employers. $23 million for Amazon and $11.5 million for the DEA are the most recent examples.

What else do they plan to do other than hand out subsidies? Where is the plan?

The bottom line is it is tough to find a single word or phrase that describes this year’s budget process. “Failure” or “head-scratching” come to mind.

No, it’s just “typical.” Unless we change our leaders, we can expect more of the same.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The 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.

After months of laying the groundwork to increase spending and raise taxes, Board members are set to increase the tax rate by two cents on top of rising assessments. The bottom line for the average Arlington homeowner is we will pay 5% more this year, roughly $400. As a bonus, it is retroactive to January 1st.

The Board could have worked harder to keep that tax increase lower. They didn’t. Despite the line that it gets easier budget wise next year, do not hold your breath that the tax and spending spree will slow down.

As noted in this space last week, the Board is slated to give the DEA an $11.5 million subsidy to stay in Arlington. According to the Sun Gazette, this item will be pulled from the consent agenda to be debated by the Board.

After all the hullaballoo over giving $23 million to Amazon out of the increased tax revenue the retailer is slated to generate, it is quite interesting that the Board attempted to slide the DEA subsidy under the radar. Maybe someone with a microphone will answer the question of what the net benefit to the county will be to keep the agency here.

Speaking of under the radar, as of writing this column, there is still no report available that outlines the compensation plan for county staff. Earlier this year, the Board quickly and quietly approved pay raises for the county manager, county attorney, clerk and auditor with no debate or public notice.

There is no doubt that Arlington’s elected officials and county staff operate in one of the most resource rich communities in the country. The unwillingness of county residents hold the County Board responsible for tax increases at the ballot box allows county officials to redefine what constitutes difficult budget choices and to pay for shiny objects (see Artisphere). It allows them to borrow money for routine infrastructure maintenance, much of which has been put off for too long. Last November, the County Board even granted the County Manager a $2 million slush fund to spend as he sees fit.

Where is the Board Member or county employee who asks “how could we build a budget that spends less?” Where is the commitment to identifying potential savings a thorough and expedited review of programs through a more robust County Auditor’s office?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions seems to be “nowhere in sight.”

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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