Over the past week, ARLnow featured Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Christian Dorsey talking about two issues — affordable housing and unfair business practices.
In his Progressive Voice column on business practices, Dorsey laid out an idea to consolidate efforts that take place across agencies and law enforcement and create a consumer protection bureau here in Arlington. Something he says can be done without “substantial increases in funding” by the taxpayers.
The idea is certainly worthy of consideration, particularly if it put all resources available to Arlingtonians in a one-stop shop and did so with little increased costs. At the same time, Dorsey admitted there is no data available to suggest there is a widespread problem or failure of the current system beyond anecdote. It seems like we may want to know the scope of the problem before making a decision on whether it is necessary to dedicate staff time and any increased funding toward creating the new entity.
Dorsey’s speech on housing policy did a number of things. First, it provided a brief overview of discriminatory practices in our country’s past. Dorsey noted that for the most part, these are a relic of the past. He did suggest that using words like “protecting neighborhoods” should not be code for resisting diversity in the name of resisting density.
He went on to argue that government can overcome market forces when it comes to housing. While it is certainly true that you can make public policy strong enough, or destructive enough depending on your perspective, to disrupt market forces, this is always a dangerous road to go down.
Moreover, not a single policy decision made by Arlington County thus far is pointed to as stemming the tide when it comes to rising housing prices. If Amazon came to town there may be no public policy Arlington could pass that could stop a massive price spike. And of course, one can argue that the arduous zoning and permitting processes only serve to make housing more expensive.
Speaking of zoning, Dorsey also intimated that he may favor restrictions on building larger homes on lots because the practice raises the price of the housing stock. Arlington’s zoning ordinance is already a complicated and expensive maze to navigate through, but Dorsey is suggesting he may pursue further restrictions on your property rights in the future.
It sounds a lot like he is previewing a turn as chairman next year or his campaign themes as he presumably runs for re-election in 2019. No data to back a call for additional spending and more property restrictions may not be the best place to start.
This week Democrats put out a plea for precinct captains — just four months before Election Day. For those who do not pay attention to the nuts and bolts of campaigns, these are the people who are willing to do the most work over the next four months to get the people in their neighborhood to vote for the Democrats on the ballot.
While Virginia does not have voter registration by party, it is safe to assume Democrats hold at least a two to one advantage over Republicans in Arlington. That means there is always a larger pool of donors and volunteers to draw from. And by this point in the campaign cycle, local Democrats are typically closer to 100 percent when it comes to filling volunteer positions.
Around this time four years ago, a longtime Democrat activist in Arlington told me that local Democrats were not as enthusiastic about their candidate on the top of the ticket as they had been in years past. They were going to vote for him, but they were not going to go out and work extra hard. That conversation turned out to paint an accurate picture for what happened in November 2014. Mark Warner nearly lost the closest Senate race in the country despite being a heavy favorite, and John Vihstadt handily won a full term on the County Board.
Does the shortage of precinct captains now signal a lower than anticipated Democrat enthusiasm advantage this November?
It could represent overconfidence. All the national polls say Democrats will sweep the elections this November just like they did in Virginia last November. That translates to an idea that “we do not have to work hard because we are going to win anyway. And if John Vihstadt wins, we still have the other four County Board seats.”
It could be “outrage” fatigue. It is hard to stay mad all the time, particularly when the economy is humming along. It may also be hard to convince some to associate with the people who are mad all the time.
Or it could be nothing other than a confluence of unlucky events. This year people could have moved, burnt out or had unforeseen life events at a greater rate than usual. We have elections every year here and we keep adding precincts, which means you constantly have to grow and refresh your team.
We will not know for sure until Nov. 6.
Yesterday, we celebrated our nation’s birthday. As we commemorate our nation’s independence each year, we do so with great fun and fanfare. However, we often forget that success was never a sure thing. Our founding fathers faced long odds when they signed the Declaration of Independence declaring our desire for liberty in the face the greatest power on Earth at that time. That is why they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. There was a very real chance they would lose everything.
Throughout our history, we have continued to face challenges. Our country has not been perfect. While we may not always agree on how best to move forward, hopefully we can agree that we are still blessed to live in this great nation.
Arlington, via Board Member Christian Dorsey, will now have a vote again on the WMATA Board of Directors. Dorsey should view this as an opportunity to more forcefully speak out and hold the agency accountable for, forgive the pun, getting things back on the right track.
Speaking of Metro, the system is hoping to have free Wi-Fi service up and running in all of its stations by the end of the year. There is nothing wrong with providing a service to your customers, but when it comes to public transit, what most customers want is to get to where they are trying to go in a timely and cost-effective manner. They also do want other simple things, like making sure elevators and escalators work, but the primary goal is reliable transportation.
Last week’s Progressive Voice column suggested that “frugality” was one of their core values. Just to be clear, that is not exactly how Arlington County has been governed with the support of progressives. As evidenced by the resistance to establishing an auditor or providing the auditor with adequate resources, the Democrats who control the votes on the Board still seem to be ok with spending more and more of your hard-earned money each year while avoiding more accountability.
But, the pool of writers for Progressive Voice did produce some interesting food for thought in the previous column about the emerging bike and scooter share systems springing up in the region. The suggestion: we need a faster, nimbler, simpler approach to meet the speed of our current technology.
Here is an area where conservatives could not agree more. The less government interference in the marketplace, the more options that will be available to consumers.
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.
I have not really weighed in about the renaming of Washington-Lee High School for a number of reasons. In the final analysis, if in their infinite wisdom the members of the School Board decide to rename this school, then they have the ability to do so. They do have to make the decision realizing they will face the fallout from the voters, particularly the alumni, many of whom from across the political spectrum vehemently disagree with this exercise.
As part of the discussion when the School Board approved the name change process, Monique O’Grady held up a W-L shirt and said “Celebrating your school pride should not mean having to wear a shirt like this one that honors a person who may not share your values.” In so doing, she effectively ruled out naming any future schools after people. It would be extremely tough, if not impossible, to find any person who could receive unanimous support throughout the county.
O’Grady may eventually backtrack from that statement. We may find out what O’Grady meant is that no one who does not share “her” values should find their name on an Arlington school.
Yesterday, ARLnow also ran a story about a local activist who is adamant that the county should remove Arlington House from its logo because it once belonged to Robert E. Lee. Of course, Arlington County was named after Arlington House. Under this logic, it might be time to rename the whole county.
What would renaming Arlington County end up looking like? Under the O’Grady standard, Arlington cannot be named after any people. So, here is a list of suggestions for the new county name based on the standard talking points from the County Board: Diverse, Inclusive, Progressive, Welcoming, World Class.
Or, maybe we could sell annual naming rights to the county to boost revenue or lower tax rates. Trader Joe’s, Virginia anyone? Or possibly, we could change the name to attract new businesses. Right now, for instance, we could change the name to Amazon.
Sure, no one has seriously suggested doing so… yet. But, it is the logical conclusion of the argument.
County Board members, in every campaign speech and at the meeting that takes place at beginning of every year, talk about the need to address the affordability of housing in Arlington.
Market forces beyond their control clearly work against the Board, but so do many of the rules and regulations they create and defend. On Tuesday the Board voted unanimously to force a homeowner to pay an additional $20,000 (or more) to replace the roof on their home because it sits in the Maywood Neighborhood Historic District.
The homeowners were not attempting to change the historic design of their home, they simply did not believe they could afford up to $30,000 for tin shingles when asphalt shingles would cost just $6,000. On Tuesday, the County Board unanimously rejected the homeowners’ appeal of the April 2017 decision by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) which required the dramatically more expensive roofing option.
In the scope of review of zoning appeals it says that action should not be taken “which would be incongruous with the historical aspects of the district.” The HALRB ultimately determined that the lack of this particular tin roof would be incongruous. According to the zoning ordinance cited in the staff report, the Board could only overturn the appeal if it was contrary to the law or constitutes an abuse of discretion. The County Board unanimously affirmed that decision.
But if the County Board members wanted to provide the homeowners relief, they could have. According to the Maywood Design Guidelines, “the HALRB strongly supports replacing metal roofs with the same materials.” If they wanted to say it was required, they could have used the word required, but they did not. In fact, the HALRB asked the homeowners to provide an estimate for the cost of asphalt shingles as part of the application process. Therefore, the HALRB clearly had the discretion to allow the asphalt shingles but chose not to. Their exercise of that discretion was open to the County Board’s review.
Ultimately, the County Board had a simple question before it: is the HALRB’s decision to require homeowners to spend five times as much for roofing material reasonable in light of the historic district requirements? The Board unanimously chose to say that imposing such a cost was a reasonable decision.
The Board did so while trying to sound sympathetic. Board Chair Katie Cristol called it a “cautionary tale.” Vice Chair Christian Dorsey said, “I think we can figure out a way to do better.”
When it comes to driving up costs of construction through zoning rules in the county on one hand, and then simultaneously expressing concerns about the rising housing costs that result from those rules, this result is a perfect example of the Arlington way.
The County Board this week will vote on the new work plan for the County Auditor. The Auditor is proposing to look at county procurement practices, the use of Economic Development Incentive Funds and the operation of Business Improvement Districts.
The new work plan is certainly more aggressive than the old work plan, and we should be cautiously optimistic about the final work product on these issues. At the same time, we should continue to ask why the County Board is so hesitant to move even faster. If this process is a priority, they should fund it like one.
Speaking of watching where our taxpayer dollars are going, the County Manager delivered a warning to the School Board to keep their proposals for the next 10-year Capital Improvement Plan in check. The Manager said the county would need to trim $45-55 million from its side of the plan over the next five years based on a draft proposal for the schools, something the Board seems unwilling to do at this time.
If the County Board is looking for where to cut, here is a suggestion: look to the $46.75 million for “ongoing maintenance programs” in the proposed 2018 bond referenda items.
Why is ongoing maintenance included in an infrastructure investment plan in the first place? Maintenance should be a part of the annual operating budget.
It is like taking a mortgage out on your home, then refinancing and adding to your debt to pay for the house to be repainted or to put in a new dishwasher. Most homeowners rightly budget for ongoing maintenance rather than take on more long-term debt. Arlington County should do the same.
Knowing the County Board would never consider taking the entire $46.75 million out of the bond request, here is a proposed compromise: leave the $21.36 million in the bond to pay for road paving over the next two years, then figure out a way to pay for the remaining $25.39 million in maintenance without adding to our debt.
Not only is it basic common sense, but the Board would be wise to look for ways to keep its long-term obligations in check now so as not to threaten the 10 percent debt service threshold down the road.
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.
Yesterday, ARLnow ran a story about “ruffled feathers” over the Washington Capitals banner that appeared in place of the Blues Festival banner on Columbia Pike. By mid-afternoon, all the parties had reached an agreement on what to do with both banners. However, many were shaking their heads that someone associated with the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization felt the need to run to the media instead of trying to solve the problem first and avoid the unnecessary public drama.
Now that we have moved past the “consternation,” there are still at least a few hours left to jump on the Caps bandwagon. Even people who do not follow hockey regularly or even sports at all have been going to watch parties and joining in the excitement.
It is a unifying experience. No one cares (too much at least) if you are a Republican or a Democrat as long as you are #ALLCAPS. Tonight we will be cheering for them to bring home their first ever Stanley Cup and the first major professional championship in 26 years for the Washington teams. In this hyper-politically charged area, it is a welcome shift in the environment, even if it is only a small one.
Also, the issue of airplane noise came back into the news with the announcement that Arlington would chip in to a study on the impacts of the noise on our community. Reagan National Airport, often cited as a tremendous asset for the county, has been generating airplane noise since 1941. Assuming we do not all end up with our own flying vehicles or some new quiet jet propulsion technology in the near future, the airport will still be generating noise for another 75 years.
The only real winners at the end of this process will be the consultants who will get paid a lot of money to tell us how much noise we are experiencing and possibly how to make it marginally less noisy in the future.
Speaking of taxpayer-funded expenditures, the Civic Federation passed a resolution this week calling on the county to get serious about identifying budget savings. This resolution included a much-needed call to give the County Auditor more resources to do his job.
With county leaders arguing tough budget times are ahead, now is the time to move faster than a snail’s pace on identifying ways we can better use taxpayer dollars. If we can afford to chip in to a study that tells us airplanes make noise, we can surely find enough money to immediately double or even triple the capacity of the Auditor’s office at the next County Board meeting.
Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed legislation that would have provided more low-cost private sector health insurance options to Virginians. His rationale seemed to be that he was 100 percent focused on putting hundreds of thousands of Virginians on to Medicaid, and he did not want any distractions from that plan.
The governor won on his number one legislative priority yesterday. Of course, those who do not qualify for expanded Medicaid or have employer-provided coverage are still trapped in the low-option, high-cost Affordable Care Act exchanges.
For the past few years, Medicaid expansion has been the Democrats’ number one issue in elections. Now that they have it, what will they focus on next?
They could work with Republicans to develop a plan on how to make Virginia the best place to do business in America. Attracting new businesses, keeping existing ones and encouraging entrepreneurship is critical to a healthy financial future.
Virginia is ninth overall in the U.S. News and World Report ranking. Of course, any ranking that puts California as number one should be viewed as suspect. California is ranked 46th by U.S. News when it comes to the tax burden and the state is seeing an epidemic of out-migration, including losing the Nestlé headquarters to Arlington.
Virginia was fifth in Forbes for 2017, a ranking we held the top spot in for 2013. But we are 29th when it comes to business costs and 33rd for economic climate in this ranking. CNBC still has us seventh overall, but 35th when it comes to the cost of doing business. Chief Executive Magazine dropped us three spots to 15th overall in 2017. And as with the other ratings, our taxation and regulation scores (i.e. the cost of doing business) is dragging us down.
The Tax Foundation ranks our tax climate as 31st. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the tax burden on our corporations is only 30th best and our overall Economic Performance Rate over the past decade is ranked 23rd.
Virginia cannot buy our way to economic competitiveness with tax incentives to a select few companies. Our leaders have to get serious about creating an economic climate that is a magnet for all companies.
It is even more important than ever now because someone is going to have to pay the bills that come due when the cost of Medicaid expansion rises faster than the projections here in Virginia, like they did in every state that adopted expansion. Virginia, unlike the federal government, cannot just borrow money from other countries to pay for it.
This week we were reminded of the price tag on the latest round of proposed borrowing to be voted on by Arlingtonians this fall — $245 million.
As part of the latest briefing on the bonds, County Manager Schwartz reminded Board Members that the latest iteration of the 10-year capital spending plan would bump us up close to the 10 percent cap in annual debt service that is recommended to retain the highest bond ratings. It is projected to hit 9.9 percent to be exact.
There’s an old saying about playing with fire that comes to mind here. As interest rates begin to rise and county leaders speak of meeting long term needs, particularly when it comes to seats in schools, it is time to start asking whether we should adopt more of a “pay-as-you-go” mentality?
In April, I suggested dedicating 50 percent of closeout funds each year to pay cash instead of borrowing for infrastructure needs, split evenly between schools and other county needs. Here is a suggestion for today: see how it feels to pay for something specific up front.
The proposed neighborhood conservation bond is slated to be $5.2 million, or a little more than 2 percent of the total bonding authority. The County Board should put a plan in place to have the entire amount set aside in cash by the end of 2019. This is just one year after the bond would have otherwise been approved by the voters this November.
Detractors may say that the interest rate on $5.2 million is inconsequential compared to our budget as a whole, and they would be right. But there is something to be said for starting to change the mentality of taking on debt, even if it is a relatively small amount. And, it would start to add up over time if you could reduce every round of future borrowing by 2 percent.
At the same time, you also have to be committed not to replace the items you pay for by borrowing for something else. There would be a huge temptation to add new projects, which would of course defeat the purpose of paying for things up front.
Fiscal discipline should not be defined as how close we can get to the annual 10 percent debt service cap without going over. We should seek out how far we can be below 10 percent while still meeting the needs of our community.
The Arlington County Board has announced a series of Big Idea roundtables which are supposed to spark conversations “beyond a specific project or proposal to big-picture conversations about our County’s future.” Even more specifically, the conversation is supposed to center on the question “How should Arlington grow?”
The first big idea could be that county leaders start talking less and doing more. Every new County Board Chair talks about community engagement. Often, it is in response to pushback the Board receives from the community on unpopular decisions. But honestly, would more talking have substantively changed any of the outcomes?
Certainly, these discussions will produce some interesting dialogue. But to keep up in an increasingly fast-paced world with broadband Internet and nearing 5G wireless systems, the discussion should point the Board toward action and results.
So what is the big idea? Make Arlington one of the best places in America to do business.
Arlington has one big advantage over many communities. The federal government provides an underlying economic base that is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is not just the federal employees, but the trade associations, lobbyists, lawyers and tourists who bring money from all over the U.S. to Arlington.
Our county also boasts an airport, a highly educated workforce and a good school system. Yet, our commercial vacancy rate remains high.
Businesses do take community factors like schools and location advantages into consideration, but they are ultimately driven by the bottom line. Arlington has been offering incentive packages to big employers, but considering the overall tax treatment and regulatory environment would matter more to the economy as a whole.
The Board can create an action plan that ensures our zoning ordinance and permitting processes results in more efficient interactions with county staff and makes it a priority to ensure costs associated with housing construction are more affordable.
The Board should develop a transportation plan that doesn’t increase traffic congestion. If your plan creates more idling, longer commutes and increases in traffic cutting through neighborhoods, you are not making things better, just creating a different set of problems.
The next capital plan should pay for more projects as we go and reduce our ratio of debt service to spending. Just because we can borrow up to 10 percent to keep the highest bond rating does not mean that we should. If we are growing, we should leave ourselves maximum flexibility to address future needs.
Creating the most favorable business environment possible would provide more jobs at higher wages. And it would ensure we are even less dependent on the federal government for our economy.
There has been no shortage of advice and criticism about the newest iteration of the County’s community engagement process.
A lot of words are used to discuss the input at the front end, but it is essential to ask what are our specific goals and how do we measure results in attaining them.
Is our county making good long-term financial decisions? For years, County leaders touted the bond rating as a measure of our fiscal health. That rating is primarily determined by two things: (1) annual debt service less than 10 percent of annual spending and (2) the County’s willingness to raise taxes to make sure the debt service level stays there. The County Auditor’s office still has not been given the resources to aggressively look into county programs.
Is our business environment attracting and retaining existing businesses and encouraging the creation of new businesses, and can they do it without offering massive subsidies? The commercial vacancy rate remains high. It is expensive to build it. It is expensive to lease it. And it is expensive to do business in the county.
The County touts are schools and our workforce, but those are not the only pieces of the puzzle when businesses are looking for a home. Arlington still has a big advantage in the marketplace, location, location, location. But we cannot take it for granted any longer.
Are our schools adequately preparing our kids to enter the workforce or college in the 2020s and 2030s? Next year our schools will spend more than $22,700 per child on their educational experience. Our standardized academic measurements are doing fine.
But who is asking the questions about whether our kids should worry more about measurements scaled to college preparedness or should we also spend more time considering how kids who want to go straight into the workforce are prepared?
On transportation, what Metro reforms are we insisting on and are we improving traffic flow or restricting it for those who choose to drive? In Board Chair Katie Cristol’s speech upon taking the gavel in January, she called for action on Metro. What has the Board done thus far under her leadership?
I went back and watched each of the County Board members give their January opening speeches for the year. Another goal from Board Chair Katie Cristol included changes to how the county regulates child care. How is that process going five months into the year, and how will that be measured on January 2, 2019?
Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey wanted affordable housing, specifically mentioning the permitting process and making it more affordable to build new housing. What changes has he proposed to make housing construction more affordable?
Every County Board member should go back and read their kick-off speeches and see how they are doing so far in 2018. And if they are so inclined, they should give us an honest assessment of their progress.
Last night, Scott McGeary was inducted into the Arlington Business Hall of Fame. McGeary was recognized for his significant contributions, not only to the business community, but to Arlington as a whole. It was a well-deserved honor.
McGeary currently serves as secretary of the Arlington Electoral Board, but has also been a leader in the Civic Federation, Committee of 100, Arlington Chamber and Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He was a member of Arlington’s Board of Zoning Appeals and served on George Mason University’s Board of Visitors.
He’s well regarded across the political spectrum for his work ethic and for the professional and respectful manner he has gone about both his work and community service for the past three decades. Not only do our elected leaders know him, but he has built relationships with them.
He is exactly the type of person who would make a great county board member, but his longstanding association with the Republican Party would make such a run an uphill climb.
Speaking of the County Board, local Democrats hosted a forum last night for their candidates to take on incumbent John Vihstadt, who, like McGeary, made a name in the community long before his surprise wins in 2014.
Common themes at the forum included a “tough” budget, economic growth, housing, transportation and education. The forum questions also touched on the gondola, guns and immigration.
Tough budgets, economic development and transportation have recently been addressed in this space and are things the County could address in some very common sense ways.
Arlington’s policies on housing have done little to overcome market forces. In addition to our high level of taxation, Arlington also makes it more expensive to build new housing than it should be through its zoning regulations. Those costs are passed directly onto homeowners and renters. The candidates offered little in the way of specifics to change our present course.
One disappointing theme from the opening statement of Matthew de Ferranti invoked the need to run against President Trump this fall. Unfortunately, that strategy probably plays well with party loyalists.
When I campaigned for County Board in 2010, I was told by a voter that Ronald Reagan was to blame for the problems in Arlington. Never mind that he has not been in office for twenty years or that Democrats had controlled the County Board since then.
Chanda Choun closed by saying he should win because he was the candidate who could bring change. Except the Board is controlled by Democrats 4 to 1. If you have a problem with what they are doing, defeating Vihstadt will not really change anything. One could really argue things would be more likely to stay the same because no one from outside the dominant political party will have a microphone or a vote to change it.
Both candidates struggled to answer the questions of what Vihstadt has done, or how he has voted, that they specifically oppose. In other words, he has done a pretty good job, which is precisely why Vihstadt stands an excellent chance of being re-elected.
The Arlington Public Schools are in the process of developing new guidelines for the use of technology in schools.
Like other parents with children currently in our school system, technology is on my mind regularly. My wife and I embrace technology as a tool for learning for our kids, but also realize there are plenty of dangers associated with it. It is a balancing act all parents must wrestle with during these formative years.
There is one provision in the newest policy that could use some further clarification.
Students shall not audio-record, photograph, or video-record other students or school employees on school property, on a school bus or at school-sponsored activities without their knowledge and consent, except for participation in activities considered to be in the public arena (e.g. sporting events, public meetings, academic competitions, or public performances). . . . Audio-recording, photographing, or videorecording of others is strictly prohibited in locker rooms, dressing rooms, health offices and restrooms, where individuals have every expectation of privacy.
Protecting privacy, particularly for students, is a good thing.
But what happens if a teacher or other school employee were to begin threatening a student, or vice versa, and another student turned on their camera? What if a teacher launched into a profanity-laced tirade about an elected official? What if a student was committing a criminal act?
In other words, are there any circumstances where an audio or video recording would be appropriate by a student without consent? Would the school discipline a student who recorded such an incident when the recording is technically a violation of school policy? And are school employees covered by a similar policy?
Hopefully the School Board will consider these questions before adopting the policy.
Under the headline, “Following the Golden Rule can pay dividends in Richmond,” local legislators highlighted the need to build greater understanding with their colleagues from other parts of the Commonwealth, including of course Republicans. Great advice to be sure.
Senator Barbara Favola was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s really about building relationships — bringing sincerity and honesty.”
But last fall, at a campaign rally for the Democrat ticket, Senator Favola said about Republicans, “They’re evil. We’re the good guys.”
So the question is, which is it Senator Favola? Do you think Republicans in Virginia are evil or worthy of building relationships with? Or does it depend on whether you are trying to whip up Democrat partisans to vote in Arlington versus getting legislation passed in Richmond?
Last fall, the County Manager informed the Board of his intention to recommend that the county no longer pursue a black box theater project that was required as part of a Virginia Square site plan.
The theater was to be approximately 13,000 square feet with 150 seats, and the space provided essentially rent free to the county for up to 45 years.
This project was put into the site plan in 2012 even though at the time the Artisphere project was flailing and the Signature Theater was preparing to seek a bailout. The county promised a business plan for the new black box theater which would essentially provide maximum benefit and minimum cost to the taxpayers. Many of us wondered at the time if that was possible.
After two failed business plans, County leaders closed the Artisphere in 2015. And by the end of 2014, the County Board had approved $661,000 to pay unpaid taxes, canceled 19 years of rent payments, and provided a $5 million loan for the Signature Theater.
There were several reasons offered by the Manager for this latest move, including the fact that the developer still has not provided a timeline to move forward on what was to be an office building. With the commercial occupancy rate what it is, that construction delay is understandable.
Chief among the rationale was both the cost of building out the interior, at $3 million, and at least $570,000 annually in ongoing operations costs the Manager called “unsustainable.”
It seems as though county officials have finally concluded there is no business plan they can present that will make sense to county taxpayers. And it looks like that decision may be finalized as part of the upcoming County Board meeting.
One topic of discussion at the October 2017 meeting where the Manager first broached this subject publicly was creating for community use additional theater space in new public school buildings.
This same approach could have been applied to the aquatics center. A joint venture at a new school building would almost certainly reduce the overall cost of the project. And, it would open up more space for future lighted soccer fields at the Long Bridge site.
There is little doubt that had the developer moved forward before 2017, county taxpayers would own the costs of this theater and we would be facing how to either pay for the build out or its ongoing operations for the FY 2019 budget.
With the lessons learned from the Artisphere and Signature, our county officials should be commended if they exercise their option to get out of the project, even if that decision was a little slow in coming.
The Arlington Chamber came out against the parking rate and hours of enforcement increases this week.
Almost certainly, it is a way for the county to keep ratcheting up spending without hitting property owners with a tax rate increase. The parking changes are estimated to bring in $2.2 million per year.
According to the Chamber, the revenue grab was done without any outreach to local businesses. Just last month the County Manager just made a big deal out of new public engagement process for capital projects.
If the Chamber’s concerns about the lack of outreach are true, it would only reinforce the concerns about the seriousness of the County Board and staff when it comes to how they consider negative public feedback.
As the County Board continues to finalize the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, there are many short-term considerations like these. There is also a need to continue the conversation about long-term economic development.
It was suggested by the Chair of the Economic Development Commission in the Progressive Voice last week that our tax rate was “highly competitive.” Our persistently high commercial vacancy rate tells a very different story. And coming full circle, it is a good bet that increasing the cost of parking to visit one of Arlington’s restaurants in the evening will not help.
The Economic Development Commission’s strategic plan does state that “a stable and predictable regulatory climate is fundamental to providing superior service.”
But as existing businesses in the county see the incentives being offered and given to big businesses looking to relocate, they are wondering why more is not being done to make the business environment better for everyone.
Did anyone on the EDC really ask the fundamental question, why would a business looking at our business environment choose come to Arlington if we did not offer them an incentive package? In other words, is there a big “open for business” sign here or does it look like a high tax environment and difficult bureaucracy to navigate?
The EDC suggested continued improvements in areas like how businesses can interact with the county during permitting and licensing processes. Talking to people who do business in Arlington, there is still room for improvement here.
The EDC should go out and talk to business owners of all types and sizes. And here is a revolutionary question for the EDC to ask as they do: would our economic prosperity be better off if our government did less, not more?