Arlington, VA

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

We are 10 days into an initial 15-day nationwide effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Lives have tragically been lost. Jobs that seemed secure are now gone. Uncertainty surrounds every decision being made by individuals, families, businesses and our elected leaders. Decisions are being made daily, even hourly that in some cases drastically impact our lives.

Here in Arlington, our county leaders declared a state of emergency to maximize social distancing, even closing our parks. Closed schools are still serving school lunches and breakfasts to kids who rely on them. Local leaders worked together with Virginia Hospital Center to stand up a drive-through testing site.

County Manager Mark Schwartz announced last weekend he would come back to the County Board with a revised annual budget. Certainly, county officials are expecting to lose the revenue cushion that had lead Chair Libby Garvey to speculate the Board would cut the tax rate.

At the same time, the fiscal year does not begin until July 1, which hopefully will be after we have turned the corner on coronavirus. The Board will also have access to closeout funds later in the year to bridge the gap. And, for years Arlington has banked large emergency reserves that we can tap into if necessary. In other words, we should be able to get through this without taking drastic measures.

Sadly, yesterday Governor Northam announced an end to the school year. In Arlington, the Governor turned a 30-day school shutdown into a 100-day shutdown. By contrast, the Governor’s order only required non-essential businesses to close for the next 30 days.

It is not entirely clear why the Governor did not wait until mid-April to make this long-term school decision when he would have had more information available to him. However, there will be plenty of time for after-action reports, public criticism and public praise in the weeks and months after we get through this.

In the meantime, as we make our way through this unprecedented national crisis, may we all take a measured response to the actions and decisions of our leaders. We have to trust that every elected official is trying to both protect public health, particularly for the most vulnerable of our people, and guard against the potential of an economic collapse.

Arlingtonians can stay up to date on all of the latest news and information at the county’s website. Not only does it include announcements about what the county is doing in response to COVID-19, it also outlines resources to meet community needs during this difficult time.

Right now, if you have the means, please consider helping your neighbors. You can check in with local charitable organizations or reach out directly to those who may be in need. It certainly is a cliche, but we will come out of this stronger if we continue to remember that we are all in this together.

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.

Last fall, Virginia voters gave Democrats total control of all levers of power in Richmond.

Delegate Alfonso Lopez had bragged that they could complete the work of a lifetime in “two afternoons.” It turns out that it took the new majority a little longer than that to tackle their agenda. In fact they had to take the unusual step of extending their session by a day to get their work done.

So the questions is, did they fulfill their work of a lifetime?

Redistricting was a top platform issue for the party. While some of us still hold the opinion that the redistricting reform measure will not take politics out of the every 10-year line-drawing process, it finally passed the Virginia General Assembly at the last minute and heads to voters in the fall. It should be noted that it passed despite overwhelming opposition from Democrats in the House of Delegates. Only nine of the 55 Democrats in the body voted for it despite running on the issue over the past several election cycles.

Two questions remain. First, will the Democrats who tried to stop redistricting reform, presumably in order to draw districts they like more, actively oppose it when it reaches the ballot in November? The likely answer here is no.

The other question is whether this is one of those issues voters say they care about when responding to public pollsters but does not actually move their votes when choosing a candidate? I suspect that while the voters are likely to approve the change this November, that this issue moves very few votes when it comes to candidates. But, we will find out in 2021 when the Democrats flip-floppers in the House face re-election.

House Democrats did unite around other items on their agenda. They removed the requirement to provide identification in order to vote while also voting to provide driving cards to undocumented immigrants. They approved casino and sports betting in order to raise revenue for new spending priorities. They increased the gas tax and the minimum wage. They removed restrictions on abortion procedures including requirements that doctors provide the procedures. They passed new restrictions on buying firearms.

They also passed a bill that is the first step toward unraveling Virginia’s status as a right to work state. The new collective bargaining law will allow local governments to engage in the practice with their employees. According to the blog, Blue Virginia, Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti support the effort. So, it will be interesting to see if, or when, the County Board votes to do so here.

Ultimately, the voters decide these questions. And, Virginia Democrats now have a record to defend.

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.

Last week Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz unveiled the proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The budget includes a record $550 million for Arlington Public Schools. It also includes raises for all Arlington County staff, including larger raises for public safety employees. And it grants more paid family leave as well as increases dependent care benefits.

The budget also includes the first of what is proposed to be three annual, and substantial, pay increases for County Board members. The goal is to increase the Board’s pay from about $57,000 to $90,000 by fiscal year 2023.

Last June the Board voted to raise the pay cap to that level, but was careful to remind us at the time that the vote did not actually increase their salaries. They suggested that just because they raised the cap, they may not raise their salaries all the way to the new cap.

While they are not raising the salaries to the new cap all at once, the Board is using the annual budget process to increase their pay without taking a separate vote on it. While the annual budget move was widely expected at the time, it is disappointing that the Board does not have the political courage to go on the record with an up or down vote on the raise itself.

Tonight, the County Board will vote on what tax rates to advertise in the lead up to an April 2nd public hearing. County Manager Schwartz suggested no tax rate increase. In the past, however, the Board has often advertised a higher rate than the County Manager’s proposal. While some Board Members would welcome more revenue to spend, advertising a higher rate is often done in the name of “flexibility.”

After increasing the tax rate by two cents last year and increasing spending by more than 6%, the Board may not even feint at going for more this time around. Tax revenue is already projected to be up by 4.6% in the Manager’s proposal. The average homeowner will already see their tax bill go up by 4.3%, or about $400 if you own the typical single-family home.

And we know that based on past practice of underestimating revenue, that revenue will almost certainly climb by as much as 2% higher than the current projection. When paired with the fact that the county regularly does not spend all it budgets, tens of millions of dollars will available to spend again this year in the annual closeout process. You can read more about it here or here or here.

While the Board has been engaging in the practices of carrying over a larger portion of these closeout funds to offset the next year’s spending, they should consider giving taxpayers a break on the front end. Tonight the Board should advertise a rate decrease of the two cents they charged us last year. If they cannot find just $200 of tax relief for the taxpayers in the budget, then they should put their plans to raise their own pay by more than $30,000 over the next three years back on the shelf.

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 biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Thumbs down…

To Delegate Hope’s bill proposing instant run-off voting. This is an attempt to prevent third party candidates from having any real influence on an election. In Arlington that would often mean a Green Party candidate siphoning off votes from Democrats. If a Democrat in Arlington is incapable of achieving a plurality of the vote, maybe it should be accepted as a way that the public is telling you they want a change in leadership.

To the General Assembly Democrats who are dragging their feet on redistricting reform. When faced with the possibility of drawing their own preferred maps in 2021, the new Democrat majority in Richmond pumped the brakes on the bill that passed the House of Delegates on a bipartisan 83-15 vote last year. While there are many (myself included) who do not think changing who draws the lines will make it any fairer or less controversial, the Democrats should rightly be accused of rank hypocrisy if they fail to accomplish this key plank in their platform.

To Christian Dorsey for resigning the WMATA Board rather than paying back the $10,000 union contribution he failed to properly report. Dorsey claims he could not pay it back yet because he has had trouble raising money. As a reminder, Dorsey was the Chairman of the Board as a member of the dominant political party in Arlington but only raised a little over $41,000 for the year. A Democrat who has trouble raising money in Arlington in the year they are up for re-election can only be explained as being unwilling to put in the work.

To the County Board for adding a $200 fine to certain speeding tickets. Someone ticketed for going 30 miles-per-hour in a 25 zone now could face a $296 ticket, which is almost certainly going to strike ticket recipients as excessive.

And finally, two thumbs down for the Arlington School Board. First, for voting to start school a week earlier without a majority of staff, students, or parents thinking it is a good idea. Second, for announcing they would wall off their superintendent search from the public. Community input is now off the table until the Board emerges with their choice. Both of these moves fall into the category of “just because you can do something, does not mean that you should.”

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 biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The School Board this week unveiled a long-anticipated proposal to start the school year before Labor Day this August.

The change comes after the General Assembly granted more flexibility for school districts last year, and it also comes despite low public support. In fact, according to the APS survey just 25% of parents, 24% of students and 39% of staff like the move.

All indications point to this being the first stop toward starting two weeks before Labor Day next year. For parents who liked to take advantage of late season summer rates for vacations, those days will soon be gone.

The reasons given for starting earlier center around allowing a few more days to prepare for exams that take place in the Spring. It seems little serious consideration was given to eliminating a handful of in service days or early release days instead.

It would be good for the School Board to produce a study that demonstrates an earlier start date produces better scores. It would also be good to see a plan by APS officials on how they will track student achievement the first year to see if the change really matters.

Many researchers have suggested that one way to improve student performance is to start school later in the day for middle and high school students. Getting more sleep not only helps school performance, but it makes adolescents healthier overall and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. While science may back up the idea of starting these schools at 9 a.m., it is unlikely that APS would seriously pursue such a plan.

Speaking of elected officials doing things just because they can, the County Board last weekend approved big raises for their most senior employees. County Manager Mark Schwartz is now making a salary of $282,489, a 4.5% raise, and County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac will receive $261,933, a 3.5% raise.

Up next for the County Board is whether they will raise their own pay and by how much. Last June, the Board voted to cap salaries at $89,851 for Members and $95,734 for the Chair effective January 1. If they opt to go to the maximum this year, it would represent a 63% increase in pay.

The Board has not said when it would pass a pay raise. They have indicated this year’s budget may pass without a tax rate increase in April. This decision would not be a heavy lift as property assessments are up 4.6% over last year. The assessment increase should present an opportunity for the Board to lower the tax rate, but no property owners I have talked to are holding their breath expecting that to happen.

Whatever the Board ultimately does with their own pay, they should hold a straight up or down vote on it before they pass a budget that will almost certainly have increased taxes on homeowners by more than 9% over the past two years. The Board should not bury a pay raise in the annual budget or wait till June to pass it as they did with the pay cap.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As the year draws to a close and we reflect on the year behind us, it is natural to start peaking around the corner into 2020.

When the Arlington County Board next meets to open the new year Libby Garvey will assume the center chair to lead the body. What will be her priorities on transportation, public safety and housing? Will she seek a property tax rate cut or will she endeavor to spend every penny of revenue generated from surging property tax assessments?

At the same time Garvey will face a primary challenge for her re-election. After the far left forces defeated Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos in June, elected officials can no longer take these races for granted. Like Stamos, Garvey angered many Democrats by backing John Vihstadt. So there is a very real question about whether she will hold off her electoral challenger.

Speaking of elections, with both Arlington school board members up for re-election next year opting to step down, who will be the next community members to step up to the plate? Will the new school board candidates be more concerned about name changes or improving classroom performance?

In the meantime, what will the final elementary school boundary changes look like? Passions will run high as parents find out that the school they moved into a neighborhood for may no longer be where their children will attend.

While Arlington schools are flush with cash relative to almost anywhere else in the country, there is no doubt that the school board is one of the toughest jobs in politics. Nothing is more personal to voters than changes to how their children are being educated.

Changes are coming to Richmond in 2020 as well. In the lead up to the November elections, Delegate Alfonso Lopez promised voters they could pass a sweeping agenda in “two afternoons.”

Democrats now own that capital and face the reality that they will no longer be able to blame Republicans for being unable to pass legislation there. They should be judged solely on their own agenda. So, what will the 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly actually produce?

Many Democrats have already backtracked from promises of independent redistricting reform. The idea that they can redraw the lines to lock in General Assembly and Congressional seats for their own party seems to have conveniently outweighed the promises so many of them made on the campaign trail.

Some other big ticket items on their agenda included gun control laws, ending right to work, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, creating new energy regulations, allowing abortion up until the end of pregnancy, raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid eligibility and raising taxes as necessary to pay for it.

If the agenda goes too far, will it help push voters back toward the GOP in 2020? Did Democrats watch what happened in last week’s parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom or do they think Virginia is ready for a leftward lurch?

Finally, seven years ago, the editor of ARLnow asked me to consider writing a weekly column. The content has often infuriated many, but more often that not the feedback has been “I don’t always agree with you, but thank you for writing your column.” Thanks for reading them.

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 biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Around this time each year, I remind readers that county officials annually underestimate revenue and overestimate spending. The result is tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent each November in the closeout process with little public input.

Despite county officials making the case earlier this year that the County Board had no choice but to raise our tax rate in the face of “tough budget times,” this year’s closeout process is essentially a repeat of last year.

Last month the County Board allocated a total of $24.7 million from FY 2019 to the schools after all the accounting was complete. The schools received $7.8 million from excess tax revenue Arlington collected and received back $18.4 million in unspent funds. In other words, despite making the community believe times were tight, the school system did not spend nearly 3% of its budget.

The County Board also decided on what to do with $23.2 million in discretionary funds for the rest of the county budget. The good news is they set aside $13.9 million for the FY 2021 budget process. The bad news is they provided the unelected County Manager with another $2 million slush fund to spend as he sees fit.

The taxpayers received nothing except guidance that there might not be another rate increase next year. This of course does not take into account that real estate assessments are expected to rise by as much as 4% beginning in January which means the average homeowner will probably be paying over $250 more in 2020.

In the words of Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, get ready to “scrub your family budget” to find 4% more for the county on top of the 5% last year.

What the County Board should have done was to set aside $31 million for FY 2021 and committed to cut the real estate rate by at least one of the two cents they raised it last year. The full two cents would be better — and the Board could do it if they scrubbed the county budget — but we have to start somewhere.

In this scenario, the schools still would have received nearly $17 million, leaving them in a solid financial position headed into next year when they are slated to receive a bigger share of county revenue. And the County Board still would have over $20 million to use for next year’s budget.

The net result of this plan is that next November the County Board might have less revenue to spend in the closeout process. And maybe the County Manager would not get his slush fund. But taxpayers would be better off.

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The Right Note is a biweekly 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.

Much has been made of Christian Dorsey’s post-election day revelations that he not only declared personal bankruptcy, but that he also used campaign funds to pay his wife and that he accepted a $10,000 contribution from Metro’s main union without disclosing its receipt in a timely fashion.

On Saturday, Dorsey offered a few words at the beginning of the meeting about what he called “unwelcome new” surrounding his bankruptcy, saying he was “deeply humbled” and assuring voters that it would”not impinge”  on his ability to find solutions to the County’s challenges. Chairman Dorsey inexplicably did not address the campaign payment to his wife or the ethical lapse surrounding the union contribution on Saturday during his remarks.

Dorsey started off the year suggesting that some of his colleagues on the County Board may be making him look bad by working too hard. Dorsey made the comments as part of a discussion about pay raises, concluding at that meeting it was not the time to give himself and his County Board colleagues a salary increase. He reversed course just a few months later.

After making no attempts to scrub the county budget to avoid a 5% tax increase in April, Dorsey gave an interview and told Arlingtonians who were wondering how they would pay for it to “scrub their family budgets.” Dorsey left out the suggestion of declaring bankruptcy.

During his brief remarks Saturday, Dorsey acknowledged that many people are “frustrated, disappointed, and even angry” that he did not disclose his bankruptcy before the election. Dorsey should know people have many of the same feelings about the ethical questions surrounding his campaign activities.

During Chairman Dorsey’s time on the WMATA Board, he has consistently resisted calls for that system to make major reforms. Instead, Dorsey consistently supported calls for finding new streams of revenue as the solution and was rewarded with a campaign check for $10,000 — a check he then failed to disclose within 10 days of receipt as required.

But what does all of this really mean?

Christian Dorsey is under no obligation to resign. Although if he really thinks he could make enough money to afford his chosen lifestyle by not being on the County Board, it might be the right thing to do for his family.

Arlingtonians could submit thousands of petition signatures to the Circuit Court asking for his removal. However, judges in Virginia have been rightly reluctant to overturn elections in this manner.

So, it raises the question: is it time for a new state law that allows for recall elections?

While the Democrats have other priorities with their new majority in Richmond, creating a recall election statute with a high bar for petition signatures is at least worthy of debate. It certainly might be argued that Chairman Dorsey’s actions would not rise to the level of a recall. However, if elected officials knew that they could be recalled by the voters, it might positively impact their actions by adding a new layer of accountability.

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: Quick Hits

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.

Not everyone loves baseball, but tonight the Nationals are playing in the franchise’s first ever World Series. Sports often transcends politics, so here’s hoping for a little break from the divisiveness filling up our airwaves and social media feeds.

Activists interested in keeping bike lanes clear made an effort to document violations last week. Some motorists took to the comment section of the story to indicate they would welcome a report on the number of times bikes run red lights, fail to stop at stop signs and otherwise ignore traffic laws.

The County Board has been strangely silent on the 2021 budget process. Last year Arlington officials started working to set the stage for a tax increase in September. In October of 2018, the County Manager was recommending closeout money be set aside to offset the anticipated budget “shortfall.” It is probably safe to assume this year’s silence means that climbing assessments will fill up Arlington’s coffers next year. And, it is also safe to assume that the closeout recommendation will be to spend it all now rather than provide tax relief in 2020.

“Shared Mobility Devices,” also known as scooters, are on track to stay in Arlington. On
November 16th, the County Board will hold a public hearing to consider a new ordinance
regulating their use. If you think Arlington is moving forward at a quick pace on its own volition, think again. A Virginia law is requiring localities to act by January 1st.

Writing in Theo Stamos for Commonwealth Attorney has been the subject of many community whispers since her defeat in the June primary. While no formal effort has emerged on his front, it is likely that this race will see the highest number of write-ins in recent memory.

If Republicans and Independents really wanted to make things interesting on election night, they would join me in writing in Stamos, as well as John Vihstadt for County Board. Turnout will be low, so even a few thousand votes cast in protest would be a significant percentage of the votes cast in two weeks. Who knows, there may be enough Democrats willing to buck the sample ballot to make it more than just a protest vote.

Now back to cheering on the Nats.

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.

Elected officials from Arlington and Alexandria met this past week to discuss how better to work together across jurisdictional lines. The meeting was precipitated in large part by the arrival of Amazon.

The number one priority issue on the list from the meeting was affordable housing. That the issue rises to the top should surprise no one. It is one of the most talked about issues at the January kickoff meeting and remains on the campaign platform of County Board candidates year after year.

One of the tools Arlington uses to address affordable housing is partnerships with 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. While the intentions of these groups are admirable and they do good work, they have not been a sliver bullet for the County to solve affordable housing issues here.

That did not stop Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey from suggesting that the two jurisdictions consider forming a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to work on issues that impact both communities. The idea was rightly set aside. While it was not a formal proposal, such an organization could remove a layer of accountability from the voters for decisions impacting Amazon.

Speaking of accountability, voting is already underway for November 5. There are few contested elections locally with Democrats expected to hold on to every seat in Arlington.

It would serve the community well if a qualified Republican or Independent ran for all of these offices rather than leaving so many of them uncontested. An electoral contest provides the voters with the opportunity to hear a real debate on the issues and forces Democrats to make a case for the vote.

Imagine, for instance, if a Republican or Independent had filed for Commonwealth Attorney in 2019 after the divisive primary for the Democrats. However, it is understandable that many people who are qualified to serve take a pass on the race when they consider the uphill climb against the Democrat machine in the county.

If you are not happy with one or more of the candidates, you have the ability and even obligation to write in a qualified candidate on your ballot. With low turnout expected and short lines, it will take you just a couple extra minutes to exercise your right to vote for someone else. Bring a list if you want. It can serve as your own sample ballot.

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 is considering adding additional traffic lights to Route 1 as part of a large scale streetscape modification along the corridor. While the discussion of “improvements” has been ongoing for some time, Amazon’s landing in Crystal City is shining a new light on it.

The lights would create at-grade intersections in two locations. Not only would such a change create a traffic nightmare during the removal of the overpasses, it would create some other long term headaches as well.

Currently, residents on the Pentagon City side of Route 1 can walk safely under the road to get to the Crystal City metro stop. If the road is taken to grade level, they will have to cross at a traffic signal. It not only creates additional hazards for them, it would make turning right onto Route 1 from Crystal City very difficult during peak commuting times. And adding pedestrian signals to accommodate those on foot would only slow the movement of vehicles along the major thoroughfare, causing more backups and more emissions from idling cars.

The changes would also make access to Long Bridge Park and the new aquatics center more difficult for residents on the Pentagon City side of Route 1. In fact, one of the major advantages of the new pool was supposed to be pedestrian and bicycle access for the neighborhood. By removing the underpass at 12th street, the county would wipe out much of that advantage. And, if you have ever dropped your child off for a soccer practice during busy times of the day, you know a traffic light to cross Route 1 could create new traffic headaches as well.

While making traffic conditions better should be a good rationale when it comes to transportation changes, Arlington officials have long made it known that they do not place a priority on the convenience of drivers. This is evidenced by the removal of a travel lane in each direction on Eads Street, which runs parallel to Route 1. This move caused more vehicles to cut through the residential streets to avoid new backups at the existing intersections.

Hopefully the pedestrian safety concerns will win out when it comes to Route 1. However, it is more likely the County Board will assure those concerns will be addressed if they move forward with removing the overpasses.

Speaking of transportation, ARLnow reported yesterday that the number of cabs on the road is down significantly in Arlington. For years, cab companies took consumer use of their services for granted. Their phone or online reservation systems were antiquated and too often unreliable. Some cabs did not take credit cards as payment. Drivers often seemed reluctant to make change for cash transactions.

As a result, they opened the door to competition from ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft as well as on-demand options of government-subsidized bicycles and free market scooters. The only question now is, how much more market share will the cabs lose?

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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