Arlington, VA

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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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.

Christian Dorsey made the word “equity” the central theme of his speech to kick off the year as Chairman. On Saturday, the County Board passed an “Equity Resolution.”

And really, who can oppose such a fine sounding word?

When asked to explain what he meant by achieving equity by Arlington Magazine earlier this year, Dorsey pointed to the Chestnut Hills Park expansion and wondered aloud if the Board should have supported it.

But what we didn’t do is ask whether or not that area actually needed a park expansion — whether it was over served, under served or adequately served. We’re making a policy decision to spend money that comes at the expense of doing something somewhere else [with those funds]. I’d prefer that we make decisions with an equity focus upfront.

That sounds good. Equity means the Board should not act without weighing the decision in light of all spending priorities as well as the impact of not spending that money on something else.

In fact, the resolution that was passed Saturday is filled with admirable sounding language. The county will establish a vocabulary, continue the dialogue, collaborate on initiatives, collect data, assess and analyze, develop a framework, and establish targets. There will be reports, and tools, and budget processes.

But outside of this resolution, what has Arlington done to support equity the past nine months?

In April, the Board passed a budget that raises taxes, making it more expensive to live here. As a reminder, Chairman Dorsey suggested people who work hard to pay their bill simply “scrub their family budgets” to pay for it.

The County rolled out a new “streamlined” permitting process that does little to speed up the time it takes to get a permit, which means it still takes just as long to accommodate our housing needs.

On Saturday, the County passed an energy plan which will almost certainly drive up the costs of transportation. And members of the Board have also signaled support for national energy plans which would drive up all energy costs to heat and cool our homes and get to and from work. Moreover, energy costs are factored into every good and service we consume. And, the people hurt most by higher energy costs are the people at the lower end of the economic ladder.

Resolutions and task forces and reports are fine and dandy. As with anything in life, actions speak louder than words.

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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At its upcoming meeting, the County Board will adopt the latest iteration of Arlington’s Community Energy Plan. In reading the staff report, two interesting things stood out. First, the staff did not quantify how much it would cost for Arlington to reach “carbon neutral” status by 2050. Instead, the report suggested that the costs would be rolled out through future budgets and Capital Improvement Plans.

Second, the staff could not account for the final 14% in reductions in CO2 emissions. So, while they have set the ambitious goal of zero CO2 emissions by 2050, they do not yet know how they are going to get there.

We should always be wary of a government plan that does not even attempt to quantify its costs, then again it is hard to put a price tag on unknown “future opportunities.”

Next up for the County Board this fall is the annual dance with closeout spending and preparing the ground for next year’s budget.

Will County Manager Mark Schwartz speak on the next budget cycle at this week’s County Board meeting? At the 2018 September meeting, Schwartz signaled a budget gap was on the horizon for the coming year. Of course, that gap was virtually erased by the time he put forward a proposed budget.

If the real estate market is any indication of where assessments are headed for the coming year, revenue is unlikely to be a problem. Maybe Schwartz will call it the “Amazon effect?”

If revenue does jump (again), it will also free up the County Board to spend all of the available closeout funds rather than setting some aside to ease the upward pressure of real estate taxes on Arlingtonians next year. The closeout spending spree would be made even easier now that John Vihstadt is no longer sitting on the dias or considering a return to the ballot.

If Schwartz talks about a budget gap, he will almost certainly be previewing some significant spending increases. Any increases would likely be framed in terms of restoration of service and personnel cuts as well as school enrollment pressures.

Stay tuned.

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The Right Note: APS Guestimates?

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.

For years in this column, I have noted that the county annually underestimates revenue. As a result, the County Board creates a year-end slush fund of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to spend outside of the regular budget process. Arlington’s schools are a big beneficiary of this closeout process.

APS receives an infusion of the closeout dollars each year as a sizable mid-year boost to its budget. Last year it was about $10 million.

Now it appears APS may have learned from county budget writers as APS is consistently over-estimating enrollment when it builds its budget.

This could lead one to believe the school system is doing so in order to put a cushion in its annual budget. Earlier this spring, APS told us 28,495 students were expected to enroll at a total per-student cost of $23,569. This is the dollar figure you arrive at when you divide $671.6 million by 28,495.

Last week, APS announced that 27,996 students had enrolled. That’s a difference of 499 students. Not only does this increase the per student cost to $23,989, but it effectively gives APS nearly $12 million in added budget flexibility.

Last year, APS told us 28,027 students would enroll. The actual number was 591 students less or 27,436. That was over $13 million in potential budget flexibility.

Some might argue that APS is getting pretty close. After all, 499 students is less than a 2% error rate out of the total student population. Another way to look at it is that APS estimated 1,059 more students would enroll last week. When only 560 new students showed up, it means they missed it by 499 students. And that is a 47% error rate. That’s better than last year, but still pretty high.

At any rate, APS should re-evaluate how they are estimating enrollment every year because they are clearly missing something. And at nearly $24,000 spent per student, it adds up very quickly.

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 up to Arlington for finally opening its online permitting process. Phase one of moving the permitting process online launches on September 9th with phase two scheduled to follow on in 2020. Another good change coming as part of the process is all in-person filing will be done in one consolidated office location.

Thumbs down to this important line from the homepage: “Estimated review processing times are not changing.”  Having recently been through the permitting process in Arlington, I was really hoping the move would help speed up the review process. As it stands the changes might save you a day or two on the front end, but it will have little impact on getting construction projects moving faster. Time is money in the construction businesses, so delays only add to the costs of the housing our county needs.

Thumbs up to regional leaders for recognizing that housing and transportation go hand and hand as issues. The real test is whether Arlington leaders continue to focus on transportation “solutions” that do not recognize people will continue to drive their cars. The other lingering question is whether Metro really is moving in the right direction as Christian Dorsey suggested.

Thumbs up to the same regional leaders who recognize that not everyone needs to go to a four year college to be successful. Vocational education, apprenticeships, technology training would provide many students a path to a good job without huge student loans.

Thumbs down to the incomplete notion of splitting our elementary schools by this week’s Progressive Voice. We should all be for innovative solutions and shaking up the status quo when it comes to preparing our kids for the future. Unfortunately, nowhere in the piece did the author point to any evidence that there could be substantial improvements in student achievement. This is particularly important as a plan like this would almost certainly add significant extra costs to the APS budget.

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.

Yesterday, the Progressive Voice’s Krysta Jones wrote about what has happened in Virginia after the jarring revelations about Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring earlier this year. She tries to answer whether it has been an opportunity for “racial healing and atonement?” It is an important question.

Ms. Jones goes on to discuss things that have been done and things that can be done. Before making a suggested addition to her list, let’s first look at the current state of our politics.

Here is a question for all of the Democrats in Arlington. Would you have let Northam and Herring off the hook for something that happened four decades ago if they were Republicans?

Why do I ask?

Over the past few days, former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire for emphasizing the use of bipartisan relationships to get things done. He even went so far as to say, “there’s an awful lot of really good Republicans out there.”

Some Democrats pushed back. They seemingly would have preferred the quote have been, “Republicans are an awful lot.”

The rationale seems to be, these Republicans voted for President Trump. Therefore, they cannot be good. Remember when Senator Barbara Favola said Republican candidates in 2017 were evil?

Too often both sides have been guilty of stoking the fire of hatred for the other side. That we are dangerously divided politically right now can only be addressed if the people currently in opposing camps dial back the tribalism.

So here is the suggestion for Ms. Jones. Talk to some Republicans. Let’s have a “working lunch or dinner.” You bring three other Democrats. I will bring three other Republicans.

Let’s have a conversation to gain a better understanding of our experiences, our motivations, our expectations for the future. We can talk about race. We can discuss policies that increase opportunity. We can talk about things we can do right here in Arlington to strengthen our community.

It certainly will better inform our opinions than a 60 second sound bites on cable news, or a Facebook comments section argument, or a Tweet storm.

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 time for the Arlington County Fair, one of my favorite local traditions. This year the fair features a butterfly encounter, a first-ever beer garden, and goat yoga among other things.

As with every year, the fair also features appearances by your elected officials here in Arlington. Your school board members and interim superintendent, your county board members, the treasurer, and the sheriff will be there.

Here are 11 questions you can ask your school board and county board members when you see them at the fair this week:

1. Why is the school board dragging out the selection process for the permanent school superintendent? Is it because Cintia Johnson is the front-runner for the job and they want to give her an extended trial run?

2. Why won’t the county board give more resources to the auditor’s office?

3. After this year’s tax increase, will the county board commit to setting aside 100% of unspent funds and excess tax collections to offset next year’s budget?

4. Why does the school board report lower than actual per pupil spending? 

5. Why does it cost $412,000 to build a bus stop?

6. After the recent flooding, does the county board believe it is doing enough to address basic infrastructure needs versus other non-essential services or projects?

7. Why does the county board eliminate travel lanes on heavily trafficked streets?

8. To every county board member, why do you believe you deserve a pay raise of over 60% particularly in light of Chairman Dorsey’s suggestion that board members should possibly work less?

9. Has APS rectified its exit interview process that left school board members in the dark about attrition in the workforce?

10. Looking back at your county board New Year’s kickoff speeches, what have you accomplished and what have you failed to make progress on so far?

11. What specifically will you advocate for to reform the way WMATA operates and fix Metro?
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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