Peter’s Take: Arts Budget Cuts Expose Failure to Adopt an Arts Subsidy Policy

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

As ARLnow reported earlier this month, County Manager Mark Schwartz has proposed significant cuts to Arlington’s subsidies for various arts programs:

“Schwartz plans to close the Costume Lab and Scenic Studio Program located at the Gunston Community Center (2700 S. Lang Street), which provide[s] scenery construction space and costume rentals for local arts groups. That will involve laying off two employees who staff the programs, a savings of about $180,000 each year.

The manager also expects to cut funding for its arts grants program by a third, dropping it from about $216,000 to $146,000 annually. The program provides some matching funds to support local artists, and both [2018] County Board contenders [John Vihstadt & Matt de Ferranti] … pressed for increases to the fund.”

It’s commendable that Schwartz has attempted to work through the County budget, looking for excessive or unnecessary spending. Arlington’s poor track record regarding arts subsidies, including the Artisphere, the Signature Theatre bailout, and the Sewage Treatment Plant fence fiasco all show that arts subsidies remain a part of the budget that cries out for serious reforms.

But Janet Kopenhaver, Chair of the advocacy group Embracing Arlington Arts, also has a point when she highlights the magnitude of the cuts (about $500,000 out of $5.2 million) that the arts subsidy budget is being asked to absorb for FY 2020: “we remain stunned at the very high proportion the small arts budget is being asked to shoulder.”

Arlington needs a 21st century arts subsidy policy

The controversy over the Manager’s proposed cuts to Arlington’s arts subsidies exposes a larger problem: Arlington lacks a coherent 21st century arts subsidy policy–a set of easily understandable principles against which proposed cuts and proposed new spending alike can be measured.

Instead, Arlington has a confusing patchwork quilt of programs, initiatives, studies, task forces, and partial policies that make it impossible for the ordinary Arlington resident to understand when, how, and under what circumstances taxpayer money will be used or refused to promote the arts in Arlington.

Can you explain to the ordinary Arlington resident how these things fit together into a coherent statement regarding the principles County government will follow in subsidizing the arts?

A 21st century arts subsidy policy should reflect current fiscal realities

Arlington is facing a completely different fiscal environment in 2019 than it did in 1990, such as the capacity crisis in our public schools and our lack of adequate unprogrammed open green space for our surging population.

Current fiscal realities require that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor an appropriate level of continued County government public subsidies for the arts. But the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, parks, roads, sewers, and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services like these, the County Board should prioritize public spending for schools, parks, roads, sewers, and public safety. Is that what Mark Schwartz is doing with his proposed arts subsidy cuts? We can’t tell because we don’t have an easily understandable statement of arts subsidy principles against which to evaluate Schwartz’s proposed cuts.

Conclusion

After first utilizing the highest level of its public engagement guide, the Arlington County Board should adopt a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

Boston only adopted its impressive arts plan after a year-long public engagement period. Arlington should follow this public engagement example to determine the right balance for Arlington between private and public support for the arts.

To begin this critical, transparent community conversation, the County Board promptly should direct the County Manager to publish on one dedicated website a comprehensive, easily understandable listing of all current county-subsidized arts activities and the dollars they receive.

Arlington should not try to replicate arts options that are easily accessible elsewhere in the region. But maybe Goody’s could get its mural back.

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Peter’s Take: Moving Arlington Closer to Environmental Sustainability

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

As Arlington continues to prepare for Amazon’s arrival, justified concerns have been raised about the impact of Amazon’s coming here on our environment, our parks, and our schools.

Concerns relating to the environment take place in the context of a Virginia legal system that reserves to the state, rather than municipalities like Arlington, many decisions regarding regulation of products and practices that harm our environment.

Today, I’m focusing on some promising new community initiatives that highlight the environmental threats posed by some of these products and practices. I’m not focusing on whether the appropriate response to any particular environmental threat should be:

  • citizen or regulatory action
  • in Arlington or Richmond
  • some combination of the above

Film screening of “StyrofoamMom” — a locally produced documentary

On Saturday, April 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm, a group of organizations are sponsoring a dinner and open-house reception featuring a showing of a locally produced documentary, “StyrofoamMom.”

StyrofoamMom is a name given to Miriam Gennari, an Arlington resident, by Chris Zimmerman, a former County Board member, when she caught him eating from a Styrofoam® container. Gennari ran for School Board in 2013 focusing on environmental stewardship and literacy in Arlington Public Schools.

Gennari has been advocating the Arlington County government for 10 years, asking our government to develop policies and strategies regarding Arlington’s most ignored single-use plastic, expanded-polystyrene. Her hope in sharing the film is that with new student leadership, she can hand the microphone over to the youth of Arlington and the region, to work with government and business leaders to finish the job properly.

Film production

StyrofoamMom was made with critical support from Arlington Independent Media (AIM) and its state-of-the-art studio, video and sound equipment, as well as the talents of hundreds of volunteers. At the event AIM will announce its decision to bestow two local student scholarships. This new “green crew” will be taught filmmaking and will produce environmental films in multiple languages. Students will be trained in studio, field, editing and radio production.

Participating organizations

The dinner, reception, and film are being organized and sponsored by Eco Teen Action Network, supported by Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons, together with student environmental clubs, organizations and business leaders.

The Global Co Lab Network is a local Arlington non-governmental organization created to focus experts and stakeholders on youth and their ideas for change.  Utilizing living room gatherings or “Co Labs,” combined with virtual rooms or “Dream Hubs”, the Global Co Lab Network is working with the Smithsonian Conservation Commons to build a local and global network of teens. The Network will showcase its efforts at the 50th anniversary of Earth Day at the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, DC. in April 2020.

Event host JBG SMITH

The event and film screening will be hosted at a JBG Smith building in National Landing. For JBG Smith, hosting this event demonstrates a willingness to encourage young people’s interest in discussions regarding sustainability. The reported sustainability values expressed by both Amazon and JBG Smith have been driven by consumer demand. With universities investing in the area, bright and creative minds will be coming together to discuss the complexities of building a mega community and the waste and pollution it could produce if not carefully planned.

Conclusion

The Global Co Lab Network is sponsoring the April 6 event to highlight its goal to empower the next generation to address environmental issues.  Arlington has not made this a priority, but it should. Global Co Lab Network has observed that there are very few environmental clubs at schools in Arlington compared to other places. This is unfortunate since we are a county that prides itself on our green environmental culture.

Amazon’s new HQ at National Landing, together with the new talent it has the potential to attract, can bring together a new focus on environmental sustainability and specific plans to achieve it.

Arlington must decide which priorities are most important to it, and how those priorities will be implemented. The April 6 event will combine the new perspectives of young people, veteran activists, and other partners who can work together to make Arlington a green, healthy, sustainable county that will serve as an example in the United States.

More information is available herehere and here. To attend the event, register here.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: The Long-Term Unsustainability of APS’s Operating Budget

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On Feb. 23, the Arlington County Board voted to advertise a 2.75-cent real estate tax-rate increase for calendar year 2019.

As ARLnow.com reported:

“Board members hoped to add an extra penny to the tax rate beyond Schwartz’s proposal, generating an extra $7.8 million to dedicate specifically to schools.”

Since APS already receives about 47 cents out of every locally generated tax-revenue dollar, under its revenue sharing agreement with the county, APS will automatically receive about $5.5 million from the 1.5-cent tax-rate increase originally recommended by the County Manager.

If the full, advertised 2.75-cent tax-rate increase were to be approved, generating an estimated total of $21.4 million, APS would receive $13.3 million — 62 percent of the additional tax revenue being generated.

The 2.75-cent tax-rate increase, if adopted, will be applied on top of higher 2019 home assessments, an average increase of 2.9 percent. For example, a home assessed at $800,000 in 2018 accrued an $8,048 real-estate tax bill; that home would be assessed at $823,200 in 2019, and the tax bill would grow to $8,508.

The advertised tax-rate increase exposes an unresolved structural problem

For purposes of this column, I won’t discuss such important issues as whether the County Board should have advertised a lower tax rate in order to impose greater fiscal discipline. Nor will I discuss whether any specific APS operating-budget expenditure is justified.

In designating 62 percent of new revenue (generated by the 2.75-cent advertised tax-rate increase) to APS (even though APS is entitled to receive only about 47 percent of locally generated tax revenues), the County Board is tacitly acknowledging that APS’s operating budget, as currently structured, is growing faster than the county’s own operating budget.

But neither the School Board nor the County Board are publicly acknowledging or explaining the long-term fiscal impact of APS’s operating-budget growth. Instead, both boards continue to treat APS’s relentless budgetary increases as one-time events that require a simple one-time fix. Or, as APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy put it recently, “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time.”

We can already see how these “patterns” are playing out in our tax bills. Let’s examine some of the future implications.

Long-term enrollment growth = long-term budget growth

The latest APS enrollment projections released on Jan. 24 expect enrollment to swell from the current 26,400 students to 33,000 by 2028, an increase of 25 percent. Under Superintendent Murphy’s proposed FY2020 budget, presented to the School Board on Feb. 28, APS’s per-pupil expenditure is estimated to be $20,012.

If that $20,012 per-pupil expenditure level remains constant, it will add $132,079,200 to APS’s operating budget by 2028 — solely to support the 6,600-student increase in APS enrollment.

Below are some figures that help explain the significance of this $132,079,200 increase in APS operating costs, attributable solely to enrollment growth:

  • It will require an additional tax-rate increase of at least 17 cents — so a home assessed at $800,000 in 2018 (and $823,200 in 2019) will have a tax bill of at least $9,907 in 2028, even if there were NO additional assessment growth (highly unlikely) between 2019 and 2028.
  • If assessments grow by an average of 3 percent per year from 2019 through 2028, the tax bill on that home will increase to $12,879 by 2028.

Conclusion

On its current trajectory, the APS operating budget will, over the next 10 years:

  • shift tens of millions of dollars away from other essential county services and
  • require painful, annual tax-rate increases solely to fund school enrollment growth.

Both County and School Boards must publicly acknowledge this reality now, before a fiscal crisis occurs. Continuing to pretend each year that school budget increases are unique, one-time events is untenable. The two boards must publicly:

  • acknowledge the long-term budgetary consequences of enrollment growth on the county’s own budget and
  • engage the community in an honest dialogue about the difficult trade-offs and choices that must be made in order to stabilize spending and put Arlington’s operating budgets on a long-term sustainable footing.

A reality-driven plan of action is the only way to safeguard Arlington’s financial stability, protect the most vulnerable members of our community and maintain a reasonable quality of life for Arlington residents.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: Will Arlington’s Streetlight Management Plan Light Our Way?

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Arlington residents and County government have had a tortured, fitful relationship with streetlights — a key piece of infrastructure on which everyone depends.

That relationship is complicated by the fact that Dominion Energy — not Arlington County government — owns a majority of Arlington’s approximately 19,000 streetlights (Slide 4):

Slide 4 also displays a useful scatter diagram showing the areas of the County in which the Dominion and County streetlights, respectively, are concentrated.

Background

Early in 2018, Arlington County government launched a project to create what it labelled a “Streetlight Management Plan,” and launched a special county website to present key dates and documents. The latest version of the plan posted on that website is dated Nov. 8, 2018.

On Jan. 29, 2019, the chair of Arlington’s Environment and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2) wrote an insightful three-page letter to the County Board (“E2C2 letter”; not yet posted on that website) summarizing the challenges presented by the plan.

Dominion-owned streetlights

At a Jan. 29 County Board meeting, County Manager Mark Schwartz sharply criticized Dominion’s performance:

“Local residents were ‘constantly writing and legitimately complaining’ not just about streetlights that weren’t working, but how their concerns were handled by Dominion.”

There were 3,754 repairs to or replacements of Dominion streetlights from March 2017 through Jan. 31, 2019. For 2,887 cases, the average time without lighting was eight days, but for the remaining 687, the average outage lasted 91 days.

Although Dominion’s local representatives have promised to do better, it’s clear that more and different kinds of pressure must be brought to bear to improve Dominion’s performance.

For decades, Dominion has been among the most powerful business interests in Virginia, lobbying to maximize its profits and minimize its obligations to provide customer service.

One aspect of Arlington’s strategy must be lobbying more aggressively at the regional and state levels to ensure that Dominion is devoting greater revenues to maintenance and replacement of its aging infrastructure rather than distributing those revenues to its shareholders. We need legislators leading the charge for Arlington who are not beholden to Dominion’s legislative apologists such as “Dominion Dick” Saslaw.

While the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) that regulates Dominion still has “some teeth left,” Arlington should lead the charge for further SCC consumer-friendly reforms.

Arlington-owned streetlights

Arlington’s major challenge with respect to the streetlights it owns is to improve current response times which Manager Schwartz noted two years ago were “an average repair time of 30 days for minor outages and up to 120 days for major outages.”

Arlington must improve those metrics by prioritizing streetlight spending according to this principle Schwartz embraced: “People want their government to do the basics before other things.”

Options to rationalize streetlight ownership patterns

The Streetlight Management Plan strives to identify cost-effective ways in which to rationalize current streetlight ownership patterns. Among many other astute observations, the E2C2 letter offers these cautionary notes about the “blending ownership option” of streetlight ownership transfers between Dominion and the County favored by County staff:

“According to preliminary plans, the County would own and maintain streetlights in the business corridors and Dominion would own and maintain streetlights elsewhere. At the end of the transfers, Dominion and the County would own approximately the same number of streetlights.  The costs of this approach are not trivial, however — $20 to $30 million over 10 years.

“E2C2 believes that the approach has merit but offers the following cautions. The approach would relegate virtually all of the streetlights in Arlington’s residential neighborhoods to Dominion. … Dominion has been very reluctant to convert its streetlights to LED, has not introduced dimming technology or a central system for remote sensing, and has a poor response rate to outages and other problems.”

Conclusion

We need to have an extensive and transparent public discussion about the economic benefits and costs of County staff’s blending ownership option compared to the benefits and costs of other options.

For example, the County Board should direct the County Manager to provide for community discussion another option that would involve no ownership transfers, but would involve:

  • a more aggressive lobbying and regulatory strategy to improve Dominion’s performance
  • adjustments to Arlington’s budget to provide greater investments in improving Arlington’s response times

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: Ranked-Choice Voting Will be Good for Arlington

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

A year ago, my fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Mark Kelly, posted a column welcoming the legislative defeat of a bill sponsored by House Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). Hope’s bill would have granted the County Board the option to utilize a ranked-choice (or instant-runoff) voting system in County Board elections.

Ranked choice voting has been adopted in an increasing number of jurisdictions, including San Francisco, Oakland, Utah and Maine.

If you are one of the 16 percent of Arlington voters who backed Donald Trump for President in 2016, or one of the 15 percent who voted for Corey Stewart for the U.S. Senate in 2018, you probably wouldn’t like ranked-choice voting. But, if you were not one of those Arlington voters, you might welcome ranked-choice voting.

This year, Patrick Hope tried again, and state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District) introduced his own version of similar legislation that “would have allowed localities to adopt ranked-choice voting for boards of supervisors and city councils, starting in 2020.” Neither bill succeeded.

What is ranked-choice voting?

Voters in ranked-choice voting elections can rank the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate gets the majority, that candidate wins, just like our current system in state-sponsored elections. If one candidate doesn’t get the majority, losing candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated one by one, and ballots for losing candidates are redistributed to second and subsequent choices until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority.

Ranked-choice voting is better than our current alternative (winner-take-all voting)

The current electoral system in place in state-sponsored elections in Arlington is a winner-take-all (or first-past-the-post) system. The person with the most votes wins — even in a large, multi-candidate field in which most votes go to someone other than the winner.

Patrick Hope offered a very persuasive set of reasons last year in support of his bill, including:

  • decreased likelihood that fringe or extreme candidates would be elected
  • increased likelihood that a candidate would command greater respect from a broader group of the electorate
  • increased likelihood that the election campaign would be more positive and civil

Similar reasons have been given by the Arlington County Democratic Committee to support its choice of instant-runoff voting (IRV) for party-organized caucuses.

In last year’s column, Mark Kelly tried to refute Hope’s reasons. But, in a series of very extensive comments they posted to Kelly’s column, frequent ARLnow commenters dave schutz and dudeguy01 provided detailed reasons why they believed Arlington voters would be better off in both primary and general elections for County Board if those elections were conducted under ranked-choice voting. All their comments are worth reading, but here is a small sampling of some of what they had to say:

dudeguy01  Mark … says it will make it harder for Republicans or Independents to win, but the only explanation he gives is that Arlington leans heavily Democratic. He never explains why that obstacle is more severe under an instant runoff system… Instant runoff … may not result in MORE or LESS Dems winning, but I think it has a mighty good chance of resulting in BETTER Dems winning….

dave schutz [I]t is healthier for the polity over time if the system makes it easier for a variety of opinions to make it onto the Board….

dave schutz  I’m actually sort of a Mark Kelly fan, but I’m pretty clear he is wrong on several fronts, here. Start with [the] civility goal…I heard a LOT of disappointment with the tone and level in the Garvey-Gutshall contest, which was a first-past-the-post primary. The next Dem nomination, Klingler-Patil-Gutshall-Fallon [an ACDC caucus conducted under IRV] was far more emollient.

Conclusion

Ranked-choice voting is an option the Virginia legislature ought to give Arlington. If we get it, the Board ought to adopt it for County Board elections.

Academics have thought a lot about voting systems and concluded that none is perfect — but that ranked-choice does a lot better than first-past-the-post in the case of a candidate like Trump.

County Board is a good place to start. The Arlington Voter Registrar has advised that with relatively minor tweaks to its software, and an effective voter education program, we can implement ranked-choice voting.

Let’s encourage Del. Hope and Sen. Ebbin to re-introduce their bills in the 2020 legislative session.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: Up-Zoning Plans, New APS Enrollment Projections Spur Need for Long-Range Planning

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Two stories posted on ARLnow.com last week underscore the urgent need for the County and School Boards to expedite long-range public facilities and fiscal planning.

The first story (“Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste”) quoted various activists and County Board members stressing the need to make Arlington housing more affordable by up-zoning in order to substantially increase housing supply. (Up-zoning = approving more dense development than permitted by current zoning.)

The second story (“New APS Enrollment Projections”) quoted various activists and School Board members about the need for a fourth comprehensive high school.

The most up-voted comment to the second story captured how the two stories are linked:

Gavrilo2014  Those advocating housing growth, whether “affordable” or otherwise, need to address the questions of school capacity.

First, the good news

The good news is that since the Community Facilities Study Group released its final report and recommendations in 2015, relentless pressure — primarily from citizen activists — has pushed the County and School Boards (often grudgingly) to work more closely together to integrate their forecasting methods and improve their ability to estimate future APS enrollment more accurately.

As I noted in a December 2018 column, the APS Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC) has prepared an excellent report on future school facilities needs. But that FAC report was prepared prior to publication of the latest APS enrollment projections.

Second, the questionable news

Particularly since the announcement that Amazon will be locating a new HQ in Crystal City, various County Board members and citizen activists have been sending strong signals that county government is planning to unveil a series of far reaching new proposals to up-zone major areas of Arlington. A Jan. 31 story (“Arlington Must Open Up Single-Family-Neighborhoods To Different Housing Options”) further described these suggestions.

Proponents of up-zoning believe that if we increase housing supply relative to demand substantially, then housing prices will be significantly lower than they would have been otherwise. This hypothesis is alluring but must be tested in the context of long-range cost-benefit analyses in Arlington to determine whether the hoped-for benefits justify the costs. Evidence elsewhere casts doubt on the hypothesis.

Nowhere in any of these recent stories is there any indication that county government officials are planning to accompany their major up-zoning proposals with quantitative estimates of the net long-range (15-year) fiscal impacts on county and APS budgets of their proposals.

Particularly unhelpful are remarks like those by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy about the new enrollment projections: “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time.” As another commenter to the enrollment story noted:

LocalChatter it sure seems like Murphy’s statement is another way of saying “I don’t want to deal with this”

Murphy has been singing the same song for many years: this year might be an aberration, so let’s wait ’till next year. Murphy consistently has been proven wrong.

The community cannot afford to wait any longer. We are out of breath. The new APS enrollment projections forecast a net deficit of 2,400 elementary school seats by 2028. Those projections don’t yet take Amazon’s arrival into account. Where will those new elementary school seats be located? How much will they cost to fill? When will the two Boards provide the answers?

Conclusion

Up-zoning designed to increase affordable housing does not entail immediate taxpayer cash subsidies in the same way that AHIF contributions do. But major up-zoning does lead directly to major public infrastructure costs, such as the need to provide new seats for new students. While affordable housing is a worthy goal, it must take its seat at the budget table along with many other community priorities.

Even before Amazon showed up, Arlington had failed to develop a long-range (15-year) plan regarding:

  • where to locate the new public facilities (e.g., schools, parks, fire stations) Arlington will need to handle the development already authorized by current zoning
  • how Arlington will pay for those new public facilities

Amazon’s arrival heightens the imperative for the two Boards to create such a long-range strategic plan and discuss it with the community before approving any proposals for major new up-zoning.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: Support Non-Partisan Redistricting in Virginia

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Like many other states, Virginia has a partisan redistricting system. Partisan redistricting has served us poorly.

Background

Entrenched incumbents from both major Virginia political parties have worked hard to retain the current system — placing greater value on keeping their own seats than on what is in the long-term best interests of all Virginia voters.

For at least 20 years, up until last month, Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates fought non-partisan redistricting. They wanted to retain their control and saw partisan redistricting as the best way to keep power.

Locked out of power, many Democrats believed they would do better with non-partisan redistricting. But that did not stop some Democratic legislative leaders, like 28-year incumbent Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw, from spearheading the disastrous 2011 legislative deal under which Virginia Senate Democratic leaders gave Virginia House Republican leaders free reign to draw partisan delegate lines while Virginia Senate Democratic leaders received free reign to draw partisan Senate lines. Litigation over the partisan House delegate lines continues right up to today.

Sweeping gains by Democrats in the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates elections, combined with the prospect that Republicans might lose control of one or both houses of the legislature in 2019, finally has led the Virginia Republican House leadership to support some form of non-partisan redistricting.

Why non-partisan redistricting is so important

On Jan. 28, a group of 20 business leaders from Virginia, Maryland and DC published a compelling statement explaining why it is so important for both Virginia and Maryland to adopt non-partisan redistricting:

“The endemic dysfunction in our government stems from incentives in politics that promote ideological purity over pragmatic problem solving and cooperation. … We believe anti-gerrymandering measures are the logical starting point for reform, and they are urgently needed in both Maryland and Virginia. A system in which politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around, is inherently wrong and dysfunctional. Partisan gerrymandering is a protection racket for incumbent politicians….”

Now is a critical moment in the 2019 legislative session

Non-partisan redistricting can only be adopted via a constitutional amendment. To amend the Virginia Constitution, an identical amendment must be passed by both legislative houses and signed by the governor in two consecutive years. After passage in the second year, Virginia voters need to approve the amendment in a statewide vote.

Those two consecutive years must be 2019 and 2020 in order to have the new non-partisan system in place in time to be utilized when the 2020 U.S. census results must be used (in 2021) to draw new legislative lines for 2021-2031.

The clock is ticking on the 2019 legislative session.

Where the 2019 legislative session stands now

Competing non-partisan redistricting bills are under consideration in the legislature: “All the bills on the table show real movement toward reform, said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021 [a redistricting reform advocacy group].”

On January 31, the Virginia Senate unanimously (40-0) passed SJ306, a bill defining the Senate’s preferred version of non-partisan redistricting.

One provision in HJ615, a Virginia House of Delegates bill sponsored by Del. Mark Cole (R-88th District), has drawn criticism from Democrats. That provision seeks to “preserve the political parity between the two political parties receiving the highest and next highest number of votes in the immediately preceding gubernatorial election.” Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group, correctly concludes that this provision “defeats the purpose of redistricting reform, regardless of what political party may benefit from the rule.”

Conclusion

Virginia legislative leaders from both parties need to agree in this legislative session on bipartisan legislation providing non-partisan redistricting reform. Please contact them and urge them to do so.

(Disclosure: I called on Governor Northam to resign.)

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: Aquatics Center’s Soft Costs Escalate While Arlington Expects Hard Fiscal Landing

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On Tuesday (Jan. 29), the County Board approved a contract for a new A/V system for the Aquatics Center.

It first appeared from a reading of a county staff report (Item 23 at pp. 2-3) that the “soft costs” of the new A/V system were being paid for out of a total of $3.2 million in “new funding.”

Background

When the County Board approved the Aquatics Center’s design-build contract in Nov. 2017, $7.5 million was included for soft costs (at p. 12) to cover “construction administration, county staff time, permits, other consultants, FF&E, technology, and public art.”

The staff report before the Board last night said that these soft costs had escalated 42.7 percent to $10.7 million (at pp. 2-3). Of the additional $3.2 million, the only new soft cost specified was a $450,700 expenditure for new A/V system:

“soft costs include construction management, project management, County staff time, permits, other consultants, FF&E, audio-visual, and public art. The funding for the audio-visual package was funded from the $10.71 million in associated soft costs, from the following funding source and account: Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) capital funds (313.480001.80001.LBAD.0649.0000).”

The staff report does not explain how the remaining $2,749,300 of costs are allocated among all the other items noted, such as for staff time or consultant fees.

Payment for the additional soft costs

A vote on the new A/V system was pulled from last Saturday’s consent agenda by Katie Cristol after the Board received a letter from John Vihstadt questioning the expenditure.

Last night, staff members from Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) said that the $3.2 million in PayGo capital used as the source for the funding of these additional soft costs had been in last year’s CIP for the Aquatics Center all along. Therefore, they claimed, using these funds for the new soft costs did not represent any increase in the total project cost for the Aquatics Center. That total cost had been $70.7 million all along, not the $67.5 million the community had assumed.

Based on what it heard, the Board voted last night to approve the new contract for the A/V system.

The right talk, but not the right walk

The Board should not have approved the A/V contract in these fiscally austere times.

At its Jan. 2 organizational meeting, the County Board prepared the community for anticipated tough fiscal times this year: “The only responsible course is fiscal austerity, County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey said….”

Late last year, the County Manager had already warned about projected major shortfalls facing us in his proposed FY 2020 budget: “In all, the county’s combined budget deficit [including APS] could be as large as $78 million.”

Canceling the Aquatics Center project entirely still makes fiscal sense

In a June 2018 column, I explained why Arlington should cancel the Aquatics Center project entirely. The county manager’s protestations that contractors would no longer bid on Arlington contracts if we cancelled lacks credibility. So long as we meet our contractual obligations (paying the cancellation costs), contractors will continue to line up for our business.

As to the argument that cancellation would be a breach of faith with the long-time Aquatics Center advocates, we must weigh their great disappointment against the long-lasting costs to the entire Arlington community of moving forward — the opportunity cost of devoting $70.7 million in total capital funding to this project.

For the next decade, we are bumping up against our 10 percent debt service limit. Cancelling the Aquatics Center project entirely and paying off some of that debt would give us much needed wiggle room. Closing an FY 2020 budget gap of up to $78 million will preserve the priorities of the entire Arlington community far better if we cancel the Aquatics Center.

Conclusion

Canceling the Aquatics Center offers two alternatives. The Board could choose to repay the debt, giving us more flexibility in capital spending. Or it could redirect the net post-cancellation savings to other legally permissible uses.

The manager has confirmed that the County Board legally could reprogram the approved Aquatics Center bond funds for other park and recreation priorities, including these:

  • land acquisition for new parkland (the current CIP contains $0 for acquisition of new parkland over the next 10 years)
  • park infrastructure (including a smaller community pool) at Long Bridge or elsewhere

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: How the County Board Should Find the Right Place to Park

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In her summation at the end of the County Board’s Jan. 12 Amazon “Listening Session” at the NRECA building, Board member Katie Cristol said she wished there were a magic lever to pull which would produce affordable housing. Her regretful conclusion: there is no such lever.

But our Board is focused intently on looking for levers to make housing more affordable — even if those levers aren’t magical.

Several levers the Board has signaled an intent to pull involve parking. Providing parking in various scenarios (e.g., in new, large, multi-unit residential buildings) is very expensive. It may by itself push prices for units beyond the means of some renters or buyers. Several of these actual or potential parking policies are drawing strong resident pushback.

Examples of recent parking policy controversies

  • American Legion Post 139 (Washington Boulevard)

Parking has emerged as a “key concern” relating to APAH’s proposed affordable housing project.

  • Forest Glen (Residential Zone 24)

Residents are “angry” that the County Board could end residential zone parking restrictions in this zone at its meeting on Jan. 26. The most up-voted comment to an ARLnow.com story on this controversy highlighted the County government’s confusion over the scope of the current “moratorium” on adding/subtracting/changing current residential permit parking zones:

BBMS Yesterday’s article: County not likely to change neighborhood permit parking details around Post 139 while county-wide program is being reworked. Today: County changing neighborhood’s permit parking rules immediately.”

  • Red Top Cab

The developer looks ready to “slash parking.”

  • Virginia Hospital Center (VHC)

The County Board ultimately approved the VHC expansion plans. But the final plan cut VHC’s original request for permission to build a parking garage by more than 100 spaces after adjacent neighborhoods protested the damaging spillover parking impact on their residential areas.

Confusion, disputes plague parking policies

In a November 2017 column, I discussed some of the county government’s actual or proposed parking policies which still are the subject of strong disagreement:

  • lower parking minimums for residential projects approved by special exception that are close to Metro corridor station entrances (but how much lower, and how far from station entrances?)
  • allowances for developers to substitute bike parking, carsharing, or investments in Capital Bikeshare for fewer parking spaces (but does this discriminate against the elderly or those with disabilities?)
  • lower dedicated visitor parking minimums (but what about the spillover effect on neighborhoods?)
  • rethinking the residential zone parking program in general (but when, where, and how?)

Philosophical, ideological differences characterize parking policy discussions

We are witnessing a clash of philosophical and ideological differences over parking. To only slightly oversimplify, some want county government to:

  • adopt policies which actively discourage car use within increasingly larger portions of Arlington
  • retain policies (parking minimums for development, zone parking) which actively protect neighbors’ rights to use their own cars where they want to use them, and decide who gets to park in their neighborhoods and when
  • drop existing parking policies which increase developer costs with consequences for affordability and/or
  • reconsider the equity aspects of existing parking policies which preclude residents parking near their homes (e.g., Forest Glen Zone 24)

Conclusion

To date, discussion of the parking issues identified above has neither encouraged nor enabled the broader community to participate adequately in balancing the county-wide benefits and harms likely to result from various alternative policy options.

The current county government management structures (e.g., the county transportation staff and the Transportation Commission) need to be supplemented by a new, more community-centered discussion forum.

The County Board should:

  • consider holistically all these potential changes in parking policies as community-wide issues
  • recruit community members with substantially differing views into a new working group to report directly to the County Board on these policies

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take: DPR Misled County Board, Public on Parks Plan

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

At its Jan. 8 meeting, the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed) passed a resolution 66-17-3 regarding the Level of Service (LOS) recommendations for athletic fields contained in the latest draft of the Public Open Spaces Master Plan (“PSMP” or “POPS” plan). (LOS is an acronym for Level of Service.)

Among many other provisions, the Civ Fed’s two-page resolution calls upon the Arlington County government to “withdraw the specific LOS athletic field recommendations” from the POPS plan.

Civ Fed’s January 8 program was designed to stimulate dialogue and improve understanding of this complicated topic. Civ Fed invited the county staff to have an open conversation with its delegates specifically about the lack of supply/demand data and the transparency of the public POPS process. While staff from Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) were the most knowledgeable people to answer specific methodology questions, the County Manager declined to have DPR staff attend.

Instead, two volunteer resident members of the POPS Advisory Committee spoke on the county’s behalf. They tried to defend DPR’s lack of transparency, while two other residents and proponents of the resolution explained DPR’s own data, which were accessed through a residents’ FOIA request and a six-month resident analysis reviewing diamond fields only. DPR should have defended and explained their process and data, not residents.

Standard industry LOS methodology was not followed; analyses and documents left out

DPR told the County Board, county commissions, stakeholders, and the general public that DPR was following a standard industry methodology called “Population Based LOS” to provide quantitative estimates of levels of service. But, DPR didn’t follow it.

DPR excluded from its calculations and from the public POPS process the abundance of supply/demand field data and analyses which DPR had in its files. But according to DPR’s own consultants’ standard industry methodology statement, these data are necessary to determine Population Based LOS correctly: “Each community determine its own LOS standard based on current supply and demand and future supply/demand projections” POPS_LOS Methodology_171220.  This LOS methodology statement was discovered among the documents produced via the FOIA.

DPR’s exclusion is significant. Among the other documents residents obtained under FOIA were DPR’s own analysis showing adequate diamond field facilities through 2035 in contrast to the deficits indicated by the improperly calculated LOS currently in the POPS plan.

Further details explaining how DPR did not follow standard industry methodology are available here.

The importance of the PSMP plan and LOS facility recommendations to long-term planning

The accuracy of LOS for specific categories of facilities — or lack thereof — can be hugely important to subsequent planning decisions.

These specific quantitative LOS recommendations will be used over the next 20 years to decide:

  • how acres of public parkland will be used (i.e., more or different sports fields, casual use space, or other features)
  • whether to install multi-million-dollar capital improvements (i.e., synthetic turf and/or lights)

These decisions must be considered in a holistic plan developed according to proper standard industry methodology and based on how Arlington residents actually use and need these facilities. Without such a plan, it will not be possible for residents to:

  • prioritize which facilities are needed in individual parks
  • introduce comprehensive, supply/demand data in any subsequent individual park planning proceeding because such data can only be developed reliably on a county-wide basis, in a county-wide proceeding

Conclusion

Approving the POPS plan while it still contains the erroneous and incomplete quantitative facility (LOS) recommendations will cause the misallocation of tens of millions of tax dollars and substantially harm efforts to meet residents’ needs and priorities in our public spaces.

As the Civ Fed has recognized and supported, the best solution to the present situation is to:

  • remove the erroneous LOS recommendations for sports fields before approving the final POPS plan
  • commence a new, independent and transparent process to:
  1. develop new quantitative estimates of county-wide supply/demand for sports fields
  2. develop new priority systems to maximize the efficient use of our existing fields
  3. implement an online reservation system to ensure that facility usage is transparent to the public and sports users
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Peter’s Take: No Virginia Tax Dollars for New Redskins Stadium

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On Jan. 9, Virginia House of Delegates member Michael Webert (R-Fauquier) offered legislation (HB 1886) that would, if enacted, establish:

“an interstate compact among the Commonwealth of Virginia, the State of Maryland, and the District of Columbia (the party states) that prohibits the party states from providing incentives for a Washington area professional football team franchise facility, including tax incentives, state or local appropriations, and loans.”

In support of his bill, Webert explained,“think tanks on the left and right show the subsidies that go to professional stadiums, there really is not the return on investment that everybody says there is.”

State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) disputed Webert, holding out hope that Virginia would at least be willing to “offer to build a Metro station or highway ramp to serve a stadium, or provide land for it at a nominal rent.”

Football stadiums do not spur significant economic growth

The evidence is overwhelming that subsidizing the construction of a new Redskins football stadium will never be in the best interests of Virginia taxpayers:

“Roger Noll, an economist who studies sports-stadium subsidies at Stanford University, says he has never witnessed the construction of a football stadium that has had a significant positive impact on the local economy.”    

Direct costs outweigh the benefits

Fifty-seven percent of a panel of U.S economic experts agreed that the costs to taxpayers are likely to outweigh the benefits, while only 2 percent disagreed–though several panelists noted that some contributions of local sports teams are difficult to quantify.

Subsidizing stadiums is a game that taxpayers lose: “Governments should never finance a stadium with public money as it is simply a subsidy to rich team owners and a few businesses that stand to benefit from the events held there.”

Opportunity costs further tilt the balance against taxpayer funding

The costs of a new Virginia stadium for the Redskins are even higher when you factor in the opportunity costs. Virginia tax dollars spent on such a stadium would be tax dollars that could have been spent to:

  • increase Virginia’s state share of the new dedicated funding stream for Metro
  • increase Virginia’s state share of public education funding
  • redress some of the many remaining critical deficiencies in Virginia’s mental health facilities
  • help bring high-speed broadband to rural areas of Virginia that currently lack it

These are only four of hundreds of more deserving needs than a Redskins stadium.

Dan Snyder doesn’t need the money

Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder is a billionaire who doesn’t need a public hand out. Any Virginia tax dollars for a new Redskins stadium will go directly into Dan Snyder’s pockets.

A 2003 study by a member of the University of Texas economics department documented that a new stadium increases:

  • team profits by an average of $13 million annually
  • payroll salaries by $14 million annually
  • team book value by $90 million

Sixteen years later, all these numbers are likely to be much higher.

Conclusion

Regardless of what DC or Maryland decide to do, nothing related to any new Redskins stadium should be subsidized by Virginia taxpayers. Dan Snyder should arrange 100 percent private financing. Under these conditions, Snyder could build his stadium in Virginia if he could find a welcoming local government.

San Francisco 49’ers cornerback Richard Sherman got it right: “I’d stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums…and maybe make the billionaires who actually benefit from the stadiums pay for them.”

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Peter’s Take: Virginia Should Adopt No-Excuse Absentee Voting

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The 2019 Virginia legislative session begins on Jan. 9.

Once again, a batch of proposed bills have been submitted which, if enacted, would authorize no-excuse absentee voting in Virginia.

No-excuse absentee voting bills

Some of these no-excuse absentee voting bills have been continued from the 2018 legislative session, e.g., SB 136 submitted by state Sen. Janet Howell (who represents portions of Arlington). Others are new, e.g., HB 1641 submitted by state Del. Charniele Herring..

Virginia should enact a law authorizing no-excuse absentee voting

Like other voting rights issues, Arlington voters only can obtain the right to no-excuse absentee voting if that right is enacted at the state level because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state.

Virginia has developed a series of 16 narrow, but often confusing and overlapping, excuses that entitle registered voters to vote absentee before Election Day. Unless your reason for wanting to vote absentee fits squarely within one or more of the 16 categories on the authorized list, you can’t vote absentee.

Virginia’s current system should be changed. It should be replaced by a system that permits any registered voter to vote absentee without having to provide any excuse.

Reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting

The most important reason why the current system should be changed is that experience in many other states has demonstrated that no-excuse absentee voting enables more legally registered voters to vote to choose their elected officials. The broader the base on which our political leadership rests, the more likely that decisions made by our leaders will be respected.

The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area has prepared a helpful checklist of reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting. Those reasons are:

  • All voters should have equal access to the ballot
  • No voter should have to provide personal unrelated information to cast a ballot
  • Voters have found their eligibility to vote before Election Day very confusing
  • Voting absentee in-person is as secure as voting on Election Day
  • Local election offices have had success in reducing long lines on Election Day by encouraging absentee voting
  • For voting absentee in-person, eliminating the cumbersome process of completing the absentee application would save time as well as the expense of printing the form
  • Extra personnel are needed to explain the form and check it for completion before a voter can proceed to checking in
  • Eliminating the use of the application form would speed the voting process considerably

Opponents of a no-excuse absentee voting system have argued that it encourages too many more voters to vote too early, thereby foreclosing their opportunity to vote based on late-breaking developments in a political campaign. Weighing this risk against the depression of voter turnout under the current system, the benefits of providing more opportunities to vote outweigh the risks that some voters might regret that they voted too early.

Both Democrats and Republicans should support no-excuse absentee voting

Twenty eight states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. Those states include so-called “red” states such as South Dakota and Wyoming as well as so-called “blue” states like California and Vermont. Therefore, absentee voting should be a subject on which Virginia Republicans and Virginia Democrats also ought to be able to agree.

Conclusion

No-excuse absentee voting will enable more eligible Virginia voters to vote.

The current patchwork quilt of 16 authorized excuses should be replaced by: no excuses necessary.

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Peter’s Take: The Fiscal Impacts of Development in Arlington

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In a Dec. 17 interview, County Manager Mark Schwartz, when asked about Arlington County government’s projected $20-$35 million FY 2020 budget deficit, stated:

“For the last [several] years, the commercial market has either been flat or going down. If revenue grows less than your expenses, you already have a gap. Now, add on top of that the obligations to Metro, expansion of Medicaid, public safety pay increases, steady funding for affordable housing and you get to $20-$35 million quickly.”

Schwartz also acknowledged that:

  • at least in the short run, Amazon’s arrival in Arlington will not solve the county government’s structural budget problem
  • APS is projecting a $43 million (!) FY 2020 budget deficit

Fiscal Impact Analyses of Development

There are some steps the County Board should take early in 2019 regarding the fiscal impacts of development across the county, especially in light of the major land use changes now planned in Crystal City by JBG Smith and Amazon.

At its April 21 meeting, the County Board took one small, partial step in the right direction. As part of its FY 2019 budget guidance, the Board directed the manager to develop for Board review by the end of this calendar year (2018) a plan for preparing and making public periodic, retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial development on an aggregate rather than a project-specific basis.

The manager has yet to share for discussion with the community a draft of his proposed approach to this Board directive.

  • Project-specific fiscal impact statements needed for major site plan projects

As I have previously explained, what Arlington really should do is adopt the recommendation of the Community Facilities Study Group (CFSG) for prospective, site plan-specific, fiscal impact statements. We need project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each major site plan project, particularly to measure impacts on schools and parks.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that constructing new, large multi-unit residential projects consistently generates more new costs than new revenues. The most comprehensive “cost of community services” survey of 125 jurisdictions nationwide found that the mean ratio was $1.18 of incremental costs incurred compared to every $1 of incremental revenues generated (at p. 392).

This comprehensive study’s results recently were corroborated by noted GMU economist Stephen Fuller in a November 2018 Amazon Arlington HQ fiscal impact study (at Table 6).

Just some examples of the other studies reaching the same net-negative-cost-impact results are available here and here.

  • Arlington County Attorney continues to block transparency

The adoption of project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for major site plan projects continues to be blocked by the stubborn and unjustified refusal by the Arlington County attorney to release for review by independent legal experts a public-facing version of his existing legal memorandum that Arlington lacks the legal power to implement the carefully-considered CFSG recommendation for such statements.

The County Attorney has been refusing to disclose his detailed legal reasoning to the public for at least 5 years.

In an interview with ARLnow.com earlier this year, the county attorney also demonstrated that he does not understand the facts regarding development and school enrollment growth. He mistakenly believes that “the practice of replacing small, single-family homes on large lots with multiple new homes tends to drive most of the strain on Arlington’s classrooms.” To the contrary, the principal enrollment growth challenge APS confronts now is the absolute total number of students generated when:

  • thousands of elevator apartment units are being built every year
  • these units are not evenly distributed across the county

Conclusion

Arlington County government:

  • cannot legally proclaim a moratorium on by-right development even if it realized that it previously might have approved too much of it
  • can and should prepare project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for major site plan projects in which developers are seeking more density than permitted by current zoning
  • should be able to condition approval of such projects on the developer’s willingness to provide community benefits directly tied to the impact of the project on schools and/or parks
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Peter’s Take: County Manager Plan Discourages Volunteer Recruitment

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The County Board approved the Four Mile Run Valley Area Plan (Area Plan) at its Nov. 17 meeting. A Dec. 13 c ounty press release summarizes the plan.

The plan recommends the continuation of industrial and commercial uses, while also encouraging more arts-related uses. The recommendations also call for a new working group to duplicate what another county committee already has accomplished.

That new working group will:

  • waste government resources and volunteer time
  • discourage future volunteer recruitment

Background

At the direction of the County Board, the Arts District Committee was formed to study the possible creation of an Arts District in the Four Mile Run Valley Area. With significant and constructive input from businesses, arts representatives and the community, a detailed report, known as the SNAIQ report, was issued. Like other parts of the Four Mile Run Valley study, this report was shared widely through numerous meetings and public engagements.

What the County Manager is mistakenly doing now

A county manager Oct. 12 report recommended a new planning process to identify “an arts/industry vision.” This manager’s report also recommended the appointment of a new working group to work on this project for at least a year.

Referencing the existing SNAIQ report, the county manager’s  Oct. 12 report states: “while these suggestions have not yet been fully analyzed by staff, staff would make this information available to the future working group established to advance the arts district idea.”

The SNAIQ report was published in 2017. The County government now has admitted that it hasn’t reviewed it, yet it somehow did find the time to recommend a new working group to duplicate what another county committee already has accomplished?

In outlining the proposed new working group process, county staff, at an Oct. 20 County Board hearing, said it wanted to “establish a vision for a possible arts district” and “look at a variety of scenarios… and pros and cons” (beginning at 1:16:17 and at 2:01:16 and in the county manager’s report).

This is a direct duplication of what the existing Arts District Committee already did in preparing the SNAIQ report. (Just read page two of the SNAIQ report to verify.)

Conclusion

I have previously criticized the possible use of new taxpayer subsidies that might be part of the creation of a formal Arts District. Before any serious consideration is given to any such new taxpayer subsidies, the County Board must adopt a comprehensive 21st century arts subsidy policy and engage in a transparent cost benefit analysis of any proposed Arts District.

However, the County Manager’s plan for a new working group essentially ignores a significant and effective job by volunteers on an authorized, existing county committee (page 5).

County Board members often proclaim that recruiting and encouraging residents to serve on county committees is a high priority, but the county manager’s plan here will have exactly the opposite effect. The County Board failed us by acquiescing in the manager’s plan at its Nov. 17 hearing. (The county government even failed to post on its website a Nov. 16 letter from the existing Arts District Committee explaining its position.)

The Arts District Committee ably fulfilled its charge. If further work needs to be done, this existing committee would like to do it. Instead of duplicating its significant work, the county should ask this existing committee to continue its work with a new, expanded portfolio.

As one Arts District Committee member stated, “All in all, I think the Arts District Committee experience has been a model for how such groups can and should operate – dare I say it, a model of ‘the Arlington Way.'”

Proceeding with a new working group in these circumstances mocks the Arlington Way.

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Peter’s Take: Cancel the Science Focus-Key Swap

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In October, I explained why the Arlington Public Schools superintendent was placing the cart before the horse by proposing to swap the buildings currently housing the Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) and Key Elementary Schools.

On Nov. 16, APS staff posted a new FAQ document that continues to dodge these major questions:

  • does the swap make sense?
  • should the School Board leave that decision to APS staff?

The School Board should direct the Superintendent to cancel the ASFS-Key building swap

APS’s premise that the Superintendent can approve this swap because it only entails swapping programs is incorrect. Further, given the major level of disruption that a swap would cause, the School Board should step-up and own any swap decision as a matter of community accountability.

An APS memorandum (“memo”) discussed at an August 28th School Board meeting offered six reasons for the swap. None of those reasons justify a swap:

  1. The memo states that ASFS is the only neighborhood school that sits outside its attendance boundary. It proposes the swap to fix this without thoughtful consideration of what a new boundary could offer. APS created this problem via its Options and Transfer Policy. APS should fix it by drawing a revised attendance boundary around ASFS.
  2. The memo states that the Key building can accommodate all 680 ASFS K-5 current students through use of trailers. However, if APS intends to move the ASFS program to the Key building, APS also needs to move the associated equipment to Key, reducing the Key building capacity to 605 students. Meanwhile immersion students will be crammed into a building that is 19 percent smaller.
  3. The memo states that a swap offers more flexibility than boundary changes. APS guarantees that once a student is admitted to an option school or accepts a transfer to a neighborhood school, enrollment is continuous until there is a boundary change. Since the School Board plans to revisit all boundaries in 2020, APS should maximize its flexibility by waiting for the next boundary process to determine if option and neighborhood schools should be moved. If a program move is needed (such as moving an elementary immersion program), a county-wide analysis should first be published and discussed with the community to determine the optimum locations of elementary immersion programs and to locate neighborhood schools in places where all the seats will be filled.
  4. The memo claims the swap would minimize the number of students needing to be reassigned to different schools. But as demonstrated repeatedly during the just-concluded South Arlington boundary process, parents deserve to be highly skeptical of such APS assurances. Rather than make an impetuous decision, APS should wait until the 2020 boundary process to determine if program moves are needed and all APS sites should be considered.
  5. The memo claims the swap would reduce transportation time for students, incorrectly comparing the 46 percent of students who could walk to Key to the 18 percent of students APS says can walk to ASFS. But the superintendent did not do a comparative analysis of crossing guards and walkability. Others have. Their analysis shows that drawing a boundary around ASFS and adding a crossing guard at N. Kirkwood Road enables more walkers than Key. The Key crossing guard enables 62 students to walk, while one at Kirkwood will enable 184 more ASFS students to walk. ASFS’s ½-mile and 1-mile walkability rates are 40 percent and 51 percent respectively, while Key’s are 28 percent and 46 percent. Drawing a reasonable boundary around ASFS yields the greatest reduction in the number of busses and reduces transportation time for many students who have one of the longest bus rides in APS (to Ashlawn Elementary) even though they live within ½-mile of ASFS. During a $43 million APS budget shortfall, this fiscally responsible path forward has no “TBD”-program-move costs and reduces overall transportation costs.
  6. Finally, the memo notes that the current constrained ASFS walk zone is not diverse. But, for diversity purposes, APS should be comparing attendance boundaries not walk zones. The families who live within 1-mile of ASFS are diverse. Moreover, APS overlooks major developments that will provide diversity like the 100 percent committed affordable housing American Legion redevelopment in the same planning unit as ASFS.

Conclusion

Even to the casual observer, the Superintendent’s proposed ASFS-Key building swap exposes a lack of basic long-range planning. For that reason alone, the School Board should cancel the swap and work to regain the public trust.

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