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.com reported again last week, Arlington Public Schools (APS) is pursuing a highly controversial plan to swap the building currently providing the Spanish immersion program at Key Elementary with the building currently providing the science-focused program at Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) Elementary.
According to APS Spokesman Frank Bellavia:
- It remains unclear just how the process of swapping the buildings actually will work
- APS has yet to work up a cost estimate for the process
- Questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019
The School Board must own or disown this proposed swap
The proposed decision to swap these two school buildings was publicized in these comments by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy at an August 28 School Board meeting:
” ‘This decision is a wise decision because we’re a growing school division, we’re adding capacity, and we really have come to this point,’ Murphy told the Board….He added that he doesn’t see any need for the Board to formally sign off on the plan…but the Board will get to help APS decide when the move happens.”
Large segments of the community are, and should be, upset by this casual description of a decision of this magnitude. The community now has witnessed elected School Board members being told by the APS Superintendent that the School Board only will “get to help APS decide when the move happens.”
This shouldn’t work this way.
School Board members themselves were taken aback on August 28:
Board Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out, “That’s going to create problems if and when boundaries are drawn.”
“If the Arlington Science Focus building is smaller and the immersion program is bigger, we’re not going to be able to grow [the] immersion program,” said Vice Chair Tannia Talento.
This is an unacceptable process.
The School Board itself should decide IF the move should happen at all. The School Board’s decision should be based upon transparent long-term strategic planning for all of APS’s programming and facilities’ needs. The School Board owes the community an extensive discussion regarding how all these plans fit together:
- what is APS’s 15-year school facilities plan?
- what is Arlington County’s 15-year county facilities plan?
- what is APS’s 15-year instructional plan?
- where do the programs now offered at Key and ASFS fit into these 15-year plans?
- what other options besides the current proposed building swap were considered?
- why is the proposed building swap the best available option?
The School Board must engage the community on whether this proposed swap makes sense
According to Frank Bellavia, “questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019.”
Yet again APS is proposing to engage the community on the wrong question. The right question is whether the swap makes sense in the first place. Only after that question is posed to, and thoroughly discussed with the community, should the discussion proceed to the mechanics of how any swap should occur.
In one of the most famous scenes in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts, over Alice’s protests, proclaims: “Sentence First, Verdict Afterword.”
With this proposed school swap, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy threatens to displace the Queen of Hearts.
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 Public Schools (APS) is in the early stages of what is currently envisioned as a very small-scale and limited evaluation of its justifiably controversial 1:1 digital device program.
At the same time:
- There is accumulating evidence regarding the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and developmental risks of these devices, particularly in the elementary years
- Superintendent Murphy has announced that APS currently is projecting a $43 million operating deficit in FY 2020.
The latest evidence of the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and childhood developmental risks of these devices is disturbing
The fact that children’s use of digital devices (aka “screen time”) can be harmful isn’t news. We are bombarded almost weekly with mounting evidence that the more time children spend using electronic devices, the greater the risk of physical, psychological and developmental harm.
This evidence may explain why:
- Silicon Valley parents are raising their children tech-free
- China’s Department of Education has begun to regulate the sale and use of digital devices marketed to children for noneducational purposes in an attempt to prevent myopia (nearsightedness)
A 2015 study reviewing school IT programs in over 36 countries worldwide (not in the United States) concluded that less is better when it comes to using technology, both for reading scores and particularly for math scores.
A 2017 study used MRI scanning technology to compare functional brain connectivity patterns when children were using screen-based media versus reading a book. It concluded: “brain connectivity is increased by the time children spend reading and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.”
The combination of the questionable educational effectiveness and the costs of the 1:1 program require a thorough and extensive review
Both Arlington County and APS are currently reviewing their budgets to identify potential cuts that will help plug significant budgetary shortfalls. APS should be completely transparent about the total costs and per-pupil costs associated with these devices, including insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. This information is critical to enable Arlington taxpayers to evaluate costs vs benefits.
The public is entitled to a comprehensive and transparent program review to determine the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of 1:1. This is the only way for the public to make informed choices regarding our priorities regarding expenditures that provide the best return on our investment.
For example, APS should prepare and seek public feedback on the costs and benefits of transitioning to a:
- 2:1 elementary program (at p. 3) and related March 15, 2018 work session video (beginning at 1:11)
- 4:1 elementary program (at p. 2-3)
The currently envisioned APS 1:1 program evaluation should be modified in significant ways to produce a meaningful analysis that can lead to major reforms
It appears that APS has no current plans to seek data or input from parents — and even more to the point, from education and health experts who rely on the most current data and research — to evaluate the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of the 1:1 digital device rollout to children as young as 7-8 years old.
APS needs to conduct and share with parents and the entire Arlington community a thorough, complete and objective evaluation of all the costs as well as the benefits of its current 1:1 program. All options must be on the table.
One of the four bond referenda on the November 6 ballot is the so-called “community infrastructure” bond valued at roughly $37 million.
What’s in this bond?
This bond is a grab bag containing a wide variety of seemingly unrelated projects.
The largest dollar components are:
- $14 million for construction of Fire Station 8,
- $8 million for facilities maintenance capital improvements (including design and construction of roofs, electrical and heating/cooling systems and other facilities infrastructure) in county libraries, community and recreation centers, and other county buildings.
This bond’s proceeds also will fund:
- the Nauck Town Square project,
- assessments, renovations & improvements to other government facilities,
- Neighborhood Conservation projects and other County infrastructure projects. (The Neighborhood Conservation Program provides funding for a variety of neighborhood-identified capital improvement projects including street improvements (sidewalk, curb and gutter, drainage, paving), traffic management and pedestrian enhancements, park improvements, street lighting, recreational facilities, landscaping, and beautification.)
Enhancing the community’s role
I plan to vote for this bond.
But, the next time around, the County needs a new approach that enhances the role of the community in deciding what community infrastructure investments to make.
Community infrastructure investments should be designed to benefit the community. The community, not the County government, should have the greater say in deciding which community infrastructure investments to make. The community should be extensively consulted at every important stage as to what its priorities are for spending our limited tax dollars.
Discussing how much money is available to spend
Community consultation should begin by sharing and discussing with the community important long-term financial planning information that will determine the total dollars available for all kinds of investments including community infrastructure.
The Arlington County government should develop multi-year financial projections for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The results and assumptions should be published and shared with the community.
The community should help to set priorities, including the total amount of money the community would like to spend on community infrastructure.
Capital vs. operating funding
Best municipal financing practices suggest that it is inappropriate to use bond financing to pay for assets with expected useful lives that are significantly shorter than the repayment schedules of the bond proceeds used to purchase those assets. Yet, with respect to a substantial number of the community infrastructure assets that form part of this bond, the assets proposed for purchase have much shorter useful lives than the related bond repayment schedules.
Next time around, we should use operating not capital dollars to pay for assets with these shorter useful lives.
Example of flood mitigation
In several recent columns, I have explained why the county government needs to increase its investments in community infrastructure designed to protect its residents against flood damage.
In Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood, three flood mitigation projects previously included in earlier versions of Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan were dropped from that plan due to lack of funds.
The community should be given an opportunity to weigh in on whether to increase expenditures for flood mitigation and, if necessary, what other community infrastructure projects should be cut to enable such an increase.
The community should have a greater say regarding community infrastructure spending. The community should be provided with more of the information it needs to make informed decisions.
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.
ARLnow reported last Thursday that “South Arlington Water Main Breaks Cut Off Service for Thousands Overnight“:
“The problems started around 7 p.m. yesterday (Wednesday), when the county’s Department of Environmental Services received word of pipe problems near the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Frederick Street… . By 10 p.m., they reported several other water main breaks along the pike … and determined that the S. Park Drive problem was “related” to the previous breaks.”
In a tweet last week, the County’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) attempted to explain by saying:
“Arlington has some 500 miles of mains bringing water to homes, schools and businesses. As in most urban American towns, a lot of those mains have been in the ground and working non-stop since before World War II.“
Arlington needs to replace its World War II water mains faster
It’s not as if the county government hasn’t seen this coming.
In January 2018, ARLnow reported that “County Crews Have Repaired Dozens of Water Main Breaks Since Mid-December.”
At that time, DES pointed the finger at freezing temperatures:
“When ground temperatures drop to the water main depth, the pipe material gets cold, but the water temp drops at a slower rate due to its movement…”
In May 2016, ARLnow reported that DES had boasted it had fixed “217 water main breaks in the past year.”
In January 2014, ARLnow posted another story about water main breaks. That story also highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older,” with the oldest dating to 1927.
A county video accompanying the January 2014 story struck the same ironic tone as last week’s DES tweet. That 2014 video proceeded from the faulty premise that water main breaks are always “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!
Freezing weather did not cause last week’s water main breaks along Columbia Pike.
Arlington County needs a more aggressive program of water main replacement, not the “Que Será, Será” attitude consistently displayed in Arlington County’s 2014 video right on through last week’s DES tweet.
The county government is simply devoting too few of our finite taxpayer dollars to replacing World War II water mains, while devoting too many of those finite dollars to projects like a new $60 million Aquatics Center.
We can and should do better in setting priorities for how our county government spends our tax dollars.
Arlington is facing this situation (at p. 25):
“[W]ater-main failure rates generally increase exponentially over time (Kleiner, 2002). One could envision a rapid increase in break rates in the future… If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number [of] personnel repairing the breaks.”
The county government should prepare and share for discussion with its residents a Life Cycle Replacement Cost analysis of Arlington’s water mains as recommended (at p. 44) by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Center at Virginia Tech:
“[T]o meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required.”
Last week, the Washington Post reported record rainfall statistics for communities all around the DC region:
“It has not been a friendly rain, either. Flash flooding continues to occur somewhere in our area with almost every passing wave.”
Damage from flooding in Arlington has been severe and widespread
Just a few examples illustrate the severity of the flooding Arlington residents have experienced from the unfriendly 2018 rain storms:
- Donaldson Run
In the Donaldson Run area, erosion and significant losses of mature trees due to a county remediation project have led to discussion and controversy among Donaldson Run-area residents and between those residents and county government.
This situation was profiled in a February 2018 story in the Donaldson Run Civic Association newsletter (at p. 5). Two more major flooding washouts occurred in May-June 2018.
The county government’s design of the stream restoration project remains very controversial. The county has not explained publicly how it plans to pay to remediate the effects of the 2018 Donaldson Run washouts nor all the other county-wide flooding incidents.
- Lubber Run
As ARLnow.com reported on August 7:
“A bridge for walkers and cyclists in Lubber Run Park is now closed, at least temporarily. An alert on the county’s website says the bridge, closest to N. George Mason Drive as a trail runs over Lubber Run itself, will be closed “until further notice.'”
According to a county spokesperson, this bridge was closed because a DPR crew “was concerned with the bridge, but they aren’t bridge experts.”
Residents report what appears to be significant erosion damage to various areas of the park near the Lubber Run stream bed. Quite a few mature trees along that stream bed appear to be endangered by excessive soil loss. The foundations of trail segments and existing stream-side borders appear undermined.
The bridge closure alert remains in effect. No plans have been announced publicly to reopen the bridge or to remediate the other apparent storm damage.
- Long Branch Creek
As an apparent result of the recent severe rainstorms, residents of Arlington’s Long Branch Creek neighborhood report recent erosion damage to areas along the Long Branch Creek stream bed between the Long Branch Nature Center and Four Mile Run.
- Waverly Hills
In a June column, I featured two graphic videos that capture the effects of severe flooding occurring in portions of the Waverly Hills neighborhood during a May 2018 storm. Another severe storm in July 2018 caused renewed severe flooding in Waverly Hills.
Three flooding mitigation projects previously were planned for Waverly Hills but were dropped from Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan due to lack of funds.
In my Waverly Hills column, I recommended that Arlington adopt a new plan similar to Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual.
One commenter asked why Arlington’s 2014 Stormwater Master Plan isn’t sufficient?
Answers to that commenter’s question include:
- Severe rainstorms that previously were rare now are much more common
- As Arlington continues to approve more and more development, the percentage of our land area covered by impervious surfaces has climbed to 45%, exacerbating stormwater runoff effects
The 2014 Plan isn’t working.
Arlington needs new approaches to development and stormwater planning that are:
- much more environmentally friendly
- better funded
The “unexpected” is now the new normal.
In my dockless vehicle column last month, I noted that Arlington County Transportation spokesperson Eric Baillet had told ARLnow that “county government plans a [dockless vehicle pilot] framework for County Board review in September.” Board member John Vihstadt stated he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”
I then suggested that Arlington familiarize itself with the details of the dockless vehicle pilot programs already begun or completed in other localities, citing Washington D.C., and Denver as examples.
Although I don’t agree with all its features, the Denver dockless vehicle pilot program has addressed many of the issues that Arlington is likely to face. Arlington should focus particularly on how Denver has handled those issues.
Arlington’s dockless vehicle pilot program should adopt these features
Each dockless vehicle permit holder should be required to:
- provide indemnification, liability, and insurance coverages similar to Denver’s
- provide a unique vehicle identifier on each vehicle
- adopt an equity program, as in Denver, by submitting a plan outlining how its services will be available to those without smart phones
- have each user sign a form providing critical information (e.g., “rules of the road”, including “do’s and don’ts” regarding where and where not to operate the dockless vehicle, and where and where not to leave the dockless vehicle after the user finishes)
Note that the Denver rules of the road prohibit the use of E-scooters in bike lanes. I believe that all dockless vehicles, including E-scooters, should be permitted to use bike lanes.
- share certain categories of data with Arlington
The Denver data-sharing requirements include but are not limited to: utilization rates; total downloads, active users & repeat user information; total trips by day of week, time of day; origin & destination information for all trips; trips per bike by day of week, time of day; average trip distance; incidents of bike theft and vandalism; complaints; accident/crash information.
- pay a dockless vehicle permit fee
The Denver dockless vehicle permit fee schedule seems fair and reasonable:
- Bicycles/E-Bicycles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $20 per vehicle deployed
- E-scooters/Other Approved Dockless Vehicles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $30 per vehicle deployed
In any event, the permit fee schedule that Arlington adopts for its pilot program should represent Arlington County’s best estimate of amounts sufficient fully to recapture all costs which the County might incur to retrieve dockless vehicles left in locations that are prohibited on the form that each user has to sign.
Quite a few of the other pilot programs include regulatory features that I believe Arlington should reject — at least when it comes to choosing the final regulatory framework after the pilot program ends.
For example, for that final regulatory framework, Arlington County staff should not be picking, choosing, or limiting to any arbitrary number:
- how many dockless vehicle permit holders there are
- how many bikes and/or scooters each dockless vehicle permit holder can operate
- how many total bikes and/or scooters all dockless vehicle permit holders can operate
The marketplace should sort that out over time.
Dockless vehicles have great potential, but also pose significant risks. Arlington should adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework) that maximizes the potential and minimizes the risks.
As recently reported in the Washington Post, under a new state law, local school districts in Virginia (including APS) have been granted added flexibility to increase recess time at the elementary level.
Local school boards now may devote up to 15 percent of state-mandated instructional time to recess under a law that took effect July 1.
What the new law provides
The new law allows up to 15 percent of the required 5.5 hours of daily instructional time to be used for recess (roughly 50 minutes). The new law also reduces the minimum instructional hours that must be spent teaching only English, math, science and social studies/history from roughly four hours and eight minutes per day to roughly three hours and 47 minutes per day.
These are newly-authorized changes to state-mandated minimums. But, before these changes can be implemented, each local school district (including APS) must take affirmative steps to incorporate the changes into its own policies. Each local school district (including APS) must decide how much of the newly-authorized time that district wishes to shift to recess.
Benefits of more elementary recess
A large body of educational research has documented the benefits of more recess time. Among the chief benefits are these:
- Brain Development–Physically active children are better at paying attention, have faster cognitive processing, and perform better on standardized tests. Breaks allow children time to encode classroom learning into memory.
- Social & Emotional Skills–The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that children learn negotiation, cooperation, and problem-solving skills at recess.
- Executive Functions–During unstructured playtime at recess, children learn to plan their own activities, switch between tasks, and set their own goals. These skills increase success in school and even in adulthood.
Increases in elementary recess time already approved in other NOVA districts
Other Northern Virginia school districts already have announced plans to take advantage of the new Virginia state law, as the Washington Post reported:
Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties have opted to mandate at least 30 minutes of recess, which the law defines as “unstructured recreational time that is intended to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” In Loudoun, kindergarten students must get at least 40 minutes. In some schools, the increased time will double students’ daily unstructured play.
On August 15, APS sent its first formal communication about the new law to elementary school parents. APS stated:
- Many APS schools already provide at least 30 minutes of recess
- APS policies will be updated to reflect the 30 minute per day recess minimum for elementary students
Our schools are all overcrowded. Almost all elementary schools have lost field space to trailers. APS parents are dealing with this reality.
APS can’t fix the overcrowding or the lack of open space overnight, but APS has appropriately recognized that it should take advantage of the new law now.
Yesterday’s APS announcement is a welcome step. However, as more and more academic pressure has been applied at younger and younger ages, APS should do still more given the critical importance of recess to young children’s development.
APS’ current recess policies (at pp. 5-6) do not contain any minimum daily recess requirement.
APS should revise these policies to mandate a daily minimum of:
- 35 minutes of recess in grades 1-5 at every elementary school
- 45 minutes of recess at every kindergarten
Two stories recently chronicled testimony at the July 14 County Board meeting by representatives from the Arlington Tree Action Group (ATAG). ATAG works to preserve and grow Arlington’s urban forest to keep Arlington green, fulfilling the vision in Arlington County’s Urban Forest Master Plan (2004).
In one story,”Our Man In Arlington” columnist Charlie Clark cast ATAG’s testimony as presenting the Board with “tough choices between the pursuit of green (as in money) and the pursuit of green (as in environmentalism).”
In the other story, Arlington Sun-Gazette reporter and editor Scott McCaffrey noted:
“Arlington County Board members on July 14 took significant flak — yet again — from tree-preservation advocates. And as has been the case in the past, the board’s collective response has been: Don’t blame us; we don’t make the rules.”
Arlington should exercise its existing powers to preserve more mature trees
County Board members are correct that Virginia’s Dillon Rule limits Arlington’s legal powers to preserve trees in some circumstances. However, ATAG and Arlington activists like Suzanne Sundburg also are correct that there are other things that Arlington currently isn’t doing, but that Arlington has the legal power to do, to preserve trees.
Here are just a few of many examples:
- “Build up, under and over rather than out” on public sites to minimize land disturbance, tree loss and the proliferation of hardscape and impervious surfaces, as recommended by the Community Facilities Study Group (at p. 12).
- Strengthen enforcement of existing permitting rules on public as well as private sites. Don’t give APS or County Government a free pass on adhering to permit requirements, as the county did when APS cut down more trees than permitted on the Ashlawn school site, and the County Board simply changed the permit instead of imposing penalties.
- Identify and nominate more “specimen” trees on public land. Out of the 11.6 sq. mi. of public land, there must be more than the current 10 specimen trees worth saving. (On the 14.4 sq. mi. of private land, there currently are 16 specimen trees.)
- Integrate stormwater management/impervious surface reduction principles into lot coverage restrictions, and apply lot coverage restrictions to all housing, not just to single-family properties.
- Adopt a tree preservation ordinance (as Fairfax County already has) based on an existing Virginia Code provision that grants the authority. (This provision relates to conservation of trees during the land-development process in localities belonging to a nonattainment area for air quality standards.)
- Fully fund land acquisition for public natural space. The draft Public Open Spaces Master Plan (POPS) states (at p. 24) that acquiring 204 additional natural acres is needed to serve Arlington’s growing population. But, the Board and manager have delayed funding and acquisition of these lands until 2025 or 2035 (at p. C-7). There is no guarantee that any such parcels will still exist in 2025 or 2035.
The County Board should embrace publicly this comment (by Gavrilo2014) to last week’s Salt Dome column:
“Healthy mature trees should not be destroyed unless there’s absolutely no alternative.”
Arlington County government can make the rules to save mature trees.
Lots more mature trees could be saved if Arlington County only would exercise the powers it already has.
The County Board should instruct the manager to ask this question: have I saved a tree today?
On July 18, the County Board set September public hearings on a “short-term North Arlington salt storage plan” to address a rusting salt storage tank (aka the “Salt Dome”) located at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive.
Having acknowledged their failure to plan for the Salt Dome’s replacement — despite obvious, long-standing rust problems — county staff publicly declared an emergency last month, dumping the problem into the County Board’s lap while pleading for:
- an emergency rezoning of portions of this site from S-3A to P-S;
- construction of a temporary, new storage structure on a different portion of this site.
Not all of N. Arlington’s road salt must be stored at the Salt Dome site, making this emergency rezoning request unnecessary
County Board Chair Katie Cristol stated: “Board members agree that Arlington County must be prepared to efficiently and effectively handle snow and ice to keep our roads and residents safe this winter.”
But there is a cheaper, more efficient solution to achieve the Board’s goal. Staff’s proposed solution seemingly involves taking three weeks to empty the dome and trucking the site’s stored salt up to Baltimore. Instead:
- a portion of existing salt reserves can remain on the Salt Dome site without removing trees and paving over green space to construct a new, temporary structure there;
- the balance of N. Arlington’s salt reserves can be stored temporarily on the Buck site (which is already zoned for this use) or on another N. Arlington site; and
- once the Salt Dome is empty, its demolition and replacement can begin.
As resident Rob MacKichan recounted in his July 17 Board testimony (at 4:18:58), county staff executive George May has confirmed Arlington’s road salt inventory:
– 2,500 tons of salt now inside the Salt Dome;
– 1,500 tons of salt under a tarp next to the Salt Dome;
– 3,500 tons of salt in S. Arlington.
Thus, of the 8,000 tons the Manager’s FY19 budget says we need for the coming winter, the county already has roughly 7,500 tons of salt on hand.
The simplest solution is to transfer the salt now stored in the Salt Dome to an industrially zoned, centrally located, temporary site in N. Arlington. The Buck site is one existing alternative that meets these criteria. As the Manager has indefinitely delayed long-term planning for the Buck site, temporarily storing salt there won’t delay or alter the site’s ultimate redevelopment.
Staff claims that temporarily storing salt (in a canvas teepee) on the Buck site would “break faith with the community.” Unexplained is why a temporary use consistent with current zoning constitutes “breaking faith” with Buck site neighbors, whereas summarily rezoning public parkland and converting it into paved industrial space does not constitute “breaking faith” with Salt Dome neighbors.
County staff must be held accountable
Arlington residents deserve answers to these questions:
- Why didn’t this “conversation” take place last year, as the County Manager acknowledged it should have?
- Which specific steps will the County take to prevent staff from–in County Board member Libby Garvey’s words –“doing this to us or our community again”?
It’s tough to understand why such a disruptive “emergency” solution is required when a simpler, cheaper, more efficient alternative is readily available. Temporarily storing some salt on the Buck site during the new dome’s construction still allows for appropriate long-term planning.
The Master Plan will modernize the plant’s solids treatment capabilities over the next decade. The old system and equipment will be replaced with equipment to perform thermal hydrolysis and anaerobic digestion.
Full implementation of the SMP’s “facility plan” phase will include the production, periodic flaring and storage of methane gas and will increase the plant’s air pollution emissions
On July 17, residents and activists alerted County Board members to serious air pollution risks, particularly for increases in dangerous ozone (O3) levels.
In a joint statement delivered by Paul Guttridge, a civil engineer specializing in wastewater projects, the Aurora Highlands, Long Branch Creek and Arlington Ridge Civic associations asked for a two year delay in the facility plan phase to evaluate risks and consider alternatives.
After explaining the risks of the SMP’s facility plan phase, Guttridge noted:
Even exposure to relatively low levels of O3 endangers public health, which prompted the federal government’s recent reduction in ozone limits to just 70 parts per billion (ppb) over eight hours. The nearby Aurora Hills’ EPA air-quality monitoring station frequently records O3 levels above 70 ppb.
Children and babies are especially at risk and studies indicate that each 20-ppb increase of ozone is associated with a 63-percent increase in the rate of school absence for illness and a 0.5 percent increase in adult mortality…
Arlington activist Suzanne Sundburg also cited extensive data illustrating the increased health and mortality risks of O3 pollution:
[T]he county fails to estimate post-upgrade increases in ozone levels resulting from plant operations even though Arlington already fails to meet the federal 70-ppb limit and receives [an] F grade from the American Lung Association…
Without supporting data, staff characterizes future plant ozone increases as “minor.” But recent research tells us that an increase of just 1 ppb in daily ozone levels over the summer can trigger 250 extra deaths per year nationwide.
Prior to the “facility plan” phase’s implementation, Arlington must fully explore an alternative regional solution
Although the County Board declined the request to delay the SMP framework’s approval, the Board directed the County Manager to:
[P]resent an evaluation of alternatives, including an update on regional options with DC Water, to the Board and civic associations surrounding the pollution control plant before finalizing the facility plan (two to three years from now), and awarding a construction contract.
Guttridge’s statement cogently summarized one alternative regional solution that must be fully explored:
[T]ransport the residual solids to DC Water Blue Plains Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant in southeast DC, where it would be treated in a state-of the art facility that currently has excess capacity. Other regional partners may be available.
Before spending $139 million in the “facility plan” phase of the SMP, Arlington needs to fully weigh all costs, risks and benefits associated with staff’s currently preferred plant upgrades against other options.
For example, DC Water’s nearby Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, located across the Potomac River (on an industrial waterfront site where emissions more readily disperse) has existing excess capacity to process Arlington’s waste. The scale of the Blue Plains plant (10 times the size of Arlington’s plant) makes DC Water’s treatment process a cost-effective alternative worthy of serious consideration.
ARLnow.com reported last week that Arlington County plans a pilot program for dockless vehicles.
Spokesperson Eric Baillet “told ARLnow that officials are planning to unveil a ‘pilot demonstration project’ to test all manner of dockless vehicles this fall.” Baillet believes this will help to “provide structure to the deployment, operation and use of scooters and dockless bikes within the county… and gauge the impacts of these mobility devices.”
Baillet says county government plans to present a framework for County Board review in September.
Board member John Vihstadt is quoted as saying he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”
A pilot program for dockless vehicles
Dockless vehicles present some of the same and some different challenges for municipalities compared to earlier iterations of the mobility sharing economy like Uber and Lyft. (Uber and Lyft now also are in the dockless vehicle business.)
What can Arlington learn from other municipalities?
Pilot programs for dockless vehicles in other municipalities
Other municipalities already have pilot programs. They include:
DC’s pilot program was launched in September 2017 and was recently extended through August 2018, WTOP reports:
Seven private companies are currently operating dockless bike and electric scooters in the District. The bike companies are Jump, Spin, ofo and Mobike. Waybots and Bird operate electric scooters. LimeBike has both scooters and bikes.
Complaints since the pilot program began have been largely about where the bikes and scooters are being left — often in the middle of sidewalks or on private property.
San Francisco (SF) has established a 12-month pilot program under which up to five permits may be granted. For the first six months, a total of 1,250 scooters may be permitted. If the first six months go well, the total may increase to 2,500 in months seven through 12. The increase is tied to how well permitted operators meet the standards set out in their permits.
Under the SF pilot program, per the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:
[SF] is looking to the companies themselves to develop robust user education so that their customers know how to properly ride and park the scooters.
The goals of the just-launched pilot program in Denver are described here.
Virginia state law on dockless vehicles
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington will need to determine the scope of its existing power to adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework).
One relevant existing state law is § 46.2-908.1 of the Virginia Code which enables local governments like Arlington to regulate some aspects of dockless vehicle operations.
Is every desirable aspect of the pilot program (and regulatory framework) Arlington might like to adopt currently authorized under Virginia state law?
A carefully-designed pilot program (and regulatory framework) for dockless vehicles is a good idea.
Dockless vehicles have great potential, but also pose significant risks.
Arlington should adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework) that maximizes the potential and minimizes the risks.
As ARLnow.com reported, the County Board is scheduled to vote on July 14 on changes to a program that provides real estate tax relief to low-income seniors. This RETR program has been in effect since 1991.
According to a county staff report:
The RETR program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners who are age 65 or older, or who are permanently and totally disabled. The current… program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners whose annual household income is at or below $99,472, and whose household assets (excluding the value of their Arlington home) are at or below $340,000… In calendar year 2017, [the county] approved 915 households for RETR, resulting in $4,139,872 in foregone revenue.
$3,744,588 (90 percent) of that $4,139,872 of foregone tax revenue was for exemptions.
The ARLnow.com story explains that the County Board has been asked to make these changes to the program (among others):
- increase the asset limit to $400,000… and allow the County to adjust that amount annually as property values and the area’s median income level changes
- For the very top earners… — households making anywhere from $80,000 to $99,472 per year — restrict them to only applying for a deferral from the taxes, not a full exemption
County Board Chair Katie Cristol is quoted as saying:
“The goal is to tighten it and make it more effective as a program, not lower obstacles for participation. This is not a large-scale policy change.“
The county should convert this program as rapidly as possible into a 100 percent deferral program
It is inequitable and unfair to Arlington taxpayers to provide the heirs of low-income Arlington seniors with the permanent windfall those heirs now are receiving from the exemption component of the current program.
In a convincing recent letter to the Sun-Gazette, Arlington activist Kathryn Scruggs captured some of these inequities:
Many other cities and towns throughout the country offer programs that freeze real-estate taxes for qualifying elder households so that they still pay taxes, but with no annual increase. That way they continue to provide revenue for the jurisdiction… The community is desperate for more schools and will need more teachers, resources and staff. Yet the county government was forced to cut staff positions and programs for [the] upcoming fiscal year because it did not have enough money.
In his most-up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com story, Arlington activist Dave Schutz similarly was spot-on when he stated:
I am absolutely unconvinced that we should be exempting ANYONE from property taxes under this program. Deferral is just fine, and it lets granny stay in her vine covered cottage, that’s an absolutely generous and appropriate thing to do. Then the taxes come [to] the county at the end… But exempting simply bumps up the inheritance for her kids in Chillicothe after she dies — why do we have any interest in doing that?
The exemption component of the current program cannot be justified out of concern for mortgage lenders
An extensive report from an RETR working group noted (Recommendation 6) that some mortgage lenders object to a deferral program, claiming it threatens their creditors’ rights. Arlington taxpayers should not be held hostage to such objections.
Arlington’s RETR program needs a swift, large-scale, prospective policy change: no more exemptions.
In my June 21 column I recommended that the County Board cancel the aquatics center, freeing up capital for other legally permissible uses such as purchasing new park land:
the Manager’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) contains $0 for acquisition of new park land over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period.
Arlington continues to fall behind other jurisdictions and Arlington’s own prior practices in providing access to park land
A comprehensive 2016 report from the Civic Federation Parks and Recreation Committee (“Civ Fed report”) documents how Arlington has continued to fall behind other jurisdictions and Arlington’s own prior practices regarding:
- ratio of park land to population
- dollars devoted to new park land acquisition
The Civ Fed report explains (PDF p.5):
As of 2015, Arlington County had 1,784 acres of park land within its borders. Of those 1,784 acres, 949 acres were owned by Arlington County, 700 acres were owned by the National Park Service (most of which is Arlington Cemetery), and 135 acres were owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
In 1995, Arlington County had 10.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. By 2014 the County’s population had grown by over 43,000 residents, and the park land to population ratio had declined to 7.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
By contrast, Washington, DC, has 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and Fairfax County has 28.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
The Civ Fed report also traces the history of Arlington’s declining investment in acquiring new parkland (PDF p.3):
between 1995 and 2008, funding for park land acquisition per two-year bond cycle was between $4.0 and $8.5 million, with most cycles at $8.5 million. Since then… there has been a decline… Over the six years between 2008 and 2014, land acquisition bond funding totaled only $3.0 million, but [was] supplemented by a total of $5.47 million in pay-as-you go (PAYGO) annual budget allocations. Yet, the total funds of $8.47 million available for land acquisition during the latter six-year period was still far less than the $8.5 million that was typical for each two-year cycle between 1996 and 2004 (an eight-year period).
County government lacks a financing plan to acquire new park land
The Civ Fed report recommended that Arlington adopt a financing plan to acquire three acres of new park land per year for the next 10 years. My fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Eli Tucker, has documented that the cost of land across Arlington averaged $94 per square foot, equal to over $4 million per acre. That means it could cost an average of over $12 million per year fully to implement the Civ Fed report recommendation.
But, the County Manager’s latest proposed CIP contains zero capital dollars for acquiring new park land between 2019-2028. Therefore, our county government must answer these community questions:
- How many acres of new parkland is Arlington planning to acquire over the next 10 years using other kinds of funding?
- What other kinds of funding and how much of it?
Arlington needs a financing plan to acquire new park land. Cancelling the aquatics center is Arlington’s best source of capital funding for this purpose in our tight budget times.
If our county government insists on moving forward with the aquatics center, it needs to engage transparently with our residents regarding its long-term financial plan for new park land acquisition.
Serving the independent audit function, Horton prepares performance audits, and reports directly to the County Board (not the County Manager) with guidance from the Audit Committee. The Audit Committee — comprising two County Board members, the County Manager, the Deptartment of Management and Finance Director plus three citizen-volunteers –oversees Horton’s work.
County Board member John Vihstadt played a leadership role in establishing the County Auditor position. He and Erik Gutshall serve as the current Board liaisons to the Audit Committee.
Off to a strong start
Horton’s latest report analyzes overtime payments at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC). This audit makes important recommendations to improve efficiencies, and underscores the value and usefulness of performance audits.
Differences between the County Auditor and other auditors
The County Manager’s internal auditors look only for technical problems in the County’s financial and control systems:
- Are things being accounted for and entered into financial systems correctly?
- Are internal control systems operating to catch errors and irregularities?
Even the county’s external auditor issues only periodic, boilerplate opinion letters that reinforce the limited scope of its review.
Reporting responsibility outside of the normal management lines of authority provides an important check on our financial systems. See: “How should the audit committee be structured?”
County Auditor needs more resources
Horton’s Work Plan contains a series of hierarchical audit tiers, totaling approximately 18 potential audits. Based upon Horton’s own comments before the Board and logic, Horton, operating alone, probably will be able to prepare and publish only three, comprehensive audit reports between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019.
Thus, it would take Horton — operating alone — about 6 years to complete all 18 of the potential audits. Obviously, there are more than just these 18 audits that could yield significant dollar savings and efficiencies.
Nonpublic information I obtained from an Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) member confirms that an organization similar to Arlington County, with a $1.3 billion annual operating budget, should be devoting more than one, full-time, qualified auditor to the independent audit function.
Auditor/inspector general staffs that report directly to elected officials — if adequately funded — can identify savings that would more than cover their operating costs. Fairfax’s Office of Auditor of the Board has three auditors (including the Auditor of the Board). With three full-time auditors, you can see how much work it is possible to accomplish.
With Horton’s current constraints (e.g., no staff, a very limited budget, etc.), the county is underutilizing this important resource at the very moment it is needed most.
This is a concern. See “Why Government Watchdogs Are Worried”:
ALGA deals with these concerns all the time. When performance auditors rile mayors and department heads with negative audits, retaliation can come in the form of budget cuts, slow action on personnel requests or even suggestions that auditor functions be eliminated. David Jones, Seattle city auditor and chair of ALGA’s advocacy committee, says, “We frequently find that local government auditors are under attack.”
To get the best bang from our finite bucks, Arlington must add at least one (and eventually two) full-time, qualified assistant auditors to support the County Auditor and increase the annual performance audit output.
In presenting his proposed new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the County Board last month, County Manager Mark Schwartz appropriately stressed fiscal prudence and making tough choices among competing priorities.
The Manager also correctly noted the incremental needs in capital spending that have arisen since Arlington’s last CIP was adopted two years ago, including for:
- Other transportation and core community infrastructure
But, as ARLnow.com reported, the Manager tried to defend moving forward with the construction of a $60 million aquatics center at Long Bridge Park. He argued that it would be a “breach of faith” to cancel it. He also claimed:
“If we back out… nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years… We’d probably… be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company]… and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”
The benefits of cancelling the aquatics center substantially outweigh the costs
The Manager’s conclusions about the contracting community and protracted litigation are alarmist. Contractors will continue vigorously bidding against each other for our business. We can reach a fair settlement with the construction company. At a minimum, county government should produce a redacted version of the construction contract so that it can be evaluated by disinterested, independent experts.
As for the “breach of faith,” we must weigh the great disappointment of aquatics center advocates if this project is cancelled against the lasting opportunity costs to the entire Arlington community of proceeding forward.
I share most of the sentiments expressed in the most up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com news story:
“The aquatics center is a boondoggle that should be stopped immediately. Just because it has been worked on for a few months does not mean we should continue to throw good money after bad… Arlington taxpayers will be on the hook for the deficit forever.”
I don’t agree this project is a boondoggle, but I do agree with the rest of this comment.
While school enrollment is growing at the equivalent of one new elementary school per year, and our vital Metro system still needs more funding, we should take pressure off our CIP’s 10 percent debt service limits by cancelling the aquatics center project. The costs to service our bonded indebtedness are already rising too close to those limits.
The Manager estimates net taxpayer support for aquatics center operations at something north of $1.1 million annually. This estimate is highly speculative because County government has never operated such a facility. The actual annual operating deficit could be much higher.
The net savings from cancelling the aquatics center should be re-directed toward other legally permissible uses
The Manager has confirmed that the County Board legally could reprogram the approved bond monies for the aquatics center to other park and recreation priorities. These include:
- land acquisition for new parkland (the Manager’s CIP contains $0 for acquisition of new parkland over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period)
- park infrastructure (including a smaller community pool) at Long Bridge or elsewhere
County government has cancelled the 4thof July celebration at Long Bridge Park due to “budget constraints” while insisting that the aquatics center be built despite budget constraints. Each of those decisions should be reversed.