In September, I explained why county government should temporarily defer until the following spring allocating any annual close-out surplus.
Here’s that column’s most up-voted comment (24 up votes):
Spend a $17.8M surplus one year, then raise taxes the next year by $11.1M. I don’t care who you are…this single fact should make smoke spurt out of your ears.
Today, I pose a related question: does County government commit or earmark too much surplus revenue for spending rather than beefing up reserves or offsetting tax or fee increases? (The final 2017 close out report was not available when this column was submitted.)
An October 3 Arlington County Civic Federation report (drafted by former Deputy Arlington County Treasurer John Tuohy) analyzes the County’s FY 2016 General Fund (GF) Fund Balance, an account that receives surplus close-out funds (collected revenues minus budgeted expenditures) at the end of the June 30 fiscal year.
Below, you can see how money in the GF Fund Balance is allocated:
What Portion of the Fund Balance Is Reserves?
Of this $191,243,859 in the GF Fund Balance, the County Board sets aside a “no-touch” operating reserve of $59,885,262 — or about 5.16% of budgeted revenues — for the County AND Arlington Public Schools. Board policy restricts use of these reserves to unforeseen emergencies (e.g., natural disasters, economic emergencies).
There is an additional $5 million self-insurance reserve and a small, separate “economic stabilization” contingency reserve within the GF Fund Balance.
Experts, including bond rating agencies, set 5 percent as the minimum operating reserve, but many recommend reserve levels as high as 10 percent of operating expenses. (Even when the percentage remains constant, the bigger the budget, the more you must set aside for reserves.)
Committed Vs. Assigned
By County Board action or policy, the rest — $131,358,597 — is committed or assigned (earmarked) for spending. Committed funds (approved by Board action) cannot be reallocated without a new Board action. Assigned funds (earmarked by the County Manager based on Board policy) can be reallocated.
Allocating Unallocated Close-Out Funds
During the close-out process, the Manager has historically identified a modest amount of surplus funds that are not yet allocated for spending or reserves:
Using County Board policy guidelines, the County Manager recommends how these unallocated surplus funds could be allocated.
By policy and practice, the County Manager does not recommend allocating a portion of the unallocated close-out surplus to offset increases in taxes or fees for the coming fiscal year. (Each 1-cent increase in the real estate tax rate currently generates roughly $7.4 million in ongoing revenue.)
Should the County Board take a different approach next month? Should the county allocate less for spending and more for reserves or to offset tax/fee increases?
I will discuss these questions further in next week’s column.
The Arlington County Board must act now to enable the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to perform its primary long-term planning role with respect to two large parcels of land on Carlin Springs Road: the Kenmore Middle School site and the Urgent Care site.
JFAC recently has been asked to dedicate some of its attention to helping Arlington Public Schools and the county with a phased facility and site development plan for the Career Center site.
While this is an important short-term assignment, it’s vital that both boards — particularly the County Board — take appropriate actions now to enable JFAC to produce a long-term facilities plan for these two large Carlin Springs parcels.
Long-term planning is vital
The County Board must recognize the need to address more comprehensively the challenges of future growth and development by focusing JFAC’s work primarily on the job of coordinating long-term County and APS facility needs, including APS capacity needs, for the next 15 years.
Unfortunately, over the first nine months of JFAC’s existence, the County and School Boards have kept assigning JFAC a series of short-term facilities planning tasks. The two boards need to cut down on using JFAC for these short-term planning assignments.
The Kenmore and Urgent Care sites are critical
The best currently-available, multi-year APS enrollment projections are in a consultant study prepared last fall. A related joint county-APS study, presented at a joint County Board-School Board meeting this past January, concluded (at p23) that Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030.
The multi-year projections in this joint study correctly led both APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy and the leadership of JFAC to conclude that Arlington will need yet another new high school up and running no later than 2032.
Resolving where that new high school ought to be located cannot be decided without first determining the highest and best uses for the Kenmore and Urgent Care sites.
At 32.5 acres, the Kenmore Middle School site is by far the largest piece of land currently owned by APS that could become the site for a new high school. If a high school were located there, one option could be to move the middle school to the Urgent Care site.
To enable JFAC to evaluate these options, the County Board needs to lead now on a series of issues, especially issues relating to paralyzing traffic problems which inhibit any further identification for uses at either Kenmore or the Urgent Care property.
For example, the County Board needs to engage now with:
- Virginia Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then set aside funding to improve the intersection between Carlin Springs Road and Route 50
- Fairfax County regarding additional egress on Arlington County land onto the Arlington County portion of Manchester Street at Route 50
- APS regarding the creation of a possible new turn lane along Carlin Springs Road to Kenmore
- APS regarding possible additional turn lanes between Campbell Elementary School and the Nature Center entrance to the current VHC Urgent Care site
- APS regarding wider pedestrian walks along Carlin Springs Road
- APS regarding a possible pedestrian overpass on Carlin Springs Road
The County Board needs to take the lead to enable JFAC to do its comprehensive long-term planning job as it relates to both of these large sites on Carlin Springs Road.
Last week, County government added an item to the County Board’s agenda for its October 21 meeting.
This item seeks Board approval of a resolution authorizing:
- an offer to purchase certain properties on Shirlington Road
- the transmittal of an agreement of sale to the owner
- the acquisition of the properties for public purposes and by eminent domain, if purchase negotiations are ineffectual or unsuccessful
A subsequent notice from the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) stated that the Shirlington properties “would be used for public transit facilities and related uses.”
Acquiring the Shirlington properties outright is a much better choice than swapping those properties for a portion of the more valuable land at the “Buck” site on N. Quincy Street.
Abandon Arcland’s land swap proposal
For far too long, the County has been considering a proposal from an entity called Arcland to swap properties Arcland owns on Shirlington Road in exchange for a portion of the Buck property. Arcland wants the right to use a portion of the Buck property to build and operate a private, self-storage facility. My June 1 column sharply criticized this proposal.
It has been apparent for months that adopting Arcland’s proposal would severely restrict the County’s potential uses of the Buck property. It would:
- result in the permanent loss of 38% of the Buck property’s acreage
- limit short and long-term flexibility in County use of the property
- diminish the potential to expand adjacent park space
The Buck property’s central location, size and flexibility are too unique and valuable to be compromised by a swap with Arcland for low-lying land that may contain hazardous waste.
Decide how best to use Shirlington Road properties
Arlington should organize an open, transparent public process to identify the best uses for the Shirlington Road parcels to be acquired.
JFAC has received a briefing (pp. 18-19) regarding storage issues related to ART and APS buses. The briefing specifically cited the Shirlington Road properties. However, JFAC must promptly turn its attention to long-term,
countywide facilities planning. The detailed public review of alternative uses of these Shirlington Road properties ought not to be assigned to JFAC.
I understand that County staff previously presented possible development options for these Shirlington Road parcels at a meeting of the Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) Working Group. Because Arlington has been “temporarily” parking vehicles/buses at Jennie Dean Park, a 4MRV Working Group member suggested using the Shirlington Road land to build a structured parking garage for County vehicles and APS buses. However, staff countered that it would be “too expensive.”
Staff also claimed that there is a federal security prohibition against co-locating buses and certain other uses too close to each other. Staff should be required to document the precise terms of any such prohibition during the public hearing process.
The County Board should declare publicly that it has abandoned the Arcland land swap in favor of acquiring the Shirlington Road properties outright. Hopefully, this acquisition will be the start of a new commitment to close a serious gap in available public land for critical County services.
Any development of the Shirlington properties will be expensive — and the County is already renting space there to park buses. Therefore, the costs vs. benefits of the structured parking garage option should be fully evaluated rather than rejected out of hand.
In an earlier column, I summarized efforts by Arlington’s civic and elected leaders, including Rep. Don Beyer (D-8) and County Board members Katie Cristol, John Vihstadt and Libby Garvey, to identify solutions to address the problem of increasing aircraft noise in Arlington.
Since 2015, the region has had a growing problem with aircraft noise caused in part by changes to the regional airspace enabled by the FAA’s precise NextGen program.
Arlington civic leaders continue to collaborate on this problem. County Board liaisons Vihstadt and Garvey, together with Arlington Civic Association leaders and staff of Representative Beyer, convened at a September 12 meeting chaired by Vihstadt, to discuss these topics:
- Citizen complaints as the FAA continues to route flights directly over Arlington neighborhoods, with no consensus on remedies within the designated regional noise working group. (Past FAA plans for quieter flights over the Potomac River, were rebuffed by Rosslyn interests, among others.)
- Senior Maryland officials’ letter to the FAA complaining about noise over Montgomery County neighborhoods, requesting that pre-NextGen flight paths be restored. The FAA rejected this request, and Gov. Larry Hogan has directed his Attorney General to sue the FAA.
- Phoenix, Ariz. sued the FAA for failing to collaborate with Phoenix before implementing their NextGen flight paths. On August 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. ruled for Phoenix. A concurring judge noted that the FAA should avoid historically-designated neighborhoods and parks in determining flight paths. (Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington is directly under the current flight paths.)
- Georgetown is suing the FAA to push flight paths away from their location, and thus further towards Arlington.
- Continued efforts by Beyer to successfully hold the line on number and length of flights, while seeking results from a 65dB noise study, which would use actual data from FAA monitors at noise levels below those currently allowed at night at DCA.
The group that convened on September 12 recognized the difficulty of seeking changes at Reagan National Airport (DCA) in view of powerful airline interests that would oppose some of the ideas discussed, but nevertheless advocated that some or all the following ideas be pursued:
- Increasing the fines paid by airlines violating the current nighttime noise limits at DCA, and indexing the fines to future inflation. The current maximum $5,000 fine was established more than 30 years ago, and the total fines paid in 2016 were an extremely modest $140,000. Fine revenue could be used to compensate Dulles airport for lowering its relatively high fees on any flights from within the DCA perimeter of allowed flight distances, thus encouraging Dulles use and decreasing DCA use — an existing goal of Virginia.
- Requiring aircraft to fly at higher altitudes on departure and arrival.
- Allocating the slots at DCA first to the quietest aircraft and last to the noisiest, thus encouraging the earlier adoption of quieter Level 5 engine technology.
- Seeking a letter comparable to the Maryland letter from our U.S. Senators and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to complement Rep. Beyer’s efforts. This letter might request that FAA employ more naturally-dispersed flight paths by using precise NextGen navigation.
- Designating DCA as a model airport to validate the most useful noise abatement concepts for potential adoption in other urbanized areas.
The next meeting of the group that met on September 12 is scheduled to occur in mid-November.
At its September 16 meeting, the County Board rejected a staff proposal to light two synthetic turf fields at Williamsburg Middle School.
In rejecting staff’s ill-considered WMS field-lighting proposal, the Board, led by members John Vihstadt and Christian Dorsey, wisely relied on advice the Board received from the Planning Commission, Parks Commission, Williamsburg Fields Site Evaluation Workgroup, Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, and hundreds of citizens from all across Arlington.
County staff’s efforts to install field lights at WMS got off on the wrong foot and stayed there. As the Board acknowledged in 2013, WMS neighborhood residents were “ambushed” by County staff.
Four years of misguided staff efforts reveal deficiencies in civic engagement, policy, and management. These deficiencies (e.g., reliance on a sole-source lighting vendor, mandating lights at every synthetic turf field) are documented in the commission reports.
Future community hopes regarding civic engagement rest on Assistant County Manager Bryna Helfer’s team developing and implementing new approaches to rectify these past staff failures.
Issues relating to policy and management are summarized in the Planning Commission’s letter to the Board. For example, in explaining why she could not vote for lighting the WMS fields now, commissioner Nancy Iacomini noted:
“[T]he County does not have siting principles for lighted fields nor does it have implementation criteria about how the lighting would be achieved. …There is nothing the community can look to for direction on where fields should be lit and how they should be lit.”
Commission chair Erik Gutshall concurred, observing that:
“He cannot find how lighting the fields and the intensity of use into the night will not impact the neighborhood. However, it is irresponsible for the County to not find field space somewhere and the POPS process should outline specific decision criteria for siting and implementation and mitigation for field lighting. He would support lights at this site in the future if a deliberate process determined this is the best site for lights. He believes other options will be found.”
Even commissioner Stephen Hughes — the only one out of 10 Planning Commissioners who voted in favor of lighting now — agreed that “the processes — both the County’s and APS’ — were wrong and broken.”
WMS neighbors are not selfish NIMBY fanatics. They simply chose to live in an area in which it’s currently quiet and dark at night, and in which some of their homes are located less than 100 feet from the WMS fields. Wildlife abound.
As “Green Space Fan” noted in a comment to last week’s ARLnow.com lighting story:
“15-20 times as much playing time can be added by installing safe synthetic turf and less polluting lights at Kenmore, installing synthetic turf on lighted grass fields at TJ, Quincy & Gunston and building a new lighted field at Long Bridge without starting a war between the sports community & folks who live in all parts of the County, including apartments, townhouses & single-family homes.”
As both Gutshall and “Green Space Fan” have suggested, the County now transparently must adopt:
- proper lighting criteria
- with a county-wide focus
- balancing sports use with neighborhood character
That ought to result in lighting some other fields throughout Arlington, but not lighting fields at WMS.
Finally, the County Board must take the lead in enacting reforms to correct the numerous policy and management failures documented in the commission reports.
Last year, responding to years of community pressure, the county government finally adopted a new review process in which the County Manager’s close-out surplus recommendations were first proposed in October, but not voted upon until November.
I strongly recommended last fall that almost all of last year’s $17.8 million close-out surplus be kept in reserve until the FY 2018 budget was approved.
Despite support from Board member John Vihstadt for such a reserve, the Board voted last fall to spend most of the surplus. When it came time to approve the FY 2018 budget this spring, the Board approved a tax rate increase of 1.5 cents, estimated to produce $11.1 million.
Arlington should follow certain principles to guide its decisions in allocating any close-out surplus.
- A fair and reasonable percentage (i.e., a percentage higher than 0 percent) of any close-out surplus always should be allocated to moderate the tax rate and/or reduce bonded indebtedness
Adopting this principle would mean only that a fair and reasonable percentage of any FY 2017 close-out surplus would be earmarked for property tax rate moderation in calendar-year 2018. Adopting this principle would not necessarily mean that the calendar-year 2018 property tax rate would fall, rise or remain the same.
What is “fair and reasonable”? That should depend upon the close-out surplus amount in any given year and careful consideration of public input. But the fair and reasonable percentage should be multiplied against the entire surplus, and set aside for consideration next year before any final decisions are made regarding how to allocate any remaining surplus.
Similarly, we should consider using some percentage of any close-out surplus for early debt retirement when that makes financial sense. Retiring debt early will help free up more bond capacity in addition to reducing interest expense.
- The remainder of any close-out surplus (after setting aside a percentage for tax rate moderation and any debt reduction) should next be considered to address any emergency that requires funding before final adoption of the FY 2019 operating budget
An “emergency” expenditure is one that simply cannot be deferred until the FY 2019 operating budget is approved in April 2018. Reasons for not waiting until April 2018 might include the complete loss of a current vital opportunity or the strong likelihood of sharply escalating costs to meet a core government function.
However, before using surplus close-out funds, the county should first determine whether it already has an appropriate reserve fund set aside which it could tap to cover the emergency.
- All other proposed uses of any close-out surplus automatically should be deferred, and the remaining funds’ allocation should be decided in conjunction with the FY2019 budget process
Close-out surpluses are one-time funds rather than ongoing revenue. They exist solely because the County collected more tax revenue than required to meet its budgeted commitments. Therefore, these funds should be used for nonrecurring expenditures (e.g., replacing a bridge, acquiring land).
In its final FY 2018 budget guidance adopted this spring, the County Board directed the Manager “to provide an option for County Board consideration that would direct all carryover funds to consideration in the FY 2019 budget process, except for what the Manager deems to be emergency or unanticipated needs that, in his best judgment, require immediate allocation or appropriation.”
At a minimum, the Board should adopt that option this fall.
In an article last week, ARLnow.com highlighted comments by the CEO of the Ballston Business Improvement District about the NSF departure. Tina Leone struck a note of reassurance:
Leone said the neighborhood is going to be just fine without a federal tenant [NSF] and its more than 2,000 employees, even though she said it will add about 1 percent to Arlington’s office vacancy rate … Leone said the reason for her optimism lies in the major development projects underway…
Ms. Leone is doing her job to promote Ballston. But from a long-term fiscal perspective, the “major development projects underway” do not justify her optimism.
New Ballston development projects are likely to be a fiscal net negative
As one commenter on last week’s Ballston story aptly summarized:
All of the new buildings in Ballston are residential or educational. The developers of approved (but unbuilt) commercial buildings in Ballston (including one in Liberty Center) are in the process of or have received approval of site plan amendments that permit them to construct residential buildings on their sites.
The long-term fiscal impact of each of these new, large Ballston residential buildings is likely to be a net negative for Arlington’s budget. The total costs of new school seats, parks, and all other public infrastructure required to serve the added residential population in each building are likely to exceed substantially the new tax revenues that each project and its new residents will generate.
Examples of studies elsewhere that document this likely net-negative outcome include:
- Counting the Costs of Growth (Albemarle County/Charlottesville)
- The Fiscal and Economic Impacts of Stafford County’s Proposed 2008 and 2010 Comprehensive Plans
- A Meta-Analysis of Cost of Community Service Studies (“We find clear support for the common perception that residential land uses tend to have ratios greater than one, while commercial/industrial and agricultural/open-space land uses tend to have ratios less than one.”)
Unlike its neighbors, Arlington fails to prepare short-term and long-term fiscal impact analyses of projects like those approved for Ballston
Neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific fiscal impact assessments as part of their review processes. Even though these jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than a special exception/site-plan system, the benefits to policy-makers and the public of having project-specific fiscal impact assessments are common to all of us.
Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years, and has a detailed description of its model.
Caveats: Other jurisdictions’ models often don’t include capital costs or assess environmental impacts or quantify a value for natural space. A new branch of economics — environmental economics — provides new models that help to establish a monetary value for open space and the natural infrastructure.
Arlington should adopt project-specific fiscal impact statements
The Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this Recommendation No. 12:
Add an economic and fiscal impact section to private development (special exception/site plan and Form Based Code) project staff reports to provide information on the costs (e.g. the projected service demands and other costs to the community) and benefits (e.g. the taxes and other economic benefits) likely to be generated by a proposed project.
Why hasn’t Arlington County adopted CFSG Recommendation No. 12?
Both short-term and long-term planning must include a fiscal component.
Arlington should adopt fiscal planning tools like those long-since used by its neighbors.
In an article last week, ARLnow.com chronicled inspection delays plaguing the opening of the new BrickHaus beer garden.
Last week’s article cross-referenced a 2016 ARLnow story detailing complaints by former Virginia Del. Rob Krupicka. He vented about navigating Arlington’s permitting and inspection process to open a donut shop.
This spring, the permitting process for home remodeling was slammed in Arlington Magazine.
I interviewed someone who recently opened a small professional services firm in Arlington.
I called this person’s attention to Krupicka’s experience. Was their own more recent experience similar? Answer: yes.
To recap, this is some of what Krupicka said:
- “Payments have to be made by mail or in person rather than online and for some things you can’t move forward without payment, so that means waiting in line in the planning office for hours.”
- “Planning, Zoning, Health, etc. don’t talk to each other and it appears they don’t understand where each other fits in the process. The process actually seems to assume the small business person will force that communication and coordination. …The big guys just hire lawyers. Small businesses should not have to.”
- “Many permits need to be applied for in person. You can’t just submit them online. … I have spent days waiting in the county offices. I have overheard a lot of very unhappy individuals and business people.”
- “There is an online system for some things, but … it was very cumbersome. I spent hours working with tech support to get it to work.”
Next, I asked my source to summarize their own experience:
- “There are often complaints of conflicting and differing interpretations of code requirements. For one business I know, they installed the door system according to their approved plans. The first inspector told them it wasn’t approvable, and that they had to replace it with an entirely different system. They made the substitution at great expense. The second inspector told them the re-worked door system was not approvable, and he would only accept the door system that matched their approved building permit plan set. The tenant then had to re-construct the door system for the third time.”
- “The inspectors use clip boards and then have to go back to the office and enter the data into a desktop. That doubles the effort that the inspectors have to make for each site. Arlington County needs to update from clipboards to a hand-held data management system.”
- “Technology updating could improve communication with customers/contractors. The data is then instantly reviewable by supervisors and those in other related departments with open permits dependent upon sequential and related inspections.”
Arlington correctly preaches that continually attracting small businesses is vital to our economic future. But, Arlington’s permitting and inspection practices badly undermine its sermons.
Arlington County is still trying to compete using paper in a digital world. Meanwhile, APS is giving iPads to every elementary school student in grades 2-5.
Legendary N.Y. Yankees Manager Casey Stengel proved himself a world-class baseball manager in the 1950’s. In 1962, Casey was hired as the manager to help launch the expansion N.Y. Mets. Expressing his frustration over the Mets’ team performance, Casey famously asked, “can’t anyone here play this game?”
When will someone be held accountable for the long-standing deficiencies in permitting and inspection? Why can’t Arlington County play this game?
You should read the current two-page draft plan outline, and submit comments by September 13 using the comment form.
Just last year, the County Manager created the new Office of Communication and Public Engagement. The office was created in the wake of multiple civic engagement fiascos (e.g. WRAPS process, Fire Station 8, Bluemont Park baseball field). Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead the office.
Over the past four to six months, Bryna and her team have been actively meeting with community leaders to gather insights about how they viewed public engagement, particularly for capital projects. The team has held meetings with government planners, engineers, county leadership and County Board members.
The team believes four key themes emerged:
- Engagement Opportunities
- Communication Practice
- Diversity of Views and Participants
- Lack of Capacity
The resulting draft plan raises many issues, some mentioned, some not.
Strategies for different projects and policies
The County plans to use the development of next year’s Capital Improvement Plan as a pilot to test improved strategies for civic engagement concerning new capital projects. This makes sense. However, there should be other distinct civic engagement models for other types of major county decisions (e.g., significant new policies, major capital maintenance, ranking among priorities based on overall budget constraints) — each with clear explanations for community engagement.
Staff must disclose up front all current assumptions and restrictions for all projects and policies. If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct civic engagement.
Arlington’s civic associations, ranging from the many superbly-managed ones all the way to some non-existent ones, always will display a spectrum of effectiveness because these are volunteer groups. The county government, NOT civic associations, must assume primary responsibility and accountability for civic engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.
The County should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions, civic engagement results (favor, oppose) and FAQs about the projects or policies subject to civic engagement.
Project and policy definitions
If the county only asks, “where shall we put the basketball court?”, and never asks, “do you want a basketball court?”, the county and its citizens are in serious trouble.
Weight of community opinions
The weight to be given community opinions depends on knowledgeable expertise. In siting a new school, a community’s opinion about whether to build “up or out” should be entitled to a lot more deference than whether a foundation can bear the weight load.
Limits of civic engagement
Even the best civic engagement practices cannot prevent fiascos caused by other factors such as:
- wrong policies
- lack of proper staff training
- needs changing
- lack of accountability
If the policy is wrong, change it. If staff lacks training, train them. If needs change, then processes need to be flexible. If staff members are never disciplined, transferred, nor fired for repeated mistakes, civic engagement cannot fix that fundamental management failure.
No outreach, survey, tool, process or plan is perfect. However, because Arlington properly relies so heavily on its numerous and talented citizen volunteers, the County must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive civic engagement.
The May & June 2017 Friends of Aurora Highlands Park Newsletter contains excellent additional civic engagement suggestions.
On July 11, Arlington posted a “Preliminary Draft” of its new Public Spaces Master Plan. This draft reflects considerable thought and effort. I encourage you to provide your comments by the newly-extended August 31 deadline.
The PSMP (p. 2) seeks to provide the foundation for:
a network of publicly- and privately-owned public spaces that connect the County‘s established neighborhoods and growing corridors to natural areas, protect valuable natural resources, provide opportunities for structured and casual recreation, and ensure access to the Potomac River, Four Mile Run, and their tributaries.
Today’s column discusses only a small number of issues raised by this 272-page draft.
I have highlighted previously the urgency of preserving and materially increasing Arlington’s inadequate park and recreation resources to address dramatically increasing demands from the projected county population growth of 63,000 people (29 percent) by 2040.
The PSMP core “Strategic Direction 1 – Public Spaces” seeks to “ensure equitable access to spaces for recreation, play and enjoying nature by adding and improving public spaces.”
These proposed changes can help reach this goal:
The PSMP states (p. 44): “Arlington has over 2000 acres of parkland, both County and non-County owned…” However, without greater clarity as to what is being counted as “parkland” (e.g., possibly all APS facilities and “unusable” portions of the federally-owned GW Parkway are included), this global number appears inflated and misleading.
The relevant issue is the amount of additional parkland needed in Arlington to meet present and future demand. See the “Population-Based Standards” chart (p. 90).
New “Public Space”
Proposed “Action” 1.1 (p. 70) states: “Add at least 30 acres of new public space over the next 10 years.” Inclusion of this land acquisition goal is critical and has widespread community support.
However, “Natural Areas and Wildlife Habitats” ranked as the second highest outdoor need on the statistically valid 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey, and county citizens are consistently calling for more natural green space: “We want natural grass, trees, and a place to relax.”
This goal should be clearly focused on the county acquiring more “green parkland” or it will be “fulfilled” in large part by more hardscape plazas and/or synthetic turf in our urban corridors.
The PSMP should also incorporate the three separate sub-categories of “natural lands”, “unstructured” (or “casual use”) areas, and “structured” areas, i.e. athletic fields and courts I previously recommended. This should also provide explicit prohibitions on any loss of natural lands and “casual use” areas.
New Land Acquisition Policy
While hopefully facilitating parkland acquisition, this policy needs revisions to avoid filtering out critical present and potential “natural lands” and “casual use” areas. Higher points must be awarded to such “natural lands” that don’t have “special features.” Criteria affording points to such “casual use” areas need to be added. Points should also be reallocated from existing plans where parcels may already have been developed to parcels with strong community support identified on an “ad hoc” basis.
The PSMP is a new step forward for Arlington’s park and recreation resources. Although creative mechanisms to acquire more parkland are identified, our critical need for preserving and increasing our parkland — particularly our “green parkland” — can only be met with a strong commitment by the County Board in our budgets and CIPs for the foreseeable future.
Last week, The Washington Post published a story about newly-imposed parking restrictions on a one-block, dead-end street in the Woodmont neighborhood.
After initially receiving a complaint from one street resident, county staff decided that parking on certain narrower portions of the street should be prohibited even for residents, per the article: “Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten said that the county does not seek out violations of its parking or zoning laws but that once a complaint is filed, it is obligated to respond.”
The Post story explained that the county’s decision to ban parking was based on “rules that allow the government to ban parking on streets narrower than 21 feet (24th Street N. is only 15 feet wide in places) and concerns about how fire department vehicles could quickly get in and out.”
Arlington County staff’s solution was worse than the problem
Once county staff received the original complaint, staff were obligated to “respond” by investigating, learning about all relevant facts and circumstances, and respectfully seeking to engage with all street residents (there were only 13 homeowners) regarding possible solutions.
One of those solutions could have been: take no action. The county’s “rules,” as quoted in The Post, are not mandatory. Even if they were, the county could change them. Justifiably, when residents of the block finally found out that “most of their curbside parking was about to disappear…they were outraged.”
Understanding the character of the neighborhood puts their outrage into context:
All of the houses on the block have at least one off-street parking space. Edwards and his wife, Vicki Edwards, 80, who has an artificial knee and artificial hip, share a steep private driveway with Joe Ruth and Sharon Rogers. When it rains or snows, however, both households prefer to park on the street, which gives them easy access to their front doors. “This is definitely limiting our goal of aging in place,” said Rogers, 75, who has helped organize the street’s resistance.
After the original complainant withdrew her complaint, all street residents opposed county staff’s solution.
The squeaky wheel shouldn’t always get the grease
There are too many instances in which County staff receive a complaint or a request from an individual citizen that at first blush suggests taking an action, but after careful investigation and consideration actually deserves a no-action response.
Another example is the Nelly Custis playground request I discussed in a column a few months ago. In the Nelly Custis situation, the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation initially decided to install a 3d playground in a .8-acre park located in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.
That neighborhood already had two playgrounds within a little over one block. DPR made that initial decision at the request of a nearby day-care provider, but without taking into account the objections of many other neighbors who preferred to retain open green space at that location in their small park.
Even the intervention of a sympathetic County Board member, John Vihstadt, didn’t fundamentally alter the outcome in Woodmont: “‘It’s sometimes hard to fight city hall, even from the inside,’ he said.”
We need a new culture at city hall: first, do no harm. Why is the current culture so often oblivious? What happened to common sense?
Ms. Minton told one resident that staff’s solution couldn’t be changed because “this ship has sailed.” This ship should be returned to port.
A close Redskins watcher says Virginia is the most likely site for a new Redskins stadium because team President Bruce Allen has “significant personal ties at the highest levels of the Virginia government,” and the amount of public financing for a new stadium will be the “single most important factor” in site selection.
“We’ve laid everything out and served it up beautifully,” McAuliffe said …. McAuliffe pivoted to the latest method of financing massive NFL projects in which a stadium is part of a vast retail, shopping and hotel complex, by relying on development funds (in addition to considerable tax breaks) to foot the bill….
Football stadiums do not spur significant economic growth
The evidence is overwhelming that subsidizing the construction of a new Redskins 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 far outweigh the benefits
A very extensive study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that a typical stadium costs taxpayers more than four times more than any long-term benefits from jobs and tax revenues:
Proponents of using public funds to finance stadium construction argue that the benefits from increased economic activity and increased tax revenue collection exceed the public outlays. But independent economic studies universally find such benefits to be much smaller than claimed.
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 are tax dollars that could have been spent to:
- fund Virginia’s state share of a new dedicated funding stream for Metro
- 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
- expand Virginia’s Medicaid program
These are only four of hundreds of more deserving needs.
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
All these numbers are likely to be much higher in 2017.
I admire McAuliffe for his tireless work to promote economic development in Virginia. But, Virginia should not offer to give Dan Snyder either “development funds” or “considerable tax breaks.”
Nothing related to the stadium should be subsidized by Virginia taxpayers. Dan Snyder should arrange 100% private financing. Under these conditions, Snyder could build his stadium in Virginia if he could find a welcoming local government.
Seattle Seahawks all-star cornerback Richard Sherman gets it: “I’d stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums…and maybe make the billionaires who actually benefit from the stadiums pay for them.”
In April, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released a report recommending a new 1 percent regional sales tax for Metro as the best way to generate a dedicated source of funding:
A 1 percent sales tax in Metro’s eight city and county jurisdictions would provide the transit system with adequate revenue to cover its most urgent infrastructure and maintenance costs over the next decade, according to a new analysis …
On July 20, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing this COG recommendation: “Supervisors argued the proposed regional sales tax was not fair to a county like Loudoun that will only gain about three miles of track.”
Metro needs dedicated funding
Dedicated funding is money that is not subject to an appropriations process.
Most other metropolitan transit systems in America have a dedicated revenue stream to supplement the contributions of local governments. Our Metro system doesn’t have one:
“Instead, Metro relies on a patchwork of annual subsidies from local governments. In effect, Metro competes yearly against myriad other public spending priorities, its operating budget consistently facing some level of appropriations risk.”
Arlington will pay more for Metro without dedicated funding
Metro will continue to deteriorate without dedicated funding, and will eventually go into a death spiral. Arlington and the entire region which depends on Metro cannot allow that to happen. The longer the region drags its feet, the financial burdens on Arlington to keep Metro afloat will put greater and greater pressure on our local budget — leading inexorably to:
- higher local property tax bills
- crowding out of other critical local budget priorities
- a combination of both of the above
Metro dedicated funding should be conditioned on bipartisan reform
As I have written previously, a dedicated funding source for Metro should be tied to a bipartisan, regional Metro reform plan that will maximize the chances that both the new and the existing funding for Metro will be spent wisely.
Dedicated funding source need not be identical in every jurisdiction
As originally proposed, COG’s 1 percent sales tax envisioned a uniform new tax in every participating jurisdiction. But, that kind of uniformity is not the only possible outcome. It’s on this point that Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey has demonstrated leadership. While Dorsey is Arlington’s representative on the Metro Board of Directors, Arlington’s Metro representative no longer is a voting representative.
When Loudoun’s opposition to the 1 percent sales tax first surfaced, Dorsey took the lead in proposing options, while emphasizing the responsibility of each jurisdiction to participate equitably in a regional solution:
“I’m not an apollite that says we gotta all do the same thing, but don’t use this as an opportunity to shirk your responsibility to participate equitably, and if that means something different out in Loudoun than in Arlington, it wouldn’t be the first time, and that would be OK.”
Dorsey noted that some of his constituents were for a regional sales tax that “wouldn’t disproportionately harm one sector of the taxpaying community,” while others preferred a meals tax that would concentrate on development around the Metro stations.
It’s challenging to find a way to get to yes on a bipartisan regional proposal for dedicated Metro funding. Thanks to Christian Dorsey for his leadership in carefully exploring various alternative ways to get there.
Last Thursday, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled the latest Trumpcare bill. There aren’t enough Republican Senators who support this latest version. McConnell has now scheduled a vote on outright repeal of Obamacare for “early next week.”
Drastic Virginia Medicaid cuts
The most remarkably bad thing about Trumpcare is its persistent focus on drastically cutting Medicaid benefits. The per-capita caps would cost Virginia’s Medicaid program at least $1.4 billion over seven years.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) previously blasted these cuts:
Virginia historically has run one of the leanest Medicaid programs in the country…. But as a result of the steep cuts to Medicaid in Trumpcare, Virginia would be forced to pick up an additional $900 million in costs for Medicaid over the next ten years in order to maintain the same level of care.
Virginia Republican legislative leaders already are on record condemning these cuts: “Proposals to impose per-capita caps on federal Medicaid spending would put Virginia at a severe disadvantage.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) aptly summarized what’s wrong with her Senate leadership’s approach:
We should not be making fundamental changes in a vital safety net program that’s been on the books for 50 years, the Medicaid program, without having a single hearing to evaluate what the consequences are going to be.
Virginia children disproportionately harmed
The proposed Medicaid cuts would particularly harm Virginia’s children:
The bill would have a disproportionate effect on children, who make up about 60 percent of Medicaid enrollment in Virginia. During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, Virginia school districts received $33 million in Medicaid reimbursements.
Virginians with pre-existing conditions lose coverage
The latest Trumpcare bill contains a new provision (the so-called Cruz amendment) that major health insurance companies say is “simply unworkable.” It would deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and de-stabilize insurance marketplaces in Virginia and across the nation:
The protections for preexisting conditions are gone. The GOP vision is of health markets where the very sick can buy unaffordable Obamacare-compliant plans that are, maybe, made affordable by subsidies, but most people are back in an insurance market where past allergies or future pregnancy or a history of knee problems will leave you basically uninsurable.
Republicans and Democrats remain divided over their contrasting degrees of respect for the principle of mutual obligation:
If [Trumpcare] passed, the Republican reform would eventually return the country to a system a lot like the one in place before the A.C.A., when older people, sick people, and the working poor struggled to find coverage–or went without.
Supporters of Trumpcare claim it would enable everyone to have access to affordable healthcare. But, the truth is that only those wealthy enough to pay would have access to meaningful healthcare.
Repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would be even worse. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that repeal would cause the number of uninsured people to rise by 18 million next year and by 32 million by 2026.
Both approaches are bad.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has issued a call for a fresh, bipartisan start for healthcare reform. He’s right.
Responsible Republicans and Democrats now should join together to hold open and thoughtful public hearings to fix those parts of Obamacare that need fixing.
In last week’s column, I noted that Arlington residents are increasingly concerned about the challenges of future growth and development.
I suggested that the Arlington County and School Boards should do some long-term strategic thinking about aspects of our smart growth policies that should be re-examined and new tools that should be considered to address our challenges.
I further recommended that the County Board should propose for community discussion a draft of topics to discuss in a broad-based community process leading to Smart Growth 2.0.
This thoughtful response to my column was provided on social media:
We need a new vision and I think you are really into something important. For those of us that care about the County’s future I wonder if you would consider translating this piece into “layperson’s” terms. You assume a tremendous base of knowledge in the description of the problem and the solution. It will continue to be a small group of people making decisions for a large and diverse group of residents if the process is typical.
We do need a new vision. That new vision should not be decided by a small group of people making decisions for a large and diverse group of residents.
In the spirit of translating last week’s piece into “layperson’s” terms, and at the (very acceptable) risk of offending some of the lawyers and Smart Growth 1.0 theologians in the audience, there are two types of development in Arlington.
By-right development is the kind of development that already has been authorized by the County Board through prior zoning decisions. The way Virginia law works, this is the kind of development that the County Board can’t revoke.
So when you hear somebody calling for a “moratorium on development because we are growing too fast,” forget about a moratorium as applied to by-right development. However, there are many policies that the county legally could undertake that would spur or restrain by-right development.
Discretionary development can only occur if the County Board takes affirmative action to change existing zoning to enable it. Here, the County Board has a lot more power: it can deny a development proposal outright, or it can say: yes, you can–but only if you agree to certain conditions.
Cost of new school seats
Based on the best available projections of school enrollment growth, and the cost of new school seats, Arlington should exercise its power to condition some discretionary development proposals on a developer’s acceptance of certain related conditions. For example:
- a developer seeks to build a large, multi-family rental apartment building containing hundreds of units
- the existing zoning for that site currently does not permit anything like such a project
The county should negotiate more effectively with developers of such discretionary projects to obtain cash or in-kind contributions from those developers to defray the costs to the public of the new school seats, parks, and other public infrastructure required to serve the new residents in such a proposed new building.
Together as a community, we should adopt a new vision of Smart Growth 2.0 that is appropriate for today’s circumstances.