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by Peter Rousselot — July 30, 2015 at 1:00 pm 630 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Arlington County Board recently voted to hire a new independent auditor. As the lone dissenting voice, Board Vice-Chair Walter Tejada stated:

What’s going on is a creation of a culture of distrust of government by the Republican Party.

Tejada is wrong. There is no Republican vs. Democratic issue here.

Background

The bill to grant Arlington the right to establish an independent auditor was sponsored by Patrick Hope, an Arlington Democrat who is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. It passed that very partisan legislative body by a unanimous vote, followed by another unanimous vote in the equally partisan Virginia State Senate. The bill was signed into law by Virginia Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. Finally, on July 21, Democratic County Board members Fisette, Hynes and Garvey–along with Independent Vihstadt–voted for the new auditor.

More than 50 Democratic elected officials in the state of Virginia now have voted for this proposal, but only one of them voted against it: Walter Tejada. If Tejada couldn’t convince a single other Democratic elected official in Virginia that an independent auditor for Arlington should be rejected, what does that say about the persuasiveness of Tejada’s claims of partisanship?

The Independent Auditor is a non-partisan, good-government initiative

Municipal and state governments throughout the United States–regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans control them–have recognized the value of independent audits. Here’s why:

Financial audits play a vital role in helping to preserve the integrity of public finance and maintain citizens’ confidence in their elected leaders. Audits provide independent assurance that financial information is reliable. Transparency and accountability in government is essential to show that public functions are being carried out efficiently, ethically, and equitably.

Democratic County Board nominee Christian Dorsey has applauded the creation of Arlington’s independent auditor. In 2013, all five Democrats on the Arlington School Board voted to establish an independent auditor reporting to the School Board. Fairfax County has an independent auditor reporting to its overwhelmingly Democratic Board of Supervisors.

Far from being a partisan Republican plot to sow seeds of distrust in government, establishing an independent audit function just makes good common sense.

Are there legitimate questions about the scope and future of Arlington’s new independent auditor? Sure. Here are four of them:

  1. Are the reporting requirements and structure of the office independent enough?
  2. Does the office need more funding?
  3. How quickly will Arlington be able to fill the position?
  4. What initial priorities should the auditor have?

Regardless of the answers, there’s no merit to Tejada’s claim that Arlington’s independent auditor is a partisan Republican tactic.

by Peter Rousselot — July 23, 2015 at 2:00 pm 1,007 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

How significantly will Donald Trump’s candidacy for President affect Virginia politics? The closeness of two recent statewide elections provides clues.

Virginia has moved from reliably red to purple. Combining the closeness of these elections with the profiles of the four candidates involved (compared to Trump’s profile), we can get a sense of the likely impact.

Here are the Virginia statewide results from the two elections:

  • Attorney General 2013
    • Herring (D) 1,103,777
    • Obenshain (R) 1,103,612
  • U.S. Senate 2014
    • Warner (D) 1,073,667
    • Gillespie (R)     1,055,940

Ideology

Democratic and Republican partisans looking at these elections have argued that the opposing party’s candidate was an extremist. We could debate whether such partisan claims are accurate, but I believe a large number of Virginia voters perceived (accurately or not) that all four of these candidates were in the ideological mainstream of their respective parties. That perception was an important factor in the close outcomes.

Personal Qualities

Inclined to support candidates whom they perceive to be in the ideological mainstream, Virginia voters also have a historic tendency–other things being equal–to support candidates whom they perceive as sensible and pragmatic. Candidates who come across as too brash generally have not fared well. I believe large numbers of Virginia voters–rightly or wrongly– found all four of these recent statewide candidates to be sensible and pragmatic.

The Trump Effect

During the Republican Presidential primary process so far, Trump has been polling at or near the top (10 to 15 percent) nationally and in Virginia. In the most recent Post-ABC poll, his national Republican support spiked to 24 percent. Unlike all of the other Republican and Democratic primary candidates, Trump has the personal wealth to finance his campaign using 100 percent of his own money. He also has a personal brand name that is nationally known. These factors make him much more formidable than 2012 Republican Presidential primary candidates like Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain.

While it is highly unlikely that Trump can win the Republican Presidential nomination, it is very possible that he can stay in the Republican race for many months at or near at least the 10 percent Republican popularity level no matter how offensive his views strike the other 90 percent. Moreover, he has refused to rule out the possibility of running as an independent in the general election assuming he loses the Republican nomination.

Conclusion

The longer Trump stays in the race, the longer his views are publicized and associated with the Republican brand, the more damage he will do to Republican prospects–particularly in a purple state like Virginia. Based on recent statewide election results, only a little damage could be enough to sink the Republican Presidential nominee in Virginia in 2016.

by Peter Rousselot — July 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,246 0

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

The latest Arlington County Retail Plan— scheduled for County Board review on July 18— remains far too prescriptive. The plan’s underlying, fundamentally flawed methods dictate overly specific retail outcomes on a block-by-block basis.

To get a flavor of the scope of this government exercise in micromanagement, simply skim the combined total of 113 single-spaced pages in the two key Retail Plan documents posted on Arlington’s website:

Efforts to revise the Retail Plan can be traced back at least to a 2009 Arlington Economic Development Commission (EDC) report (p. 3) recommending greater flexibility. While the current plan claims to have abandoned the “retail everywhere” approach, it still embodies a heavy-handed approach that is fundamentally inconsistent with what the EDC recommended.

A few examples illustrate the plan’s flawed methodology:

Clarendon

Most of Clarendon is locked into the “red” shopping and dining/entertainment category (Retail Plan, PDF p. 39), which is the narrowest and most restrictive of four separate categories. Other retail uses — like gyms or hair salons — are excluded. Government-enforced clustering of too much of the same type of retail in a small geographic area can create an artificial retail “monoculture,” risking a domino-effect collapse if its popularity wanes or businesses begin cannibalizing one another’s customer base.

Ballston

Forcing retail space to be added to the west side of Glebe Road (Retail Plan, PDF p. 43), and then also trying to set rules that push competing retail to be located outside Ballston Common Mall, is self-defeating. It makes little sense to set up a public-private partnership with Forest City and provide taxpayer funds to aid a failing mall, while at the same time undercutting the mall by creating lots of competing space directly across from it.

“A-Townization”

Previously, the plan acknowledged “issues associated with the lively, noisy, energetic and, sometimes, messy environment created by night life uses.” The County’s noise ordinance doesn’t apply to mixed-use, multifamily housing (and is basically unenforceable after 6 pm and on weekends countywide). All four street categories permit “dining” establishments like A-Town to be located in close proximity to people’s homes. Thus, the current plan exacerbates the ongoing and inherent conflict between the operations of A-Town-style businesses and the right of residents to get a decent night’s sleep.

Conclusion

Though this plan now applies only to the major corridors, it will eventually be extended to all site plan development countywide, wherever it occurs. The County Board should:

  • reject the flawed, inflexible, interventionist methods driving this plan, and
  • direct the staff to submit a revised plan reflecting marketplace realities.

by Peter Rousselot — July 9, 2015 at 1:45 pm 1,241 0

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

A recent out-of-court settlement between Virginia and a private-consortium shows that bad things can happen when government fails to understand the risks of public-private partnerships. Under that settlement, Virginia taxpayers will lose over $200 million that the state paid to the private consortium to build a 55-mile highway that was never built.

Virginia’s 1995 public-private transportation law was hailed as a way to enable state and local governments to stretch their tax dollars by entering into partnerships with the private sector to build transportation projects. But, there were significant flaws in the way the 1995 law was designed.  Disastrous results often followed when those flaws were combined with the frequent mismatch between the technical and legal expertise available to the private sector (usually superior) compared to the public sector (usually inferior).

The public-private partnership contract to build U.S. Highway 460 was negotiated under the administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. After Terry McAuliffe became Governor, he asked his top transportation official, Aubrey Layne, to look into this troubled project. Layne described what happened next:

[A]fter he had a chance to get into the nitty-gritty of the contract …, he learned that the risks associated with obtaining a construction permit for the road rested on the state, not the contractor, as he and others on the Commonwealth Transportation Board had been led to believe. That meant, Layne said, that the contract called for [the private partner] to keep getting automatic payments regardless of whether it had the permits to build anything. Moreover…the deal was structured to front-load state payments to the company, with the justification being that doing so would lower borrowing costs and save the commonwealth money. In fact, the arrangement ended up doing the opposite.

Governor McAuliffe has just signed the new public-private partnership transportation law designed to cure the flaws in the old law.

Implications for Arlington

At the end of 2012, with inadequate public notice, Arlington rushed to enact its own local guidelines for public-private transportation partnerships. Those guidelines are now obsolete because they are based on the old law.

Virginia wisely has recognized the many flaws in its old public-private transportation partnership law and procedures. It’s time for Arlington to do the same.

The financial calamity exposed by the U.S. Highway 460 settlement also raises a broader issue. Public-private partnership agreements, whether or not they relate to transportation, often can be complex. Arlington needs to take care that it knows what it’s doing before it signs them. The County Board’s recent directive to the County Manager to explore a public-private partnership to redevelop Ballston Mall challenges the County government to see if it does know what it’s doing.

by Peter Rousselot — July 2, 2015 at 12:15 pm 2,019 0

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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.

What do Mitch McConnell and the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral have in common? They both want to stop the public veneration of Civil War “heroes.”

The Episcopal Dean concluded that two stained glass windows at the Cathedral–depicting the Confederate battle flag, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee–should be removed. The Dean explained:

While the impetus behind the windows’ installation was a good and noble one at the time, the Cathedral has changed, and so has the America it seeks to represent. There is no place for the Confederate battle flag in the iconography of the nation’s most visible faith community. We cannot in good conscience justify the presence of the Confederate flag in this house of prayer for all people, nor can we honor the systematic oppression of African-Americans for which these two men fought.

The Republican Senate leader concluded that a statue of Jefferson Davis, a native Kentuckian, should be removed from the state capitol in Kentucky.

What lessons should Virginia and Arlington draw from McConnell and the Dean?

Let’s stop treating Confederate leaders as revered heroes. Let’s remove their names from the commons by rebranding streets and schools. As long as we have to subliminally pay our dues to General Lee every time we go to work or go shopping, we will fail to understand slavery for the prolonged act of violence that it was. As for schools, what is the bigger lesson imparted to a child who attends schools that celebrate Confederate “heritage” with these names?

The right thing to do is for the appropriate Virginia authorities to rename Jefferson Davis and Lee Highways, and for the appropriate Arlington authorities (the School Board) to remove General Lee’s name from Washington-Lee HS.

But, every aspect of the American Civil war should remain wide open for discussion and debate in our:

  • educational institutions,
  • museums,
  • history books, and
  • civic life.

Moreover, let’s not let the politicians off the hook. Taking an image of a Confederate flag off a license plate or removing the name of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis from a major highway won’t suffice.

After the Charleston massacre and the high-profile wave of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police officers across the country, there is no denying the persistence of institutional racism.

Our state lawmakers need to do their part by doing such things as reforming overly-restrictive voter ID laws. As they create new seats for students, our county leaders must close achievement gaps and re-balance school districts so that none of our schools remain intensely segregated.

CONCLUSION:

Let’s eliminate both the major symbols of racism and the lingering effects of racism.

by Peter Rousselot — June 25, 2015 at 12:15 pm 895 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Arlington County Board designed a fundamentally flawed process in its Western Rosslyn Area Planning Study (WRAPS) charge. The principal flaw was to require the WRAPS group to proceed without first disclosing a Letter of Intent between the County and a private developer (Penzance) that was a precondition for the site’s redevelopment.

By later issuing the more holistic (and County-wide) Community Facilities Study group charge, the County Board implicitly acknowledged imposing unreasonable constraints on the WRAPS process by trying to accomplish too many objectives on this one small site.

The Board set July public hearings to review the County’s proposed plan for this portion of Rosslyn. Seeking to defend that plan, Board Chair Mary Hynes argued:

The proposed plan seeks to balance the need for open space in Western Rosslyn with the need for a new school with associated gym and playing field accessible to residents, a new fire station and more affordable housing in collaboration with commercial redevelopment.

Measured by this standard, the proposed plan fails miserably.

The plan makes a small park much smaller and disproportionately favors commercial redevelopment over scarce green space in a rapidly urbanizing area. It also conflicts with several existing plans–The Rosslyn to Courthouse Urban Design Study (2003), the Natural Resources Management Plan (2010), and the Draft Rosslyn Sector Plan (2015) –all calling for increased open space and/or no loss of open space.

The Board’s final, approved plan for this site must assure that the entire current, contiguous acreage of Rosslyn Highlands Park remains dedicated to park use in perpetuity.

To that end, the final site plan should adhere to these principles:

  • Each current land owner should retain ownership of its land;
  • Rosslyn Highlands Park should be preserved in its entirety as public parkland;
    APS should proceed with building a new structure to house the HB Woodlawn program on the land it currently owns;
  • Penzance may develop the land it currently owns and should be relieved of any obligation to pay for a new fire station on the site;
  • The County should follow existing procedures by conditioning the award of any bonus density on contributions to affordable housing and other community benefits, if Penzance seeks bonus density on this site, and
  • If the County determines that the current site of Fire Station #10 is the only appropriate County site for a new fire station serving Rosslyn, then it should finance that new fire station’s construction with general obligation bonds.

CONCLUSION:

Preserving existing parkland is more important than giving one of Rosslyn’s largest private developers a new development opportunity that current market conditions would not otherwise support.

by Peter Rousselot — June 18, 2015 at 1:00 pm 822 0

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

In an April column, I outlined these lessons learned from Arlington’s Artisphere fiasco:

  • Arlington needs a new arts policy,
  • The new policy must reflect current fiscal realities,
  • Current fiscal realities require that core services should receive priority funding,
  • Taxpayer support for the arts should be based upon artistic merit (as determined by a qualified citizens advisory group), not based upon hard-to-quantify “economic development” potential.

On June 11, ARLnow.com published a revealing new story on the Artisphere based upon documents provided to ARLnow pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Arlington County government.

That story and the documents provide additional lessons about arts funding, Arlington County’s mismanagement, and what we should do moving forward.

The Artisphere’s Mission Was Muddled

This comment to the latest ARLnow story best captures the Artisphere’s muddled mission:

Artisphere never figured out if it wanted to be a mini-Kennedy Center or a mini-Torpedo Factory. Local artists and artisans were promised a gallery/shop where they could sell what they created. As the article pointed out, a popular local theater company was kicked out. If Artisphere had wanted more local attendance, it should have brought in more of the local arts community. Instead, it turned its back on us, trying to be something it never stood a chance of being.

We could argue endlessly whether the Artisphere should have focused on being a mini-Kennedy Center or a mini-Torpedo factory or something else. If public taxpayer dollars were not involved, this would be a decision strictly up to the private sector. If such a private-sector venture failed, then the private backers would suffer the financial loss. But if our tax dollars are involved, we should insist on a clear mission.

Arlington County Mismanaged The Artisphere

The Arlington County government compounded the risk posed by the Artisphere’s muddled mission by:

  • agreeing to an open-ended taxpayer subsidy arrangement supporting this costly facility,
  • prematurely launching the Artisphere before key hires (e.g., executive director, marketing director) were in place,
  • trying to rationalize the mounting red ink by seizing upon the Artisphere’s alleged economic development potential to boost Rosslyn.

The Way Forward

From the ashes of the Artisphere fiasco, we can move forward to an exciting and fiscally-sustainable future for the arts in Arlington. I disagree with those who say Arlington should stop all support for arts funding.

Arlington’s continued strong commitment of our tax dollars to support the arts should:

  • avoid future arrangements in which Arlington assumes fiscal responsibility to fund any and all losses of a facility housing artistic ventures,
  • emphasize targeted direct grants from Arlington to artists and arts groups,
  • recognize that funding for core services (e.g., schools, parks, roads) requires priority.

by Peter Rousselot — June 11, 2015 at 11:45 am 1,191 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The County Board might adopt in July a new “Affordable Housing Master Plan.” There is justified concern in the County about “affordability.” But, rising property taxes also adversely affect affordability.

I support an appropriate level of taxpayer subsidies for affordable housing. However, it is poor public policy to commit the County to specific numerical affordable housing goals and other controversial policy changes without a thorough community conversation about:

  • direct costs to taxpayers of these subsidies,
  • opportunity costs (i.e., what tax dollars cannot be spent on core services (e.g., schools, parks, roads) in order to fund these subsidies), and
  • other neighborhood impacts (i.e., increased density).

The County has neither requested from its staff nor provided the community with these dollar costs and impacts. Therefore, final Board action on the plan should be deferred.

Based on a report prepared for the Arlington Civic Federation:

  • The plan would commit Arlington to adding up to 15,800 subsidized housing units over the next 25 years to meet a goal that 17.7% of Arlington’s housing should be affordable to low-income families.  There is no analysis of how to pay for this, or of the impact the additional population would have on:
    • Arlington’s already overburdened schools,
    • neighborhood density, and
    • other public services.
  • The plan would consider changing zoning to enable duplexes, triplexes and other multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods contrary to the County’s long-standing “Smart Growth” promise to preserve Arlington’s single-family neighborhoods.
  • The plan eliminates the county’s long-standing specific goals for County-wide geographic distribution of affordable housing. This unduly would concentrate new affordable housing in Arlington’s poorest neighborhoods, adding to the burden on those Arlington schools whose students are most challenged.
  • The plan contemplates building housing on parks, if co-located with another facility such as a recreation center. This puts even greater pressure on our already inadequate amount of parkland.

The County needs to:

  • Provide a detailed analysis of the impact of this plan on other County services, our neighborhoods and our taxes.  The analysis must include estimates of the impact on our already overcrowded schools.  Up to 15,800 new housing units means a lot of new families and new students.  Where will we put the schools?  How will we pay for them?
  • Then facilitate a balanced community conversation about all of the plan’s potential impacts.

It will take time to perform and communicate the detailed analysis required. The community then needs an adequate amount of time to review the analysis and offer its views. For these reasons, final adoption of the plan should be postponed until after the November 2015 election.

The County Board that will implement the final plan should be the Board that debates and adopts that plan.

by Peter Rousselot — May 28, 2015 at 12:45 pm 1,490 0

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.

Peter Rousselotnew report by the Schools Committee of the Arlington Civic Federation challenges APS’ enrollment growth plans. The report demonstrates that APS has failed to take into account adequately the possibility that current enrollment forecasts are significantly understated.

Our capital improvement program (CIP) must do a much better job taking into account the possibility that enrollment, and therefore the cost of additional seats, will be significantly higher than now estimated.

Hundreds of millions of our tax dollars are involved.

Enrollment Forecast Issues

The vast preponderance of data points to significantly higher enrollment growth than now forecast by APS:

  • APS enrollment grew 5.2% from 2013 to 2014,
  • From 2015 through 2021, APS forecasts no increase in kindergarten enrollment, despite a 4.5% compound annual growth rate over the past 7 years. The last 6 kindergarten classes have been at least 25% larger than the classes over the prior six years,
  • The APS forecast removes up to 11.1% of students in its forecast between 5th and 6th grade when the recent average loss is only 1.3%, and other factors may understate middle school projections by as many as 700 students in 2024,
  • Sudden changes in medium term projections of cohort progressions are not justified. This disappearance of rising 5th graders masks the need for far more high school capacity to be completed by 2024,
  • APS grew 5.2% last year and averaged 3.7% growth for 4 years, but overall growth rates in the current forecast drop significantly year over year, creating future risk.

Major Implications

Among the major implications of significantly underestimating enrollment growth are these:

  • Building too small, too late is the most costly and disruptive way to expand,
  • We must lower the cost per seat,
  • The CIP must plan much better for higher enrollment growth and attendant costs within financial and space constraints:
    • We need designs that can expand or scale back cost effectively with shorter or longer wings, fewer or additional floors, and gyms and cafeterias on outside walls that can be expanded,
    • We must do the basic math regarding on how many sites APS can build, and the maximum size of cost-effective school additions, before sizing schools and then realizing we need to add 10-20% to the capacity of every school because there is no place left for new schools.

CONCLUSION

The vast majority of enrollment drivers point towards significantly higher enrollment growth and related capital expenditures than currently forecast. APS must make revisions now to take this into account. The County Board must begin now seriously to discuss options such as:

  • developer contributions (proffers),
  • deferral of County capital projects, and/or
  • providing APS with a higher share of overall debt service limits.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — May 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm 1,253 0

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.

Peter RousselotWill some Arlington students get their entire Arlington Public Schools education in trailer-based classrooms?

It’s a startling prospect for our “world class” community. But, that possibility became clearer in the latest plan proposed by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy:

Murphy’s plan… calls for 27 new relocatables for elementary schools in South Arlington by fall 2020. By fall 2019, Murphy plans for middle schools around the county to add 44 new trailers. In five years, that would bring the total number of trailers for middle schools and South Arlington elementary schools to 120.

It’s been evident for some time that without financially feasible new plans to build new school facilities on specific sites, APS will ramp up its reliance on “relocatable classrooms” (aka trailers) in perpetuity. The numerous students for whom there are no classrooms already occupy 124 trailers.

It’s highly unlikely that the completion of the Community Facilities Study magically will eliminate the need for many dozens of trailers. Arlington probably won’t be able to retain its AAA/AAA bond rating over the next 10 years if it tries to finance the construction of all the new school facilities needed to provide enough seats — and ditch the trailers.

That still will be true even if APS does the right thing by substantially revising its Architectural Digest philosophy of new school design and construction. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if repurposing county-owned properties for schools will relieve enough congestion at an affordable price.

The County Board stubbornly has refused to take the steps needed to require developers like Vornado to pay their fair share of the cost of the new school facilities needed because of new development. And our highly educated community is unlikely to put up with a massive increase in class size as a means of trailer elimination.

Stop pretending trailers are temporary

APS needs to stop pretending that these “learning cottages” are temporary. Instead, APS must candidly admit that trailers are permanent.

Studies have shown that trailers can raise serious environmental and health concerns. These concerns are serious enough when trailers are temporary, but are greater when they are permanent. Health and environmental risks are magnified when trailers are used on the same site at which new school facilities or renovations are being constructed.

Launch a search for new models

APS should switch to new, more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient trailers. One possible model is the one used by the Waldorf School in Charlottesville. Many other examples are available here.

CONCLUSION

APS should:

  • admit that its relocatable classrooms are a permanent feature, and
  • appoint a joint citizen-APS task force to identify new models to fill APS’ growing capacity gaps.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — May 7, 2015 at 1:45 pm 715 0

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.

Peter RousselotHow can Arlington improve its business environment?

In a recent column, I highlighted steps the Arlington County government should take to encourage a civic minded business community. That column explained why Arlington needs to improve its business environment in order to meet its public facilities challenges.

This column continues that discussion. It is based on input from a business owner who moved a business from Arlington to Fairfax. Among this owner’s key observations are these:

  • How does a business benefit from locating in Arlington, or remaining in Arlington? My checks were quickly cashed, but I never received a message of appreciation for remaining in Arlington nor congratulations for growing a business year-after-year. What can the County offer businesses? Perhaps appreciation is the most affordable thing. How about a pleasant phone call from time to time, an email that connects them with a county business liaison if they have questions, an offer to discuss business futures with them, or inviting them to seminars and gatherings?  It’s a conversation worth having.
  • The County knows how much in gross receipts taxes and BPOL taxes every firm pays. They can easily tell which ones are increasingly paying more in taxes. They could then connect and engage. Applications for occupancy permits for new office space could provide yet another opportunity to make meaningful contact with businesses that are growing and staying in the County.
  • When I called the Arlington Economic Development office to ask for help finding new office space for my growing company, I was told to contact a local commercial real estate agent. When I left a year later, no one ever called me about the motivations for my decision. So market retention is at least equally important to economic development because you don’t have to fill empty office space if the business stays in Arlington. The County needs to implement changes based on what they’ve learned from exit surveys — if they actually do them systematically (or even retroactively).
  • If more than 50 percent of all new businesses in Virginia are woman-owned, perhaps understanding the psychology of women business owners would make a difference in how the county does business with them. This is an opportunity for the county to offer customized help to small, woman and minority owned businesses.
  • It’s widely acknowledged that small businesses are the backbone of the economy, and yet in Arlington it seems that only large businesses and federal leases get the attention.  While we’ve listened to the sad story and witnessed the very real impacts of BRAC relocations, small businesses are being ignored.  Small businesses pay their share of taxes, too.  Why don’t they get meaningful attention or assistance?

Arlington: are you listening?

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 30, 2015 at 1:00 pm 961 0

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.

Peter RousselotRegrettably, Virginia has earned the title of the “East Coast capital of predatory lending.” Fortunately, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is working to fix that.

What’s the problem?

According to Virginia’s State Corporation Commission:

[I]n recent years, Virginia-based payday lenders have annually made more than 440,000 loans totaling more than $170 million to more than 137,000 borrowers. The borrowers take out an average of more than three loans a year to stay afloat at an average annual interest rate of 289 percent. Virginia-based car title lenders also issued more than $206 million in loans in 2013, up from $180 million in 2012, to more than 150,000 borrowers, with an average APR of 216 percent. More than 17,000 borrowers had their car repossessed and more than 13,000 had their car sold.

Predatory lenders have flocked to Virginia because surrounding jurisdictions, such as Maryland and DC, have enacted stricter laws, including laws that cap interest rates. Virginia has 20 licensed payday lending companies and 28 licensed motor vehicle title lending companies. Virginia also has open-end lenders that are effectively unregulated.

Right here in Arlington there are branches of the car title lender Title Max at 5265 Lee Highway and 3045 Columbia Pike (“If you are in need of some fast cash”). For pay day loans, you can choose from several Arlington options, including ACE Cash Express at 311 N. Glebe Road or Advance America at 2514 Columbia Pike (“It Only Takes 10 minutes. Apply Now”).

What’s the solution?

Attorney General Herring has committed to focus on a wide range of strategies, including:

  • Enforcement Actions, using his office to crack down on lenders violating existing laws.
  • Consumer Education, providing assistance to create financial literacy courses and credit mentoring guidelines to community organizations.
  • Partnerships with the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), other states, advocacy groups like ProgressVA, and other stakeholders to take action against lenders operating across state lines.
  • New Virginia Legislation, based on what’s working in other states, what new enforcement authority is needed by the Virginia Attorney General’s office, and what loopholes lenders have found in current Virginia law.
  • Alternative Lending Solutions, exploring ways to help consumers gain access to affordable, non-predatory low-dollar loans, and reducing the number of individuals and households that cannot borrow or cannot borrow enough through traditional banks.

Attorney General Herring’s partnership with the CFPB is particularly promising. The CFPB is the federal agency whose creation was championed by now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren after the 2008 financial collapse. The CFPB is considering new federal rules to curb predatory lending.

CONCLUSION

Congratulations to Attorney General Mark Herring for his progressive leadership in targeting predatory lending in Virginia.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 23, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,318 0

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.

Peter RousselotThe School Board recently voted 3 to 2 to push forward with its controversial 1:1 initiative — the plan to give every student their own laptop or tablet for educational purposes.

What should the Board do now to address the many justified criticisms leveled at its 1:1 initiative?

DISCUSSION

The School Board should direct Superintendent Patrick Murphy to hold a series of public meetings, beginning in mid-May, among concerned parents, teachers, APS administrators, and the general public, to discuss collaboratively the most critical issues that have been raised.

APS needs uniform developmentally appropriate guidelines in areas such as:

Teacher training/professional development

One of the most serious criticisms of the 1:1 initiative is its complete lack of vision or goals to train teachers on how best to integrate the devices into curricular offerings. To address this deficiency, the public meetings should discuss in detail APS’ plans to:

  • set clear and measurable goals;
  • give devices to schools in the summer, not in the fall;
  • have quality apps that are equitably available on devices at all schools and aligned with curricular goals;
  • use a curriculum that contains expectations for the devices to be used to attain a goal, with assessments that follow this pattern: using the iPad/Macbook and “X” software, students will …;
  • require professional development that would help teachers use “X” software to achieve that desired outcome;
  • sustain professional development so that teachers could go back to review and re-learn (could be online);
  • evaluate appropriately teacher and student usage.

Individual total daily screen time on all devices/safety

Particularly at the elementary level, parents are very concerned about the total number of hours per day (at school, at home and on transportation) that their children will be in front of a screen. This issue needs a collaborative solution. System-wide rules are needed for something as simple as “don’t use the camera to harass or embarrass your fellow students.” Filters should be placed on iPads to block inappropriate content.

Transparency in budgeting

Teachers are NOT issued MacBook Airs or iPads. This seriously interferes with their ability to develop detailed, evidence based curricular plans, but there is no provision in the APS budget to provide these devices to teachers. Nor is there any meaningful, long-term annualized budget estimate of total hardware and software costs. Accurate total costs are essential to enable the community to weigh the costs of the 1:1 initiative against the benefits.

CONCLUSION

APS badly flunked the transparency test in the roll-out of this initiative. Technology and devices are critical. APS must prepare our children to use them. But, the current 1:1 initiative isn’t the only way.

APS should candidly acknowledge that this initiative has flunked and needs to be re-booted.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 16, 2015 at 2:30 pm 945 0

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.

Peter Rousselot

What are the major lessons we should take away from:

Arlington County needs a new arts policy

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted on December 8, 1990.  In a column I wrote two years ago about Signature’s $250,000 first bailout, I called on Arlington to update its arts policy. Last December, at the time of Signature’s $5 million second bailout, the Manager promised that Arlington would update its arts policy. It hasn’t happened. Why must we lurch from bailout crisis to bailout crisis without a new policy?

The new arts policy should reflect current fiscal realities

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted a quarter century ago. It may have served us well for a long time. Parts of the policy may be just as valid today as when those parts were adopted. But, it is now long past time for a new policy because Arlington is facing new issues such as the capacity crisis in our public schools.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor continued public support for the arts with our tax dollars. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, roads, sewers, and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services like those, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the “wish lists” for schools, roads, sewers, and public safety than the share the Board funds for the arts.

Funding the arts based upon “economic development” should be reconsidered

It’s a very slippery slope to justify the costs of funding an arts project based on the project’s alleged contribution to economic development. The county has entered into some of its most ill-advised deals, like those with the Artisphere and Signature, by trying to justify those deals as important to the economic development of Rosslyn and Shirlington, respectively.

It would be better and more forthright to provide public taxpayer funding based strictly on artistic merit, relying on the recommendations of a qualified citizens’ advisory group. Even when artistic merit is the sole criterion, Arlington should only enter into agreements that cap Arlington’s financial exposure.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am 565 0

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.

Peter RousselotIn a recent Progressive Voice column, the author observed:

“If we want to move forward with new school construction, family-friendly parks, a properly staffed police department, and a safety net for those less fortunate, we must continue to encourage the presence of a strong and civic-minded business community.”

I agree. Recognizing the substantial regional economic headwinds that are beyond the control of county government, there are some concrete steps that our government can take to encourage the presence of a strong and civic-minded business community.

Arlington Economic Development

This past December, the county hired Victor Hoskins as the new Director of Arlington Economic Development (AED). He has an impressive résumé. He could bring a much-needed fresh perspective to enable Arlington to attract and retain businesses.

However, Mr. Hoskins has joined a county staff whose past practices and budget priorities raise a whole host of questions, including:

  • Does Arlington do any sort of exit interviews when it learns of businesses leaving Arlington? If so, what are the most common comments and lessons learned?
  • Starbucks is planning to open soon on Columbia Pike at Penrose Square. Chipotle also is close to signing a lease for a Pike location. What is AED planning to do to capitalize on these developments? What specific Columbia Pike business development initiatives does AED plan in FY 2016?
  • A recent Washington Post story highlighted Monday Properties’ empty Rosslyn office building at 1812 N. Moore Street. The story quoted a company spokesman as saying “he has not considered lowering the rents he’s asking.”  “Pricing has not been an issue,” he claimed. Say what? How can we ask county taxpayers to contribute millions more in public funding for AED’s economic development efforts when private developers are unwilling to respond to market forces by reducing their rents?

County Staff’s Business Unfriendly Retail Plan

Earlier this year, only the vigilance of a small number of citizen activists, combined with the strong opposition of the Arlington Civic Federation, prevented the adoption of a County-staff-proposed “Arlington County Retail Plan.”

The staff plan contained overly-prescriptive, business unfriendly provisions, including:

  • Allowing only a limited number of options for street-level retail (such as preferring restaurants while banning personal services) from prime locations;
  • Using detailed maps specifying a small set of retail uses supposedly appropriate for each indicated spot on the map, while offering no discernable demographic or economic analysis to support the designations.

Conclusion

The County Board must help AED director Hoskins by adopting new policies that

  • root out existing County staff practices and procedures that discourage business, and
  • encourage private developers and other businesses to participate fairly in addressing the challenges facing Arlington

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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