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by Peter Rousselot February 22, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

Virginia Medicaid expansion is the top 2018 legislative priority for Virginia Democrats. Since Democrats lack a majority in both legislative branches, they must make a deal with Virginia Republicans to expand Medicaid.

Discussion

Prospects for such a deal have improved significantly in the House of Delegates (HOD). But, the Senate budget bill is disappointing.

Last Thursday, Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the HOD Commerce and Labor Committee:

“said his struggling coal-country district would get the ‘hand up’ it desperately needs if more uninsured Virginians were made eligible for the federal-state health-care program.”

Kilgore also suggested other HOD Republicans are ready to join him:

“‘I’m not that far out on a limb. We have to step up, we can’t be the party of ‘no,”said Kilgore. He said at least 15 Republican House delegates will likely vote with him on the issue.”

Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam welcomed Kilgore’s announcement:

Governor Northam thanks Delegate Kilgore for sharing his ideas about how to expand health coverage for Virginians who need it… He is encouraged by discussions with members of both parties on this important issue and believes we can reach an agreement that works for everyone.”

This past Sunday, the firewall against Medicaid expansion fell further in the HOD under a budget plan

“that would accept $3.2 billion in federal money to pay for 90 percent of the cost of expanding the program on Jan. 1, 2019 [to 300,000 Virginians], while relying on a new ‘provider assessment’ on hospital revenues to cover the state’s share of the cost of health coverage for currently uninsured Virginians whose care is uncompensated.”

It’s useful to review the conditions and limitations which some HOD Republicans now are advancing as the price of their support for Medicaid expansion:

“Kilgore said work requirements like those the Trump administration has allowed Kentucky to impose, coupled with a mandate that recipients contribute a ‘small co-pay,’ would make for ‘a conservative approach’ to expansion.”

Would most Democrats prefer no work requirements–even for “able-bodied adults”? Absolutely. But, if Democrats rigidly insist on what I agree is a much more humane approach, the most likely outcome is no Medicaid expansion at all.

Democrats will have to choose between an unattainable (in this legislature, this year) ideal, or a significant increase in the numbers of low income Virginians who get health insurance. We should put people’s needs first.

The HOD budget proposal on Medicaid expansion sets up a potential showdown with the Virginia Senate. It’s Finance Committee has said “it will not include full Medicaid expansion in the budget.”

This Finance Committee proposal would extend coverage to an additional 20,000 low-income people with mental illness, addiction or chronic disease–compared to the 300,000 who would be covered under the HOD budget plan. But, the Senate proposal lacks any financing mechanism.

Conclusion

Democrats’ long-term goal must continue to be full Medicaid expansion. But overriding that goal, we must help people who are dying, or who are much sicker than they need to be because of untreated illnesses.

Even with its significant flaws, the HOD budget bill represents the high-water mark for Medicaid expansion in this legislative session. Democrats should now focus on a legislative strategy to convince key Republican state senators to adopt the approach of HOD Republicans who support Medicaid expansion.

by Peter Rousselot February 15, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

ARLnow.com reported last Thursday that Arlington County has posted for public comment a 54-page draft “Framework” document that is intended to guide future development of the Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) area.

Public comments must be posted by tomorrow, Friday, February 16.

Current draft very confusing

The current draft Framework is confusing, redundant and contradictory, making it impossible for an ordinary Arlington resident to know what it means, or which proposed action items might be implemented.

This failure might be welcome if it were clear that the Framework couldn’t be relied upon as justification for proceeding with any of the poorly conceived suggestions that were floated earlier in the 4MRV planning process: for example, adding excessive density, disregarding the community’s preferences for Jennie Dean Park, or creating an arts district.

Unfortunately, the Framework’s substantive ambiguity lends itself to justifying almost any iteration of the often-competing goals and alternatives listed in the Framework, including those noted above.

Excessive density

Appropriately, the draft acknowledges the unsuitability of dense redevelopment for most of the 4MRV area, which lies in a floodway/floodplain. Yet, the Framework lacks any actual plans to reduce runoff by removing hardscape or buildings — instead, planning to add more.

Also discussed are the extensive measures that are needed to remediate decades of environmental damage to the two streams (Four Mile Run and Nauck Branch). However, the majority of the draft discusses how to carve up and develop all this land.

Compared to the earlier versions staff/consultants presented to the 4MRV Working Group, there seem to be fewer/smaller areas to add a lot more density/housing. And, the proposal to retain the existing industrial area for continued industrial use — for which we have great need — would be a plus, if confirmed.

For any particular parcel, however, an ordinary resident cannot determine, in most cases, which potential use the plan will apply to that parcel after the plan’s adoption — or how that use might differ from today’s use.

Prior to the County Board’s final plan adoption, it should direct County staff to provide the community with the numbers of new housing units staff expects will be added with and without this draft plan’s adoption. In addition to these useful metrics (to assess the plan’s likely impact), the public should also receive ratios of added density to added parkland acres within the plan’s boundaries.

Jennie Dean Park

Given the community’s desire that the “portion of the park fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive be left open for casual use” and avoid locating fields or courts adjacent to Four Mile Run Drive, the County Board should direct staff to honor those preferences.

Arts district

As I wrote recently, the County Board should adopt a comprehensive, easily understood, 21st century arts policy determining when, where and how Arlington should subsidize the arts before entertaining proposals to create an arts district in the 4MRV area.

Conclusion

Given the current draft Framework’s nebulous state, more work needs to be done to clarify the plan. Residents have a right to know exactly what is and is not being proposed, and to give County Board members meaningful feedback. Only then will Board members be able to make an informed decision as to the likely costs, impacts and desirability of the Framework’s outcomes.

by Peter Rousselot February 8, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

The 2018 Virginia legislative session again has featured a batch of proposed bills relating to voting rights.

Several of those bills relate to no-excuse absentee voting.

No-excuse absentee voting bills

HB 1072 was co-sponsored by Arlington Delegate Patrick Hope and 15 others. The bill would have erased the current extensive and complicated list limiting the reasons (excuses) entitling a registered voter to vote absentee. But, this bill was sidelined on January 30 by a 4 to 2 vote in a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee.

Also on January 30, one Virginia Senate no-excuse absentee voting bill, SB 254, was deferred until 2019 by a unanimous vote of a Senate committee. Another Senate bill, SB114, met the same fate.

Virginia should enact a law authorizing no-excuse absentee voting

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

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

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

Reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting

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

The League of Women Voters of Virginia recently has prepared a helpful checklist of reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting, including these:

  • No voter should have to provide personal unrelated information to cast a ballot
  • Extra personnel are needed to explain the current excuses
  • Voters have found it very confusing to determine what the current excuses mean, and therefore their eligibility to vote before Election Day
  • Local Election Offices have had success in reducing long lines on Election Day by encouraging absentee voting
  • For voting absentee in-person, eliminating the cumbersome process of completing the absentee application would save time as well as the expense of printing the form

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

Both Democrats and Republicans should support no-excuse absentee voting

No-excuse absentee voting has been enacted by a majority of U. S. states–both “red states” and “blue states.”

Conclusion

No-excuse absentee voting should be a subject on which Virginia Republicans and Virginia Democrats can agree. No-excuse absentee voting will enable more Virginians to vote.

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

by Peter Rousselot February 1, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

A story posted on the Arlington Sun-Gazette website last Friday asked the question, “Could school system go outside Arlington to find space for students?”

The story only addresses whether Virginia law authorizes Arlington to do so. Answer: yes, but only if Arlington does so in one or more adjacent Virginia jurisdictions: Fairfax County or the Cities of Alexandria or Falls Church.

Discussion

Whether it would make sense for APS to go outside Arlington to find space for Arlington students should be addressed only in the context of a new long-term plan that answers these questions:

  • What new schools do we need?
  • When do we need them?
  • Where in Arlington could/should we put them?
  • What will it cost to put them in Arlington?

In 2017, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy publicly acknowledged that:

  • Arlington County forecasts continued total population and school enrollment growth for many years beyond the 2026 cut-off date in the current Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)
  • Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030
  • APS needs to develop its own long-term new school construction plans well beyond 2026:

“In his report to School Board members, Murphy said the school system will need an additional 2,200-seat high school, plus up to two middle schools and up to four elementary schools, if enrollment continues to push toward, and beyond, 30,000 students.”

Based on the latest publicly-available data, APS is still on the same trajectory Murphy described a few months ago: pushing toward and well beyond 30,000 students.

In December 2017, in preparation for planning its latest CIP out to 2028, APS posted its latest enrollment projections by school and by year. With the requisite explanatory footnotes, these latest projections show an increase from a Fall 2017 total enrollment of 28,020 to a Fall 2027 total enrollment of 32,666.

This latest set of publicly-available data do not include updated capacity utilization numbers for each school, but those are supposed to be published sometime this month.

So long as these population and enrollment forecasts continue to represent the County’s and APS’ best estimates, they should be employed systematically to make long-term planning decisions for all land use and public infrastructure investments (e.g., schools, parks, roads).

(more…)

by Peter Rousselot January 25, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

Last Friday afternoon, Arlington County issued its annual information on the assessed value of Arlington property as of January 1.

As per that release, the top line numbers are:

  • Overall increase of 1.9 percent (compared to 3.0 percent last year)
  • Average residential property up 3.8 percent
  • Most commercial property values up, but office values down 6.8 percent

Office properties represent about 18 percent of the overall tax base.

Discussion

As the county’s press release acknowledges, last Friday’s news is sobering:

This past fall, County officials projected a 3.2 percent increase in the value of all residential and commercial real estate–and a comparable increase in tax revenues. With actual growth of 1.9 percent, the County will face a greater shortfall as it works to develop a balanced budget.

At the end of 2017, the County Board directed the County Manager to “propose a balanced budget within the existing tax rate” for FY 2019, after having raised the tax rate by 1.5 cents for CY 2017. Within that appropriate framework, the tough budget choices the Board is going to have to make in 2018 are tougher after last Friday’s news.

The good news is that the public already has provided many constructive ideas to help the Board make these tough choices. Late last fall, the Manager asked Bryna Helfer and her Engage Arlington team to solicit the public’s suggestions to help prepare the FY 2019 operating budget. Some of the public’s responses have been compiled and posted on the Engage Arlington website.

For example, check out the public’s suggestions grouped there under these headings:

  • Fiscal problems have roots in poor planning and decision-making
  • Focus on the big $$$ issues, not the micro stuff
  • Smart spending
  • Close-out funds
  • Laundry list of budget-related suggestions

Another interesting indicator of the public’s priorities can be found in an online poll conducted by ARLnow.com beginning January 2. A large number of responses — 3,345 — were recorded.

Here are the top 8 vote-getters from among the 16 options offered in that poll:

With the important caveat that the foregoing results are not derived from a statistically-valid public opinion survey, they are nevertheless useful indicators of the relative priorities of a large number of recorded votes.

As I wrote in December, it’s also important for the County Board and our community to address FY 2019 budgeting tasks in the context of longer-term financial modeling.

The Board should direct the Manager to develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The results and assumptions underlying this exercise should be published, and the public should be invited to comment on those results.

Conclusion

Arlington should set its budget priorities:

  • giving careful consideration to the public’s priorities
  • using data-driven information regarding what the County (and APS) are likely to be able to afford in the long term

by Peter Rousselot January 18, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

Given the 2017 election results, Virginia’s Democratic legislators are in a much better position than ever before to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This is their top 2018 joint legislative priority.

Virginia Democratic legislators can’t do this alone. They lack a majority in both legislative branches.

Virginia Republican legislative leaders still seem cool to the idea. But Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) has acknowledged: “I do think we’ll see something this year for health care for lower-income Virginians. I’m not saying full Medicaid.”

Discussion

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Democratic legislative leaders must negotiate aggressively with Republicans to reach the best possible deal.

Virginia is losing out on $6.6 million a day in federal money by not expanding Medicaid eligibility to roughly 400,000 low-income Virginia adults.

Under the ACA, states can choose whether to expand Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,640 for an individual. The federal government currently picks up almost all the cost, although that percentage is scheduled to decline to a 90 percent federal share by 2020.

About half of the 31 states that have chosen the Medicaid expansion have Republican governors.

One of those Republican governors is Ohio’s John Kasich. Kasich has forcefully criticized Donald Trump’s failed efforts in 2017 to gut the Medicaid expansion program:

“That is a very, very bad idea, because we cannot turn our back on the most vulnerable,” Kasich said. “We can give them the coverage, reform the program, save some money, and make sure that we live in a country where people are going to say, ‘at least somebody’s looking out for me,'” he said. “It’s not a giveaway program — it’s one that addresses the basic needs of people in our country.”

Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed, touting “Michigan’s embrace of the Medicaid expansion, which has covered 642,000 people in the state.”

Virginia Republican legislative leaders can pick and choose from among a whole host of Medicaid expansion options pioneered by Republican leaders in other states. Besides Ohio and Michigan, Virginia Republican leaders can look to states like Arkansas or Pennsylvania. From Vox:

Prior to 2018, Virginia Republican leaders offered a variety of excuses for not following the example set by Republican leaders in any of these other states. They argued that Virginia could not afford the 10 percent share of the costs that the federal government ultimately will not cover. But, that particular Republican argument was taken off the table when Virginia’s hospitals offered to cover the state’s share.

Virginia Republicans also argued during most of 2017 that the ACA was going to be repealed. That never happened. And, Republicans like Kasich and Snyder have had the courage to fight successfully for their covered residents. Virginia Republican leaders should emulate them.

Finally, Virginia Republicans have argued that there is fraud and abuse in Virginia’s Medicaid program. While it is true that some fraud and abuse has been identified, there is a detailed roadmap for fixing those problems. There is no reason not to simultaneously implement the identified fraud and abuse safeguards and expand Medicaid.

Conclusion

Virginia Democratic and Republican legislative leaders must work together to reach a bipartisan solution to expand Medicaid. It’s the right thing to do. The benefits substantially outweigh the costs.

by Peter Rousselot January 11, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

There is a continuing controversy over whether to create an “Arts District” in the Four Mile Run Valley area.

Latest arts subsidy controversy

The Chairs of the Sports Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission recently wrote a withering joint letter to the chair of the Four Mile Run Valley Working Group sharply criticizing a proposal to create an Arts District in that area:

“It remains unclear how the proposed arts hub would be financed or managed over time to become self-sustaining,” said the letter writers. “We do not want to repeat a costly mistake [like the Artisphere].”

The latest controversy over this Arts District is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Arlington lacks a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

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

Can you explain to the ordinary Arlington resident how these things fit together?

  • A 27-year old general policy statement regarding taxpayer support for the arts
  • The role of the Arlington Arts Commission
  • The role of a non-profit organization, Arlington Arts
  • The goal of the Cultural Affairs division of the Arlington County government, part of Arlington Economic Development, in using taxpayer dollars to sponsor a weekly column on ARLnow.com
  • The County Manager’s new policy of “making low-cost, high-impact investments in performing arts and maximizing the use of existing venues, including schools”
  • The recently-adopted “Enriching Lives: Arlington Arts and Culture Strategy”
  • The “Artspace Phase II Market Study”

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

It is long past time for a 21st century arts subsidy policy because Arlington is facing a completely different fiscal environment today than it did in 1990, such as the capacity crisis in our public schools and our lack of adequate unprogrammed open green space for our surging population.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor an appropriate level of continued public subsidies for the arts reflective of the nature and purpose of specific arts programs. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the needs for schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety than the share the Board funds for the needs of the arts community.

As I wrote in December, Arlington should measure all of these needs (core and non-core) through the lens of longer-term financial modeling, setting priorities using data-driven information regarding what the County and APS are likely to be able to afford in the context of tax rate stability.

Conclusion

Utilizing the highest level of its new public engagement resources, Arlington should adopt a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

The City of Boston only launched its recent arts plan after a year-long public engagement effort.

To facilitate a community conversation to develop Arlington’s arts subsidy policy, the County should promptly publish a detailed listing of all current County-supported arts activities and the corresponding direct and indirect County subsidies.

Arlington should not try to replicate arts options that are easily accessible in the region.

by Peter Rousselot January 4, 2018 at 2:45 pm 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.

On December 21, Arlington County’s public engagement team (led by Bryna Helfer) posted a new draft Public Engagement Guide for Capital Projects.

This latest draft incorporates feedback received from residents and County staff during 2017. Over the next two weeks (until January 18), Bryna and her team are very interested in receiving your feedback on this draft.

Discussion

The latest draft guide shows promise in an area crying out for major improvements.

In late 2016, the County Manager created the Office of Communication and Public Engagement in the wake of multiple public engagement fiascos. Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead this office.

During 2017, while Helfer and her team appropriately were conducting multiple community meetings and seeking public input on an earlier version of the guide, these fiascos continued at Nelly Custis Park and Virginia Highlands Park.

The persistence of these fiascos, many involving the Department of Parks and Recreation, underscores the urgency of approving and implementing a final guide.

As was the case with the prior draft, the latest draft raises issues, some mentioned, some not.

MENTIONED

Strategies for different projects and policies

The final guide should be very clear that its public engagement processes also will apply to county decisions in addition to those about capital projects, like all significant new policies or plans and the annual operating budget. Each of these other types of decisions should have its own appropriately-defined and publicly-understood levels of 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 residents are in serious trouble.

Setting priorities

Our new public engagement resources should be focused on key priority choices which drive major amounts of budget dollars. The question should be: “We have enough money for Option A or Option B, but not both. Which do you prefer?” Statistically-valid surveys should be used in appropriate circumstances.

Civic Associations

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. The county government, not civic associations, ultimately must be accountable for public engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.

Transparency

The county should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions and public engagement results regarding each project or policy.

NOT MENTIONED

Limits of public engagement

Even the best public engagement practices cannot prevent fiascos caused by other factors such as:

  • Wrong policies
  • Lack of proper staff training
  • Changing needs
  • Lack of accountability

The best public engagement practices cannot cure poor substantive policies or poor management.

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, that is a fundamental management failure.

Neutral facilitators

If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct public engagement.

Conclusion

No guide or plan can be perfect. However, the county must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive public engagement.

The latest draft guide helpfully reflects significant improvements suggested by Arlington residents over the past year.

The May & June 2017 Friends of Aurora Highlands Park newsletter contains excellent additional public engagement suggestions.

by Peter Rousselot December 28, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

In last week’s column, I explained that the Arlington County government is forecasting that in 2040 Arlington will have 55,300 more residents than it does today.

I noted these challenges:

  • Where will they live?
  • How well will Arlington serve them and at what cost?

Last week, I summarized seven initiatives that the County Board should pursue in 2018 to address these challenges.

Today’s column summarizes eight more initiatives that the Board should undertake to plan for Arlington County’s 25 percent population growth.

Growth and Development

  1. Dedicated funding stream for Metro: Metro’s success is central to the future growth and development of Arlington. A new dedicated funding stream for Metro is critical for Metro’s success. Departing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) proposed package of reforms and new taxes has elements that seem promising. But, actually getting a new dedicated funding stream will require bipartisan support for tax increases from Republicans in Congress and in Richmond.
  2. Buck/VHC properties: The County Board (and APS) should utilize the Buck and Virginia Hospital Center properties (and any other parcels in a similar state of transition) as interim sites for school bus parking, flex/swing classroom space, infrastructure project staging areas, etc. Leaving such properties vacant and unused while spending years developing final community-based land use plans is imprudent in these fiscally challenging times.
  3. Permitting and Inspections: Finally fix this seriously-flawed process. What’s taking so long? What’s the deadline?

Fiscal Responsibility

  1. New accounting/budget software: Invest in a new, modern, reliable accounting/budget software system rather than continuing to spend large sums of money supporting Arlington’s outdated PRISM system (a legacy program that the vendor no longer supports). Allocate adequate funding to county staff training on the new accounting/budget system.
  2. Carryover surplus: In spring 2018, prior to the conclusion of deliberations over the FY 2019 operating budget, the County Board should direct the County Manager not to plan on spending any amount from any FY 2018 budget carryover surplus unless the proposed expenditure is for a genuine emergency. Instead, the Board should direct the Manager to defer any final decisions regarding what to do with any such surplus for consideration in Spring 2019.

Openness and Transparency

  1. Sexual harassment/youth protection training: The county (and Arlington Public Schools) need to provide the best available sexual harassment and youth protection training for all employees. The County and School Boards should act collaboratively and transparently to adopt the appropriate policies. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) already has taken the regional lead on these issues.
  2. Focus new civic engagement resources on key priorities: The County Board should advise the County Manager that it wishes to focus the County government’s promising new civic engagement resources (headed by Bryna Helfer, Engage Arlington) to engage with Arlington residents on key priority choices which drive major amounts of budget dollars. E.g.: “We have enough money for Option A or Option B, but not both. Which do you prefer?”
  3. Adopt 72-hour rule: The County Board formally should adopt a comprehensive 72-hour rule for posting on its website key documents relating to decisions on the agenda for County Board meetings. Failure to comply with the rule should mean the decision must be deferred unless at least four Board members vote to waive the rule.

Conclusion

Arlington needs to demonstrate that it has fiscally-sustainable longer-term plans to accommodate its projected population growth.

by Peter Rousselot December 21, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

The Arlington County government’s best estimate is that Arlington will have 55,300 more residents in 2040 (278,100) than we have now (222,800). Where will they live? How well will Arlington serve them and at what cost?

Discussion

This 25 percent population increase will require many substantial investments in new or refurbished core public infrastructure. We should make those investments.

However, although Arlington is a wealthy community that can invest in many things, Arlington cannot afford to invest in every possible thing.

Arlington’s investment requirements extend well beyond the 2028 end date of the next- scheduled capital improvement plan.

In 2018, we should place a renewed emphasis on longer-term planning. We should evaluate alternative options using the best available longer-term financial modeling software. Longer-term forecasts are subject to greater potential for error. But, the solution is to be flexible, not to refuse to develop and publish the forecasts.

In this column, I’ll summarize some of the initiatives that the County should pursue in 2018:

Growth and Development

  1. Project-specific impact statements: As the Community Facilities Study Group recommended, Arlington should prepare project-specific impact statements for each special-exception site plan project. Anyone claiming that Arlington lacks the legal power to do this (e.g., the County Attorney) should be required to publish their detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.
  2. Broaden community benefits categories: Arlington should broaden the scope of the “community benefits” it asks developers to provide as part of applicable projects. Community benefits should include compensation for the costs of incremental school enrollment directly attributable to the project. Again, anyone claiming that Arlington lacks the legal authority to do this (e.g., the County Attorney) should be required to publish their detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.
  3. Parks: Many practices at the Department of Parks and Recreation need a complete makeover:
  • compliance with County environmental policies concerning maintenance and capital projects
  • stop installing new facilities until you can adequately maintain existing facilities
  • much larger budget for (a) maintaining existing facilities, (b) tree canopy retention and restoration and (c) land acquisition
  • civic engagement

Fiscal Responsibility

  1. Longer-term financial modeling: Develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). Publish the results and assumptions. Setting priorities in the context of this kind of data-driven information regarding what the County (and APS) are likely to be able to afford is a vital part of longer-term planning.
  2. To protect affordability, maintain stability in property tax rates.

Openness and Transparency

  1. Open data portal: Arlington must pick up the pace to rectify the many serious shortcomings that residents already have identified in Arlington’s open data portal. Arlington has a lot to learn from the more effective and informative open data portals used in other jurisdictions like Montgomery County.
  2. Consent agenda: Relax the rules for the County Board’s public comment period to permit members of the public to speak on consent agenda items.

Conclusion

The Arlington County government should make greater use of longer-term planning. Arlington needs to demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable longer-term plans to accommodate the substantial population growth and development that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.

Next week, I’ll summarize more initiatives.

by Peter Rousselot December 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

Ralph Northam’s lopsided victory in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, and the huge increase in the numbers of Democratic delegates in the Virginia House (up from 34 to a minimum of 49), have substantially changed the political dynamics in Virginia state government.

It’s too soon to tell by exactly how much things have changed, but this recent conclusion by Del. Marcus Simon (D) strikes me as reasonable for 2018:

This is not the year for really progressive reforms, but for a move of the House back to the middle from so many years being stuck in the mud.

Delegate Simon noted that among the areas in which some positive gains could come are Virginia government ethics and transparency. Governor-elect Ralph Northam is on record that “Virginians deserve to know that their representatives are held to the highest standards of ethics.”

Newly-elected delegates, including Chris Hurst (D) and Danica Roem (D), already have expressed support for legislative initiatives on transparency.

Campaign Finance

For the last four years, Virginia Republican state legislators repeatedly blocked reforms which would have made it illegal to divert campaign donations for personal use:

While almost every other state and the federal government have figured out a way to make it illegal for politicians to use campaign funds for personal use, Virginia lawmakers said … the issue remains too complex for them to find a consensus.

In 2017, a bill sponsored by Simon that would have made this practice illegal was killed by an unrecorded voice vote in a legislative subcommittee. That substance and process needs to change:

  • Simon has again introduced his bill; it should be passed
  • All committee and subcommittee deliberations and votes should be live-streamed

Other Ethics Reforms

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) 2014 conviction for having violated a federal bribery statute spurred grudging reforms to Virginia’s state ethics laws in the next legislative session. The highlight of a Virginia law enacted in 2015 was the creation of a $100 annual limit on gifts from lobbyists to any single public official.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that McDonnell’s conduct did not violate federal criminal law, some Virginia legislators who never wanted to reform Virginia’s ethical practices in the first place started dropping hints that they would like to loosen things up again. Instead, the 2017 election results should lead to further strengthening of these laws.

States retain the power to decide whether politicians who do what McDonnell did should be:

  • excused for having done something that is just part of the normal political process (“they all do it”), or
  • subject to significant penalties for doing something that the public has decided is wrong

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision, Delegate Simon again drew the right lesson,”the fact that he didn’t break any laws doesn’t mean that our ethics laws aren’t broken.”

Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania  have permanent ethics commissions.

Conclusion

Reforms in ethical practices and transparency are long overdue at every level of Virginia government. A welcome combination of energetic new delegates, joining seasoned leaders, should set the stage in 2018 for much-needed reforms in ethics and transparency.

by Peter Rousselot December 7, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

ARLnow.com reported last week that the County Board is planning to vote at a public hearing in December to allow the creation of “Housing Conservation Districts.”

The currently-proposed districts are bordered in yellow on this map accompanying that ARLnow story:

Discussion

The vote the Board should cast this month is to send the entire Housing Conservation District proposal back to the drawing board.

There are far too many serious:

  • policy questions that require months’ more study, analysis, and civic engagement
  • legal issues, including possible Fifth Amendment regulatory takings

Some of these concerns were highlighted by speakers at the recessed County Board meeting on November 27.

These concerns cannot be resolved appropriately this month.

It makes no sense to vote on the advertised Phase I without a full understanding of all the implications of Phase II (or any other subsequent phases).

Some of the things we don’t know about Phase II include:

  1. Property rights of existing owners: The owners’ value/rights might be enhanced by adding more development options, or might be diminished because the committed affordable (CAF) requirements and other things extracted in exchange for added density are too high to make it worth it. Favorable details would reduce law suit risks for the County (regulatory takings); unfavorable details would enhance such risks. Significantly, on November 27, major developer and ownership interests appeared, expressed willingness to work transparently on the details with the County and its residents, but strongly opposed a vote in December on the phased process envisioned in the advertisement.
  2. Effects on affordable housing: If the policy on net tilts towards allowing new building options, vs being focused on restricting redevelopment, this might prompt the addition of a lot more units. But, details are critical. How many market rate units would be added (helping put downward pressure on price in that segment) vs how many are CAFs, adding to supply in that segment? If the burdens placed/number of extractions demanded for this new development are too high, then we essentially rope off prime land.
  3. Budgetary implications: Who knows, and how can it be prudent to proceed without knowing? One staff slide had a line on it, “funding source needs to be identified.” Is this going to be a new public expenditure/a tax exemption? Is this going to be another transfer/extraction from developers, which could further push up market rate rents? What are the impacts on school funding, etc., etc.?
  4. Neighborhood interests: How much density will be added and where will it be added? Will the added options still have to conform to the current height and dwelling unit restrictions? Is it just about making infill easier within current limits, or is this about true up-zoning? For properties like these which are not in the Metro corridors, traffic and parking impacts do become great concerns, but since critical details are unknown, the neighbors, the public and the County Board are all left clueless.

Conclusion

Arlington’s Economic Development Commission has voted unanimously against this way of proceeding. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, various other business groups, and the Lee Highway Alliance oppose the process and timeline envisioned by the advertisement.

What’s the rush?

Don’t vote on Phase I until the Arlington community fully understands all the implications of all the phases.

by Peter Rousselot November 30, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

In the last segment of its November 28 work session, the School Board discussed a proposed “Framework” for its forthcoming FY 2019-28 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). APS will begin formal planning for its new CIP in January.

Discussion

Given competing demands on Arlington County’s budget, APS’ leadership must adopt a much more cost-conscious approach at every stage of its capital budgeting processes. New enrollment growth projections are now expected in mid-December.

There have been some glimmers of hope.

At an Board meeting earlier this year, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy acknowledged that he was “hearing from the community some concern about the CIP,” and that for future new school construction projects “there will be three flavors of budgets: Low, Medium and High.” (See video between 1:37:30 and 1:40:25.)

Murphy’s new approach needs to be very closely scrutinized to be sure that the 3 flavors of budgets are not “high, higher, and highest.”

Another glimmer of hope arises from the decision by the School Board’s internal auditor to examine how APS’ school construction costs compare to those in other jurisdictions. But, the auditor’s work product also will need close scrutiny, as the Sun-Gazette recently editorialized:

We’re hopeful that the auditor’s report on construction provides a true window into reality, not a whitewashed look by focusing on a narrow cadre of school districts with similar spending mentalities.

There are several things we must do together as a community to ensure that APS:

  • does provide the best fiscally-prudent new seats for our students, but
  • does not continue to spend money on capital projects “like the spigot would never run dry”

First, the County Board needs to be clear regarding how much capital spending will be available to APS in each of the ten years in the next CIP.

Second, as construction costs rise, School Board members must become much more proactive with their own staff by insisting upon cost-consciousness and new strategies in building construction and renovation.

Third, we need reformed civic engagement processes in which the public can weigh in early enough concerning a manageable number of budget-driving alternative options. We cannot continue with processes in which citizens or staff are enabled to add one feature after another, never being told what the costs of doing so are nor that APS can afford X or Y but not both.

Recently, a very savvy schools’ activist shared with me her kitchen-table solution for the problems with APS’ past approach to school construction and renovation:

For our home renovation, my husband and I decided on our total budget for the renovation FIRST, then as we were designing the house with the architect, we kept insisting on getting some high-level price estimates so we could decide if we wanted to continue going down [that] path.  

With APS, they do have some high-level planning with the CIP to set some general parameters for budget, but it’s my perception that it’s been the norm to involve the public through various engagement processes, like Building Level Planning Committees, completely disassociating it with any cost estimates/total budget, and of course, very few people are making cost-conscious suggestions when it’s treated as Wish Lists with open checkbooks.  

Conclusion

In the past, School Board members too frequently have rationalized high construction and renovation costs.

Now they need a new attitude: we can do more for less money.

by Peter Rousselot November 16, 2017 at 2:45 pm 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.

At its November 18 meeting, the County Board is scheduled to vote on new policies relating to parking requirements for certain new residential construction projects in Metro corridors.

The proposed policies include the following features (among others):

  • Lower parking minimums closer to Metro station entrances than for areas farther from those entrances
  • Allowances for developers to substitute bike parking, carsharing, or investments in Capital Bikeshare for fewer parking spaces
  • Lower dedicated visitor parking minimums

When this column was submitted, the County Manager’s Report and Recommendation on this agenda item 47 had not yet been posted on the website.

Discussion

In last month’s ARLnow.com story about these proposed new policies, one of the most up-voted comments (25 up-votes) was:

The staff proposes “Minimum parking requirements for market-rate units ranging from 0.2 to 0.6 spaces per unit depending on distance from the nearest Metro station entrance (ranging from 1/8 to 3/4 of a mile).” But if you look at the staff’s own study (page 8), parking demand ranges from 0.6 to 1.2 spaces per unit depending on distance from the nearest Metro station entrance (ranging from 1/8 to 3/4 of a mile).

In another comment, Chris Slatt, chair of the Transportation Commission, countered:

  • If you never let anyone try a parking ratio below 1.0, then you never get data on what occupancy rate you end up with below 1.0.
  • It’s a minimum. Nobody [is] forcing anyone to build 0.3 spaces per unit.
  • If the alternatives are properly managed…then people with cars will self-select to the buildings that provide more parking.

Some Rosslyn-Ballston corridor civic associations sided with the skeptics. The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association opposed (letter, 11/13/17) any new mandatory minimum standards, arguing for lower limits only on a case-by-case basis.

The Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association suggested (letter, 11/07/17) that the Board amend the staff’s proposal by setting all minimum parking ratios to be at least 0.5 spaces/unit.

There may be a case within all (or portions) of either or both Metro corridors (Rosslyn-Ballston and Crystal City) for reduced mandatory minimum residential parking requirements. But, it is unclear on the current record whether lower uniform minimums make sense for all projects, or what offsets (e.g. bike share or mass transit investments) should be adopted in any specific case.

If the County Board decides to enact lower specific numerical mandatory minimums within either or both Metro corridors, residents close to new developments may suffer from an incremental increase in street parkers near their homes (thus denying them proximate parking).

Such residents should be shielded in an appropriate way, for example by stricter non-permit parking limits. These might allow non-permit visitors to park only for four hours duration, after which tickets would be issued.

Finally, the County Board should explicitly state that any decisions it might make regarding the two Metro corridors do not set any precedent for other locations, such as the Lee Highway corridor, that lack comparable proximity to Metro and have completely different traffic patterns.

Conclusion

The county should enact any new mandatory minimums on an experimental basis, with the presumption of approval only on a case-by-case basis for individual projects.

The county should not enact any policies that would drive existing home owners out of vehicles by making it difficult for them to park near their homes.

by Peter Rousselot November 9, 2017 at 10:30 am 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.

At the November 2 School Board meeting, Arlington Public Schools staff “pumped the brakes” on an instructional focus for the Ed Center site.

Staff recommended to defer until the summer of 2018 after APS develops its new Strategic Plan.

Discussion

APS expects 500-600 high school students to enroll at the Ed Center site by September 2022.

Approximately twenty different instructional focus options already have been discussed for this site. Those twenty were narrowed to 10, and then again to the top four.

The top four (Slide 11) are:

  • STEAM High School*
  • Creative and Performing Arts High School*
  • Early College*
  • Expansion of Washington-Lee (W-L) to include additional International Baccalaureate (IB) seats**

* Stand-alone, new county-wide program requiring self-selecting demand and common spaces in the facility. Expected to limit the number of available seats to 500.

** Such an expansion of W-L can leverage already existing common spaces, thereby providing 600 available seats.

The first two options will require much more extensive internal building conversion changes than the second two.

The viability of the first three options depends critically on the willingness of students voluntarily to enroll in a new APS specialized program. Because of the capacity crunch, the School Board should select an option that will fully utilize all available seats as soon as the building is open to relieve anticipated high school overcrowding elsewhere.

STEAM High School

STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student critical thinking (Slide 12).

Would this new program cannibalize Arlington Tech? Would the best site for a STEAM high school be at the Career Center?

Creative and Performing Arts High School

A Creative and Performing Arts High school specializes in teaching performing and visual arts, combined with academics, preparing students for a career in the arts or conservatory study as well as a pursuit of higher education (Slide 13).

How would implementing such a new program affect the performing and visual arts departments at the current comprehensive high schools?

Early College

Early College High School provides an opportunity for students to earn both a high school degree and a two-year associate’s degree (or up to two years of college credits) in four years (Slide 14).

Arlington Tech already offers students Early College Credit. Would there be sufficient demand to maintain full enrollment capacity at both programs?

Expansion of W-L to include additional IB seats

Increase the number of seats available for the International Baccalaureate full IB Diploma program (Slide 15). This program already is offered at W-L.

This is the only one of the four options that doesn’t rely 100 percent on students self-selecting a new specialized program. By leveraging common-area spaces in the main W-L building, the Ed Center space could be designed to accommodate 600 seats as opposed to only the 500 seats anticipated with the other three options.

Conclusion

The November 2 meeting concluded without persuasive answers to these questions:

  • Why the decision to wait until after the completion of the Strategic Plan wasn’t made in the summer of 2017
  • How much worthwhile building conversion planning can be done before the final instructional focus decision is made

The School Board should provide a more complete explanation why deferral is the best way to proceed.

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