Arlington, VA

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 September 2018, the County Board appointed a new 15-member task force. The Board charged the task force with developing a Master Plan for a 7.6-acre parcel of County-owned land located at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive.

This parcel is often referred to as the Salt Dome site.

Why the new task force?

The Board’s goal was to avert a third consecutive fiasco related to this site.

The first fiasco involved the failure by County staff to justify shifting the location of Fire Station 8 to this site. The second fiasco involved the failure by County staff to provide enough notice that the old salt storage unit previously located on this site was in imminent danger of collapse.

The new task force submitted its final report to the County Board on April 12. Most other critical documents relating to this task force’s work can be accessed here.

Due to skillful leadership, the task force achieved a remarkable degree of consensus.

After 5 months, multiple meetings, and hundreds of hours of hard work, the task force, led by Chair Noah Simon, was able to forge a remarkable degree of consensus regarding the best possible recommendation to the Board given the information available.

As the Sun-Gazette previously reported: “The task force included representation from four adjacent civic associations — Old Dominion, Yorktown, Donaldson Run and Rock Spring — plus representatives from a number of government advisory commissions. Marymount also was represented on the panel, as was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.”

County staff attempted to make a case that a substantially increased percentage of the acreage on the site should be paved over and devoted to vehicle parking and staging areas to support snow removal equipment (roughly 100 new parking spaces) and the existing leaf storage operations. But when challenged to present operating and other data to justify why it was necessary to expand snow operations, staff failed to provide sufficient data.

Most important lessons learned

The public cares deeply: instead of simply saying NIMBY, most neighbors came together and said essentially, “if in the future you can compile the necessary operating data to make your case, here is our recommended plan for how the site should be re-configured to support those operations.”

Dozens of members of nearby civic associations joined the discussion, providing creative options that included: arranging to park on nearby paved areas; using existing changing facilities nearby, such as Langston; looking at jurisdictions that stopped mulching leaves in an expensive, energy-intensive way; and exploring other systems of loading salt. Others asked why the shift-change facility needed to be co-located with salt storage?

The positions taken by County staff lack supporting data: staff was unable to provide data concerning the number of snow events/year across time, or what volumes/quantities of road salt or brine they distribute. Other jurisdictions, such as Maryland, measure the number of salt/mile of road/inch of snow, work to reduce dependency on salt (vital because of salt’s toxicity), and accordingly demonstrate percentage reductions in salt use annually.

The County should begin to measure all critical aspects of the “problem” to develop meaningful data to drive management decisions. The County should develop similar metrics for the leaf collection and mulching process. How much is “free” mulch costing its residents?

Conclusion

In our rapidly developing County, proposed changes in the uses of land all come with direct and opportunity costs and must be justified by data that backs up proposed changes.

Despite this site being on a precipitous hill, at the edge of a Resource Protection Area, and at the trailhead of Donaldson Run, County staff too often talk about massive soil disturbance as though it comes at no cost — even in the face of tree removal and other proven environmental damage.

County staff is too narrowly focused on short-term construction of facilities without considering medium- and long-term impacts on erosion, water quality, air quality, flooding, or mitigation of climate change. The County is being paved over at an unsustainable rate, and flooding is a severe problem. Shared use of existing paved areas needs to be a priority.

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

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Peter’s Take 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 April 1, ARLnow.com reported that the APS 1:1 program “gets high marks from students, but remains polarizing for parents.”

The most up-voted comment to that story cuts to the chase:

“Wow what a surprise, students were for free ipads and laptops, and the parents are wondering if the real estate tax hikes are worth it.” – Black Metal list Krieg

APS staff has been unable to explain how much APS spends annually on the 1:1 elementary iPad program.

On April 2, APS School Board members held a revealing work session with their staff on a variety of budget issues. The discussion of the 1:1 program starts at 3:03:54 and lasts 30 minutes.

On social media, one astute parent accurately summarized the bottom-line conclusion:

“We really don’t know what 1:1 costs us. We have a complex leasing model for these devices, and the tech budget includes more than 1:1. If you drop 1:1 the state still requires a certain ratio of access to devices for testing purposes… They are not saying it, but of course 1:1 has additional costs in terms of staffing and electronic resources that you also save if you drop it… Device budget is somewhere around $4 million a year just for devices, but that does not include staff or subscriptions to e-content…”

But this work session revealed one relevant ball-park number. When APS decided to begin the program in 2nd grade instead of 1st grade, dropping that one year produced a savings of at least $1.1 million.

More studies, analyses, or surveys will not provide significantly more relevant information.

The APS Assistant Superintendent of Instruction is now telling the community that the latest (overly-narrow) evaluation of the 1:1 program will drag on until at least the Fall of 2019. This is simply unacceptable at a time in which APS’s long-term operating budget is unsustainable and the APS Superintendent is suggesting class size increases or cutting much more worthwhile programs like the Outdoor Lab just to balance this year’s operating budget.

The community has been engaging APS in meetings about this program for over five years asking the hard questions. Concerns over elementary school opportunity costs have already prompted a petition asking for low-screen-time options.

Survey results show that half of the class time is spent on devices (40% ES, 53% MS, and 58% HS). The time has come to pull the plug on 1:1 in the elementary grades and go to a shared device model. This will allow access required by the state for testing and allow our youngest learners less screen time. It will give teachers the flexibility to be less tied to the APS Central Office and have more face-to-face instructional interaction with their students. The community has spoken for maintaining the Outdoor Lab. Over time, fewer devices will mean fewer cuts in higher quality experiential activities for children like the Outdoor Lab.

The latest evidence of the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and childhood developmental risks of these devices is disturbing.

We are bombarded almost weekly with mounting evidence that the more time children spend using electronic devices, the greater the risk of physical, psychological, and developmental harm.

A 2015 study reviewing school IT programs in over 36 countries worldwide (not in the United States) concluded that less is better when it comes to using technology, both for reading scores and particularly for math scores.

The health and developmental effects on young children of the current 1:1 elementary iPad program won’t be any clearer 6 months from now, 1 year from now, or 2 years from now.

A report published along with the first phase of APS’s overly narrow 1:1 evaluation was not written by a medical doctor but by a Ph.D. who sells consulting services.  We do not need more consulting on this subject.

Conclusion

Now is the time for the Arlington School Board to lead:

  • vote to phase out the 1:1 iPad program in the elementary grades
  • shift to a shared device approach
  • stop kicking the can down the road for even more studies, analyses, or surveys

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

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

Arlington needs to replace its World War II-era water mains faster than it’s replacing them. A sampling of what’s been happening:

Crystal City

On March 27, ARLnow.com reported that “hundreds — and perhaps even thousands — of water customers in Crystal City are without water service this morning:

“Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services (DES) says it is currently performing emergency water main repairs following a series of at least three water main breaks… ‘Several buildings’ are without water, the Crystal City Business Improvement District said via social media.”

Is this really the way to welcome Amazon?

Virginia Square

As ARLnow reported March 21, a significant water main break on Kirkwood Road between Washington Boulevard and 14th Street N. left “GMU, Others High And Dry.” Video posted of the scene and linked in the ARLnow story “shows a large hole in the roadway filled with roiling, cloudy water.”

Columbia Pike

On August 30, 2018, ARLnow reported that “South Arlington Water Main Breaks Cut Off Service for Thousands Overnight”:

“The problems started … when [DES] received word of pipe problems near the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Frederick Street…. By 10 p.m., they reported several other water main breaks along the pike … and determined that the S. Park Drive problem was “related” to the previous breaks.”

In a tweet about the Columbia Pike breaks, DES attempted to explain by saying:

It’s not as if the County Government hasn’t seen this coming for many, many years.

Winter 2017-2018

In January 2018, ARLnow reported that “County Crews Have Repaired Dozens of Water Main Breaks Since Mid-December.” At that time, DES pointed the finger at freezing temperatures: “When ground temperatures drop to the water main depth, the pipe material gets cold, but the water temp drops at a slower rate due to its movement…”

May 2016

ARLnow reported that DES was boasting that it had fixed “217 water main breaks in the past year.”

January 2014

ARLnow posted another story about water main breaks. That story highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older,” with the oldest dating to 1927.

A county video accompanying the January 2014 story struck an ironic tone. That video proceeded from the flawed premise that water main breaks are always “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!

Conclusion

While freezing weather was the proximate cause of many of these water main breaks, many other mains broke because they were just too old.

Arlington County needs a more aggressive program of proactive water main replacement, not the Que Será, Será attitude displayed in the 2014 County video and cemented by the inadequate amount of money County Government currently devotes to proactive replacement.

Meanwhile, the County Government is devoting too many resources to projects like the new $70+ million Aquatics Center and its new state of the art AV system.

A comprehensive recent water main study accurately captures the situation we face:

“[W]ater-main failure rates generally increase exponentially over time… . One could envision a rapid increase in break rates in the future… If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number [of] personnel repairing the breaks.”

The County Government should prepare and share for discussion with the community a Life Cycle Replacement Cost analysis of Arlington’s water mains as recommended by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Center at Virginia Tech:

“[T]o meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required.”

Bottom line: replace more of ’em before they break.

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

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Peter’s Take 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 earlier column, I discussed an ARLnow.com story quoting County Board members on why Arlington should up-zone major portions of the County to improve housing affordability. (Up-zoning = approving more dense development than permitted by current zoning.)

That column sparked many comments regarding whether up-zoning will have the beneficial effect on housing costs these Board members expect.
A small sampling:

  • S. Sundburg:A 2018 Federal Reserve report, highlighted by Forbes, suggests that housing will be much the same: ‘The implication of this finding is that even if a city were able to ease some supply constraints to achieve a marginal increase in its housing stock, the city will not experience a meaningful reduction in rental burdens’. Add 5% more housing to the most expensive neighborhoods and the rents would drop only by 0.5% and the underlying Fed report can be found here.
  • UrbanNotSuburban:Math. If land values go up 20%, say, but the number of units per acre triples, then the land value PER UNIT declines. It would only go up if land prices tripled, but that doesn’t happen…. The driver is jobs and demand for housing created by those jobs, not density….
  • Dave Schutz:One of the problems we are having … is different specifications of ‘here’. If ‘here’ is Arlington all by itself, we are in a world of hurt, and trampling on the settled expectations of folks who bought in single-family neighborhoods is pretty compelling. If ‘here’ is the DMV, then lots of things are more feasible, because there’re a lot more less expensive building sites.

Like many other jurisdictions, Arlington should deploy tools to measure the fiscal impacts of development

Faced with conflicting arguments about the potential fiscal impacts of major new development projects, or major new policies like large-scale up-zoning, other jurisdictions already are far ahead of Arlington in facilitating an understanding of what those fiscal impacts will be.

Prospective project-specific fiscal impact analyses

Project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each special exception, site plan project were recommended by Arlington’s Community Facilities Study Group in 2015. Such statements would be helpful because they would inject vital, new input into the County’s planning and budgeting. But Arlington’s County Manager and County Attorney have strenuously resisted such analyses for years. They continue to be unwilling to candidly and transparently share their detailed reasoning with the community.

By contrast, most of our Northern Virginia neighbors have been using these tools for years. Examples include the City of Falls Church, Stafford County, and Loudoun County.

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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.

(Updated: 3/26/19) As ARLnow reported earlier this month, County Manager Mark Schwartz has proposed significant cuts to Arlington’s subsidies for various arts programs:

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

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

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

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

Arlington needs a 21st century arts subsidy policy

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

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

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

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

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

Current fiscal realities require that core services should receive priority

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

Conclusion

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

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

Perhaps the County could create such a page by expanding the listing to include all other County subsidized arts activities that are NOT currently listed. To begin this critical, transparent community conversation, the County Board promptly should direct the County Manager to publish on one dedicated website a comprehensive, easily understandable listing of all current county-subsidized arts activities and the dollars they receive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film screening of “StyrofoamMom” — a locally produced documentary

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

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

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

Film production

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

Participating organizations

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

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

Event host JBG SMITH

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ARLnow.com reported:

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

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

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

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

The advertised tax-rate increase exposes an unresolved structural problem

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

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

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

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

Long-term enrollment growth = long-term budget growth

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

Dominion-owned streetlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arlington-owned streetlights

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

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

Options to rationalize streetlight ownership patterns

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is ranked-choice voting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the good news

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

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

Second, the questionable news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Why non-partisan redistricting is so important

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

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

Now is a critical moment in the 2019 legislative session

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

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

The clock is ticking on the 2019 legislative session.

Where the 2019 legislative session stands now

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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