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The Right Note: Board Priorities — More Taxes for More Spending

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The County Board will close out the year at its Dec. 15 meeting by considering their legislative priorities and policy statements to transmit to the Virginia General Assembly.

The Board’s top priorities are more money for education and transportation. They also would like some of the money back that was used to pay for Medicaid expansion, an initiative they supported. According to their priorities, they would be happy to pay for any spending increases with new taxes on internet sales as well as the extra revenue created by the federal tax cut. The County Board will have to get in line behind the $462.5 million shortfall in the Medicaid budget that will have to be made up first.

The policy statements are a rather extensive laundry list of 39 items, some of which have no impact on the job of our County Board other than to make a political statement.

But let’s look at a couple examples of where we agree.

Improvements in mental health services. If you talk to health care professionals, school administrators, and law enforcement, addressing mental health issues is critically important to fighting back against so many of the tragedies we see around us, including drug addiction and suicide.

Supporting law enforcement efforts across Virginia to fight against human trafficking. Many people do not realize that this modern day slavery is happening all around us. Law enforcement is already working hard on this issue, but they need our continued support.

And examples of where we disagree?

Putting the ability to raise taxes at the top of the list. Despite protestations to the contrary, Arlington County continues to take in more and more revenue each year. And our County Board has already signaled a willingness to raise taxes next year under their current authority.

“Non-partisan redistricting.” It sounds nice but may have no practical effect on the influence of politics into the process. In fact, a popular proposal to make redistricting less partisan essentially remove any accountability to the voters for the process by using an appointed commission — appointed by the party in power. And since every seat on the County Board is elected countywide, this definitely falls into the not relevant category.

The Board opines on everything from immigration, to the ERA, to solar power, to preserving trees, to the ability to impose greater local land use restrictions, to tracking our movements by keeping data from license plate readers. You should read the entire list for yourself.

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The Right Note: Be Careful What You Wish For

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Democrats took advantage of the anti-Washington and anti-Republican environment in Arlington to dramatically boost turnout and defeat an otherwise popular independent incumbent John Vihstadt. If you are Christian Dorsey or Katie Cristol, you may regret the outcome in 2019 if Vihstadt opts to run again.

While voter turnout trends are on the uptick, it is unlikely there will be the same surge of voter enthusiasm when there is no top of the ticket race driving votes in an odd numbered year. It would prove to be a huge advantage to Vihstadt who has a deep and loyal base of support across every political persuasion.  While it would be easy to understand if Vihstadt decides not to spend another year campaigning, he might enter the race as a favorite to take one of the two seats.

Now comes news that Cristol is making it a priority to defeat nearby Delegate Tim Hugo in 2019. While Hugo is a target for Democrats as the only inside the Beltway Republican in the General Assembly, Cristol’s beef is primarily over the taxation of Arlington’s golf courses. This is the type of thing that would invite even more money into an Arlington County Board race to help Vihstadt return the favor against Cristol.

Maybe our current Board Chair thinks Democrats cannot lose in this current environment or maybe she hasn’t thought that far ahead. Seems like an interesting play by someone up for re-election with an obvious threat still looming on the horizon.

Speaking of the 2019 elections, there are 14 different offices up for election next year including the two County Board seats, one School Board seat, commissioner of the revenue, commonwealth’s attorney, treasurer, sheriff and every Virginia Senate and House seat that includes Arlington precincts. I, for one, hope that a combination of Republicans and independents challenge each and every one of these officeholders. In a county with one party rule, it is good for the public discourse for Arlingtonians to hear a substantive debate about the direction our county and state should move in the future.

Finally, a thumbs up to the County Board finally approved the Virginia Hospital Center expansion project. This is good news for the county, even more so now as we prepare to absorb thousands more residents as a result of the Amazon announcement.

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The Right Note: Get Ready to Pay More

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Here is what we know. In Arlington, our property taxes go up every year. The county takes in more revenue every year than the year before. Not only that, but the county takes in more revenue than they estimate when they pass the budget every year. And as they approach each new budget year, the county estimates their will be a “budget gap” every year in order to justify rising assessments and tax rates.

Next year is no exception to any of these things. The difference this time around is talk of large “unknown” costs on top of the estimated gap is larger for next year. While the guidance to the county manager says the gap will be $20-35 million, the county is hinting it may be looking for as much as $78 million.

What are the driving factors of the gap according to the county?

Medicaid expansion, which was supposed to be “free money” from the federal government, is going to cost the county nearly $2 million in direct costs and cuts to other state funds.

Second, Arlington wants to raise the pay for its workforce.

Third, the county is anticipating more money going to Metro.

Fourth, despite borrowing millions, the county is going to spend more money out of the regular budget for ongoing maintenance. Paying for routine maintenance from the regular budget is the right thing to do, so long as we stop borrowing money on top of it.

Finally, the county is going to dedicate more money to new school facilities.

Yet, instead of setting aside the maximum amount of money from this year’s budget surplus to put towards next year’s gap, the County Board put $2 million toward a slush fund for the county manager and $6.4 million in new spending as part of the closeout spending process. The slush fund alone could have paid for the increased Medicaid costs next year. Instead, it will be new tax dollars.

To top off the messaging effort, the guidance raised the specter of layoffs for county staff. In the past, the County has been much more likely to leave current open slots unfilled than to lay anyone off. But, it sounds like service cuts to the public.

Needless to say, the county is setting the stage for a tax rate increase next year on top of the revenue increase from rising assessments. The Board did not offer any cap to the rate increase in their guidance to the county manager, so they are leaving open the possibility of it being a big one.

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The Right Note: Be Better

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Another election day is in the books. Gone, for at least the next nine months, are the over-the-top campaign ads, flyers and emails that invade our lives in the run-up to election day every year in Virginia.

Politics is, and has always been, a contact sport. The 1800 presidential election for example between Adams and Jefferson quickly devolved into name calling. And the negative tactics will almost certainly continue until they no longer work. With 24-hour cable news preaching to their own choirs and with the unlimited reach of social media to the devices in our pockets, there may be no end in sight.

We have heard a lot about the tone of our politics generally as well as the verbal “finger pointing” about who it is to blame. Some consider President Trump’s Twitter account or his campaign rally speeches to be too over the top or too anti-media. Some may blame the talk radio hosts, or talking heads on cable news, for whipping people into a frenzy. Others condemn the comments by former Attorney General Eric Holder about “kicking” Republicans or Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) calling for confrontations of Republicans in public places. Or the angry protests lead by a group on the left known as antifa that have too often turned violent.

In the run-up to the 2017 elections here in Virginia, Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) even called Republicans “evil” to the thunderous approval of her audience of fellow Arlingtonians. She may regret saying that in the heat of a campaign season, but hopefully she understands that she was not improving the tone in politics today. And her fellow Arlingtonians who are Republicans are left to wonder if those really are her true feelings.

None of us are perfect. But at the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own words and actions. Personal responsibility for what we say, how we treat others, how we contribute to our communities, how we work and take care of our own families, is the cornerstone of America. In a successful civil society, self-government is the most basic form of government and ultimately the most important.

There is an old cliche: don’t be bitter, be better. We must all ask ourselves if we are doing enough in our own sphere of influence to improve the level of civil discourse. We have a few months until the next election starts in Virginia to try and be better.

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The Right Note: Better, But Still More Work to Do

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On the County Board agenda this past week was the County Manager’s recommendations on closeout spending for this year. The manager recommended that $16.5 million be set aside to offset next year’s budget.

This is certainly better than spending all of it now and causing tax rates to go even higher next year. However, the proposal still falls short of where we need to be.

The county manager is already previewing that he will ask County Board members for a tax rate increase in 2019. It will be necessary, he says, to address the $78 million “shortfall” for next year.

The schools are slated to receive $10 million to spend now in the closeout process. This money should be set aside to address a shortfall next year they project could be as much as $43 million.

The manager opted to recommend an increase in the county reserves from 5 percent to 5.5 percent. There is no demonstrable need to do so. Once again, millions more in revenue came in during the last fiscal year than was projected.

This was totally predictable, as it happens year after year. Just as the county does not spend its entire budget, year after year. In other words, next year’s budget “crunch” will also not be as dire as the county manager is predicting — just like it wasn’t this year. So, the $6.4 million added to the reserves should instead be set aside for next year.

Finally, the county manager recommended he receive a $2 million contingency fund to spend as he sees fit. Included as examples of items the manager could spend this money on is an airport noise study and a parking permit study.

It goes without saying that these are not emergencies, particularly if the budget is really “crunched.” There is no reason the County Board cannot approve these expenditures in a supplemental fashion. The County Board should reject this slush fund and set it aside for next year.

With all of this in mind, the County Board should modify the manager’s proposal. In total, $34.9 million from this year’s closeout funding should be used to pay for next year’s budget. That would cut the “gap” nearly in half without raising the tax rate one penny or making any cuts.

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The Right Note: Vihstadt on Nov. 6

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

An article this week at the Sun Gazette suggested the County Board race was a referendum on the incumbent. If that were the case, many Arlington politicos believe John Vihstadt would win in a landslide.

The fact is Vihstadt’s reelection is not a lock Nov. 6. The 2018 political environment is much more favorable to Democrats than it was in 2014 when Vihstadt comfortably won a full term. Many Democrats who are expected to vote in 2018, but did not in 2014, may not be as tuned in to local issues as they are to what is going on across the river in Washington.

But every voter should know that John Vihstadt has been exactly the County Board Member he promised Arlingtonians he would be when he ran — an independent voice who does his homework on the issues and is a strong advocate for fiscal sanity.

Vihstadt has worked hard to stay on top of the issues that concern our community, not just during this election year, but all four years. All you have to do is scroll through his Facebook page to see how many events he attends throughout our county. This should not be a surprise. Vihstadt voluntarily contributed to his community long before he decided to run for the County Board, with a particular emphasis on supporting our schools.

Matthew Di Ferranti is running an interesting race. It is hard to to decipher what his campaign theme is other than, “I’m a Democrat, so elect me.” When he does talk about issues, he is often criticizing policies put in place by the Democrat majority which has run Arlington County for three decades. Yet, to elect him would guarantee more of the same by eliminating the lone independent voice.

I twice had the privilege to run for County Board as a Republican. Both times I found countless independents and Democrats around Arlington who believed as I did that one-party rule on the Board was not healthy for our community. Based on conversations I continue to have with people of all political stripes, that view is largely unchanged.

While John Vihstadt has been the driving force for positive changes, there simply are not yet three votes on the Board to do even more. Our regular budgeting and closeout spending processes could be reformed to be more transparent and to keep excessive spending in check. Big projects should be voted on separately as bond questions. To attract and retain more businesses, we must go beyond incentives for big companies and make this the best place for everyone to do business: eliminate the BPOL tax, reform and streamline permitting and revisit the zoning process in general.

That means we need more County Board Members like John Vihstadt, so the first step toward more positive change is to re-elect him on Nov. 6.

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The Right Note: Metro Memo States the Obvious

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Last week, it came to light a memo had been produced in May by someone at Metro outlining the system’s ridership woes and some possible solutions. According to the Washington Post, this memo never made it all the way up to the general manager or the WMATA Board.

From the memo: “The fundamental factors — fares, location, speed, frequency, and reliability — matter most and Metro’s recent actions have put downward pressure on ridership.” And it found the group driving the ridership decline the fastest are those who had used the system the most.

Worsening service at higher prices is driving riders away, especially in a world filled with ride sharing, bike shares and now scooters. Metro is losing long time riders in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Leaders were surprised that the memo existed, but not necessarily surprised by the findings. WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans used it as another opportunity to call for more taxpayer funding for the system in order to add back service. The biggest union used it as an opportunity to blame the general manager. All in all, it was a series of predictable responses.

Recently, Christian Dorsey was given a voting seat on the WMATA Board. Now we know it is the intention of WMATA to rotate voting and non-voting board members. At the end of the day, though, it is hard to paint a scenario where the person voting matters. Representatives from the District, Maryland and Virginia and the federal government all seem to have differing approaches and political realities to take into account.

The Board as a whole seems content with the overall strategy of simply asking for more money. No one appears to be committed to a major structural overhaul. So, the memo serves as a reminder that it will be tough to get Metro back on track with the same people making decisions.

A Final Note on Redistricting? 

Over the past few days it came to light that Gov. Ralph Northam backed out of a political fundraiser for a fellow Democrat. Why? The delegate had the audacity to say Democrats in the General Assembly should have worked with Republicans to redraw the district lines.

With Gov. Northam’s veto threat and Democrats in the General Assembly acquiescing to it, the new House of Delegates map will be drawn by the courts. The Democrats are betting on judges to produce a better political map for them than they could get through a compromise with Republicans. So, they decided not to do the jobs they were elected to do.

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The Right Note: School Construction Costs and Political Gamesmanship

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Arlington Public Schools finally released the long-awaited audit of school construction costs. The bottom line from the auditor is that Arlington’s past construction costs are generally in line with other jurisdictions in the area.

However, according to the document, the new Wilson school would cost over $555 per square foot and $130,000 per seat. The per seat number is more than double the per seat cost for recent school buildings in the county. In other words, Arlington should be able to add up to twice as many seats for the money.

In what can only be explained as a purely partisan political move, the Arlington Education Association PAC endorsed Democrat Matthew de Ferranti this week over John Vihstadt. Nothing in the AEA’s endorsement said anything specific about what he de Ferranti would do to support or improve the education of our kids. Here is the endorsement in its entirety:

Matt impressed the interview committee with his deep commitment to social equity and his understanding of the issues facing both employees and students of medium and lower income in their struggle to live and work in Arlington County. Matt demonstrated that he is a leader open to hearing the ideas and concerns of our community.  His voice on the County Board would help make our local government a more effective advocate for all of Arlington’s residents.

Vihstadt was president of the Yorktown PTA and co-chaired a school bond campaign in the county. And by all accounts, has been supportive of education funding while serving on the County Board.

Speaking of purely partisan political moves, Governor Northam this week threatened to veto the latest redistricting plan offered by Republicans in the House of Delegates. When the original plan passed, it had support from both Democrats and Republicans in Richmond. And Democrats in the General Assembly had expressed a desire to help draw the lines again.

Worse than not supporting the current plan, the Governor does not support the House of Delegates moving a plan at all. Instead, he is calling for the courts to redraw the lines.

Northam’s unwillingness to work with Republicans to find a solution without involving the courts demonstrates more than a striking lack of leadership. It is a blatant attempt to get what he believes will be a better political outcome for his party. Voters should remember this next time Democrats talk about the need for bipartisan solutions during a campaign.

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The Right Note: Will Democrats Work With Republicans Again in Richmond?

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

A recent lawsuit on the House of Delegates boundaries resulted in a court order to the General Assembly to redraw the lines by the end of October. A new standard of constitutional review in regards to the consideration of race in determining legislative districts is now being insisted on by the courts.

This week Republicans released a second plan that seeks to meet the requirements of the court. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Democrats say they still want to find a legislative solution. This is encouraging as Governor Northam had previously expressed the view that the courts should just redraw the lines. The same Times-Dispatch article seems to indicate some in Democrat circles were still debating if they should find a compromise or wait to see if they will get a better political outcome from the court.

Nationwide, there is an effort to take the ability to draw legislative district lines out of the hands of the legislative and executive branch and put it in the hands of unelected independent commissions. This is a valid public policy debate that can be voted on by your elected representatives.

More disturbing is the idea that political parties who did not control the redistricting process are running to the courts to overturn the results. And it is not just about the consideration of race. In Pennsylvania, the state supreme court struck down a Republican-drawn Congressional district map simply for being too partisan. A federal court did the same thing in North Carolina.

Turning our attention back to the Virginia House of Delegates map. It would be a complete abrogation of the duty of our elected representatives to simply toss this decision to the courts. The judges are simply not directly accountable to the people for the results.

The original plan was agreed to in a truly bipartisan fashion, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats supporting it. The General Assembly should produce a plan again. When they do, Governor Northam should sign it.

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The Right Note: They’re Back

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The County Board swings back into action this Saturday for its first meeting since July. The agenda is full of interesting items.

Last week I discussed the need to move forward on the Virginia Hospital Center expansion plans. The Board will most certainly approve it eventually, so they should avoid the urge to tinker with the plans for another six months (or longer).

The work on providing a new salt dome for winter road treatment is also on the docket. While area residents were not entirely happy with the process, the structure has been found to be unsafe and beyond repair. A change is necessary.

Also on tap is the elimination of the car tax decal. In the words of an iconic ad campaign, “just do it.”

The Board is also considering a plan to regulate dockless bikes and scooters. There is probably little chance a majority of this Board will resist the urge to regulate. So, let’s hope they take a “less is more” approach to the issue. Also on tap is an expansion of the Capital Bikeshare program, which is the government monopoly program in the region. It would be interesting to know if any of the pushback on the dockless program originated from the vendors who operate Bikeshare.

The other county-wide issue on tap is the cost of implementing Medicaid expansion. Initially, Arlington believes it will cost around $250,000 to add six new county staff to handle implementation for 3,000 Arlingtonians projected to join the program. The Commonwealth of Virginia will add $277,000 as well. Not reflected in those costs is a reduction in funding to Community Service Boards which officials in Richmond believe will not need as much funding as Virginians move onto Medicaid. Over the next two years, Arlington will see a cut of $2.2 million in state funds. While many questions remain about the long term impacts of Medicaid expansion, Arlington has little choice but to make these changes.

A final note on how the Board does business. The Board changed its rules for consideration of the “consent agenda.” Those are the items that pass with a single vote of the Board and without further input from the public. The public used to be able to ask for separate consideration of any item, but the new rules place 30 of the 57 consent agenda items off-limits to Arlington residents. The new consent agenda rules mean that no member of the public can ask for the Board to take testimony on Medicaid expansion or on Bikeshare expansion. You can, however, ask that the Board hear separately on the dockless bike and scooter issue or for the car decals. The hospital and salt dome issues are already scheduled for a public hearing.

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The Right Note: Delaying the Hospital Expansion?

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Arlington Planning Commission is recommending that the County Board delay consideration of the Virginia Hospital Center’s planned expansion, due largely to pushback from neighbors.

Arlington’s long history of community involvement is a good one. Taking neighborhood concerns into consideration, particularly when it comes to mitigating traffic volume around the hospital, is not without merit. The Planning Commission, however, wants to send the hospital back to the drawing board largely for aesthetics, asking that they move some of the taller buildings to a different location in the plans to create less of a “wall” between the hospital and the neighboring single family homes.

While the Metro corridor has a natural step down effect from large buildings into residential neighborhoods, the hospital has long been established in the middle of single family homes. And these neighbors moved into the area with the full knowledge that Arlington’s only hospital was there.

Our population continues to grow as the County Board adds more density to our major corridors. In addition to impacts on schools, it means our healthcare needs will grow as well. Allowing the hospital to expand will add 101 beds to that capacity right here in our community and meet the needs for the next decade or so.

The hospital already adds upwards of $50 million a year in community benefit, according to the Chamber of Commerce. The proposed expansion will add not only short-term construction jobs but permanent jobs for doctors, nurses, clinical professionals and many other support staff here in Arlington.

As the County Board knows from its own projects, construction delays add to construction costs.  This is an important factor in favor of quick approval of this project, particularly in the face of healthcare costs that are already growing faster than inflation.

Virginia Hospital Center is an asset to Arlington. It is needed to meet our healthcare needs and it provides good jobs. That is why there is little doubt that the Board intends to ultimately approve this project, and almost just as certainly additional expansion will be needed in the future. With all of this in mind, they should move forward as quickly as they can rather than causing an extensive delay.

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The Right Note: Election Season Kickoff

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Leaving the annual Civic Federation candidate forum Tuesday evening, I was already writing this column in my head. It was going to be heavy with criticism about the format.

Delegates were essentially allowed to race to the microphone and form a line to ask questions. With two-minute answers for each candidate, only four questions were asked of each of the three panels.

As a result, County Board candidates were asked two questions about elections: one on access to in-person absentee voting and one on election security. This might have been more appropriate for the Electoral Board or the Registrar, but on Tuesday it made up 50 percent of the Q & A for the position that determines how our local tax dollars are raised and spent.

For School Board, one question was asked about the tree canopy and another about the cost of facility rentals. No question was asked about renaming Washington-Lee High School, though Audrey Clement brought up the issue. Little time was spent on classroom performance or per-pupil spending. (And no one took me up on my suggestion of asking whether or not elementary school students should be assigned homework.)

This is nothing new. Having been through two Civic Federation forums as a candidate myself, I came to expect the non-traditional questions from delegates. Once I was asked simply why I liked living in Arlington.

As I thought about the forum more, my stance on the format began to change. Sure, we may have gotten to more of the “big issues” had questions been submitted in advance so the moderator could have asked the two most popular ones before turning it over to the delegates. Or, each answer could have been shortened to 60 or 90 seconds to allow for more questions from the delegates.

At the same time, if you want to know where the candidates stand on the big issues, you can read their websites or go to one of the many civic association forums on the calendar between now and Election Day. And you should go listen to the candidates in person, after all, local government is the most important government to our everyday lives.

But there is no doubt, they have those talking points down. What makes the Civic Federation forum unique is you never know what will be asked. The way a candidate answers those non-standard questions gives us a little insight into how a candidate thinks when pushed off their regular talking points. And it reminds the candidates that voters have many different issues that rise to the top of their lists when it comes to what’s most important to them.

So the Civic Federation should keep letting delegates ask the questions. It works for you.

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The Right Note: Corey Stewart and Katie Cristol Agree

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Straight from the “headlines you never thought you would read” category, at a recent forum for Northern Virginia elected leaders, Stewart and Cristol agreed that more money was needed for roads. But, they did not exactly see eye-to-eye on what to do about it.

Cristol supported another round of tax increases to pay for it, backing a plan that failed to get through the General Assembly. It would increase the tax on the sale of a home, about $250 in taxes for a $500,000 house and increase taxes on hotel rooms.

Stewart reminded everyone that new tax dollars were already earmarked for roads, but were diverted to transit as part of the recent Metro funding deal. He would not commit to supporting another new tax increase to pay for it this time around.

There is another option.

As a result of the new federal tax law, Virginia is projected to run a revenue surplus of $500 million a year until 2024. There is a push underway to return at least some of this money to the taxpayers. Gov. Ralph Northam wants to focus on a refundable tax credit. Republicans want to focus on conforming the Virginia code to the structure of the new federal tax law, ensuring middle class taxpayers in Virginia fully benefit from the new tax code.

The General Assembly could also set aside a portion of surplus funds available after any tax reform to go toward road projects. It is a little surprising Cristol is not actively championing this idea since we know the Arlington County Board generally uses most, if not all, of our surplus tax revenue to pay for new spending projects. Then again, the idea of new sources of tax revenue may have been too difficult for Cristol to pass up.

In other news, oddsmakers now favor Washington, D.C. or Northern Virginia as the top two likely destinations for Amazon HQ2. If it lands in Arlington, expect real estate values to make a significant jump and provide a substantial tax revenue boost to the county. But how much will Arlington send back out the door as part of the incentive package necessary to land the online giant? And would there be enough left over for us to see a cut in our tax rate?

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The Right Note: Metro’s Biggest Problem With Its Union Contract

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

After two years of working without a contract, a recent arbitration decision set the terms of employment for nearly two-thirds of all Metro employees through 2020. Union members get a small raise retroactive to 2017. In exchange, they will have to pay a higher percentage of their health care costs moving forward. On net, that means labor costs will go up over $60 million through 2020 and WMATA will look to Arlington, among other jurisdictions, to fill in that gap.

The issue that will have the biggest impact on the long term health of the transit agency is pensions. The second largest union has agreed to move to a defined contribution plan for new hires. The largest union refuses to do so.

The arbitration panel punted on the issue this time around. They also refused to cap the use of overtime in the pension calculations. It was a financially irresponsible decision in the face of a $3 billion unfunded pension liability.

Under the terms of the contractual arrangement, both sides are bound to go to arbitration when talks break down. WMATA, which already faces difficulties firing employees, has no real leverage to push for these pension changes as long as the union continues to balk.

Riders and taxpayers in subsidizing jurisdictions will end up shouldering the burden in the near term. Over the long run, the agency cannot sustain the union’s retirement demands. This failure by the arbitrators to address the pension issue now is another reminder that it is probably time to consider a major structural overhaul.

In anticipation of recent repairs, Metro warned riders on affected lines to avoid the system unless they had no other options. More and more, riders are leaving and not coming back. Now that Arlington has a voting member of the Metro Board, we should hear regularly from Christian Dorsey on what reforms he will push for in order to stop kicking the can down the road.

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The Right Note: Thinking About the School Board

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

This week’s announcement by Arlington Public Schools about their compliance with the new Virginia law on recess reminded me that voters do have a choice in the School Board race in November. Audrey Clement and Barbara Kanninen will debate in September, so here are eight things Civic Federation members should consider asking about.

College is becoming prohibitively expensive for many. The economy still needs people in skilled trades which can provide good careers. What more should Arlington be doing to prepare students who do not want to go on to a traditional four-year college?

Our school enrollment is increasing and new buildings are being built, under what circumstances would you support increasing the student to teacher ratio to meet enrollment within budget constraints?

If county revenues suddenly became flat, where would you look first for budget savings? Have you considered ways that administrative staff and expenses could be scaled back to ensure cuts were not made in the classroom?

This year as part of the budget process, Superintendent Patrick Murphy reported per pupil spending would be $19,235 for the 2019 school year for the anticipated enrollment of 28,027 students. But when you divide $636.7 million by 28,027 students, you arrive at $22,717 per projected student. Why does Arlington report per-pupil spending this way and shouldn’t we be honest with county residents about the total actual cost rather than relying on a manufactured formula that pegs the number nearly $3,500 lower?

Assuming the School Board had not decided to engage in a name change process for Washington-Lee, what could staff have spent their time on to improve educational outcomes and what could the money that will be needed to change the name have been spent on? As the name change process moves forward, do you support naming it after a person or do you think we should stop naming schools after people altogether?

Some in the county have suggested that increasing diversity should be a higher priority when it comes to school boundary changes. What do you think the top three considerations should be?

Many studies show that homework at younger ages has no academic benefit to students, so would you support a proposal to ban homework county-wide for all elementary school students? What about through the seventh grade?

Currently the county builds in snow days and multiple teacher in-service and conference days into the calendar. Would you support ending the school year for all students not later than June 10 unless too many snow days were accumulated?

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