Arlington, VA

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On Saturday the County Board met and slashed parking permits for some residents while paving the way to move forward on the county and school budgets.

The County Board resisted the urge to raise the real estate tax rate, but only because residential assessments went up by 5.6% over last year, which means the average Arlington homeowner will already pay $382 more in taxes this year in a addition to the new proposed stormwater tax. This residential increase offsets a drop in commercial assessments. The Board is also counting on a new round of federal COVID spending to backfill local needs.

One of the budget savings proposed is eliminating 56 currently vacant positions. Many residents may push back at the decision not to fill 10 police officer positions as well as cuts to 9-1-1 dispatching. There were 16 carjackings in Arlington in 2020 after just three the past two years.

You can check out the full budget proposal here or the summary presentation here.

Arlingtonians will also see the proposed schools budget later this week, but the county budget documents suggest they will not see a significant revenue boost. With enrollment down by 10% over projections for the current school year, it will be interesting to see whether APS will assume that those students will return. We do know that according to Superintendent Durán’s most recent presentation, Arlington is operating with a projected $6 million surplus for the current school year even after paying for COVID mitigation measures.

The schools do face a very real challenge of a lost year of learning. Not every student fell behind, but many did. Hopefully the superintendent and School Board use the current circumstances to not only evaluate the needs created by virtual learning, but how to come back better when it comes to preparing our students academically.

The new parking permit program cuts permits from four to two for people who have a driveway. It does not matter how many cars can practically use the driveway. It does not matter how many people of driving age who are related to each other live in the house.

While this is unlikely to create a hardship for a lot of families, it gives no flexibility to families who have a retired parent living with them or an adult children home from college or working while living at home. County Board member Libby Garvey was particularly dismissive of these concerns. Her response was that kids coming home from college in the future probably wouldn’t have cars. Speaking from personal experience, many of them do in fact have cars and now they may have no place to park them.

The County Board should at the very least consider an amendment to the plan that allows a family to apply for additional permits in certain situations before the changes go into effect on July 1st.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Thumbs Up to Governor Northam for announcing schools should reopen by March 15. If Arlington meets this deadline, it will be one full year since the schools were shut down on March 13, 2020. But this must mean in-person instruction, not a glorified study hall where kids learn virtually while sitting in a school classroom. States across America and countries around the world have figured out how to do it safely and responsibly. We have the resources to do it, so hopefully the Superintendent and APS School Board will provide the detailed roadmap soon.

Thumbs Down to those saying it cannot or should not be done. Too many of our kids have fallen behind during this lost year. Too many families have been stretched thin trying to make school happen at home. The time for excuses is over. The time to make it work is long overdue.

Thumbs Up to the bipartisan effort in Richmond to provide tax relief to small businesses. In December, the federal government made tax changes to the administration of the Paycheck Protection Program to allow the funds to flow to small businesses completely tax free. Without a conforming change to the Virginia code, these businesses which are just trying to make it through the pandemic will get an unwanted and unexpected tax bill from the Commonwealth. The compromise proposals currently under consideration in Richmond would cap the benefits so that the smallest businesses would benefit most. Hopefully one will be signed into law very soon.

Thumbs Up to former County Board member John Vihstadt for working toward more transparency for the financial disclosure forms that are required to be filed by our elected officials, top staff, and those appointed to boards and commissions. As Mr. Vihstadt suggested, forms should be available online, particularly for our elected officials. There is no reason this cannot happen, and in short order.

Thumbs Up to county officials for scrambling to make the best of a bad situation on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution front. In January, Governor Northam’s administration suddenly pulled the rug out from under the County Board’s partnership with Virginia Hospital Center resulting in thousands of cancelled appointments. While there have been a few bumps in the road since, and we all wish for faster progress, our officials are on the right track.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In response to School Board Member Reid Goldstein’s column yesterday, let’s talk about schools in Arlington.

First, here are some numbers to provide some perspective. The FY 2021 adopted budget was set to spend $670.3 million. When it was passed, the School Board projected enrollment at 29,142 — an increase of 1,122. The total cost per student was projected to be $23,001.

The official count for our closed school buildings enrollment on September 30th was actually 26,895 — a decrease of 1,125. The total cost per student for this school year is actually $24,923. Few school districts in the country match the resources of Arlington Public Schools.

Instead of talking about how the school board intended to use these resources to solve the current COVID challenges, Mr. Goldstein’s spent 710 words opining on the current buzzword on the left — “equity.” In fact, he did not mention COVID once in the entire piece. It reads as if it was written in January 2020, not January 2021.

At the end, Mr. Goldstein sums it up with these words, “Equity is the path to equality of opportunity for our students.” Providing equality of opportunity for our students is certainly something Mr. Goldstein can find agreement on across party lines. So how should we go about it?

Here are a couple simple suggestions for where Mr. Goldstein and the School Board can start. Read More

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At this point each year, we have the opportunity to examine the speeches of the five Arlington County Board Members to gauge their priorities for 2021. There was no doubt from those remarks that real challenges lie ahead as we move into COVID recovery.

Arlington has weathered the pandemic better than many communities. Our economy is still largely dependent on the relatively stable federal government budget. We are able to work from home due to access to technology and strong and fast internet connections. Still we saw businesses close their doors. And many more are wondering how much longer they can hang on.

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took to Twitter and said about his state’s economy, “We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.”

While Virginia’s business closures have not been as restrictive as other states like New York, we still need to have a forward-looking plan to return to normal as quickly as possible.

We need to address our budget in a way that does not put additional pressure on our economy and family budgets. Now is not the time to fund shiny object projects. As the newest County Board Member Takis Karantonis mentioned, he will focus “On fiscally sound, sustainable and accountable governance. This is a challenging year where all our fiscal priorities will have to be carefully re-examined and contrasted against major challenges in the commercial tax-base . . .”

We need to get our kids back in school. The truth is that while some students are thriving in a virtual environment, many are just getting by, and many others are struggling. While the County Board often takes a largely hands-off approach to Arlington Public School policy, they do provide the annual funding for the schools. More could have been said by County Board members about the role schools play in our overall community and economic life, particularly if “equity” truly is as big of a concern as the speeches made it out to be. The schools need to be held accountable now more than ever.

We also need more civility. As Libby Garvey said in he remarks, “We may disagree on something important, but we should respect each other even as we argue vigorously.” As we stare at growing polarization and civil unrest, may we all engage in more self-reflection and less knee-jerk blame in 2021.

Finally, an interesting note is that incoming Chairman Matthew de Ferranti encouraged Arlingtonians to shop local. He acknowledged people may still need to have some things delivered which was an apparent swipe at Amazon. Now that Arlington is home to Amazon’s second headquarters, wouldn’t we still be shopping local? Anyway, in addition to patronizing your favorite local restaurant, remember local charities can also use your support.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

It would not be 2020 without at least one unexpectedly strange story from our County Board. Last week it was revealed by the Washington Post that Christian Dorsey’s bankruptcy claim was dismissed with prejudice for “an overt act of misrepresentation.”

This is the second time in recent memory that Dorsey has had a very public revelation of difficulty with being forthcoming after last year’s failure to disclose a $10,000 improper campaign contribution. And for the second time in a year, he has received a less than enthusiastic vote of confidence from fellow Arlington County Board members for his continued service. Board Chair Libby Garvey said she backed Mr. Dorsey “despite his personal financial issues.”

On Saturday, the Arlington County Board moved ahead and approved its legislative package. Included in the requests are the ability to lower speed limits below 25 mph and to install speed cameras. This is on top of last week’s revelation that the County Board would use tax increases to fund spending priorities like ranked choice voting and collective bargaining.

Also on the docket was the Board’s move forward to advertise changes to its residential parking program. If you live in a house with a driveway, your ability to park on the street will be cut in half even if parking on your street is never a problem. The program will not take into account if you have multiple generations living together who need access to cars to commute to school or work where Metro is not a viable option. And in order to pay for a program that will issue fewer permits, the proposal would more than double the parking fees. It is another anti-car, completely arbitrary change that will be forced on many unsuspecting Arlingtonians very soon. It should not be passed under the cover of a pandemic.

This is the last column of 2020. Presumably, the next one will be after Arlington County Board Members have made their vision speeches for the New Year. Almost certainly, the speeches will be filled with a look back at the challenging year behind them. And the Board will no doubt paint a picture where they will have no choice but to ask homeowners to pay considerably more to help them “dig out of a hole.”

Between now and then, they should talk to the small business owners who are barely hanging on in the face of COVID restrictions. They should talk to families who have lost jobs and taken pay cuts. And they should talk to parents who are struggling to balance work with helping their kids get through the virtual school day.

Ask them all what their priorities are from their local government. Then the board Members should consider rewriting those speeches and reordering their priorities.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The County Board has issued guidance for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget and left all options on the table.

In other words, property owners should prepare for their real estate taxes to go up. The Board also began to lay the groundwork for a tax on plastic bags and cigarettes. This will all be done in the name of COVID-19.

However, the Board is prioritizing funding to do two things that are completely unrelated to fighting the impacts of the virus.

First, Board Members signaled they going to fund Rank Choice Voting in local elections. The question is of course, why? Outside of John Vihstadt’s wins in 2014, Democrats have not seen a race where their candidate fell below 60% let alone 50% in recent memory. This is something that is not only unnecessary, but at the very least could be shelved until a better budget year.

Second, the Board intends to take advantage of a new state law that allows them to prepare to enter into collective bargaining with public employees. While the Board did not put a price tag on this optional item, it is just the tip of the iceberg on additional costs to the county budget moving forward. It will also give future Arlington elected officials less flexibility in the face of a budget crunch like the one we are facing now.

Arlingtonians will have their chance to listen to a presentation by County Manager Mark Schwartz on December 9th. It is the next step in the process wherein the County Board will convince us we have to raise taxes to pay for a “scaled back” budget. But it is clear that not all budget priorities for next year are urgent.

Tax increases and interesting spending priorities are not the only controversial issues to look forward to in 2021. The County Board intends to vote to restrict the ability of homeowners to obtain parking permits. The Planning Commission will receive a presentation at its meeting tonight.

And, the School Board will vote this week on the first changes to elementary school boundaries. The School Board will hold a public hearing tonight which you can watch online.

The public is obviously focused on how COVID-19 is impacting them. These times demand restraint and caution from our elected officials, so we should watch what they are doing closely.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Just as in years past, it is time to dedicate a column to the annual closeout process. Usually, it calls for the closeout funds to be set aside to avoid future tax increases as well as for better budgeting and revenue estimates. But it’s 2020 and nothing is normal.

Every year the County Board over-budgets and over-taxes. According to this year’s report, the County ended Fiscal Year 2020 with $15.6 million in unspent and unobligated funds or 2.5% of department operating budgets. By comparison, last year it was $13.1 million or 2.2%. The schools ended the year with $27 million in unspent budgeted funds which hopefully will be applied to offset this year’s, and next year’s, budget needs.

Revenue generated from taxes, on the other hand, was flat for the first time in recent memory. However, that was mostly driven by COVID-related drops in sales taxes, hotel taxes and meals taxes. Real estate revenue was up by $13 million. And Arlington did receive nearly $20.7 million in federal COVID-19 assistance, about $13 million went toward the 2020 budget.

Each year in recent memory, the County has set aside much of the closeout funds toward the succeeding year’s budget. This year is different. County staff recommends that $13.4 million of the $22.4 million available be set aside for the current fiscal year and just $5 million for FY 2022. Unfortunately, the recommendation did include another $2 million slush fund for the County Manager to spend without coming back to the Board. In this time of COVID, the County Board should not be taking this hands off approach to any spending.

Much continues to be made of as much as a $84-95 million “budget shortfall” for the current fiscal year. However, Arlingtonians should keep in mind that between the general budget and the schools in FY 2020, there was more than $42.5 million in unspent budget. In addition to the $13.4 million in closeout money, County Manager Schwartz also outlined another $19.7 million in money available from the CARES Act, service reductions and debt refinancing. So already the current year gap may be as small as $9 million if actual spending trends continue as they have in previous years.

You may be thinking, this is a good year to have been “conservative” with our budget estimates. But remember, we also have reserves that we have been putting money into for years to account for a “rainy day.” Those reserves total $99.8 million, including $10.2 million for FY 2021 COVID expenses and $4 million to account for FY 2021 revenue declines related to COVID. This $14.2 million likely can be used to eliminate the current gap altogether.

Keeping in mind the unique nature of 2020, Arlington officials are making some strides to tighten up the budget. At the same time, it is safe to say we are nowhere near the need for a huge tax increase or massive spending cuts next year. The Board may take a different view as they are set to unveil the budget guidance for FY 2022 sometime later today. Hopefully it will be taxpayer friendly, realistic, and build in a great deal of flexibility.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In the race for County Board, Libby Garvey, who courageously bucked her party and backed Independent John Vihstadt, is on the ballot this year.

Let’s face it. She is going to win. Her opponent is perennial candidate Audrey Clement, and Democrat turnout will be through the roof. Democrat loyalists will vote largely according to their sample ballot — hypocrisy on the redistricting amendment aside.

If you haven’t voted yet, consider writing someone else in for County Board.

Why cast what amounts to a protest vote? First, while Libby Garvey had often taken a cautious approach on gold plated community projects, the impact seems to have waned since John Vihstadt’s departure. Recently, she cast the lone vote to continue the rushed, poorly conceived, and eventually unenforceable sidewalk gathering ordinance that all four of her colleagues rightly chose to jettison. The Board, under her leadership, still took an August break rather than working through the challenges raised by COVID-19. The budget process is more uncertain than ever, yet the Board is backing even more debt.

So, if you want to send a signal to the County Board that we are watching how they run the county during these uncertain times, register 30% of the vote for someone other than Libby Garvey.

There are even bigger issues at play as we move into 2020 election and beyond. In the Progressive Voice column yesterday, there were a number of suggestions of what Republicans are for versus Democrats.

A philosophical point was made, and one that we hear a lot, that Republicans allegedly want to create an environment where people disdain government. Democrats on the other hand, according to the article, want a bigger, stronger government.

There is no doubt that as a party Democrats favor bigger government.

What most Republicans want is efficient and well-run government, appropriate and limited to its role at different levels. There are things local governments should do, state governments should do and the federal government should do. And we prefer that all levels of government empower the people as much as possible.

Read More

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Right Note: Back to School?

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Thumbs up to the School Board for announcing the pathway for bringing kids back to school in person this year. According to the most recent update, Arlington Public Schools are on track to bring back students who need direct support this month and begin the in-person hybrid learning option in early December. After the false start this summer and a refusal to disclose specific metrics for the return, APS has a big communications hurdle to overcome over the next two months.

As parents continue to work through the logistical issues around their ongoing “home e-learning academies” and balancing their own work responsibilities, APS also put forward its proposed boundary changes for Fall 2021. According to APS, 1,400 students from Ashlawn, Science Focus, Glebe, Long Branch, McKinley, Taylor and Tuckahoe schools would be impacted, and the School Board will approve the changes December 3rd. There is no good time to finalize boundary changes, but the middle of pandemic school from home seems less than ideal.

Also of note, APS stated that the “data used in this process comes from elementary school enrollment on September 30, 2019.” First-day enrollment this fall was 911 fewer than a year ago. And APS has not yet announced the September 30th number for this year. Nothing in the announcement discussed how APS is taking into account any decrease in enrollment this September, or which schools are most impacted by it. We can only assume they believe enrollment will bounce back, but it is a question the School Board should answer before moving to a final vote.

Interested parents can join the first virtual meeting on the changes Wednesday evening and ask questions.

Thumbs up to the County Board for voting to end the sidewalk gatherings ordinance. Four members of the Board rightly recognized the ordinance as constructed was unworkable and did not continue to forge ahead anyway. The Board should consider looking for other unworkable ordinances to get rid of in the future.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At this month’s September 12 meeting, County Board members initially expressed general support for changing the county logo.

At the September 15 recessed meeting, the Board announced it would start a process to not only change the logo, but look at any name throughout the county that may need to be renamed or symbol that needs to be changed.

After three days of reflection, the Board seems set to move forward with the logo change. Instead of moving expeditiously to do so, the Board decided to make it part of what is almost certainly going to be a drawn out decision making process.

There are two practical questions that have to be answered considering the extensive use of the logo throughout Arlington: how much would changing it cost and how long would it take?

Once the Board knows the answer to these questions they should be able to announce the process, timeline and cost to select a new logo and put it in place. Instead, we are weighing into a nebulous timeline of the “Arlington Way” which will not start until 2021. It will drag this process out and almost certainly ensnarl it in controversy with any number of other things people will want to see replaced or renamed — see the renaming of Washington-Liberty High School.

As part of this process, one can only imagine that the name of our county will also be up for debate. We are named after the Arlington plantation that contains the house the County Board is now objecting to as a logo. The County Board will almost certainly face that question as part of this process. And if they think the same logic does not apply, then they should state why.

Hopefully the County Board members will rally around the idea that our foundational principles give us the opportunity to redeem past failures and move forward to create a more perfect union. Arlington County can stand as a place that does not need to change its name in order for it to be known as a place that unequivocally rejects racism. We can focus our time and efforts on lifting people up in our community by providing access to educational opportunities and reducing governmental barriers to economic opportunity.

A final note on the logo. At the Board meeting, Takis Karantonis held up his business card to the camera and said the logo “doesn’t represent me.” If Mr. Karantonis or any of the Board Members object that strenuously to the logo, they should stop using the taxpayer-funded cards immediately and purchase their own without the logo until the change is made. That would be a real protest.

The Board also received an update on the budget impacts from the pandemic. The projected slow down in revenue is within a range where the Board can make smart financial decisions utilizing close-out and contingency funds without piling a tax increase on our community as we continue to recover next year.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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