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The Right Note: Budget Gap ‘Erased’

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 County Manager Mark Schwartz is set to unveil his proposed budget over the next few days at a County Board work session and the regular monthly meeting.

According to a Schwartz email, his budget will include just $5 million in cuts to existing staff and programs. This is $30 million less than the worst-case scenario laid out over the the past few months.

The proposed cuts would impact approximately 20 existing county staff members, many of whom would have the opportunity to apply for other vacant, but funded, positions according to Schwartz. Of note, Schwartz is using around 10 unfilled positions to “cut” spending.

The dramatic turnaround can be attributed to two things. First, stronger than expected growth in anticipated real estate revenue from assessments. Second, a tax rate increase that almost certainly has been agreed to in principle by County Board members.

Based on our track record of collecting more revenues and spending less than projected, the budget gap has already been erased. The annual closeout process would more than cover the additional $5 million. In reality, we should already anticipate a surplus to be available to the Board this November and next.

The full budget proposal will give us our first look at all of the Manager’s recommendations on spending and on the expected tax rate increase on real estate as well. As part of the budget process, the Board will advertise other tax rates and fees this month.

There is no staff report posted yet on the recommendation for personal property taxes.

The agenda indicates there will be a proposed increase in our water and sewer rates. The agenda also features a series of proposed new and increased fees on site plans, use plans, construction-related inspections, and parks and recreation programs and services. The Board will also advertise the tax rate for our three Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). The BIDs will take approximately $8.2 million out of the general budget to be spent exclusively in Rosslyn, Ballston and Crystal City.

The agenda does feature exactly one proposed reduction, on garbage (solid waste) collection which could save you $10.16 per year. Don’t spend it all in one place.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note: Budgets May Be A Little Tighter

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 members of the Arlington School Board are beginning to ramp up the pressure to increase tax rates this year in order to gain more flexibility in the APS budget. While the County Board will almost certainly advertise a higher rate to give themselves options heading into the budget process, the School Board was not going to wait before getting on the record supporting it.

The fear is that the County Board will not raise the rate, or not enough in the School Board’s view, and instead ask everyone to tighten their belt a little. While the term “austerity” is being thrown around, our elected leaders’ use of austerity may not be the same as the average person would define it.

Like the County Board, the School Board continues to have leftover funds at the end of every fiscal year which they reprogram and spend as part of the closeout process. Children continue to receive computers and iPads free of charge. The student to teacher ratio has not been raised. Our per pupil spending remains the highest in the region despite the increased enrollment. And we continue to move forward with school construction.

It is hardly a situation which you could honestly describe as on the brink of austerity.

School Board Member Monique O’Grady likened the current situation between the School Board and County Board to asking your parents for money. They only have so much, she said, so they cannot give you everything you want.

So let’s extend the metaphor a little.

Imagine your child currently receives an allowance of $20 per week. Next year, you plan to give them $22 a week, but they want $25.  Holding them to $22 is not austerity, it’s just not as much prosperity as they would like.

To go even further, imagine your child receives the increase to $22, but the average child in the neighborhood who was receiving $18 will only receive a raise to $19. While your child did not get the raise they desired, they are even better off than the other kids. That is essentially how Arlington is faring versus our neighbors in the region. Our school funding remains strong year over year, and strong compared to other jurisdictions.

Arlington made strong school funding a priority. And despite the “austerity” talk from the School Board, no one will be asking them to make massive cuts now.

The School Board just may need to take a harder look at priorities and be willing to go to the public and say we can only do 98 percent of what we wanted to do next year.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note: What a Week

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.

It is hard to put into words exactly what to make of the past week for Democrats in Richmond. If someone had pitched the storyline to a Hollywood producer, it might have been rejected as too unrealistic.

Lost in the series of breaking news stories is the ongoing effort in the General Assembly to adjust Virginia’s tax code to conform with the new federal tax law. Republicans want to send the excess revenue created by the changes back to Virginians in the form of income tax relief. Democrats want to spend most of the new tax revenue.

Republicans in Richmond also advanced redistricting reform bills through the House and Senate. The House bill would rightly keep elected officials accountable for redistricting decisions rather than pushing off that decision to unelected individuals. If one of the versions makes it through the General Assembly, it would have to be passed again next year before making it to a statewide vote.

Last week, Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th District) weighed back into the issue of helicopter noise. Beyer sent a letter asking for a federal study of flight times, flight patterns and altitude. It was also suggested that a Republican House majority prevented him from getting very far with the Pentagon in prior attempts to get the Department of Defense to listen to his concerns or his suggestion to just fly a little higher. Of course, flying higher would require helicopters to burn more fuel, and burning more fuel is in direct contradiction to one of Beyer’s other stated goals which is reducing fossil fuel usage.

Also last week, in less than one minute and with no discussion, the County Board approved 3.25 percent pay raises for the county manager, county attorney, clerk and auditor. There was no discussion of raising salaries for these four to an average of $193,000 despite the Board almost certainly preparing to hit taxpayers with a tax rate increase on top of the new property tax assessments.

The Board followed that up by passing, also without discussion, a resolution authorizing the lawsuit to claw back a $200,000 deposit they made on a now defunct land deal. Based on what we know so far, this lawsuit does not seem to have a great chance of success as the period to ask for the money back seems long passed. The Board could be doing so as a strong-arm tactic designed to get something out of the property owners who may wish to avoid legal fees.

Both of these Board items warranted some sort of public discussion.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note: The ‘Dorsey Standard’

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, I questioned the political wisdom of newly minted Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey’s comments regarding just how hard, or not hard, a Board member should work.

Dorsey pondered aloud just what a member’s role should be and questioned whether it was a good thing for someone serving on the Board to go above and beyond the call of duty. He called this hard work “not helpful.”

Last week’s column also noted that the County Board loves to talk about tough budget choices facing them. After years of wearing out the phrase and having money leftover to spend at the end of the year, this year they apparently really mean it. They are searching for as much as $70 million to close their annual “gap.” Schools, Metro, Medicaid expansion and Amazon are all putting pressure on budget decisions for FY 2020.

The more you hear Board members bemoan the budget, the more remarkable it is that the chairman of the Board facing “tough choices” can suggest Board members should take a step back from their workload. If the choices are truly that difficult, it demands more of your time and attention than ever before, not less.

Dorsey’s “work less, delegate more” approach was front and center at last Saturday’s board meeting when it came to light that costs are once again creeping up on the new Long Bridge aquatics facility. A new dollar figure was slipped into a Board report on the audio-visual contract for the project that was on the consent agenda on Saturday. The report noted a $3.2 million increase in so-called “soft costs” for the facility.

John Vihstadt, who was a lone voice in opposition to moving forward with the project, is no longer around to officially dig into the details, but he is still asking county staff about it and talking about it on social media. It may have been his inquiries that caused Katie Cristol to pull it from the Board’s “rocket docket” Saturday in order to have a discussion tonight. Otherwise, it would not have warranted even a single minute of debate from the Board under Chairman Dorsey’s agenda.

Hopefully, tonight Christian Dorsey will let us know why he did not want to have a public discussion on this. Maybe he will explain that he is content to just give the County Manager another blank check. (In November, the Board approved a $2 million slush fund for the County Manager as part of the closeout appropriation.)

Of course, Democrats have regularly required taxpayers to give the Board more of their money under the guise of a budget crunch without paying a political price as a party. The amount of time Dorsey dedicates to doing so may not matter, so the “work less” approach may make sense.

He certainly seems to be banking on voters to send him back to the Board this November no matter what he says, or does, or doesn’t want to do.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note: Time for a Pay Raise?

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 the Sun Gazette reported on the question of whether the County Board would take advantage of the once in four years opportunity to raise their pay without a public hearing. Chairman Dorsey is quoted as saying, “I don’t actually think it’s appropriate this year.”

Libby Garvey, who has openly advocated moving toward a full-time salary for Board Members in the range of $100,000, offered a slight glimmer of hope by characterizing it as “unlikely.”

Certainly, a raise in the range of 60 percent that Garvey recommends is probably not in order. Yet, while many in the community have strong feelings about County Board members receiving any pay raises at all, a modest once every four year raise, is probably not out of order either.

Unfortunately, through a combination of rhetoric and relatively unchecked spending increases, the Board has left itself in a tough spot. Year after year, the Board claims they are making tough budget choices and cuts. It is hard to advocate for a pay raise when times are supposedly tough.

At the same time, the actual bias toward ever-growing spending has also caused the Board to find itself on the doorstep of passing a hefty property tax rate increase on top of increasing assessments to pay for everything they want to do. It is hard to advocate for a pay raise when you are raising everyone’s tax rates to fund it.

So Garvey and Dorsey are right, a pay raise is unlikely at best.

Dorsey did something interesting for someone on the ballot this year. He went on to call into question the role of the County Board. Are they getting too far into the weeds and doing things best left to County staff? Dorsey even pondered out loud, “An individual board member exceeding his responsibility is not helpful.”

Dorsey’s question about how much a County Board should work in a part-time job is not without merit from an intellectual perspective. However, it may not be a smart political statement to say something along the lines of I may not want to work as hard as the community expects me to, and when one of my colleagues works a lot harder, it makes the rest of us look bad.

If Dorsey draws a challenger this year, expect to hear a lot about his desire to work less. One way to ensure he does not have to is to give someone else the job.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note: Best Conspiracy Theory of the Week?

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.

Why were Arlington schools closed on Tuesday when every surrounding jurisdiction operated on a two hour delay?

According to the Sun Gazette, it could have something to do with Arlington’s desire to get a waiver from the so-called “Kings Dominion rule” which stops many school districts from returning to school until after Labor Day. Fairfax County was granted the waiver primarily on the basis of too many snow days a couple years back, so maybe it would work for Arlington?

It has been tough sledding for Arlington officials when it comes to getting help from the General Assembly. However, Arlington officials could be betting on Democrats taking control of both the House and Senate in the 2019 elections, which presumably would clear the way for more favorable treatment.

Last fall, Katie Cristol openly backed the opponent of the last remaining General Assembly Republican inside the beltway — Tim Hugo. This was primarily based on the treatment the county received in the golf course property tax battle. Having made this early political play, it would be a good bet that nothing Arlington wants is moving through the House of Delegates if Republicans hold on to the majority.

Back to the school calendar. Arlington could already get out of school earlier in June if that was truly a priority. There are plenty of cushion days built into the calendar now to make it happen.

If we did have a particularly snowy winter, days could simply be added back in June if necessary to meet state requirements. If this is about preparing for SOL testing or other academic measures, it would be good to see real data on whether a school district that made the switch saw any statistically significant improvement.

Speaking of APS, the School Board this week made it official: Washington-Lee will soon be known as Washington-Liberty high school. Long ago it seemed a done deal that the compromise position was to keep the “W-L” moniker rather than further alienating already disgruntled alumni.

The bottom line for many parents is the amount of time spent on name changes, building designs and boundary line disputes should never take away from the need to ensure what happens inside the classroom is best preparing our kids for the future.

How our students will be prepared to find a job and thrive in the next generation economy. And, how our students will be prepared to contribute to our society as good, well-rounded, critically thinking citizens.

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The Right Note: Kicking Off, Part 2

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.

County Board Members Garvey, Gutshall and de Ferranti also chimed in with their current priorities at the annual organizational meeting. Each gave a nod to the budget process which will undoubtedly result in a hefty tax rate increase. The ongoing questions with Amazon’s arrival, soaring housing costs, transportation and schools were on also their lists in one way or another.

Newcomer Matthew de Ferranti recapped his campaign promises in his speech. Oddly, he put building a new high school at the top of his list for the 2020 budget process. Since he is not on the School Board, one can only assume that item is what he will hang his hat on in order to vote for a tax rate increase.

Libby Garvey took time to offer a look back at Arlington’s history over the past four decades in order to set the stage for the question of where we want Arlington to be over the next four decades? And she issued a challenge to have that debate in a civil manner.

Fresh off his first year of service, Erik Gutshall went through a traditional speech that included political platitudes and priority items. Gutshall rightly called for modernizing the zoning code. Though we should all hope that the Board members calling for this think “modernize” means make it easier and less expensive to build not more expensive and more complicated.

Gutshall’s final priority was unique to his colleagues, and a bit concerning. Without discussing the specifics of what it would mean to us, Gutshall suggested Arlington join the “Green New Deal.” At least one preliminary study estimates the plan would cost an amount which is twice the current federal budget over the next 10 years. While not all of those cost would be passed on to taxpayers directly, the costs to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in manufacturing would certainly be passed on to us in terms of increased prices.

Members of the all-Democrat General Assembly delegation also discussed their priorities for the year as they head back into session. They suggested Republicans’ electoral prospects would be enhanced by adopting Democrats’ priorities. I am sure Republicans in Richmond will be just as receptive to the advice as the County Board will be to my advice not to raise the tax rate this year.

At or near the top of their list is one of the issues that historically does not motivate voters to go to the polls — redistricting reform. While most voters favor “doing something” on the issue, the push by Democrats to move the process even further away from any accountability to the voters remains a bad idea.

The real fight as recognized by our delegation will be over the tax revenue windfall caused by changes in the federal tax reform law. In posturing that will surprise no one: Republicans will push to return most of it to taxpayers. Democrats will push to spend most of it.

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The Right Note: Kicking Off the Year, Part 1

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 Jan. 2, the County Board held its organizational meeting for 2019 with speeches from each County Board member outlining their priorities for the year. Today, I will focus on the remarks from our current Chairman Christian Dorsey as well as our outgoing Chair Katey Cristol.

Christian Dorsey was elected to take the center seat as chairman for 2019. Early in his remarks, Dorsey did what was expected, set the stage for why a tax rate increase would be necessary, primarily blaming a “depressed” tax base, primarily because of a low commercial vacancy rate.

To translate for people who do not follow county budgets, our “depressed” tax base continues to produce tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue each and every year.

Nevertheless, desired county spending continues to outpace our growing revenue. The county, Dorsey said, would practice austerity to make up for this gap. Austerity is a word that makes one think the county will take extreme steps to reduce spending, but that is unlikely. What is extremely likely is that the county will not reduce spending enough to avoid a tax rate increase.

Dorsey did move on to the theme for his year as chairman. The word for the year was clearly “equity.” Dorsey argued we needed to put our words and commitment to equity into practice for all Arlingtonians. Unfortunately, Dorsey did not lay out exactly what success would look like a year from now on this front.

Cristol, who should get some sort of credit for working the word “crystalized” into her speech, offered two constructive suggestions to compliment what Chairman Dorsey had to say.

First, she suggested reforming our zoning code to increase the types of housing that could be available to meet our long term needs for people of all income levels. Those reforms should also include making it easier and cheaper to make your way through the permitting and construction process.

Cristol also suggested that the county use data to measure the progress it makes in all of its goals, particularly when it comes to equity.

A data-driven approach is 100 percent in line with the transparency and accountability that is promised by our County Board. It also fits right in with the time of year we are in where we are thinking about our resolutions and goals for the new year. If you have gone through the planning process with your business, you know this: if it’s not measurable, it’s not a real goal.

I look forward to how Cristol works with county staff to turn this idea into reality.

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The Right Note: Getting Ready for the Speeches

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.

Next week, the County Board will meet for its annual organizational meeting, and it will do so with a new member for the first time since 2016. While the annual tradition of meeting on New Year’s Day seems to be relegated to the past, the tradition of speeches filled with a laundry list of “priorities” is here to stay.

Here are 10 questions the Board should try to answer as they craft their messages to Arlingtonians:

What will the first year of Amazon’s arrival look like? Now that the decision has been made and the incentive package has been promised, there are still a lot of practical questions to be answered. Housing, transportation and other infrastructure issues are on a lot of our minds.

How do you intend to improve the zoning and permitting process to help keep housing construction costs in check?

What is the future of Metro? While this is certainly not a question left up to us, Christian Dorsey could be a leader in calling for reforms.

How much do you plan to raise the tax rate? There is little question the Board plans to raise rates for 2019 on top of rising assessments, in order to ramp up spending significantly. It is unlikely anyone will come right out and say just how much, but they will instead spend most of their time apologizing for why they “have” to do it.

Will you give the county auditor more resources to do his job? Assuming the Board really does seek the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

How many more things will Arlington try to rename? And, has anyone determined the amount of staff time spent on such efforts?

Would you vote to institute “Instant Runoff Voting” in County Board elections if the General Assembly said you could?

Does Arlington have a long-term plan if our share of Medicaid expansion costs continue to rise? No one knows yet the full impact of this decision on our local budget, but the County Board is already asking for relief in the package it sent to the General Assembly.

Will the Board revisit its stance against funding the Potomac River gondola? A simple one-word answer will suffice if you do not want to clutter up your speech, preferably starting with the letter ‘n.’

Finally, with the return of one-party control of the County Board, what assurances can you give Arlingtonians that you will not slip into the patterns of the past?

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The Right Note: 2018 Is Winding Down

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.

Tis the season of reflecting on the year that is almost behind us and looking forward to the year to come.

Here are a few things that caught my eye this week as we are rounding the corner into 2019.

Out With the Old?

The county manager this week sent a shot across the bow of the ART bus service, saying bluntly that it “stinks.” More likely than not, Mark Schwartz is just trying to get their attention, not necessarily making a threat to yank their contract next time around.

Over the past week, John Vihstadt was honored for his service on the Arlington County Board. Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey each heaped praise upon the departing Vihstadt, no doubt hoping he would not run again in 2019 when they are both on the ballot. For his part, Vihstadt left open the possibility of running again, telling his supporters not to put away their purple.

In With the New?

The County Board also welcomed its newest member this week. Matthew de Ferranti pledged in his first ceremonial speech to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and listen to all perspectives on the issues. It was nice rhetoric to hear as the County Board reverts to one-party rule once again, particularly facing the big Amazon vote as well as a tax rate increase that was telegraphed by the Board’s budget guidance. Only time will tell how serious he is about his promise.

A judge this week tossed out a lawsuit challenging the renaming process for Washington-Lee High School. There is no doubt that this process has been one of the most unpopular moves the School Board has made, particularly among the W-L alumni. But the ruling may clear the way for the School Board to vote on a new name on Jan. 10 with the most likely outcome that the school remains “W-L” with the “L” still TBD.

Meanwhile, Delegate Patrick Hope hopes to pass a bill through the General Assembly to allow for instant runoff voting in Arlington County Board elections. In such a system, if no candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote, the lowest vote getter would be eliminated. Then, those who voted for that person would have a second choice indicated on their ballot and those votes would be allocated accordingly. The process would repeat until someone reached a majority.

Hope’s goal is to prevent a fringe candidate from winning a crowded Democratic primary with just 20 percent of the vote. While there is absolutely no indication that such a move is necessary, Hope is forging ahead.

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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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