Arlington, VA

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.

Republicans have yet to field a candidate for any countywide office in Arlington this year. Unfortunately, fielding no candidates lets the Democrats sitting in office completely off the hook.

There would be no accountability for the tax increase that is putting the squeeze on homeowners and businesses alike. The two Board Members up for re-election would not have to answer for the 6.3% spending increase. They would not have to explain how that spending falls in line with their rhetoric that this was a “tough budget year.” The $2 million slush fund given to the County Manager gets the voters’ stamp of approval by default.

Christian Dorsey would not have to answer for his comments earlier this year that suggested that he does not want to work as hard as other Board Members. Dorsey has also served on the WMATA Board for years. If you think he has failed to demonstrate real leadership qualities in these capacities, you can just give him a piece of your mind during the next public comment period.

If you didn’t like how the County Board handled the Amazon deal, you can write a letter to the editor.

If you are unhappy with how the county processes permits and zoning, you can keep complaining to your neighbors.

If you think the County Board should do more to hold the School Board accountable during the budget process, you can write-in a friend when you go to the polls in November.

If you want answers to why the County Board approved a $50 million line of credit as a new mechanism to finance projects, you can send them a strongly worded email about the pitfalls of taking on too much debt.

But there is still time for someone to get on the November ballot.

Having run as a Republican in a November general election myself, it is certainly understandable that qualified people sit out of the process. If you are serious about running, you are committing to work the equivalent of a second full-time job for several months in the face of extremely long electoral odds.

While running against the party that controls everything is tough, there are some benefits to becoming a candidate.

You would gain a new appreciation for candidates who are willing to put in the hard work of running for office.

You would meet a lot of nice people and visit parts of the county where you may not spend much time. Most people, including the ones not voting for you, appreciate having an informed conversation about what is happening in their neighborhood. (You also learn how to deal with difficult people, but these are the exceptions.)

You would also get a lot of exercise knocking on doors. If you have never gone door-to-door here, you probably don’t realize just how hilly Arlington really is.

In all of this, you would learn a lot about yourself and the community in which you live. And, you would perform an invaluable public service by holding your elected officials accountable and by giving voters a choice.

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

0 Comments

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 School Board members are asking for information about staff turnover. Superintendent Patrick Murphy doesn’t have it. That fact is rightly causing the School Board to push for more information.

If you have ever left a professional job voluntarily, you have probably been asked to provide an exit interview. Many employers do this because they want to keep good employees. The information they gain in these exit interviews is designed to help them understand what they can do to make the work environment better.

Is it pay? Is it opportunity for advancement? Is the commute too long, causing someone to miss family time? Is there a toxic manager or staff member who is making it hard to come to work each day? Knowing this information and adjusting your policies accordingly may not keep the last employee who left, but it might help you avoid losing the next one.

According to Superintendent Patrick Murphy, APS is still “gearing up” to do some form of one-on-one exit interviews. Departing employees, not surprisingly, are generally not responding to what sounds like requests for participation in online surveys.

While the exit interview can help you after the fact, hopefully School Board members are asking other management and work environment questions.

How is Murphy training principals and other management level staff to regularly check in with the people who report to them? Are they encouraged to do regular one-on-one meetings with staff members to get feedback? Is Murphy doing the same thing with the staff members who report directly to him?

In other words, do staff at all levels feel like they have regular and open lines of communication to the person who is providing leadership to them on the organizational chart? Or is the environment one where they only communicate when there is a problem from below or a directive from “on high?”

And how is Superintendent Murphy held accountable for the level of communication?

While it seems like investing time in opening lines of communication might not seem to fit into a busy calendar, it can save so much time later in dealing with the crises caused by problems left bubbling below the surface. And ultimately, the information you gain by gathering input from your team on a regular basis is far superior to the information you gain from an exit interview after someone has already decided to leave.

If a change in the communications culture is in order at APS, it is never too early to start.

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

0 Comments

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.

According to the Washington Post report on emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington Business Journal, Arlington County officials created a “cozy” working relationship with Amazon and developer JBG Smith.

“We tend to go to great lengths to find areas of cooperation.” Those were Christian Dorsey’s words describing his approach to attracting Amazon.

The emails and text messages showed that Arlington officials provided Amazon representatives with a copy of questions they planned to ask at a public hearing on the deal. Board member Erik Gutshall provided all of his questions.

The Post story went on to report that “Arlington officials helped tailor communications, delay a request for an expansion of a higher-tax business improvement district, and arrange hearings in front of friendly civic and business audiences.”

The existence of such emails and a friendly reception by county officials should not come as a surprise. It was no secret that Arlington was making a significant push to land the retail giant.

It does give Arlingtonians a look into the kind of relationship the county created with Amazon. You can then compare it with any experiences you had with county officials when trying to discuss an issue in your neighborhood, get a permit, or work within (or around) confusing county rules and regulations. Did county officials “go to great lengths to find areas of cooperation” with you?

Newest Board member Matthew de Ferranti seemed to suggest this may be a signal that the county was taking a new tone toward business saying, “For a long, long time, Arlington was alleged to be too oppositional with business.”

If the county is aggressively seeking to clear unnecessary hurdles to running a business here, it is good for Arlington. If it is merely a shift in attitude toward new, big employers, then the county still has work to do. Arlington should be known as a place that serves its current employers well, not just as a place working to attract new ones.

Maybe the Arlington Chamber of Commerce could anonymously survey its members to see if existing businesses are seeing positive changes?

Amazon’s presence is likely to help bring down the commercial vacancy rate by attracting related employers. For example, the University of Maryland may be looking to bring a hub to Crystal City according to a Washington Business Journal story this week. However, Arlington officials must work to create a more competitive business climate overall.

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

0 Comments

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 post budget spin offered by Arlington officials defies common sense.

As both the general budget and the school budget increased by 6.3%, here is what
Board Chairman Christian Dorsey had to say,

“I would think about this not as government getting smaller, but as government getting
smarter.”

What he should have said:

Arlingtonians should not think of government getting smaller, because it got bigger.

Not to be outdone, Erik Gutshall county leaders went over the budget with a “fine tooth comb” and the result is a budget without “an ounce of fat.”

What he should have said:

A majority of the “savings” we found in the budget were achieved by essentially eliminating vacant staff positions.

Even if you don’t write off the savings as a budget gimmick, the Board spent 99.4% of what it wanted to spend on the county government side of the budget. And, there’s a good bet there is more than one ounce of fat left in it.

While we have come to expect this from a group of people who call spending 6.3% more than last year a “difficult” budget process, Christian Dorsey said something even more disturbing. WMAL aired a clip of Dorsey talking about how Arlingtonians can pay for the 5% tax increase. Dorsey’s reply was to suggest that Arlingtonians “scrub their family budgets.”

What Dorsey is essentially saying:

We didn’t do the hard work. You guys should just suck it up and find a way to pay for it.

Then I was reminded of something Dorsey said earlier this year. In January, he was answering questions about raising the pay of Board Members. Dorsey seemed to suggest that Board Members could scale back their workloads and focus more on big picture responsibilities.

He went on to reflect on some Board Members who dig into the nitty gritty of how the county is run, saying “An individual board member exceeding his responsibility is not helpful.” In other words, when someone else works really hard, it makes the rest of us look bad.

So, the idea that the Board did not really roll up their sleeves and work hard to build a better budget on behalf of taxpayers should not be surprising.

And the failure to rein in spending did not just result in a tax increase on homeowners. The Board also raised taxes on commercial real estate even more. They did this in the face of a commercial vacancy rate that remains high, putting even more upward pressure on the cost of doing business in the county.

All five Board Members have talked about addressing the vacancy rate. The only response thus far is to spend more of our tax dollars to subsidize big employers. $23 million for Amazon and $11.5 million for the DEA are the most recent examples.

What else do they plan to do other than hand out subsidies? Where is the plan?

The bottom line is it is tough to find a single word or phrase that describes this year’s budget process. “Failure” or “head-scratching” come to mind.

No, it’s just “typical.” Unless we change our leaders, we can expect more of the same.

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

0 Comments

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 months of laying the groundwork to increase spending and raise taxes, Board members are set to increase the tax rate by two cents on top of rising assessments. The bottom line for the average Arlington homeowner is we will pay 5% more this year, roughly $400. As a bonus, it is retroactive to January 1st.

The Board could have worked harder to keep that tax increase lower. They didn’t. Despite the line that it gets easier budget wise next year, do not hold your breath that the tax and spending spree will slow down.

As noted in this space last week, the Board is slated to give the DEA an $11.5 million subsidy to stay in Arlington. According to the Sun Gazette, this item will be pulled from the consent agenda to be debated by the Board.

After all the hullaballoo over giving $23 million to Amazon out of the increased tax revenue the retailer is slated to generate, it is quite interesting that the Board attempted to slide the DEA subsidy under the radar. Maybe someone with a microphone will answer the question of what the net benefit to the county will be to keep the agency here.

Speaking of under the radar, as of writing this column, there is still no report available that outlines the compensation plan for county staff. Earlier this year, the Board quickly and quietly approved pay raises for the county manager, county attorney, clerk and auditor with no debate or public notice.

There is no doubt that Arlington’s elected officials and county staff operate in one of the most resource rich communities in the country. The unwillingness of county residents hold the County Board responsible for tax increases at the ballot box allows county officials to redefine what constitutes difficult budget choices and to pay for shiny objects (see Artisphere). It allows them to borrow money for routine infrastructure maintenance, much of which has been put off for too long. Last November, the County Board even granted the County Manager a $2 million slush fund to spend as he sees fit.

Where is the Board Member or county employee who asks “how could we build a budget that spends less?” Where is the commitment to identifying potential savings a thorough and expedited review of programs through a more robust County Auditor’s office?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions seems to be “nowhere in sight.”

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

0 Comments

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 year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a generally well-liked incumbent with a wealth of seniority and influence in a heavily Democrat Congressional district in New York City. She did it despite being outspent somewhere in the range of 18 to 1. It shocked the media and so-called political establishment.

It also inspired other candidates to forego “waiting their turn” to run for office. This year four sitting Democrats in Arlington are facing intraparty challenges for the nomination to their party’s ballot slot in November. It would not be surprising to see a similar challenge in next year’s 8th Congressional District race as well.

While AOC’s success may be inspiring, it did something that hurts long-shot challengers this year. It eliminated the element of surprise. Seeing such a high profile upset, incumbents generally become sufficiently scared to take these challenges seriously.

Thus far, two of the races stick out based on the only metric we have available to us: campaign finances. Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has raised nearly $108,000 in her race against Theo Stamos for Commonwealth Attorney. However, Stamos holds a $50,000 plus cash on hand advantage.

The school board race between Reid Goldstein and David Priddy is also financially competitive, but only because both candidates reported anemic fundraising. Neither candidate has even $10,000 available to spend as of March 31st.

Surprises could happen, but the safe bet so far is on incumbents to win.

As for election season more broadly in Virginia, it appears as though Democrats looking to take control of the General Assembly may not be able to count on big financial support from their three statewide officeholders. According to the most recent fundraising reports, money has dried up considerably after scandals rocked the Democrats in Richmond. For a visual, check out the Virginia Public Access Project.

The fallout is not limited to fundraising. Governor Northam’s office announced yesterdaythat he is backing out of his scheduled speech for the Virginia Military Institute commencement this spring.

Finally, we are one week away from the County Board’s approval of next year’s budget, including what is almost certain to be a sizeable tax hike and multiple fee increases.

Also of note on the packed April meeting agenda:

  • $11.5 million subsidyto keep the Drug Enforcement Agency offices in Arlington.
  • Pay raises for county staff. The Board report for this item is currently unavailable, so we do not yet know what the raises will be.
  • Advertising public hearingson the modification of accessory dwelling unit (ADU) regulations.
  • Renaming the portion of Route 1 in Arlington from Jefferson Davis Highway to Richmond Highway.

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

0 Comments

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.

When faced with the need to find budget savings, budget writers have been known to cut one of the most popular budget line items in hopes of avoiding the cuts altogether. It is known as the “Washington Monument Strategy.”

If the National Park Service needed to make a cut, they could simply propose closing the Washington Monument to visitors. News crews would catch disappointed tourists on the National Mall and ask them how they feel about the site being closed, creating a public relations nightmare. Capitol Hill offices would be flooded with phone calls. To stem the tide, funding would be restored.

Our friends at the Progressive Voice opined this week against the proposed cut to the Equity and Excellence position at Wakefield High School. There is a good chance that the Superintendent’s staff was fairly certain when proposing such a cut that it will not be in the final budget.

Proposing cuts like this one is designed to help create a public outcry against cuts. The public is led to believe that all the fat has been cut in the budget, so we must either go to the bone or raise taxes to pay for it. It is also why we constantly hear the terms “tight budget times” and “shortfalls” and “difficult choices” despite rising revenues. The goal is that taxpayers will accept paying more in taxes to “save” critical needs.

The County Manager did the same thing in his budget. The County Board budget hearing went on for nearly three and a half hours last week as citizens called for restoring cuts. And, the resignation to pay more was in full effect as the tax rate hearing drew only a handful of Arlingtonians to speak against the full rate increase.

John Vihstadt did make an appearance at the tax rate hearing to speak against going above the County Manager’s recommendation. Vihstadt encouraged Board Members to roll up their sleeves and go back to work to find a way to keep the tax rate from rising further. Vihstadt’s message: rising equity in your home doesn’t pay the bills. In other words, if your household income isn’t rising by 6% in 2019, your family budget will be worse off if the County Board adopts the advertised tax rate.

In many places, raising taxes year after year would result in office holders being swept out of office. But in Arlington, the Washington Monument Strategy works and party loyalty prevails.

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

0 Comments

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.

In a split decision last week the Arlington School Board voted to require Chairman Goldstein to inform the County Board they need more money in the upcoming budget via an increased tax rate.

Serving on a local school board may be the toughest job in politics. There is nothing more personal to a parent than what happens to their children. That means even modestly controversial decisions come with the knowledge it could produce a heightened outcry from the community. And that undoubtedly puts significant pressure on our School Board members to make it look like they are doing something in the face of Superintendent Murphy’s proposed budget priorities.

Three members decided to take the unusual step of sending a letter to the County Board to make it look like they are doing something. Here is what they could do instead.

First, they could stop using language that is misleading. When the Superintendent is proposing to increase the budget by 4.9% to $671.6 million, and per student spending will rise to $23,569, you do not have a budget shortfall. When you have closeout funds available to spend every year, you do not have a budget shortfall. What you have is the job to balance spending priorities and growth within a healthy school budget.

Second, if they do not like the budget priorities that the Superintendent proposed, they can keep working through the budget line by line to determine if APS can spend $23,569 per student in a way that meets the needs of our schools. The Superintendent proposes spending levels, it is their job as our elected representatives to ensure those spending levels work within the budget constraints.

Third, if after doing the above they believe they still need additional resources, then do all of the homework in advance of passing the proposed budget on April 11th. At that point, they can take advantage of the joint work session scheduled between the County Board and School Board scheduled for April 12th. Be prepared to walk in there and make the case for the increase they are seeking, backed up by numbers not just rhetoric. That gives the County Board 10 days to make a final decision on whether or not to increase the tax rate in a manner that is dedicated to schools.

Sometimes letters are helpful in bringing awareness to issues. In this case, however, it looks more like an attempt to lay the foundation for the finger to be pointed at the County Board for any unpopular cuts.

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

0 Comments

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 next four weeks will be all budget, all the time for the County Board. The Board will hold five work sessions with the County Manager and two public hearings before arriving at the April meeting to approve the fiscal year 2020 budget. The two public hearings provide you with an opportunity to give feedback to the Board about the levels of spending and the level of taxation.

Those who are concerned about items impacted by potential cuts, and some of those who think other spending increases are not enough, will bring a contingent of supporters to speak out at the April 2nd budget hearing. The Board will hear plenty of speeches asking for more money to be spent, and few, if any, asking for spending restraint. Multiple people will “understand budgets are tight” while making their pitch. It is unlikely anyone will point out that a proposed 4.7% spending increase is not really tight.

If past years are any indication, few people will show up to talk about taxes. Last year, it was only nine, and included Clerk of the Court Paul Ferguson. The Board spent most of the hour in recess waiting for their appointed time to expire.

The conventional wisdom percolating out there is that the Board will settle at a tax rate higher than the County Manager’s proposed 1.5% increase and lower than the advertised 2.75%. The higher rate would take nearly 6% more out of your family budget this year, retroactive to January 1st.

If you talk to Arlingtonians from across the political spectrum who are not excited about yet another property tax increase, they will usually tell you something like this, “it doesn’t matter what we say, the Board is going to do what it wants.” But what if 100 people showed up to testify against the rate increase and brought another 100 people to stand with them? The message would be clear, and the Board would not be able to just ignore it.

On April 4 at 7 p.m., you have an opportunity to send a message. You can show up and oppose a nearly 6% tax increase. Otherwise, your only option is to complain about it.

Well, there is a third option. Elect one or two new Board members in November. Sound even harder? Well, John Vihstadt still has not officially announced his plans.

0 Comments

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.

Apparently, there is a rumor being spread in our schools that staff positions are being cut next year because of the most recent vote of the County Board “to give $23 million to Jeff Bezos.” Whether you agree with Arlington’s decision to give incentives to Amazon or not, the claim deserves further examination.

First, the money being granted to Amazon comes by way of an increase in transient occupancy tax revenue which is being attributed to Amazon’s arrival. It amounts to $22.7 million over 16 years out of a total of $342.3 million in new tax dollars estimated to be generated by Amazon. It is not $23 million being given away out of next year’s budget. Moreover, if the estimates are correct, over the long haul APS will receive even more funding than it otherwise would without Amazon’s presence.

Second, nearly half of that money is anticipated to go to Amazon in years 13-16. That means the impact of the Amazon grants on the total budget for next year is minimal, even less so when weighed against another closeout windfall APS is almost certainly guaranteed to receive in November.

Third, the APS budget is increasing by 4.9% to $671.6 million next year or $23,569 per student. Proposing any reductions in current positions is nothing more than a reflection of the Superintendent’s priorities in light of a healthy and growing budget.

I have written against Tax Increment Financing in the past as I prefer to have any project stand on its own funding merits when weighed against other priorities. This is particularly true as we have had a history of borrowing to pay for basic infrastructure maintenance, and we have the continued need to address increasing school enrollment. I would also prefer that policy changes directly benefit all Arlington businesses, existing and new. However, the claim that Jeff Bezos is to blame for any cut in Superintendent Murphy’s 2020 budget proposal is misleading at best.

If you want more facts, for or against the Amazon deal, you can read the full County Board report. Page 13 of the staff presentation also has a graph which shows the long term revenue growth and the amount being given to Amazon.

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

0 Comments

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.

For years, I have advocated for eliminating the anti-business Business, Professional and Occupational License or BPOL tax.

Now comes news that Arlington officials are looking for a way to slash the tax for Amazon, or eliminate their requirement to pay altogether.

The BPOL is a tax levied by Arlington County for the privilege of doing business here. And it takes 37 pages of the county code to explain. The simple version it that the BPOL is a tax based on gross receipts, not on profits.

So, if you operate a business with high revenue, but relatively small margins, it can take a chunk out of your bottom line.

The county manager is estimating that BPOL will bring in $67.5 million to Arlington next year. As residential taxpayers stare down another substantial tax increase this year, we should certainly not be asked to pay even more.

But, if the County Board wanted to attract more business to fill empty space, they could phase out the BPOL over the next three to five years. They could “pay for” it by holding the overall rate of spending growth to inflation plus population growth.

If that is not enough, they could designate a portion of their closeout spending each year to make up the difference.

If the BPOL is not good for Amazon, it’s not good for any Arlington business.

Speaking of the County Board, Chairman Christian Dorsey formally announced his bid for re-election this past week. Dorsey’s campaign theme is “equity,” which is no surprise since it was the main buzzword in the speech he gave to kick off his year as chairman.

Dorsey’s old campaign website seems to be offline and his Facebook page (as of writing this column) has not been updated since he called for the resignation of Gov. Ralph Northam. So, there is really no substance available to back up his announcement.

It is hard to be against a guy who says he is for a word that means fairness, but it would be nice to get some specifics.

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

0 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list