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by Mark Kelly — February 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Thumbs up to new County Manager Mark Schwartz for seeking out public input at a forum February 24th on how to better respond to and recover from major snow events. I know one burning question for many parents is, should it really have taken an entire week after a major snow event to return to school?

Let’s face it though, we do not have major snow events inside the beltway on a regular basis.

There is no need for the county to spend millions on heavy snow removal equipment like they may have in many places to our north. However, improvements to the contingency planning for such events may be in order.

County officials and the Virginia Department of Transportation should focus on how can we avoid the rush hour disasters of 2-4 inches of snow that fall just as millions in the area are heading home from work. Regional officials, most certainly looking ahead to “Snowzilla,” essentially ignored the snow forecast two days before the blizzard which resulted in hours of gridlock.

It is not the first time a smaller snow event timed with the commute home wrecked havoc on the region. It certainly seems like a more pressing problem than figuring out how to move 20-30″ of snow off county streets once every few years.

For both the major and more minor snow events, hopefully the forum is worthwhile in fostering practical solutions for the future.

A big thumbs up to all the police officers, firefighters, health care professionals, and County emergency personnel that worked during the storm. As we hunker down in our homes, we can forget about the people who are working to make sure we are as safe as possible.

Thumbs up to good neighbors. I don’t know about your street in Arlington, but I find a storm often brings out the best in a neighborhood. Neighbors spend time helping neighbors. Children of all ages play together. Long conversations replace quick hellos. Not to wish blizzard conditions on the county all the time, but it’s not so bad every once in awhile.

by Mark Kelly — February 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 every press release, Arlington refers to itself as a “world-class residential, business and tourist location”. It ends the standard paragraph with “Arlington stands out as one of America’s preeminent places to live, visit and do business.” It is easy to find support for that statement and fault with it, depending on who you talk to in Arlington.

Our main economic engine, the federal government, is not going out of business any time soon. The question is, will Arlington put itself in a position to maximize the health of our economy to withstand any BRAC-like changes in the future? And, will it do it by empowering businesses to grow rather than by taxpayer-funded shiny objects like streetcars, swimming pools and gondolas?

Now that Mark Schwartz* is our County Manager, I hope he will accept the challenge to look at every aspect of Arlington’s budget and ongoing day-to-day operations. If he takes a reform-minded approach rather than embracing the status quo, we will all be better off for it.

Over the next two weeks Schwartz and his team will put the finishing touches on the Manager’s proposed budget.

If you read the Budget Guidance from the County Board, it does represent a fairly fiscally responsible path forward. No tax rate increase. Consider tax rate cuts if revenues exceed 2.4% in growth. Present options for program reductions or eliminations as well as for the elimination of duplication and inefficiencies, including partnerships with the school system.

The Board has been known to ignore its own guidance before, and could very well do it again, but this is a good place to start.

The Manager should also put in the FY 2017 budget proposal parameters for closeout spending. What projects does he support spending extra revenue on or would he support giving that money back to the taxpayers? By doing so, the closeout process would be subject to the same scrutiny in public budget hearings as every other line item in the budget.

Finally, the Manager should also give a detailed report on the revenue estimating process. As noted in this column multiple times, revenues in recent history have without fail been underestimated when the budget is passed. This is what gives the Board the opportunity to spend tens of millions each year in the closeout process.

Speaking of the Budget, A Word on Bikes

When it comes to the Bikeshare program in the region, it seems few people care deeply about it as an issue. But the ones who do have extremely strong opinions on it, on both sides. Whether you’re for it or against it, one thing is for sure, eventually it’s cheaper to buy every Bikeshare member their own bike and lock.

*Last week I failed to properly proofread my column and referred to Mark Schwartz as “Michael”. For those who missed the correction, my apologies again for the error.

by Mark Kelly — January 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Missed Opportunity

The announcement that Acting County Manager Mark Schwartz was elevated permanently to the top post comes as a surprise to no one. It does represent a missed opportunity to change course in Arlington.

The Board undoubtedly viewed their last attempt to bring in an outsider on as County Manager as a failure. Michael Brown’s short tenure ended when he and the County Board did not see eye to eye. While Brown graciously offered an excuse of his wife’s health when he resigned, it is no secret that the Board did not like having a County Manager who desired to do things differently.

The Board then elevated Barbara Donnellan, a long-term county employee to the post. Donnellan certainly was by all accounts well-liked and well-respected, a quality not to be taken lightly. More importantly to the Board, she was well entrenched in the status quo way of doing things in Arlington and already had an established reputation with Board Members.

Now Mark Schwartz has been given the job. His resume certainly backs up the hire on paper. Qualifications aside, Schwartz is someone who, like Donnellan, was part of an Arlington government that brought us the Columbia Pike streetcar, the artisphere and aquatics center. These were bad ideas that have since been mothballed because of public pressure or mounting costs that the Board could no longer support.

Maybe the national search the Board said it conducted did not find anyone equally or more qualified. That certainly may be true. But, it seems doubtful that any premium was placed on bringing in a fresh perspective to how Arlington County operates on a daily basis. And, that is a loss for Arlingtonians.

On the upside, Schwartz is an Arlington resident. So, if he recommends a tax increase, he will have to pay it.

Parents Deserve to Know

Surely what we experienced last weekend was a storm of historic proportions. However, many parents are beginning to ask why school has now been canceled for the entire week. Superintendent Murphy posted a news release on Tuesday, but as of the writing of this column has said nothing at length since then. So, it begs the question, what are the criteria that lead to school being closed for the entire week?

by Mark Kelly — January 21, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Economic development funding is used by both parties in most, if not all, states around the country. Many governors feel like they must use these tools to make their states competitive.

It goes without saying that when the government gets involved with paying businesses to locate in a state or community, it runs the risk that the plan will go south. Picking winners and losers is an inherently risky business. Hopefully, the state officials making the funding decisions have analyzed the risk in a way that provides maximum protection to taxpayers.

The recent revelation that the McAuliffe administration failed to vet a Chinese company who received $1.4 million to locate in Appomattox is especially concerning. It turns out that the decision to cut a taxpayer-funded check to the company was based off a review of the company’s website. Only after the deal seemed to be going south did the Commonwealth ask for financial statements from the company, and later demanded our money back.

Making Virginia a competitive economic environment should be our priority. Questions remain as to whether using a taxpayer-backed slush fund is the best way to do it.

1.  Are the standards by which these deals are made in a transparent and objective fashion, or is there too much subjective influence by the people making the decisions? Governors of both parties have made these deals and done the photo ops with the oversized checks, but taxpayers deserve to know their money is going to a legitimate business.

2.  Is what we are doing now really working? When the last set of economic numbers were released, Virginia’s economy had flatlined. Economic growth was 0.0%, and Virginia is slipping with every independent group who ranks these things.

3.  Why should Virginia’s policy be to favor a new business over one who has been here providing jobs, paying taxes and supporting the community? Making sure existing companies are thriving and staying here should be higher on Richmond’s priority list than it seems to be.

4.  So, would it be a better approach to tackle tax and regulatory burdens on all businesses, new and existing, to make Virginia’s economic environment the most competitive in the country? Governor McAuliffe could surely spend a little less time stumping for Hillary Clinton and more time sitting down with Republicans in the legislature to tackle the fundamental tax and regulatory structure businesses face. Arlington surely would benefit as we face of high office vacancy rates. Other communities across the Commonwealth most certainly would as well.

by Mark Kelly — January 14, 2016 at 1:30 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 easy to find amusing news. Last year, the Virginia General Assembly debated a bill on whether schools should be allowed to have bake sales to raise money. This year the question is, should Arlington Public Schools pass a ban on birthday parties?

Maybe like me you are thinking, come on, this birthday party ban can’t be a serious proposal. But we live in a world where personal responsibility is waning and calls for government to “do something” is growing. So let’s take a look at the arguments made at the most recent Arlington School Board meeting to see whether we should all be concerned.

Health. You could make the argument that centering a celebration around a sugar-laden treat is setting a bad example for a healthy lifestyle. And childhood obesity is a long-term health concern for our nation. But we can dismiss the idea that consuming two or three cupcakes per month is making kids obese. Daily choices on what children consume for about 90 meals a month and how much time they spend in active play are what is really important.

Creates a tough learning environment. It is not unreasonable to say having sugary snacks at a party could make some kids too hyper to learn. Teachers can easily solve that by having them right before recess or at the end of the day.

Inconveniencing teachers. This concern was raised in terms of parents bringing in ice cream and pies in need of refrigeration by teachers. But it sounds like some teachers don’t want the hassle of serving birthday treats. Instead, it seems at least some teachers want an overarching Arlington-wide policy to take the treats away from everyone else just so they don’t have to be the mean teacher who won’t allow treats in their classroom.

How about just setting a reasonable policy for your classroom and communicating it to parents? Mom, if you want ice cream in my class, you bring it 30 minutes before the end of the day and serve it. Or, no ice cream please, but I will be happy to pass out cookies or cupcakes 15 minutes before recess.

In short, instead of running to the school board to pass a policy, how about letting some common sense prevail and move on to more pressing issues facing our schools?

by Mark Kelly — January 7, 2016 at 2:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Fizzling Fights in Richmond? Despite posturing on Medicaid expansion, Gov. McAuliffe’s chances of changing the debate on this issue were damaged when Republicans maintained control of the General Assembly in Nov. 2015.

Attorney General Herring’s recent decision on concealed carry reciprocity could also rear its head. But, General Assembly leaders may not be willing to enter a standoff on that issue in the face of presidential politics.

Outstanding Customer Service? Libby Garvey assumed the center chair at the annual Arlington County Board meeting on Jan. 1, promising to provide better customer service to the County, including reform of the “byzantine” zoning ordinances and more flexibility in regulation.

Garvey’s encouraging words will put her resolve to achieve results to the test, particularly as she faces a primary challenger. And, the Board still needs to pick a permanent County Manager to lead any changes.

New Dynamic on the County Board? After John Vihstadt’s election, gone were the days of Board Members hashing every issue out behind closed doors and voting unanimously come meeting time. The insular decision-making process lead to increasing unease in the community over time.

We have no idea where Cristol and Dorsey will land on the important questions moving forward, but here’s hoping for a vigorous debate on what the future will look like for Arlington taxpayers.

Your Concerns Are Addressed? Garvey also talked about gathering input from a greater sample of Arlingtonians in her Jan. 1 speech. In that spirit, I want to know what issues you would like to see addressed in this space.

Would you like more focus on the school budget? Where is our money going, and why?

Are you concerned about whether the County is adequately addressing core services like public safety and basic infrastructure?

One of those core services is transportation. Do you question whether the County is doing the right things to improve traffic flow in residential areas? Can we ever put Metro back on the right track? Should HOT lanes come inside the beltway on 395? Or should we do more to widen 66?

Please use the comments section to sound off on these or any other issues, and let me know what you want to see discussed.

by Mark Kelly — December 31, 2015 at 11:30 am 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Tomorrow, the Arlington County Board members will renew the annual tradition of previewing their priorities for the year. Unfortunately, the speeches can often be compared to a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym.

Before the speeches begin, the Board will need to elect a new Chairman. In recent history, the Vice Chairman has moved up to the center chair. But last year, Walter Tejada served in that role before announcing his retirement.

Theoretically, it would be Libby Garvey’s “turn” as she has not chaired the Board in any of her first three full years. But Garvey’s rocky relationship with the Arlington Democrats makes it far from a sure thing, particularly if there is an aspiring challenger waiting in the wings to run in the June primary.

As a fan of the occasional political drama, here’s hoping we have a surprise tomorrow and John Vihstadt is elected Chairman. Think the Democrats would never do it? David Foster pulled it off as a Republican with four other Democrats on the School Board.

What four things can you expect to hear about for sure from the Board?

Spending reform. As the Board wrapped up 2015, Vihstadt and Garvey called for reforms in the closeout spending process where tens of millions is spent with little public input late each year. It is unlikely their desire to change that process has gone away, nor should it.

Reducing the commercial vacancy rate. It may be a new year, but it is the same old story on this subject. The Board pats itself on the back for spending money on economic development, but has done little to change any underlying policies in the county to attract businesses.

Affordable housing. This issue rose to the top as candidates sought to replace Hynes and Tejada. Housing is expensive, and the Board has been unable to do anything to repel market forces in the county. Real estate principles aside, we are likely to hear how optimistic this new Board is on the subject.

School capacity. You cannot run for office in Arlington without talking about how challenging it is to meet the needs of our schools. Yes, our schools are a core function of local government. Yes, we have a capacity problem. But, having nearly $22,000 to spend per child means they are challenges we are able to meet.

Here are two things you shouldn’t hear, but might.

Everything that’s wrong in Arlington is not our fault. This familiar refrain from some on the Board all-too-often blames Washington and Richmond — usually Republicans — for county woes. With two newcomers to the Board, hopefully they will strike a new tone.

We had to/have to make tough choices. Year after year revenues and expenditures rise in Arlington. Our Board does not know what tough choices really look like, unless you count whether to try and spend $80 million on an aquatics center or half-a-billion on a streetcar.

And there is one thing you are unlikely to hear tomorrow.

Your taxes are going down.

by Mark Kelly — December 17, 2015 at 12:30 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 County Board approved its package of priorities for the Virginia General Assembly to address. The report came in at 53 items in total.

Item number one of the entire proposal asked for the ability to levy taxes, including the BPOL tax. This is the tax on the privilege of owning a business based in Arlington. It taxes your gross receipts, not your gross profits. It should be phased out or abolished as soon as possible by Arlington to encourage economic development in the County.

Arlington’s elected leaders also asked for Virginia to start taxing all Internet sales, not just those for which the state can prove a nexus for the seller. The Board also wants the General Assembly to give them the ability to tax the use of plastic bags like D.C. does.

The Board reaffirmed its support for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. This has been a longstanding priority for Democrats in Virginia, but it is well established that the Republicans in Richmond are not going along with this one any time soon. With the federal government running up the deficit in Washington, it is only a matter of time before the 90 percent share of Medicaid drops precipitously and puts an even greater strain on state budgets.

The controversial topic of immigration was addressed in two items. One asks for in-state tuition for undocumented students. The second opposes mandates on law enforcement officers evaluating immigration status of individuals as a part of routine police activities.

Hopefully, the Board would not oppose giving law enforcement the discretion to inquire on immigration status as part of routine police activities, while they have a person in front of them. That position would be more consistent with the Board’s support for maintaining a database of license plate readings to track all of our movements in the name of public safety and specifically mentioned terrorist watch lists as one of its specific reasons.

The Board wants more money for Metro. It is no question Metro is struggling: ridership is down; fares are up; safety concerns are growing; and infrastructure is not adequately maintained. But, this is not new. WMATA continues to fail when it comes to getting its house in order, which means more money alone is not the answer. It might be more appropriate for any funding offer from Virginia be contingent on real reforms at WMATA, possibly even a private sector takeover.

What was missing from the transportation section? HOT lanes on 395.

Renaming Jefferson Davis Highway did make the list. But, it was the Board’s lowest transportation priority. Most likely, it reflects the reality of the reception it will get in Richmond.

And finally, nonpartisan redistricting is a priority for the Board. While it will probably meet with about as much success as renaming Route 1, it would likely put Arlington all in one Virginia Senate district. It is  interesting to note that when the all-Democrat controlled Board was presented the question of whether to allow Arlingtonians to elect Board Members by district, they opposed the effort.

by Mark Kelly — December 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 we go again.

A few days ago, County Board Chair Mary Hynes wrote a letter to the Virginia Department of Transportation sounding an optimistic tone on the opportunity to work on HOT lanes inside the beltway on 395. Those lanes were part of the original HOT lanes project proposal in the region, dating back to Democrat administrations of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia.

In 2006, then County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman sent a similar letter to VDOT outlining what sounded like Arlington’s conditional support for HOT lanes on 395. In the letter, he even described the need for a HOT lanes exit at Shirlington — an exit he later vehemently opposed.

The Board seemed to sour on the idea of HOT lanes in general as time moved on. By 2010, the County Board had sued everyone they could think of to stop the HOT lanes from happening. They even sued individual civil servants, requiring them to hire lawyers to defend against the claims. The addition of individuals to the suit drew some of the harshest criticism for it.

Eventually, an exasperated VDOT announced they were abandoning plans for the project inside the beltway. But, Arlington taxpayers paid around $2 million for outside counsel to file and pursue lawsuit before the County Board dropped it.

If you work at VDOT, you may be feeling like Charlie Brown staring at the football in Lucy’s hands wondering if it will be pulled away just as you start to kick it. You may also be wondering if you may some day be a defendant in a lawsuit.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of adding a lane in each direction, you have to wonder what path the Board is really heading down now. Is the Board actually serious about finding a way to add this lane of traffic? Are some of the demands in the letter actually impossible for VDOT to meet?

What are the chances the Board, with two new members about to join, balk again later in the process? And would the Board spend $2 million or more to sue again if they didn’t like what Governor McAuliffe’s administration decided?

Only time will tell. At the very least, let’s hope they can work it out without handing taxpayers another $2 million legal bill.

by Mark Kelly — December 3, 2015 at 2:45 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 week before Thanksgiving, County Board members Vihstadt and Garvey teamed up to question the closeout spending process. They asked the Board to at least delay the decisions on spending nearly $22 million in excess revenue till the new members were seated in January.

Kudos to Vihstadt for raising the issue as part of the closeout process and drawing more public attention to it. As Garvey noted, it would be “much better governance to make sure your spending goes through the budget process.”

Outgoing members Tejada and Hynes were not amused. Hynes claimed the public supported the Board’s plans for the year-end spending, despite having virtually no public input on the specifics of the just-released plan. Tejada called the Vihstadt proposal to pump the brakes on the spending measure “unreasonable and unneeded.”

If your goal is to spend tens of millions of dollars in a way that does not catch the attention of the public, then you agree with Tejada. If you never want to give taxpayers a break, then the 3-2 vote to forge ahead without additional public scrutiny makes a whole lot of sense.

The $22 million in year-end surplus revenue is just the tip of the iceberg in closeout spending and the need to shed more light on it. Arlington Public Schools ended up spending $25.6 million less than they budgeted for the previous fiscal year.

As part of the same meeting, the County Board considered budget guidance for the next fiscal year. Once again, the staff report raised the issue of a so-called budget gap, to the tune of around $15 million total between schools and the county budget.

In recent memory, Arlington has not faced a budget shortfall. There will be no budget gap next year either.

County Board members had just voted to spend tens of millions of dollars in excess revenues, just like they do every year. To allow for any pretense at the same meeting there will be a budget gap next year borders on ludicrous.

Despite claims to the contrary, the threat of a budget gap has nothing to do with conservative budgeting. It is put in play to give Board Members an excuse to once again force the taxpayers to pay more.

For the next four to five months of the annual budget process, the Board can talk about the budget gap. How they must make difficult choices. How they cannot lower taxes.

Unless Vihstadt and Garvey can convince one of their new colleagues to change the way the Board does business, we will be right back to this point a year from now. The Board will be spending the taxpayer-funded proceeds of another budget surplus and talking about the next budget gap.

by Mark Kelly — November 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 Board this week approved the first step in creating the third Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in Arlington.

The TIF plans dedicate a portion of future tax revenue to a specific project or set of projects. In the most recent proposal, the funds would be used to pay off a bond taken out to pay for a portion of the redevelopment of the Ballston mall.

The money taken out of future budgets for a TIF is not eligible to be used for anything else. Not on schools or infrastructure or public safety. In this case, the number is proposed at 40 percent of future revenue in this TIF district to pay for a $45.5 million bond.

The argument for TIFs is that the development being paid for by the TIFs will increase revenue to the County above what we would have otherwise received. Therefore, despite setting aside a portion of that revenue to subsidize development, it is still a net benefit to the taxpayer.

However, if a private developer cannot secure financing for a project in one of the most attractive real estate markets in the country, why should taxpayers agree to make up the difference?

The County Board has not really seen any pressure on budgets from these revenue set-asides yet because they are a relatively new idea here. But, we can look to a prolific TIF user, Chicago, which has been using them since 1986.

At one point, Chicago had over 150 TIFs. Chicago is roughly 12 times the size of Arlington, so that would be like a dozen or so TIFs here. In 2013, Chicago TIFs held $1.7 billion in unspent funds in their accounts after taking in $412 million in revenue.

The TIFs began to squeeze Chicago’s revenues to the point that Mayor Emanuel had to campaign on the promise of rolling them back and opening them up for more transparency. Many opponents argued they had become a slush fund to benefit favored developers and projects at the expense of other core budget priorities.

In July, the Mayor announced he would phase out seven of the TIFs and put $250 million back into the city’s budget over the next five years, half to go directly to the schools. And, the Mayor is putting in place a requirement that TIFs return at least 25 percent of their surpluses to the city, which will net an anticipated $150 million.

Granted, Arlington is not Chicago, which according to one review had more public corruption convictions than anywhere in the country. However, the idea that future revenues will be diverted to pay for private development should at least raise some concerns for Arlingtonians. Ballston is almost certainly not the last TIF the Board has in mind.

by Mark Kelly — November 12, 2015 at 1:05 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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 next Arlington County Board meeting agenda is the annual close-out process. Despite it being just seven days away, the recommendation from the County Manager is not even online.  This process often allocates $100 million or more in spending and no one outside of County Staff — and presumably Board Members — has seen it yet.

For years, I have railed against this process. In effect, the County Board has a slush fund every fall that they can dip into and spend with almost no public input. While this process may not get the attention of a Columbia Pike trolley project, it has spent far more of our tax dollars and few county residents even know the process exists.

Last year, around $32 million came from revenue over and above what was budgeted for in the spring. In fact, year after year, revenue estimates come in far below actual revenue collections. The County argues this is fiscal prudence. I remain convinced they take the low end of the estimate range so they can advocate for higher taxes to pay for their spending priorities.

What should the County Board do to improve the close-out process?

First step: make it more transparent. The County Board should not vote to spend $100 million with only seven days, or less, notice.

Second step: create a section of the annual budget in the spring of anticipated priorities with close-out funds. Tell the community specifically what you will spend money on if some things you are budgeting for end up costing less than you anticipated. Let people speak to it as part of the budget hearings.

Third step: as part of the new independent audit function, the County Board should ask for a report as to why revenue estimates continue to be off by such a wide margin every year.

Fourth step: start returning excess revenue to taxpayers. Property taxes, not rates but actual tax payments, go up every single year in Arlington. Few of us would object to paying a little less.

With fresh faces on the County Board and a new County Manager on the way, it as good a time as any to bring a more transparency and accountability to the spending process. With any luck, it will lower our tax bills as well.

by Mark Kelly — November 5, 2015 at 1:30 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Across Virginia, voters made few changes to their elected representation. Every single incumbent on Tuesday’s ballot in the General Assembly won. The Senate remained 21-19 Republican, and Democrats netted a gain just one of 100 seats in the House, leaving it overwhelmingly in Republican hands.

Despite millions of dollars being spent to retake the Senate, Governor McAuliffe now must work with Republicans if he hopes to achieve any meaningful results in his final two years in office. After ignoring the General Assembly and the Virginia Constitution with his Supreme Court appointment over the summer, the governor has some ground to make up.

In Arlington, the results were a far cry from 2014 when voters delivered a resounding defeat to the status quo by overwhelmingly electing John Vihstadt. Like Vihstadt, Mike McMenamin offered vast community experience to voters.

The voters chose overwhelmingly instead to give two Democratic newcomers a chance on the County Board. Those results mirror Arlington’s recent history in County Board elections as voters reset to their natural predispositions at the ballot box. We will never know if the retiring members Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes would have fared as well with the electorate. But both Cristol and Dorsey promised to do a better job of taking community concerns into account on the campaign trail.

While neither Dorsey or Cristol campaigned on a complete overhaul of how the government budgets and spends our money, they join two other Board Members who have been elected since March of 2012. Four out of five County Board members had to campaign for the office in an environment where voters of all political stripes are growing increasingly concerned that our County Board had taken its eye off the ball when it comes to core functions of local government. And that is a good thing.

Now the newly constituted Board can turn its attention to hiring a County Manager. It will be the first indication of whether it will be business as usual or a new direction.

Paper Ballots

Many voters were surprised to find paper ballots awaiting them at the polls on Tuesday. Some were taken back to their hatred scantron tests in school. But lawmakers wanted to create a paper trail for recount purposes, so we will be filling them out for the foreseeable future.

Election officials at my precinct were welcoming feedback on the paper ballots as they head into a much higher turnout presidential election year. If you have any constructive suggestions, please consider contacting the Registrar’s office or use the comments section below.

by Heather Mongilio — October 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Much attention has been paid to the big ticket projects the County Board has shuttered over the past year. Those fiscally responsible decisions will save taxpayers millions and millions of dollars.

How the Board treats spending our tax dollars on the smaller projects and how they meet their obligations to ongoing basic services is equally, if not more, important to our long term fiscal health.

The most recent case in point was the reminder that the County Board had authorized $350,000 for an “art installation” on the Four Mile Run Trail side of the wastewater treatment plant. It is a given there is nothing pretty about the facility. But the new art does little to change the view as you are walking, running or biking by on the trail.

Earlier this year, the Board voted to build a $17.6 million ART bus facility that, according to their own press release, “. . . will not be large enough to meet all the County’s projected needs for ART facilities. It can house neither the entire existing ART fleet, nor accommodate all of the buses that will expand the fleet over the next decade.”

With that in mind, why not wait until you could identify a plan to build an adequately-sized facility all at once? The savings to the taxpayer of $57,000 a year, hardly justifies a $17.6 million outlay that will not meet all of our needs. At that rate, the facility will pay for itself in 308 years.

Neither of these items are as attention-getting as a $1 million bus stop or a $500 million trolley. But, they are made by the same elected officials who use the same philosophy of spending our money. That philosophy has not really changed for a majority of the Board, despite the rejection of the vanity projects by the voters one year ago.

The voters have another choice of who they send to the Board on Nov. 3. And the Board itself also has a big decision on who the next permanent County Manager will be.

No doubt there is value in the institutional knowledge of someone who has worked in Arlington for years. However, with three new Board Members being elected in the last 12 months and a new auditing function coming online, a fresh perspective in the Manager’s office is warranted as well. There is real value to be found in taking away any bias toward the way it has been done.

I have long held the position the next Manager should live in Arlington and live with the consequences of their advice and decisions. More importantly, the next Manager’s philosophy should approach every budget line item by asking if we should spend this taxpayer dollar, and if so, will we get the most bang for our buck?

A fresh set of eyes with a comprehensive approach to getting the big and little budget decisions right would serve Arlington well.

by Mark Kelly — October 15, 2015 at 2:30 pm 0

Mark KellyThe 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.

Earlier this year, Arlington Republicans endorsed independent Mike McMenamin for County Board. Later, Mike also received the endorsement of independent County Board Member John Vihstadt.

A coalition of Republicans, independents, Greens and dissatisfied Democrats came together last year to elect Vihstadt twice. The results have been positive for Arlington. Adding one more independent voice to the Board this year would still leave Democrats in the majority while ensuring the makeup of the Board is more closely in line with the political makeup of the county as a whole.

In other words, Arlington would be well-served to join John Vihstadt and say, “I like Mike.”

A small business owner, McMenamin has the longest civic resume in the race. During his two decades in Arlington, McMenamin has served as President of the Maywood Civic Association, on the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, and as President of the Arlington Civic Federation. Along with the fact this is his third run for the County Board, Mike has arguably spent more time talking about and listening to issues of neighborhood concerns than all three of his opponents combined.

Mike’s campaign is focused on issues that he has heard over and over again from talking to people across Arlington. His platform is based on making smart financial choices on key public safety and infrastructure needs, on addressing the needs of our schools and on much needed economic development.

Beyond being the best choice in the race, I submit that if Republicans and Independents want to make sure Mike gains a seat on the Board, he should be your ONLY choice.

This year, two seats are open on the County Board. The way to maximize the impact of your vote for Mike McMenamin is not to vote for anyone else when you fill out your ballot.

Based on political leanings of the electorate in a normal election cycle, it is almost a statistical certainty that one of the two Democrats will win a seat Nov. 3. If McMenamin supporters cast their second vote for one of the two Democrats, they will increase the chances that Democrats will win both seats and decrease Mike’s chances of winning one.

Many Arlingtonians who go to the polls to vote for Mike will feel obligated to pick a second candidate on their ballot as part of their civic duty. If you feel obliged to do so, and Audrey Clement is not your second choice of the candidates running, then please use the write-in option. It will only take a few extra seconds to write the name of the Republican or independent who you always thought would make a good candidate for the Board.


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