Next week the County Board will open its microphones to any Arlingtonian who wishes to discuss items in the budget or the advertised tax rate. If this year holds to form, hundreds of Arlingtonians will show up to advocate for higher spending and adopting the highest tax rate. Few will speak to lowering taxes.
It would be nice if the thousands of Arlingtonians who are tired of the Board’s tax and spend record would pack the room next Thursday and make the case to hold the tax rate level, if not lower it. But past experience has taught us all that the Board will listen politely, and then do what they were going to do anyway.
The Board formally approved at least $10 million in taxpayer subsidies to lure Nestlé to Arlington — $4 million directly from our local budget. According to county staff, Arlington had to out-bid another state in order to land the company.
The staff report claims a net tax benefit to Arlington of $14.2 million over the next 10 years, though they did not include $2 million in other infrastructure improvements in this calculation. Taxpayers will likely forget by then to ask for a report of the actual tax benefit from this deal.
In the meantime, hopefully the Board will set aside some of its annual budget to provide tax relief to businesses that are already in existence by reducing the burden of the Business License Tax.
Arlington Democrats have mysteriously pushed for satellite absentee ballot locations for this fall’s elections. One can only assume local committee chairman Kip Malinosky is operating under the assumption the 2017 governor’s race is going to be close, and they are hoping to squeeze as many votes as possible out of Arlington for the Democrat nominee.
According to the Electoral Board, the request would cause a great deal of strain on both the elections staff and their budget — both of which were set up to meet the needs normal gubernatorial year elections. The Courthouse Plaza office accommodated 5,000 in-person absentee voters in 2013 — more than 15,000 fewer than the preceding year’s presidential election — with very few voters experiencing a wait of more than 10-15 minutes. They anticipate a similar number of in-person voters again this year.
After the Democratic-majority Electoral Board rejected the request, Malinosky has apparently appealed directly to the County Board. It will be interesting to see if the Board takes any action on this matter.
At the last County Board meeting, John Vihstadt proposed that the County Manager outline possible budget cuts to avoid the maximum advertised tax increase. This “radical” idea was meant to ensure the average homeowner’s tax increase was capped at 4 percent instead of the maximum advertised 5 percent (when you combine assessment increases with the proposed tax rate increase).
In response, County Manager Mark Schwartz produced proposed $11.1 million in possible budget cuts this week.
Included in Mr. Schwartz’s statement about the cuts was an emphasis on maintaining the proposed increase in support for Metro. And, Schwartz warned Metro could receive even more.
This comes in the face of a report this week that Metro’s management decisions are once again under fire, this time for its failures regarding the SafeTrack project. According to The Washington Post report, “With better planning, GAO officials said, Metro could have identified opportunities to conduct work more efficiently, reduce disruptions for riders and local jurisdictions, or saved money.”
At some point, the people paying the bills for Metro need to stand up and call for a fundamental reorganization of the system. Arlington could lead the way.
Back to the proposed County Manager’s optional cuts. Many were for newly created positions – almost certainly selected to sound “bad.” No new school nurse, no new sheriff’s deputies, no new ethics attorney and even an existing mental health supervisor would be eliminated, to name a few.
The proposed cuts could also ding road paving, new street lights and even some library hours.
Finally, the proposal calls for the school budget to be reduced by a little over $5 million.
The County Manager’s “cuts” are designed to make taxpayers believe there are few desirable options when it comes to trimming the budget. This of course is not true as has been outlined in this space multiple times. Unfortunately, while Mr. Vihstadt was trying to help taxpayers by giving the County Board options, this exercise may have simply bolstered the Board’s move to raise the tax rate.
As the County continues to move through the budget process, Arlingtonians should keep this Arlington Magazine article on the difficulties homeowners face when dealing with zoning regulations in mind. While Arlington seems to be getting a little better with resolving permitting issues, including improvements to older homes, it points out how the County has not always made basic government services enough of a priority.
At the end of February the Arlington County Board voted 3-2 to advertise a 2-cent tax rate increase. The two members who voted no did so because they wanted to advertise a higher rate.
As the County Board discussed advertising the increased rate, Chairman Jay Fisette called the County Manager’s budget the “best professional recommendation.” In reality, Arlington County rigs the budget game to ensure they can spend not only what they propose in the annual budget, but the closeout slush fund created by chronic underestimation of revenue.
In FY 2016, Arlington took $29 million more in revenue than it had projected in its fiscal year budget. The County also did not spend $6.4 million it had budgeted. That’s $35.4 million in tax revenue over and above the needs of the budget. And year after year, the County Manager and County Board spend it during the closeout process right before going to the public and saying they have budget shortfalls for the next year.
To put the closeout funds in perspective, if left unspent it would take no residential property tax increase to meet the revenue needed for the next county budget.
Taxpayers would appreciate a one-year pause on their escalating property taxes. Under the County Manager’s latest budget proposal, taxes on the average single family homeowner would increase by around 5 percent for 2017 when you account for higher assessments and a two cent tax rate increase. The tax burden is retroactive to January 1 of this year.
Annual spending over the last 15 years or so has regularly outpaced inflation plus population growth — a measure which should ensure more than adequate continuation of county services. The annual revenue spending is supplemented by the unlimited willingness of voters to approve bonds to take on about $1 billion in debt.
Many Arlingtonians express a willingness to pay even more, which should not be a surprise in a county that has elected exactly one non-Democrat to the County Board in the last 17 years. At some point however, a majority of the public may balk.
Wages for the third quarter of 2016 rose by 3.9 percent in Arlington. So not only do taxes continue to outpace population growth and inflation, they are growing faster than wages. It means most of us will probably be paying more and taking home less.
County Board member John Vihstadt rightly asked the County Manager for budget options at a lower tax level. But taxpayers should be dubious that the Board will approve any tax increase lower than the maximum two cents.
In 2009, the Arlington County Board filed a lawsuit to stop the Kaine Administration’s efforts to bring 395 HOT lanes through the county. This surprised state officials as for some time, County leaders had offered support for the idea.
The suit cost county taxpayers around $2 million in legal fees. It also embarrassingly named state employees, sued as individuals not in their official capacities, as parties to the case.
County leaders claimed victory when the lawsuit ultimately resulted in Virginia dropping the plan to create the lanes in the original build out of the tolled lanes in 2011.
Fast forward nearly six years to this week when it was announced that those lanes would now open in the fall of 2019. The new plan creates no interchanges that would allow Arlingtonians to have better access to the lanes. This was a concession to the biggest complaints about the plan which came from individuals in the Shirlington area who worried that a good deal of extra traffic would exit there under the initial proposal.
Arlingtonians should be concerned about traffic coming onto surface streets as the County continues to take travel lanes away and narrow critical corridors which unnecessarily causes increased traffic congestion.
Speaking of moving people through Arlington, this past week Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed a budget that would result in a tax increase of approximately 5 percent for single family homeowners 2017.
Schwartz said 1 percent of the increase would be dedicated to increasing Arlington’s share of ongoing funding for Metro. Under the proposal, Arlington taxpayers would add a $6 million net contribution to WMATA’s ongoing operations.
In addition to the ongoing contributions to Metro, the County intends to issue $22 million in new bonds for the failing system. The debt service on these bonds would cost taxpayers $1.5 million in the next fiscal year.
The bonding authority is left over from 2014, so it would not be a question for voters this year. It should voters ask more questions about just how badly the County needs bonds the Board asks you to vote on in the future.
Metro may need extra funding to get back on its feet, and there is no question Arlingtonians are willing to do their share. Until the agency makes transformational reforms, including getting out from under the thumb of the Amalgamated Transit Union, however, Arlington should be skeptical of agreeing to new financial contributions.
This week, 20-year County Board veteran Jay Fisette announced he would not seek re-election.
Just a little more than five years ago, the Board was made up of Fisette, Chris Zimmerman, Walter Tejada, Mary Hynes and Barbara Favola. Between School Board and County Board service, they had each been elected multiple times over. After November it is likely that four of the five members of the Board will be in their first full term serving the County in any elected capacity. And this new perspective is certainly a good thing.
While Fisette had kept his intentions under wraps, signs were pointing toward this decision. Fisette helped engineer a closed nominating process for Democrats that would ensure maximum power for the party regulars in choosing a nominee to succeed him. Fisette also took the lead to stop spending on the gondola project — taking away an issue from a Republican or Independent challenger.
As someone who has run for local office and who has worked for elected officials, I have nothing but the utmost respect for anyone who is willing to run for and serve in these positions. It is hard work, requires personal sacrifice and often results in intense criticism from those who disagree with you.
However, an Independent or Republican should not shy away from making a run at this open seat just because it’s hard. I can tell you that when you knock on all but the most partisan doors in Arlington, you will be greeted by people who are willing to listen. You will not be dismissed out of hand because you are not a card carrying Democrat. The people of Arlington are concerned about the direction of their community and are willing to listen to someone who shares that concern.
If you want to run, you should be prepared to make a case for how the County should approach housing, transportation, and working with the School Board on education issues. But here are two areas you could focus on to usher in a new era where we put an end to business as usual:
Spend time making Arlington a more business friendly community for everyone, not just looking for opportunities to provide taxpayer funded giveaways to new businesses that move here. That includes improving permitting, zoning and other processes that even partisan Democrats have complained about. And it means embracing the idea of doing away with the time sucking tangible personal property tax on businesses as well as the regressive business privilege tax — the name alone is troublesome let alone the gross receipts method of calculating it.
Reform the budget process which is built to add spending and increase the tax burden each year as well as create a year-end slush fund known as the closeout process. The budget should also focus more on core services and stop borrowing money for items that should be budgeted for each year. It should require increased transparency when it comes to spending — in particular, we should know more about how contracting decisions are made.
And a bonus item that might lead into any discussion of ending business as usual, is reinstating the ability of individuals to require public comment and debate on County Board agenda items. This would reestablish a longstanding check on their actions.
By now, you have probably heard about the controversy over signs at Yorktown High School. There is little doubt the signs were intended to make a political statement about issues surrounding the Trump Administration, albeit in an clever way.
You may support the posting of the signs as statements our community supports or you may oppose them as political propaganda. For the purposes of furthering the discussion, what if a teacher posted a sign in his or her classroom at Yorktown that said the following, complete with red, white and blue color scheme?
We have the right to pray and protest.
Government should enforce the laws.
Science continually discovers new theories.
You have the right to defend yourself.
Group think is dangerous.
We are YORKTOWN
Would that sign make it past lunch without being removed by the school administration? Maybe. It certainly would be interesting to hear the thoughts of the principal, superintendent and school board responding to complaints about it.
If there is a teacher who wants to do a thought experiment with their students, a sign like this one might spur a good discussion or make for a good writing assignment. If you do, be sure to let the media know how it goes.
In other news this week, the County Board said no to funding the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, at least for now. Fiscal watchdogs let out a big sigh of relief that the county would not chase another shiny object and instead focus on other transportation priorities.
This most certainly reflects at least a slight change in philosophy from the previous Board which threw good money after bad trying to build the Columbia Pike streetcar. Seems that electing four new Board Members in the past five years has given rise to more caution when it comes to this type of project.
Now if we could only get them to pay for all ongoing maintenance needs in the regular budget rather than borrowing more money to do it, we would really be getting somewhere.
Arlington schools have called in an outside consultant to evaluate their enrollment projections. No matter who makes them, projections outside of the next one to two years are extremely difficult to make. Nowhere was this more evident than Washington-Lee High School which was built too small because of bad projections in the other direction.
The Arlington School Board should continue to proceed with caution in the efforts to create more seats for more students.
School Board members are also apparently contemplating the option of refusing federal funds to avoid federal education mandates from new Secretary DeVos. The story is a reminder of just how small a percentage of local school budgets come from the federal government despite producing so many of the mandates — roughly 2% in Arlington, but more in other places.
Based on DeVos’ testimony, it seems her goal is to return even more power to local school districts, resulting in fewer federal mandates, not more. Only time will tell.
Political parties in Virginia have the right to select nominees as they see fit. Over the years Virginia Democrats have often piled on the criticism of Republicans for selecting nominees in a closed process using a so-called “loyalty oath.”
So what did Arlington Democrats do this past week? They opted to hold a closed Democrat caucus with a loyalty oath to determine their County Board nominee. In order to vote, you will be required to pledge to support Democrat nominees in the fall.
Yes, Arlington Democrats, who often try to draw Independents to their cause by ridiculing Republicans for closing their nominating process, are now doing the same thing. I guess you can file this turn of events alongside their newfound discovery of the separation of powers and 10th Amendment to the Constitution.
Speaking of finding the 10th Amendment, Attorney General Mark Herring this week was in the news defending the lawsuits against the Trump Administration’s temporary travel ban. Regardless of your view of the policies surrounding the ban, the plain language of federal law authorizing the President to implement such a ban is clear. In fact, President Obama implemented a similar ban under the law without so much as a peep from Herring. But Herring said he opposes the law based on states’ rights now.
Herring’s record is full of partisanship just like this. Voters should remember this when he promises to uphold the law on the campaign trail this year.
Yesterday, Governor McAuliffe was in town to announce that Nestlé USA is moving its corporate headquarters to Arlington in September of this year. Finally, the long-vacant 1812 building will have a major tenant, which is certainly good news for Arlington’s commercial vacancy rate.
The move is touted as a $40 million investment by Nestlé USA. However, it does not come without a cost to Arlington taxpayers. The company will receive a $6 million grant from the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund, a $4 million grant from Arlington, and a commitment to $2 million in Arlington spending on infrastructure as well as “extensive relocation assistance” from Arlington County.
The last point also serves notice that while the county’s press release claims it will “create 748 jobs,” these are not new jobs for our regions. Some of those jobs — exactly how many we were not told — will be filled by people relocating with the company from California.
Granted, a thriving employer in the county helps everyone regardless of how many new jobs it creates. And in this day and age of states in a bipartisan fashion offering huge financial incentives to employers looking to relocate, it is understandable that Virginia is playing in the economic development sweepstakes.
However, it once again raises the question of whether we should take a different approach, one that helps existing businesses and new businesses looking for a better economic environment.
California has seen thousands of businesses leave the state over the past few years. One study indicated businesses could see operating cost savings of as much as 35% due to the unfavorable business climate.
Virginia is consistently ranked in the top 10 to 15 places to do businesses by those who rank these things. However, our ranking is moving in the wrong direction. In CNBC’s rankings, Virginia slid from 3rd to 13th over the past four years.
Arlington, and Virginia as a whole, should have one goal — make us the number one business climate for creating and operating a business. It will not only make us more attractive to businesses looking to move, but will allow our current businesses to grow and thrive.
Unfortunately, Democrats praising the $12 million of taxpayer money given to Nestlé today would almost certainly demonize any moves to simplify and reduce taxes and regulations as “giveaways to the rich and powerful” tomorrow.
Meeting the transportation needs of both Arlington’s residents and the greater region is no easy task. And Metro’s problems have only made it harder. While there is no doubt our county leaders take the issue seriously, they do often make decisions that can leave Arlingtonians scratching their heads.
1. Planning to spend $575,000 for each bus stop on Columbia Pike.
It is still hard to fathom that Arlington officials view reducing the cost of a bus stop from $1 million to $575,000 as a win. The $13.3 million the county plans to spend to construct 23 of them over the next four years could be used to shore up Metro instead.
2. Supporting changes to improve two lane I-66?
The Arlington County Board is set to vote on whether to support the latest plans on I-66. Our Board had historically opposed any real changes to the corridor, but in recent years has moved to support some widening of the highway. Unfortunately, acting as an impediment to improvements both on I-66 and I-395 in the past has put us years behind in addressing transportation needs.
The congestion on I-66 in particular has forced traffic onto secondary surface streets through our neighborhoods. It is also worse for the environment. Increased time sitting in traffic produces more tailpipe emissions than when traffic moves at normal speeds.
As long as the federal government is centered in Washington, cars are going to drive through Arlington. The only question is, how long will it take them and what route will they take?
3. Narrowing streets.
Chairman Fisette is passionate about bikes, as are many other Arlingtonians. But the resulting increase in traffic congestion on roads reduced from four lanes to two to accommodate dedicated bike lanes seems to indicate that there may not be enough people interested in using bikes for commuting to justify the changes.
In the meantime, a good deal of street parking has been eliminated. And on some streets that were narrowed but where parking is maintained, it is virtually impossible to crack the door of your car without it entering into a traffic lane.
The money used for street narrowing should have been prioritized for repaving and improving our existing transportation infrastructure.
4. Using staff time and resources to study a taxpayer-funded gondola.
With an estimated $80-90 million price tag, the Arlington share of the project would presumably be at least $40 million if those cost projections are realistic. But when Portland constructed its gondola, the costs escalated by nearly 400%, and operating costs nearly doubled.
Arlington taxpayers wasted a good deal of time and money on the Columbia Pike Streetcar before it was ultimately shelved. The Board should remember the lessons learned from that exercise before committing more time and money to the gondola.
This week’s announcement that residential real estate assessments are up again was not a surprise. The average homeowner will pay an additional 2.3% in taxes for 2017 unless the County Board reduces the tax rate.
By way of further comparison, the average assessed value is now $617,200 which is still lower than the average sales price was $639,137. (The average sales price included new construction while the County’s assessed numbers only take existing homes into account).
So home values remain strong. In the short term, this is good for sellers and investors, but means more money out of your pocket again this year as a homeowner.
It is also “good news” for the County. In the press release announcing the assessment increase, County staff proceeded to make the case that they would need all of your extra money for Metro and schools.
The County is already making that case because the December budget planning forecast showed weaker numbers. When determining the mythical budget gap, they based their numbers on a 2.1% growth in total commercial and residential assessments.
Property values actually increased by 2.9% when you include new construction. Which means the County will now have just under 1% more from these sources to spend for FY 2018 than they anticipated just one month ago. That is a roughly $6 million increase in revenue.
It also means when the Board retroactively approves the tax rate levels later this spring, they will also have more revenue to spend in the closeout process at the end of this year.
How? Our fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. However, every year when the Board approves the tax rate, it applies retroactively to January 1 in the previous fiscal year (current calendar year). So, half of the increased revenue for calendar year 2017 will be available during the closeout process.
The bottom line is County officials will use every part of the budget process available to them to try to maximize the amount of your tax dollars they can spend this year and next. And by telling you it is for schools and transportation, they are hoping you are happy to do it.
The fireworks from the January 3 County Board kick-off meeting were generated by the partisan efforts of the three lowest vote-getters on the Board during the Vice Chairman election. The remainder of the meeting went to script, except for the little noticed move to make it harder for Arlingtonians to request a public hearing on an agenda item.
As with every year, each Board member also made remarks outlining their thoughts for the upcoming year. You can find links to all five here. And the speeches could be summed up like this: “We have a tough job, but take heart, we’re doing it pretty well.”
While re-reading the rather predictable speeches, I began to ask: what would a majority of Board members say in their speeches if they were being completely honest with the people?
“Projecting the future is hard.”
Just ask the local meteorologist. Or ask the county staff which never gets the revenue projections right (the underestimates fuel the annual year-end spending spree). Or you can ask the School Board who for years operated under the projections that school enrollment before having to pivot and face rising projections. The truth is enrollment was almost certainly never going to get as low, and may not get as high, as projected.
The bottom line: the Board should let projections inform decisions, but they should never be the only thing that informs the decisions.
“We cannot exactly account for how every dollar of the County’s budget is spent.”
John Vihstadt has asked county staff for a detailed accounting of payments to all of the county’s consultants and contractors. So far, it sounds like staff is balking at putting a spreadsheet together for him.
“But we sure enjoy spending as much as we can get away with.”
Every year the Board points to budget shortfalls but still manages to increase spending, increase revenue and spend all of the hefty year-end surplus. And they come up with shiny object projects like a Georgetown gondola as new priorities while Metro continues to flounder.
“Regardless of the initiatives we point to, we will not solve the affordable housing issue.”
Board members talk about it every year as a priority, and every year fight a losing battle because they are up against immovable market forces. But hey, the Board did pass overly restrictive rules on accessory dwelling units and Airbnb.
“We plan to blame the Trump Administration for everything that goes wrong the next four years. And if a Republican is elected Governor of Virginia, some of it will be their fault too.”
Some on the Board have already hinted at this move. It almost certainly will happen.
The traditional New Year’s Day meeting for the County Board moved to Tuesday night. Insert sad trombone sound here as this probably marks the end of the traditional January 1 meeting.
In what came as a surprise to few, three Democrats on the Board refused to give Independent John Vihstadt the position of Vice Chairman. Vihstadt has been a community leader for three decades and has served on the County Board for nearly three years.
Newly installed Chairman Jay Fisette, along with Board Members Cristol and Dorsey, rejected Vihstadt’s nomination. Instead, the Board chose first-year Board Member Katie Cristol.
The reasons given by each of the three Democrats could basically be boiled down to two things. First, they used the “we’ve always done it that way” excuse. The majority party, they said, has always elected one of their own to serve in that role. Second, they argued that Vihstadt did not represent the values of the community.
In case they missed it, Vihstadt won not one, but two elections over the Democrats’ nominee. And he won both handily. The message they should have received from those elections is that nearly 35,000 Arlingtonians do like Vihstadt’s values. In fact, that’s nearly 12,000 more votes than Ms. Cristol received, nearly 11,000 more than Mr. Dorsey, and more than the average votes received by Mr. Fisette since he was first elected.
The three Democrats’ message back to the voters was simple — at the end of the day, partisanship and protecting the status quo trumps all. Voters should take note as Chairman Fisette may be asking them to re-elect him later this year.
On a lighter note, under a unique quirk of Virginia law the County Board could elect an individual to act as a tie breaker to cast the deciding vote in the unusual event that the Board was deadlocked on a question. The Board waives the appointment of a tie breaker every year which means if there is a tie vote, the motion fails.
If the Board ever changes their mind, I am happy to serve.
As ARLnow recaps its most clicked on stories for the year, I wanted to share three stories I found interesting from a local, state and regional perspective.
The Blue Ribbon Panel never gets off the ground.
While this panel may have had limited impact on Arlington governance, the incident shows what can happen if the right inner circle of people engages on an issue.
Libby Garvey has a record of being out in front on reform-minded efforts. She helped shine a light on the fiscal impacts of the now-shelved streetcar and still-possible aquatics center. She supported an independent audit function and worked to shine more light on the closeout process.
The concept for this Garvey Blue Ribbon Panel initiative was simple: on a short term basis, empanel a small group of Arlingtonians who possessed a level of expertise, to bring a fresh perspective to the county’s comprehensive plan.
My concerns were that even if the panel were truly independent and actually made a set of common-sense recommendations on county spending priorities, that those recommendations would be largely ignored.
However, there was a group of well-connected Democrats in the county that did not want to take a risk of any independent recommendations seeing the light of day. And as the June Democratic primary approached, they successfully lobbied the Board to stop it and leave us with the status quo.
Governor McAuliffe used unprecedented, sweeping executive authority to grant voting rights to around 200,000 felons.
The Virginia Supreme Court struck down the order. In fact, the court took the unusual step of granting an expedited hearing to tell the Governor what prior legal counsel, both Republican and Democrat, had already found: he does not possess that sweeping authority under Virginia law.
Here at ARLnow, one columnist suggested that to oppose the Governor’s action was tantamount to an assault on voting rights themselves. Many were willing to toss aside the protection of every voter’s rights as well as adherence to the rule of law in order to achieve a desired result.
But our system of government relies on checks and balances to ensure one branch does not run roughshod over the people. With a new president moving into the White House, it is likely many Democrats will now renew their belief in this concept.
We all should.
Metro entered full blown crisis mode.
As public scrutiny of accidents intensified, Metro took drastic action to address safety concerns with the announcement it would shut down sections at a time for repairs. And the General Manager even took the unusual step of firing employees.
At the same time the Chairman of the WMATA Board remained adamant that a massive infusion of money could solve the problems. But the pleas for $1 billion are meeting a high level of skepticism from government officials who look at the system’s track record.
So the question remains: will Metro to continue operating as we know it?
Or maybe it’s time for the system effectively declare bankruptcy and start over.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
While we were traveling for Thanksgiving, my seven year old lost both of his front teeth. It brought back memories of the old song, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” And yes, I asked him to sing it for me.
As we wrap up what has been a crazy 2016, here are some things I would like to see “under the tree.”
- A promise from the County Board that this year’s closeout spending spree will be the last by dedicating all future excess revenues to tax relief. And start by cutting the tax rate this Spring.
- Our county leaders will never again claim they are making financial decisions based on “shortfalls.” We are blessed to live in a prosperous nation. And our county leaders are blessed to make relatively easy financial decisions for one of the most prosperous tax bases in the U.S. The financial decisions they make in this prosperity are just as important as the ones they would make in times of austerity.
- County leaders taking real steps to hold Metro accountable for the Arlington tax dollars they receive.
- If not a total reset, then a quick fix of the Airbnb regulations to ensure it is the least restrictive regulatory structure possible.
- A promise to restore the New Year’s Day meeting for 2018 before it is lost forever. Moving it from a Sunday was understandable this year, but let’s keep the tradition
- The announcement of Republican candidates for Arlington County Board and School Board instead of another year of no opposition. John Vihstadt could use the help.
- Knowing we would see the election of a Republican governor and attorney general who will follow and defend the law.
- An honest accounting by the School Board of per pupil spending.
On Saturday, the Arlington County Board “legalized” Airbnb and other such short-term housing rentals. While many homeowners had been participating for some time with no real fear of reprisal, the Board rightly felt like they needed to ensure others who questioned the legality of the practice could participate as well.
Based on the Board deliberations however, it was clear that the rushed regulations had not been fully vetted and were still in need of more work. The Board even took the unusual step of passing the regulations with the promise to return to them at the next meeting to make additional changes.
When coupled with the fact the General Assembly is likely to address the issue in the new year, the Board has created a great deal of uncertainty about how these regulations will actually work moving forward.
Recognizing the regulations were not ready for prime time, John Vihstadt suggested the Board effectively give an interim “wink and nod” to homeowners that the practice would be made legal when the regulations were ready.
Unfortunately, Vihstadt’s common sense suggestion to delay a vote received no support from the other four members of the Board.
Arlington’s new towing ordinance also met with resistance this week.
As I wrote back in 2015 when Jay Fisette raised this issue, the problems with towing practices are not new.
Around 2000, I sat down to eat in the now-closed Taco Bell on Wilson Boulevard. A few minutes later, one of my fellow patrons sprinted out of the restaurant as his car was being hoisted into the air by a tow truck. Later we learned an “unmarked spotter” had identified his car for towing because he had first walked to the ATM next door to get cash before ordering his Taco Bell dinner.
The car owner showed the tow truck driver his Taco Bell receipt, but was told it did not matter because he had left the premises.
The use of spotters and removal of the property owner from the process leads to incidents where drivers have legitimate gripes when their car is towed. But they have virtually no redress. They have to pay the exorbitant towing fee and possibly complain to the county later.
It is certainly understandable that business owners feel the new measures create burdensome requirements. They have a right to ensure that parking spaces in their lots are reserved for employees, patrons or anyone else they choose for that matter.
In the Taco Bell incident I witnessed, the manager on duty said his hands were tied to stop the towing under the terms of the contract. Assuming it was true, then there really is a problem.
And despite a clear warning shot 18 months ago to voluntarily address aggressive towing practices, County Board members remained unsure any positive changes were forthcoming. So, the Board acted.
Now towing companies have until July 1st of next year to work with the county on the changes. Hopefully everyone can find a middle ground.