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by Mark Kelly — July 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

The Virginia Supreme Court will now make a decision on Governor McAuliffe’s order to restore voting rights to over 200,000 felons who served their time.

Previous governors have agreed with legal advice that the right to restore rights was not a blanket one through the clemency powers. Instead, they were supposed to set up a review of each case.

Both Governors Kaine and McDonnell worked to make that review easier. And McAuliffe’s predecessors were applauded from across the political spectrum for doing so.

McAuliffe has fought to keep the list secret, and multiple mistakes have been uncovered — leading to ever-growing criticism.

The case should ultimately rest on one important question:  Did Governor McAuliffe violate the Virginia Constitution with his order? The Court is expected to decide in time for the general election in November.

But the Solicitor General asked that the case be thrown out because the legislators could not prove they were harmed by the Governor’s order. He said allowing the case to go forward could amount to a situation where “any voter is going to be able to challenge virtually any election law.” And there was a good deal of discussion on this question during the arguments.

The Supreme Court did agree to hear this case in an expedited fashion. That seems to indicate the justices are concerned there could in fact be harm if the General Election is allowed to proceed under the order.

However, high courts often make decisions based on procedural questions like this rather than creating a precedent on the merits. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of McAuliffe, they will almost certainly hang their hat, or robes, on this question.

The harm of the order does appear to be to anyone who is a valid voter in Virginia, including our elected officials. If the Governor’s order resulted in individuals having their voting rights restored in error and those individuals register and vote, it dilutes the votes of everyone else. Your vote and my vote would not have as much strength as they should have in the electoral process because of the actions of the government.

Our default position should be that any time the impact of an election law weakens our voting rights, a voter should be able to challenge it. The Solicitor General should stand ready to defend our election laws. And we can let the courts decide.

 

by Mark Kelly — July 14, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark KellyNext Tuesday, the County Board will consider the 2016 Bond Referenda to be placed in front of the voters in November. It is reported that this year will include $320 million in new debt for the county. Nearly $140 million on school projects alone.

As of the writing of this column, the County Manager’s report was unavailable online. In the past, the language of the ballot questions has been vague. And voters often rubber stamp them as necessary spending for “parks,” “schools,” “roads,” and “public safety.”

Once again it seems that the County Manager is rejecting a call by Arlington Republicans that every project with a price tag of $25 million or more to be taken up in a separate bond referenda.

Taking on debt for big ticket items should rise or fall on its own merits. On the flip side of that argument, many of the smaller ticket items pushed into these larger packages should be paid for out of the annual budget process.

Along with the slush fund spending in the annual close out process, the bond process should be subject to closer scrutiny and better accountability. Hopefully we’ll hear comments to that effect from more than one County Board member next week.

In September, the County Board will be asked to approve two new polling locations for Arlington.

For a few of the 13 hours polls are open every four years on the first Tuesday in November when voters choose a president, there are moderate length lines to vote on Election Day. Every other election it seems has virtually no line to speak of at any polling location throughout the county.

With all due respect to the good people of the Electoral Board, the reason for the additional polling locations is not readily apparent.

And in a story that surprises no one, taxi trips are down in Arlington as a result of Uber and Lyft.

I have little need for on-call transportation and was not one of the first to join one of these two services. Calling a taxi was going to be just fine for me and my occasional trip to the airport.

Then came the time a cab was 30 minutes late to pick me up to get to my flight. The next time, I tried to order a cab the night before for an early morning flight and could not due to some glitch in the company’s system.

When I went to pick up the phone for my next trip to the airport, I decided to download the ride sharing software instead. For me, it is infinitely more convenient, particularly when it comes to never having to exchange money at my destination.

If taxi companies want to regain market share, then they need to offer a competitive product people want to use.

by Mark Kelly — July 7, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

This post may contain some controversial statements. But I feel like there are some common sense things that simply need to be said.

Here’s the first one: airports are noisy.

Unless you lived in Arlington before 1941 when Reagan National was opened, then you knew it was here when you arrived. Stand outside for any length of time anywhere near the flight path, and you are well aware that we live in a county right next door to a well-used airport.

The second simple fact is helicopters are noisy.

Construction of the Pentagon began in 1941 as well. You cannot miss the massive building. And if you stand outside for long in the area, you realize the military flies helicopters in and out of there regularly. Helicopters are also used in Arlington for medical emergencies and police activity. Activities we all agree are necessary.

Much of Arlington feels like you may be in the suburbs. However, we are a very urban area compared to most of America. Living in an urban area with regular police and medical activity that is home to the headquarters of the United States military and the closest-in airport to our nation’s capitol is going to bring with it some noise from the air.

While it is certainly appropriate for county staff to convey resident concerns on this issue, it is important to remember that tens of thousands of jobs exist in Arlington because of the Pentagon and Reagan National. The noise may be an inconvenience, but these are two of the key economic partners that make Arlington a desirable place to live.

My late grandfather worked at a paper mill. When I would go to visit as a child, I would sometimes complain about the smell that was produced from the facility. He would look at me and say, “that smells like money.” In other words, without that mill, he and so many other people may not have been able to find a good job in his town. The smell really amounted to a small inconvenience in the bigger picture.

The aircraft noise in Arlington may be inconvenient. And it is certainly understandable that if you live in the flight path that you would prefer to minimize the noise as much as possible. But when we chose to move here, we also chose to accept that living here comes with some noise. It seems like a lot of time and effort is put into fighting aircraft noise which is, well, inevitable. And, as my grandfather might say, “sounds like jobs.”

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — June 30, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

The County Board last week approved a resolution calling on the General Assembly to pass legislation giving driver’s licenses to illegal or undocumented immigrants.

Merits aside, this is another in a long line of resolutions the Board has passed calling for another legislative body to act. The General Assembly in Richmond often pays little heed to such things the Arlington County Board has to say. In fact, one could argue that the Board’s support might actually hurt the chances of legislation passing in the far more conservative legislature.

But some have suggested Governor McAuliffe could go it alone on this issue.

Certainly, lack of action by the legislature, or specific authority under the Virginia Constitution, has not stopped Governor McAuliffe or Attorney General Herring from acting before. But if Governor McAuliffe is considering creating new administrative powers out of thin air to issue licenses by executive action, he should think again.

The blanket restoration of voting rights, which Governors Kaine and McDonnell said was not an authority granted to them, has proven to be ill-conceived at best. Even the Virginia Supreme Court has granted an expedited hearing on July 19th in order to determine whether McAuliffe acted properly.

In the meantime, story after story is emerging about individuals who wrongly had their rights restored. And only time will tell just how badly the administration of this decision was bungled.

Unfortunately, our Governor and other leading Democrats seem perfectly fine with using authoritarian and undemocratic means to achieve their goals. Ironically, it is often done in the name of our rights.

It should not matter whether you agree with the end goals or not. When anyone elected to lead our government does an end run of the law to get to a desired result, it erodes the protections afforded to us by our system of government.

No, the legislative process is not perfect. However, it is the system we are supposed to be living under. And we should all be grateful. It also protects us from a future Republican governor who wants to create new laws without any statutory or constitutional power to do so.

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — June 23, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark KellyAs part of her State of the County speech to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, County Board Chair Libby Garvey outlined concerns raised by former Delegate Rob Krupicka.

Krupicka experienced frustration with various county processes as he worked to open a Sugar Shack Donuts location on Columbia Pike. For example, Krupicka noted it took six trips to get approval for the sign alone.

In addition to the cumbersome sign process Krupicka called for improvements in other areas, including more coordination between county offices. Krupicka expressed a real concern that County offices do not appear to understand each other’s role. Krupicka rightly said, “That is crazy, as the small business person shouldn’t have to be an expert on government process, the process should be designed to be easy.”

Krupicka called for the ability to submit both applications and payments online, saying “Payments have to be made by mail or in person rather than online and for some things you can’t move forward without payment, so that means waiting in line in the planning office for hours to get your name called so you can hand a check to somebody.”

On this issue of working with the county online, it really is disappointing that Arlington County cannot get it right. Our government often touts its “world class community” status. And the County has made a commitment to the ConnectArlington project to bring high speed fiber to the government and businesses. Receiving online applications and payments from people who want to run a business here should be a simple thing that we could have been getting right a long time ago.

It is no surprise really that Krupicka said it was easier to open his business in Alexandria. This observation should be taken into account as the Board continues to look at the vacancy rate in Arlington – something Garvey also discussed in the speech.

Garvey noted investments in economic development activities. But we better start getting get the basics right first and take practical steps to ensure Arlington really is open for business. You simply cannot make it harder and more expensive to start and run a business in Arlington than your neighbor in Alexandria and expect to win in the competition for new businesses, let alone keep the ones you already have.

Kudos to Garvey for calling attention to Krupicka’s experience. But anyone who has run for County Board in Arlington and had frank conversations with small business owners would have heard these concerns years ago. It’s unfortunate that it took a former Democrat office holder, from Alexandria, to get the Board’s attention.

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — June 16, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

It wasn’t a landslide, but Libby Garvey handily won Tuesday’s primary in the race for County Board. In a presidential election year and with no Republican on the ballot, she is almost assured of re-election in November.

Garvey’s willingness to break away from the insular group think of her predecessors on the County Board earned her a comfortable majority of her fellow Democrats — many of whom had undoubtedly crossed over to vote for Republican-backed Independent John Vihstadt two years ago. Many County Board watchers are now curious whether this will have any impact on the only holdout from the old board, Jay Fisette, and his decision about seeking another term in 2017?

Unfortunately, the efforts of Garvey and Vihstadt on the new audit function of the county took a blow this week when County Auditor Jessica Tucker announced her resignation. Tucker came to Arlington from Fairfax County and she brought a background as a government auditor from the local to the federal level.

As the County Board re-opens the search, they should also use the opportunity to re-examine the charge for the position.

First, the Board should consider candidates with a private sector background. If we truly want to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of our government operations, maybe we should consider someone with experience outside of other government bodies. It doesn’t mean we have to run government exclusively like a business, but running it more like a business could be helpful.

Second, the Board should provide the budget for at least one or two additional dedicated staff members who report directly to the Auditor, not the County Manager. If we are going to have an independent audit function, the office needs to be able to have the capacity to operate independently.

Third, the Board should consider removing the County Manager and Director of the Department of Management and Finance from the Audit Committee. If this function is to be truly independent and report only to the Board, then why does the county staff have a direct say in what will be audited?

Starting over with a new person is an unfortunate step backward. Hopefully the Board will use the opportunity to move toward more independence while working diligently to fill the position as quickly as possible.

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — June 2, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

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.

Mark KellyLibby Garvey and I ran against each other in 2012. At the time, Libby was still undecided on the Columbia Pike streetcar issue. A point I made to everyone I met on the campaign trail who was against the project. Libby won the fairly (for Arlington) close race and eventually came down on the right side of the streetcar issue – becoming the sole dissenting voice on the County Board.

Regardless of whether you agree with her, speaking out against four other fellow Democrats on a signature big ticket issue like the streetcar was an act of political courage.

The streetcar project was emblematic of what the County Board had become — an insular echo chamber. In spite of escalating costs, the project’s questionable transportation benefits, and the failures of the similar D.C. project across the Potomac, the other four Board members were marching forward. They were relying on a years-old “decision” rather than honestly re-evaluating the plan based on current facts and circumstances.

Many Board watchers, including this one, knew that to shake up the status quo, it would require a seismic shift. Only if it was proven a Democrat could actually lose an election in Arlington, would there be an impetus for a change.

Libby seemed to put her finger on pulse of the community. And at the risk of her own career, Libby reached out to support John Vihstadt when he ran as an Independent candidate in late 2013 after Chris Zimmerman’s resignation.

Vihstadt not only won the Special Election, but he handily won the full term in November 2014. The streetcar project was shelved shortly thereafter.

Since that time, Vihstadt and Garvey have worked together on a number of issues to reflect the concerns of a majority of people in Arlington who want to see more fiscal discipline, transparency and accountability from the County Board. Late last year, they even raised concerns about the tens of millions of dollars spent in the closeout process being done with virtually no public comment.

Libby’s decision, however, was not without political consequences. Her willingness to think independently of her party earned her a primary challenge from a fellow Democrat this spring. The case for his candidacy is nothing more than Garvey’s decision to dare to upset the apple cart in 2014.

I offer no endorsement in this race for two reasons. One, I have never endorsed a Democrat. Two, it probably would cost a candidate votes in an Arlington Democratic primary.

I do offer a question. I have often heard Democrats say they want to find Republicans who are willing to work across party lines. Now that they have a fellow Democrat willing to work with an Independent, will Democrat primary voters toss her overboard for doing so?

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — May 26, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

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.

Mark KellyThe eyes of our nation turn to Arlington National Cemetery each year as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms on Memorial Day. It is a debt we can never repay, but we can honor it by ensuring their sacrifice was not in vain.

Yes, Board Chair Garvey should have started the push for the Blue Ribbon Panel earlier. However, opponents effectively gutted the Panel when they were successful in delaying it. The Panel was supposed to bring a fresh set of eyes to a report due by December rather than leaving it to county staff. Fearing this independent review, status quo forces in Arlington carried the day — using Garvey’s hotly contested primary as a cudgel to do so. These special interests who lobby the Board are fine with spending tens of millions of dollars in the closeout process each year with virtually no public input. But empanelling a small group of people to provide input on a report due every five years is apparently a bridge too far.

Metro chief Paul Wiedefeld fired 20 managers at the transit agency — about 3% of the at-will employees. The move sends a signal to the public that he is serious about making real changes. The message he sent to all the other Metro employees who are still there — you will be held accountable. Next up for the region, working through the extended shutdowns and single tracking to address safety concerns.

The proposed CIP would put nearly $180 million in bonds before Arlington voters in November. This is before any bonds requested by the School Board, which could total more than $140 million. At first glance, at least some of the items seem to fall into the category of ongoing expenses, not one-time infrastructure needs. Any time you see the word “maintenance,” you should ask yourself, why we do not budget for it on an ongoing basis?

Also in the County Manager’s CIP presentation is a projection that debt service will continue to grow at a rate of 4.2%. However, annual debt service would rise from $109.6 million in FY 2017 to $149.1 million in FY 2022, or nearly 36% in the first five years. The idea that we assume smaller debt service increases in the out years to make the 10 year average look better is a nice accounting gimmick if you want to tax, borrow and spend more now. Not only are those lower out year levels unlikely to hold, but the increased debt-to-revenue ratio maintains an upward pressure on tax rates in the near term in order to maintain our bond rating.

And finally, Governor McAuliffe said he was in “shock” that the FBI was investigating donations to his campaign. McAuliffe’s ties with the donor in question go back at least to the days of GreenTech Automotive. Then Governor Kaine’s administration rejected economic development funds for GreenTech because of concerns it looked like a cash-for-visas scheme.

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — May 12, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

When it comes to spending taxpayer dollars in Arlington, the year-end closeout process is most in need of reform. Not only does the County Board spend nearly tens of million per year in surplus revenues, but they do so with little public input – particularly when compared to the regular annual budget process.

As a candidate for Board, I called for tax relief funded largely by the tens of millions the Board spends at the end of every calendar year. Now the Arlington Civic Federation has joined my call by passing a resolution calling on the County Board to set aside a “fair and reasonable amount” of future surpluses for real estate tax relief.

In the resolution, the Civic Federation noted that over the past five years, the Board kept $145.1 million in surplus revenue. It would only take about $7 million each year to reduce tax rates by one cent.

The Civic Federation Resolution also called for the county Board to open up the closeout process for a more “transparent and robust public process.”

We know that John Vihstadt and Libby Garvey support some sort of reform to the closeout process. Hopefully one (or both) of the two new Board members will join them.

Thumbs Down to a Delay for the Blue Ribbon Panel

The Alliance for Housing solutions sent a letter to Board Chair Libby Garvey asking her to delay the Blue Ribbon panel. The panel is charged with helping to shape a report that is due by the end of the year on the County’s comprehensive plan.

One part of the Alliance letter in particular stood out, claiming that six months is not enough time to include a diversity of opinions. One has to ask, how would shortening that time frame by 30 or 60 days help achieve their stated goal?

It seems as if the Alliance gets their way, the Board will go back to the status quo of relying on a primarily staff driven report. This would defeat the purpose of bringing in six fresh sets of eyes to review the comprehensive plan. While many Board watchers, including this one, expressed at least some skepticism of the creation of yet another panel, delaying it would only serve to reduce any positive impacts of an independent review.

One of my goals for the panel is to see it shake up the status quo and ruffle a few feathers. The fact that the Alliance felt the need to send this letter indicates it is already having that effect. The Board should make its appointments to the panel on Tuesday and start the panel process now.

Mark Kelly is the chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Mark Kelly — May 5, 2016 at 2:15 pm 0

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.

Mark Kelly

 Governor McAuliffe recently issued an executive order restoring to 206,000 felons who successfully completed their sentences the rights to vote, sit on juries, run for office and become a notary public.

Previous governors explored this question and found that their Constitutional clemency powers required the restoration of these rights to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Some Republicans are arguing McAuliffe is making a blatant political play to help boost Hillary Clinton’s chances win Virginia in November. But some form of restoration of voting rights is an issue with support on both sides of the political aisle.

By using an executive order, however, Governor McAuliffe did an end run around the General Assembly on an issue that clearly should have been subject to public debate and scrutiny. McAuliffe also left open the very real possibility the next governor could modify or eliminate the order altogether which would raise even more Constitutional questions about whether an individual had some, or all of these rights, or not.

The use of the executive order eliminated the opportunity for public scrutiny on important questions. Should individuals be required to apply for the rights or should they be automatic? Should we differentiate between repeat violent offenders and nonviolent first-time offenders? Should rapists be eligible to sit on a jury during a rape trial? Or should people convicted of fraud be given a public trust like being a notary public?

But elected representatives were denied the ability to debate any issues surrounding whether any or all the rights should be restored or in what manner. And not surprisingly, Republicans in the General Assembly are preparing to sue the Governor on the grounds his actions were unconstitutional.

The people of Virginia should be wary whenever a Governor attempts to unilaterally re-write the Virginia Constitution. When Democrat Governor Kaine explored the same question, his legal counsel determined such an executive order would re-write Virginia law and set a very troubling precedent of ignoring his oath to uphold the Constitution. Governor Kaine was right to defer to his oath.

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

by Mark Kelly — April 28, 2016 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.

All five members of the Arlington County Board were on hand last night for the ARLnow event at the Celtic House on Columbia Pike. It was a pleasure to share the forum with fellow columnists Peter Rousselot and Larry Roberts to discuss issues facing the county.

If you missed it, here are a few of the points I made to the questions our panel received:

  • The decision to stop the streetcar project is still a good one. It would have done nothing to improve traffic on the Pike at a massive cost to the taxpayers.
  • Using the influence of our seat on the WMATA Board to fundamentally reform Metro should be our highest transit priority.
  • Parents and teachers need to stop buying into the notion that increasing class sizes by just 1-2 pupils will somehow destroy their children’s education. It is a step that may be required to get through the short-term as we address the capacity crunch in the county.
  • Without dramatic increases in taxpayer subsidies or dramatic increases in density, the county will always be fighting a losing battle to make housing more affordable. Arlington has a limited amount of prime real estate available, and the laws of supply and demand will continue to prevail.
  • Few people, especially those with children, are going to walk to a new Long Bridge aquatics center. Supporters should eliminate it from their talking points in support of the project.

I did miss an opportunity during the aquatics center discussion to make a pitch for reforming the way bonds voted on in Arlington. Big projects like the aquatics center should be voted on as stand alone questions, not tucked into other bond projects.

As you might imagine, because of the time constraints, we did not get to all of the possible topics suggested to us by the staff at ARLnow.

What should the County Board have done on taxes? After the average out-of-pocket costs for taxpayers has increased $1,113 the past five years, the County Board should have taken a more aggressive approach to reducing the tax rate than just a half-cent reduction. The excess revenue spent every year during the closeout process proves there is room to provide tax relief without cutting any fat, let alone muscle in the budget. A two cent reduction in the rate this year would have simply reduced the funds available at closeout time this year by about $10.5 million over what the Board approved.

Does Arlington have a crime problem? No. But public safety is one of the big three in terms of core services along with education and infrastructure (includes transportation). It should always be treated as one of our highest priorities and given the resources law enforcement needs.

How should Arlington plan to handle infrastructure needs for an increased population over the long term? From potholes to sewer lines, investing in ongoing maintenance of and improvements to our existing infrastructure should always trump new “shiny object” projects.

by Mark Kelly — April 21, 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.

The County Board decided to appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission to order future county priorities found in the Comprehensive Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan currently contains 10 elements and receives a comprehensive review every five years. The last five-year review was completed by the County Board in December of 2011. This new panel seems to be timed with a Board review this year.

Arlington has a history of creating a lot of conversation, but not always conversation that produces action. But rather than critiquing the County Board decision to appoint this panel, here are some suggestions to those who are selected.

  1. Be specific. The report from this panel should produce readily identifiable action steps and establish an order of priorities based on meeting community needs.
  1. Talk to critics. Understanding why there is disagreement with County Board decisions or staff actions will better inform your decisions.
  1. Be tough-minded. Do not attempt to reach a consensus that will appeal to everyone. Make hard choices and identify the most pressing priorities. The Board is appointing you, at least in some small part, because they have to play politics. You do not.

Here is a further note on this point. If you agree to serve on this Board as a stepping stone to run for the County Board in the future, please reconsider. The last thing we need is someone wondering how their recommendations will play in a political campaign down the road.

  1. Think outside the box. Do not confine your discussions or recommendations to the Comprehensive Plan as it currently exists. No one needs to read the same report that county staff could have produced on their own. And if the county staff sends you a draft report that does not reflect your discussions, send it back.

The bottom line: if the final set of recommendations does not ruffle more than a few feathers, the panel will probably have failed to do its job.

by ARLnow.com — April 14, 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.

This week County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed a revised aquatics center plan for Long Bridge Park during a County Board work session.

The aquatics center at Long Bridge had been shelved when the costs continued to balloon. Former County Manager Donnellan ultimately announced they simply could not find a bid to build the pool complex within the allotted budget.

The County it seems was unwilling to go back to the taxpayers again to approve additional bonds for the project which was threatening to top $80 million. Bonds dating back to 2004 have been approved by voters and nearly $17 million have already sold but are yet unused on the project. $30.5 million of bonds have been approved, but not sold.

The new $65 million (approximate) plan seeks to reduce the size of the facility by a little more than one-third and is estimated to save 17% from the old estimate. However, these are only county staff estimates as there has been no final price tag from a construction firm.

Of course, it was not just the construction costs causing heartburn. County estimates pegged the project with an ongoing annual operating deficit of more than $4 million before it was halted. The staff says the new plan will only result in an operating deficit of $1 million.

As the aquatics center discussion moves forward, ongoing operating costs will remain an important issue. How much of a subsidy should we provide to Arlington residents? And will people from surrounding communities who use the facility be required to pay more?

In watching the County Board work session presentation on the new project, two other claims stood out. First, it was stated that the new facility would be designed and built to meet identified community needs. Second, that the previous design was biased toward better architecture and not better energy efficiency. This time around, energy efficiency will be given a higher priority.

It makes one wonder, why was it not done this way the first time?

by Mark Kelly — April 7, 2016 at 11:45 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.

On Tuesday, the Arlington Civic Federation voted to recommend a 1-cent tax rate reduction to the Arlington County Board. The Board should adopt the recommendation.

The CivFed resolution noted that over the past five years, the average homeowner saw a $1,113 increase in taxes and fees. A 1-cent reduction this year would not cut a homeowner’s tax burden. It would only stop property taxes from increasing quite as much.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz already recommended a .5-cent rate reduction as part of his budget proposal, which would only lower revenue growth by $3.5 million. Either option would be welcome news to homeowners. In fact, more relief would be even better news.

The CivFed resolution also rightly notes lowering property taxes would relieve some of the upward pressure on the costs of both homeownership and rent.

After years of ramped up tax bills to pay everything from tricycles to bus stops and so much more, surely the Board can find an additional $3.5 million in a nearly $1.2 billion budget when they vote on April 19th.

If the Board is accepting recommendations, designating $3.5 million from closeout funds would certainly do the trick. The Board can also look to the CivFed report which proposed budget reductions to cover the price tag. (The CivFed proposed reductions had not yet been posted on its website.)

And what about the new honorary Poet Laureate position? The decision did catch the attention of a few budget watchdogs who are wondering what the County Board will think of next. But at $1500 a year, not all of which to come out of taxpayer funds, it is a bargain when compared to the now defunct Artisphere or the Signature Theater bailout.

The ARLnow story on the search for our first poetry chief did cause some commenters to audition for the job, including a couple verses written about me. In the spirit of good natured fun, I offer this haiku in response.

Trolley has been nixed.

Taxpayers are rejoicing

gondolas are next.

by Mark Kelly — March 31, 2016 at 1:15 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.

Late yesterday, news began to spread that Metro was considering shuttering entire lines for six months at a time. According to the Washington Post report, the discussion also included calls for a $1 billion increase in annual funding.

With the recent mid-week shutdown of the entire system, the region should not assume that General Manager Wiedefeld is merely posturing. However, there are undoubtedly some on the Metro Board who see the possibility of long-term shutdowns as leverage in the funding debate.

The simple fact of the matter is that Metro has lost the trust of the public. We cannot be expected to simply take their word for it.

Here are four things the General Manager and Metro Board should do as this debate continues.

  1. Produce a comprehensive plan for structural reforms to Metro’s operations.

When I wrote on this subject two weeks ago, I noted concerns from a WMATA official that the new General Manager could not rely on the people working there. The challenges Metro faces clearly go beyond current safety concerns and into why Metro got here in the first place. Mr. Wiedefeld has said things were worse than he thought, so he should show us how he intends to change course.

  1. Submit a full maintenance plan for public review.

Such a plan should identify both short-term and long-term maintenance needs. If Metro does not believe it can complete the immediately necessary repairs on nights and weekends, they must tell us why.

  1. Separate one-time needs from long-term funding in any new funding proposal.

What happens too many times in government is a failure to identify one-time needs versus ongoing needs. The result is an inflated baseline of ongoing spending. Budgets really should be built on an annual basis rather than with automatic assumptions that increases are necessary across the board.

  1. Identify possible cuts in any new funding proposal.

It is likely we will hear that all the fat has been trimmed from Metro. But if the General Manager honestly believes there is nowhere he can cut, he should explain where he looked and why he arrived at this conclusion.

It’s not that the region is unwilling to pay for Metro. It’s that after years of fare increases coupled with safety and maintenance failures, people are rightly taking more of a “trust but verify” posture before committing to another $1 billion per year.

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