Arlington, VA

At its upcoming meeting, the County Board will adopt the latest iteration of Arlington’s Community Energy Plan. In reading the staff report, two interesting things stood out. First, the staff did not quantify how much it would cost for Arlington to reach “carbon neutral” status by 2050. Instead, the report suggested that the costs would be rolled out through future budgets and Capital Improvement Plans.

Second, the staff could not account for the final 14% in reductions in CO2 emissions. So, while they have set the ambitious goal of zero CO2 emissions by 2050, they do not yet know how they are going to get there.

We should always be wary of a government plan that does not even attempt to quantify its costs, then again it is hard to put a price tag on unknown “future opportunities.”

Next up for the County Board this fall is the annual dance with closeout spending and preparing the ground for next year’s budget.

Will County Manager Mark Schwartz speak on the next budget cycle at this week’s County Board meeting? At the 2018 September meeting, Schwartz signaled a budget gap was on the horizon for the coming year. Of course, that gap was virtually erased by the time he put forward a proposed budget.

If the real estate market is any indication of where assessments are headed for the coming year, revenue is unlikely to be a problem. Maybe Schwartz will call it the “Amazon effect?”

If revenue does jump (again), it will also free up the County Board to spend all of the available closeout funds rather than setting some aside to ease the upward pressure of real estate taxes on Arlingtonians next year. The closeout spending spree would be made even easier now that John Vihstadt is no longer sitting on the dias or considering a return to the ballot.

If Schwartz talks about a budget gap, he will almost certainly be previewing some significant spending increases. Any increases would likely be framed in terms of restoration of service and personnel cuts as well as school enrollment pressures.

Stay tuned.

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The Right Note: APS Guestimates?

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

For years in this column, I have noted that the county annually underestimates revenue. As a result, the County Board creates a year-end slush fund of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to spend outside of the regular budget process. Arlington’s schools are a big beneficiary of this closeout process.

APS receives an infusion of the closeout dollars each year as a sizable mid-year boost to its budget. Last year it was about $10 million.

Now it appears APS may have learned from county budget writers as APS is consistently over-estimating enrollment when it builds its budget.

This could lead one to believe the school system is doing so in order to put a cushion in its annual budget. Earlier this spring, APS told us 28,495 students were expected to enroll at a total per-student cost of $23,569. This is the dollar figure you arrive at when you divide $671.6 million by 28,495.

Last week, APS announced that 27,996 students had enrolled. That’s a difference of 499 students. Not only does this increase the per student cost to $23,989, but it effectively gives APS nearly $12 million in added budget flexibility.

Last year, APS told us 28,027 students would enroll. The actual number was 591 students less or 27,436. That was over $13 million in potential budget flexibility.

Some might argue that APS is getting pretty close. After all, 499 students is less than a 2% error rate out of the total student population. Another way to look at it is that APS estimated 1,059 more students would enroll last week. When only 560 new students showed up, it means they missed it by 499 students. And that is a 47% error rate. That’s better than last year, but still pretty high.

At any rate, APS should re-evaluate how they are estimating enrollment every year because they are clearly missing something. And at nearly $24,000 spent per student, it adds up very quickly.

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

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The Right Note 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 Arlington for finally opening its online permitting process. Phase one of moving the permitting process online launches on September 9th with phase two scheduled to follow on in 2020. Another good change coming as part of the process is all in-person filing will be done in one consolidated office location.

Thumbs down to this important line from the homepage: “Estimated review processing times are not changing.”  Having recently been through the permitting process in Arlington, I was really hoping the move would help speed up the review process. As it stands the changes might save you a day or two on the front end, but it will have little impact on getting construction projects moving faster. Time is money in the construction businesses, so delays only add to the costs of the housing our county needs.

Thumbs up to regional leaders for recognizing that housing and transportation go hand and hand as issues. The real test is whether Arlington leaders continue to focus on transportation “solutions” that do not recognize people will continue to drive their cars. The other lingering question is whether Metro really is moving in the right direction as Christian Dorsey suggested.

Thumbs up to the same regional leaders who recognize that not everyone needs to go to a four year college to be successful. Vocational education, apprenticeships, technology training would provide many students a path to a good job without huge student loans.

Thumbs down to the incomplete notion of splitting our elementary schools by this week’s Progressive Voice. We should all be for innovative solutions and shaking up the status quo when it comes to preparing our kids for the future. Unfortunately, nowhere in the piece did the author point to any evidence that there could be substantial improvements in student achievement. This is particularly important as a plan like this would almost certainly add significant extra costs to the APS budget.

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

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The Right Note 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.

Yesterday, the Progressive Voice’s Krysta Jones wrote about what has happened in Virginia after the jarring revelations about Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring earlier this year. She tries to answer whether it has been an opportunity for “racial healing and atonement?” It is an important question.

Ms. Jones goes on to discuss things that have been done and things that can be done. Before making a suggested addition to her list, let’s first look at the current state of our politics.

Here is a question for all of the Democrats in Arlington. Would you have let Northam and Herring off the hook for something that happened four decades ago if they were Republicans?

Why do I ask?

Over the past few days, former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire for emphasizing the use of bipartisan relationships to get things done. He even went so far as to say, “there’s an awful lot of really good Republicans out there.”

Some Democrats pushed back. They seemingly would have preferred the quote have been, “Republicans are an awful lot.”

The rationale seems to be, these Republicans voted for President Trump. Therefore, they cannot be good. Remember when Senator Barbara Favola said Republican candidates in 2017 were evil?

Too often both sides have been guilty of stoking the fire of hatred for the other side. That we are dangerously divided politically right now can only be addressed if the people currently in opposing camps dial back the tribalism.

So here is the suggestion for Ms. Jones. Talk to some Republicans. Let’s have a “working lunch or dinner.” You bring three other Democrats. I will bring three other Republicans.

Let’s have a conversation to gain a better understanding of our experiences, our motivations, our expectations for the future. We can talk about race. We can discuss policies that increase opportunity. We can talk about things we can do right here in Arlington to strengthen our community.

It certainly will better inform our opinions than a 60 second sound bites on cable news, or a Facebook comments section argument, or a Tweet storm.

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

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The Right Note 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 time for the Arlington County Fair, one of my favorite local traditions. This year the fair features a butterfly encounter, a first-ever beer garden, and goat yoga among other things.

As with every year, the fair also features appearances by your elected officials here in Arlington. Your school board members and interim superintendent, your county board members, the treasurer, and the sheriff will be there.

Here are 11 questions you can ask your school board and county board members when you see them at the fair this week:

1. Why is the school board dragging out the selection process for the permanent school superintendent? Is it because Cintia Johnson is the front-runner for the job and they want to give her an extended trial run?

2. Why won’t the county board give more resources to the auditor’s office?

3. After this year’s tax increase, will the county board commit to setting aside 100% of unspent funds and excess tax collections to offset next year’s budget?

4. Why does the school board report lower than actual per pupil spending? 

5. Why does it cost $412,000 to build a bus stop?

6. After the recent flooding, does the county board believe it is doing enough to address basic infrastructure needs versus other non-essential services or projects?

7. Why does the county board eliminate travel lanes on heavily trafficked streets?

8. To every county board member, why do you believe you deserve a pay raise of over 60% particularly in light of Chairman Dorsey’s suggestion that board members should possibly work less?

9. Has APS rectified its exit interview process that left school board members in the dark about attrition in the workforce?

10. Looking back at your county board New Year’s kickoff speeches, what have you accomplished and what have you failed to make progress on so far?

11. What specifically will you advocate for to reform the way WMATA operates and fix Metro?
Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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The Right Note 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 recent audit of the Arlington County Fire Department’s (ACFD) budget crunching overtime costs is exactly the type of work that was envisioned when the independent auditor was proposed.

As reported on ARLnow, the audit found that ACFD is insufficiently staffed to avoid overtime. The department is fighting against attrition of an average of two employees per month. According to the audit, “it takes almost 12 months and costs almost $100,000 per recruit to recruit, hire and train” new firefighters  And ACFD is unable to conduct as much training of existing personnel.

Also, the audit identified that AFCD uses two separate systems to track hours worked and payroll. There is no reason these systems should not be combined into one, so that everything is tracked as efficiently and accurately as possible.

Now that we have identified and made public the issues to be addressed, what is the County Board and the County Manager going to do about it? Will they do it soon, or put it off for further study? Do they need to spend 2019 closeout funds to speed up the hiring of additional firefighters and EMS personnel?

And what about elsewhere across the government?

The latest work plan for the County Auditor shows the next two priorities for the office also have the potential of producing actionable items for the Board in 2019: overtime in the Sheriff’s office, and how the county tracks money it gives out as part of economic development incentives. In 2020, the plan is to look at contract administration and real estate assessment and appeals.

The plan also lists items the Auditor would like to get to if time and resources allow, including oversight of Business Improvement Districts, procurement practices, neighborhood conservation, and site plan benefits.

Why shouldn’t we get audits on all of the above items done by the end of 2020? I have written in the past that the County Board is not dedicating enough resources to the auditor’s office. Doubling the output of the office would be a good first step.

In reality, implementing actionable recommendations from the audits should save the taxpayers money over time. But, if the Board is really worried about finding the money, they could pay for it instead of giving themselves a 60% raise.

The Board needs to take action to turn the audits’ recommendations into real reforms. And, the Board needs to give the County Auditor’s office the resources they need to move even faster.

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

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The Right Note 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 Progressive Voice opined this week that it may be time to take measures that rein in growth.

It is slightly ironic that the growth in high rise housing has helped give Democrats a virtual lock on local elections is also causing consternation among “progressives.” It is also amusing that progressives complain about traffic and parking while many of them are advocating for eliminating travel lanes on already congested streets, stopping scooter rentals and eliminating parking spaces.

Growth is just one of the things Democrats have been fighting with each other about in Arlington.

Also on the list, whether to provide subsidies to big corporations like Amazon; the debate over preserving neighborhood schools when redrawing boundaries versus making diversity the priority when setting new lines; whether a strong, experience prosecutor is more important than an unknown and unproven Commonwealth Attorney who promises to reform the office; disagreements over whether accessory dwelling units were bad for neighborhoods; and changing the name of Washington-Lee to Washington-Liberty high school.

The anti-Trump sentiment that drove Democrats to the polls in 2018 overshadowed the issues facing the county as well as the check to one-party rule that having an independent voice on the County Board provided.

The Board read the results differently. They went on a post-Vihstadt spending spree, including millions to build more bus stops on Columbia Pike. They voted to raise their own pay by as much as 60%. Yet things like ongoing water main breaks and the recent flooding reminded voters that basic local governance decisions on things like infrastructure have often not received enough attention.

There is undoubtedly continued discontent with how our elected officials are making decisions. One option is for Democrats to run more candidates in primary contests against incumbents in future years. But there is tremendous opportunity to partner with the Independents and Republicans who want to see our county run well and in a fiscally responsible manner.

It might even be time for the community to come together and back a write-in campaign for John Vihstadt. And since it’s a two seat County Board year, maybe a Vihstadt-Stamos write-in ticket? If Vihstadt’s win in 2014 sent a shock wave through the establishment, imagine if it happened again without his name appearing on the ballot.

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

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The Right Note 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 has been made of the recent Supreme Court decision that said partisan redistricting is not a constitutional question for the federal courts. Ultimately, the justices opted not to force federal trial and appellate judges to review every map ever produced simply because the “losers” didn’t like the outcome.

Reformers were up in arms. How could the Supreme Court arrive at such a decision?

There is a larger question of how to arrive at a clear test as to what maps were too partisan? Some reformers have suggested that maps should produce roughly the same number of Congressional districts as if they were allocated proportionally on a statewide vote. Another suggestion is that states draw as many competitive seats, drawn to be 50/50 in partisan breakdown, as possible.

Either of these would almost certainly still produce countless odd-shaped districts that break up communities of interest in order to achieve the stated goal. This is primarily because Democrats tend to be more heavily concentrated in urban areas. The latter would tend to produce regular swings back and forth based on the changing political environment, and maybe some would say that’s a good thing.

Ultimately these questions will now play out in state legislatures and state courts.

If the proportionality standard were implemented, it would be good news for Congressional Democrats in Texas, Ohio and Michigan. At the same time, it would also be good news for Congressional Republicans in California, Maryland, Illinois, and to a lesser extent, Virginia. And, it might be good news for incumbents who would sit in districts designed to achieve a certain partisan outcome.

One study suggests that while Republicans were overperforming nationally for much of the past decade, that Democrats now currently hold the exact number of seats they should hold based on the proportional national vote. In other words, despite what many experts believed was a Republican gerrymandering advantage, Democrats still won control of the U.S. House.

This tends to happen over time. In Virginia, Democrats drew their preferred map in the State Senate after the last Census only to see Republicans win control. Republicans drew their preferred map in the House, only to see Democrats come within drawing the name out of a bowl of a 50/50 split in 2017.

This year, Virginia passed a constitutional amendment to implement a 16-member commission made up of lawmakers and citizens to draw maps in the future. The measure would need to be passed again by the General Assembly in 2020 before heading to voters for approval.

In California, the Independent Commission favored by Republicans produced maps that favored Democrats. According to Pro Publica, Democrats deployed an aggressive effort to influence the commission to draw maps that aligned with their interests. According to one report, party operatives invented a local interest group to push for the Democrats’ favored map.

In other words, you cannot necessarily trust an “Independent Commission” to produce independent results. And if you think the parties would not look for any way to game the system in Virginia, you would be fooling yourself. 

Maybe the answer is to create a computer algorithm that puts some weight on partisan “fairness” while favoring compactness and communities of interest? Then again, a human still has to write the algorithm.

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

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The Right Note 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.

Tonight the County Board is going to consider building four more bus stops on Columbia Pike at a total allocated cost of $1.65 million, or roughly $412,000 per stop. The current Capital Improvement Plan contemplates the construction of 23 new transit stops for a total of $16.9 million, though Arlington taxpayers would not be on the hook for the entire bill.

It seems like an eternity ago that the $1 million model for these stops caused a political firestorm and even garnered national attention. The coverage put into perspective the magnitude of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, helped elect Independent John Vihstadt, and eventually lead to project’s cancellation. For those who may have forgotten, the rather small stop does not really keep you dry when it is raining and the “state-of-the-art” screen that was supposed to provide riders with information is often out of commission.

That the County Board thinks spending around half a million dollars each to build another 23 is a good fiscal decision still boggles the mind. The decision to proceed only looks fiscally responsible relative to $1 million, not relative to what else you could spend $13.3 million on, or not spend it at all.

In a larger sense, after the Board raised taxes and found no real budget savings this Spring, it is yet another piece of evidence that the once again all-Democrat County Board is slipping back into old habits when it comes to spending our money.

Speaking of watching spending decisions that are supposed to benefit the community, the Washington Business Journal recently reported that business incubator 1776 was unable to come to lease terms with JBG Smith and is relocating to the District. In 2015, the County Board voted to give 1776 up to $450,000 in economic development grantsto create 300 new jobs in the county. Four years later, those jobs are leaving the county.

Economic development incentives (giveaways) are a game that all states and major metropolitan areas play. This case serves as a reminder that they do not always work out over the long run.

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

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The Right Note 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.

Seeing all of the reports from the flooding throughout Arlington County yesterday reminds me of the responses Arlingtonians have made to previous natural disasters in the area.

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel wiped out power throughout much of the county and the region. However there were areas where houses on one side of a street had power and their neighbors on the other side had none. We live on one of those streets.

We asked a neighbor if we could run an extension cord across the street to run a few essentials, including a mini refrigerator to keep a few things cold, a couple of lamps and a fan for sleeping through a few warm nights. All of this came in especially handy as we had a toddler running around the house.

Soon, we noticed extension cords running all over the neighborhood. And then we heard stories of it happening all across the area as power outages stretched out for a week.

During one of the more severe winter storms a couple years back, a neighbor told another that his wife was in the hospital with late term pregnancy complications. Next thing you know, there was a small army shoveling out the street so he could get his vehicle out of the neighborhood.

These things happen regularly here in Arlington, not just in my neighborhood. It is what living in a community is all about.

Two weeks ago, the author of the Progressive Voice suggested Republicans represented a “cacophony of terrible.” It does not quite rank up there with Senator Barbara Favola’s 2017 line that Republican candidates were “evil”, but it does reflect a troubling partisan tribalism in our society today.

Both sides have been guilty of falling into it. But, this attitude is dangerous to the social fabric of our communities.

As neighbor helps neighbor again this week, may we all feel more connected and invested in making Arlington a great place to live, work and raise a family. May it also be a time to re-evaluate the emphasis we put on politics. And may it be a reminder to treat each other the way we want to be treated at all times, not just in times of crisis.

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

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The Right Note 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 a big summer for Arlington Public Schools. It started with the June 12th announcement that Superintendent Patrick Murphy is leaving his post September 3rd after a decade at the helm.

Yet, according to incoming School Board Chair Tannia Talento, the search for his replacement still has not begun, nor have they named an interim superintendent who can be an active part of the transition. Talento noted the School Board plans to hire an executive search firm, but has not done so yet. In fact, Talento says the search firm may not be in place until sometime in the fall.

Murphy’s decision must have caught the School Board members off-guard. Three weeks have already gone by, and apparently it will be three months before the search begins.

This is the second instance that calls into question the priorities of the School Board when it comes to staffing APS. Just a couple months ago, we heard that APS does not have an effective exit interview system in place to determine why staff leave.

This is a school system with a budget that will approach $700 million next year, but may not have a new leader in place when budget negotiations commence. Regardless of whether you agree with the outcome or not, Superintendent Murphy was able to shepherd through the request for a tax rate increase to give the School Board nearly everything it could have asked for in the most recent budget process.

The School Board should have a contingency plan in place for these circumstances. Even if they did not, they should have made starting this search process a higher priority. If the School Board does not get more serious about finding a permanent replacement, it will not help their cause as the next budget is being written next spring.

Speaking about getting serious, APS is taking another step toward school security by testing a visitor management system this summer that would require a photo ID for those wishing to enter a school. Acceptable forms of ID can include any ID, regardless of where it was issued, so long as it contains your full name, date of birth and photograph. APS will work out the kinks before the system is rolled out county-wide in the fall.

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

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