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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper Ballots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mark Kelly — October 8, 2015 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.

In a bizarre 3-2 vote last month, the County Board barely upheld the ability of a Courthouse dental practice to stay in business. By all indications, this is a thriving practice that provides a needed service for the community.

The renewal of a 22 year-old exemption allowing for a dental office in the location was being discussed as part of a site plan review. County staff pointed out that the dental office complied with the county’s new retail action plan.

The only opponents at the Board Meeting were the Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association, which believes a different type of tenant would activate Courthouse Plaza. The point is arguable based on the size of the space and the other retail tenants currently occupying spaces nearby.

While listening to civic association input is important, most observers would ask why would you want to kick a business out of a space they want to stay in? And yet, retiring Board Members Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada voted to force the dentist to close up shop.

What makes this whole episode even more odd is that just last December, the Board voted unanimously to approve temporary continuance of this space and allow three other retail spaces to be converted to medical or office space.

Neither Hynes nor Tejada offered any debate at the Board Meeting that would explain their decisions to vote no. So, it is hard to comprehend why Hynes and Tejada would want kicking a local small business in the teeth to be one of their last votes on the way out the door.

This is particularly concerning at a time when office vacancy rates in general are alarmingly high. And, ground floor retail space in particular has been difficult, if not impossible to keep filled in Arlington.

As the county struggles to find a strategy to attract new businesses and retain existing ones, this episode cannot help. Instead of hanging a big “Open for Business” sign on the county, Hynes and Tejada seemed intent on making county policies towards new and existing businesses look absurd.

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

Mark Kelly

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.

Earlier this week, ARLnow ran a piece on Barbara Donnellan’s comments on the loss of public trust in relation to big ticket projects. The entire video interview with Donnellan provides an interesting insight into how the former County Manager did her job. Donnellan had 32 years of experience in the Arlington County government, so she has a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge to share.

As she began to talk about public trust, Donnellan said it was her role to listen, and help those who wanted to invest in our community. Kudos to Donnellan for taking this approach to her work.

The discussion turned to light rail, aquatics center, Artisphere and the Arlington Way. For Donnellan, the failure of these projects came down in large part to the erosion of the people’s trust of government at all levels.

She is exactly right. But it is not the people’s fault for not trusting government. Government at all levels continues to take more of our money, or take on more debt, and cannot seem to get the basics of government right.

 In Arlington’s case, instead of focusing on infrastructure, safety and schools, our elected leaders appeared focused on spending hundreds of millions on light rail and other shiny objects.

Donnellan cited the organized effort spreading misinformation for the downfall of the streetcar. After knocking on doors to talk to people in two elections for County Board, it was clear to me the organized effort merely synthesized already existing opposition in the community. While Donnellan may have been doing a good job listening to those with business before the County Board, she and the Board either missed this widespread opposition or chose to ignore it.

Donnellan went on to say that the only reason the aquatics center is not being built is that the bids came in to high. Exactly. The price tag kept going up all throughout the process to the point where the Board is now unwilling to go back to the public to ask for more borrowing authority.

A final revealing part of the conversation centered on the bailout of the Signature Theater. Donnellan admitted the reason for the bailout was that the County did not know the original deal they sold to the community was simply never workable. This is not unlike the over-promise, under-deliver problems the Artisphere had.

Is it any wonder that the public’s trust has eroded?

It should now be clear to our elected leaders that we have reached the point where the community is going to ask how much is too much for a swimming facility or insert boondoggle here, when we are still losing parts under our cars by hitting potholes? We want them to get the basics right first, then ask for the extras.

by Mark Kelly — September 24, 2015 at 1:30 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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

Last year, the County Board election was a referendum on shiny object budgeting by the County Board. The Board chased vanity projects like the streetcar, Artisphere and aquatics center without broad community support. The result was that an otherwise qualified Democrat nominee lost two elections he would have most certainly won nearly any other year.

Since that election, the streetcar and Artisphere projects are no more, and the aquatics center is still on the shelf. Now, we can focus on how a Board still dominated by Democrats is doing on the basics of governing.

The first obvious question for voters is do they believe the Board is really listening to them or were the decisions on the streetcar and Artisphere a way to release the political pressure without making fundamental changes to how they operate?

Do we believe the County Board is doing enough to work with the School Board to address school enrollment issues?

Should we be satisfied with what the Board is doing to maintain streets and roads? Will the Board put pressure on WMATA to drastically improve Metro?

Do County policies, and the staff who enforce them, work for Arlingtonians in a way that creates an environment to encourage more economic opportunity, fill vacant office spaces, create jobs and raise wages?

Will the Board ever acknowledge they use the closeout process to unnecessarily drive up spending, and thus our taxes, every year?

These are not headline grabbing questions like whether we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a single project without even giving voters a say on a bond question. But for the long term health of our County, they are equally, if not more important.

The CivFed debate did not provide a lot of insight into how these candidates would govern. But, all four will be out and about in Arlington asking for your vote. When you see them, you can ask them about how they will approach transportation, schools, economic development and budgeting in general.

You have an opportunity to elect two new voices to the Board on Nov. 3. Arlington deserves two new County Board members who will roll up their sleeves and get back to the basics of good government regardless of party affiliation.

by Mark Kelly — September 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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.

Today is Constitution Day. It is a time to remember the document on which our nation was founded.

 Unlike the process in the U.S. Constitution, the right to appoint justices to the Virginia Supreme Court does not rest with the executive branch. That right ultimately rests with the General Assembly according to the Virginia Constitution. A Virginia governor cannot even veto a justice they do not like.

 There is simply no other way to read it.

 Yes, the governor may make a temporary appointment. However, that temporary appointment expires 30 days after the General Assembly is called into session.

 The clock started ticking on the temporary appointment of Justice Jane Roush when the General Assembly convened on Aug. 17 for a special session Gov. Terry McAuliffe called on redistricting. The temporary appointment of Roush ended yesterday.

 In an unprecedented move, McAuliffe reappointed Roush yesterday. The problem is, he has no right under the Virginia Constitution to do so.

 The special session may have effectively ended shortly after it began on Aug. 17. That is when the 19 Senate Democrats were joined by one Republican and the lieutenant governor in voting to adjourn shortly after calling the session to order. The Senate Democrats not only refused to take up redistricting, but they also refused to take up the question of this Supreme Court appointment.

However, because one house of the General Assembly cannot adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other, and the House of Delegates never offered such consent, the General Assembly officially remains in session. Another temporary appointment is simply not in order, at least if you are following the Virginia Constitution – a document the governor swore to uphold.

Yes, both sides are engaged in a political showdown over this Supreme Court nominee. However, the rule of law is on the side of the Republicans whether or not the governor disagrees with the assessment of the Speaker that the House of Delegates is still technically in session.

 And, whether you might like McAuliffe’s decision to stand up to Republicans as a political matter or not, any case that Roush were to take part in moving forward could later be challenged as invalid.

 A big question remains. Why did McAuliffe instruct the lieutenant governor to cast the tie-breaking vote to adjourn the Senate for a special session the governor called rather than having a public debate on redistricting and this judicial appointment? In so doing, he jeopardized any chance of reaching a civil conclusion on either question. Now, he has put the validity of future Supreme Court decisions in question.

 The governor should instruct the lieutenant governor and Senate Democrats to return to Richmond as soon as possible to do their jobs, not run away from them. Otherwise, while there is always plenty of blame to go around when it comes to political posturing, any blame for this potential constitutional crisis will belong primarily to the governor.

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

Mark Kelly

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

In an editorial last Friday, the Washington Post almost came to the conclusion that a massive overhaul of Metro is in order. The Post’s concerns – the possibility of “massive disruption” or some sort of “culture war.”

It is good to see that the Post is not condemning the possibility of a dramatic shake-up by the WMATA Board. To anyone who uses the system or watches as the failures pile up, it is pretty clear that disruption to the current culture is exactly what the flailing system needs.

If the Board does opt to bring in a “czar” to oversee such an overhaul, they need to be prepared for some discomfort, and they need to be committed to seeing it through to the end. If a small faction on the Board would even consider being peeled off by political pressure the first or second time a controversial decision is made, they might as well not move forward.

Affordable housing plan debated at CivFed.

As could have been predicted, the two Democrats vying for the County Board, Dorsey and Cristol, expressed support for the new housing plan. Clement opposes it and continues to back an additional layer of government bureaucracy through a housing authority to address the issue. McMenamin said the priorities for Arlington should be on economic development and schools, not necessarily affordable housing.

It does not require anyone to go too far out on a limb to predict the plan will ultimately pass. And, we can safely predict that in 10 years we will be debating the issue again because the plan did little if anything to make housing more affordable.

School is back in session.

If you are like me, that means often discovering a school bus stopped along your morning commute. If you are in a hurry, you may find yourself tempted to ignore the flashing lights and continue on your drive.

That course of action is unsafe for kids who, despite parents’ best efforts and instruction, will occasionally dart across the street. And, the Arlington police will pull you over and write you a ticket if they see you. Now, some of the buses are equipped with cameras that will send your photo to the police to determine if you will receive a ticket.

So, no matter whether you are behind the bus or it is on the other side of the street in front of you, please be prepared to stop for one or two minutes. Take a sip of your coffee as you wait. And then you can proceed when the red lights stop. It is safer for everyone and might just end up saving you time and money from a law enforcement stop.

by Mark Kelly — September 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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.

Election season kicks off in Arlington on Tuesday, Sept. 8, when the Arlington Civic Federation hosts its annual candidate forum. The forum traditionally allows CivFed delegates to ask questions of the four County Board candidates. If you are a delegate, here are some questions Arlingtonians might want to have answered.

None of you have held elected office before here in Arlington, what specific, singular professional accomplishment makes you the most qualified to serve on the County Board?

What three actions would you take to make it easier to start and run a business in Arlington?

Would you support a bond that asks voters for any more money to construct the currently mothballed aquatics center?

Speaking of bonding authority, would you support a County Board policy of not bundling any projects whose total cost would be $25 million or more with other projects in a proposed bond? In other words, would you commit to putting projects like the aquatics center or trolley up for a stand alone vote?

What is your position toward the current revenue sharing agreement with Arlington Public Schools? And if you are not satisfied with it, what would you do differently?

Currently the County Board either spends, or places, into flush reserve accounts, all excess tax revenue. Would you vote to return all excess revenue to the voters in the form of tax relief during the annual closeout process?

If you gained a seat on the WMATA Board, what are the first three specific actions you would advocate for getting Metro back on the right track?

Do you believe that any County Board housing policy can overcome market forces at work in Arlington without dramatically increasing spending of taxpayer dollars?

Would you vote to end the process of narrowing streets like Wilson Boulevard where it causes excessive congestion?

What is your position on predatory towing practices?

Will you vote to require the next County Manager to live in Arlington?

Will you pledge not to waste board meeting time by offering or supporting any resolutions that purport to tell the federal government or NFL sports teams how they should act or vote?

by Mark Kelly — August 27, 2015 at 1:30 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy received a raise at the School Board’s Aug. 13 meeting. Similar to the case with paying County Board controlled staff, the item appeared on the agenda with no report, no discussion and no recorded vote. If these top staff are doing such an outstanding job, why do Board members – County or School – feel the need to appear as though they are sneaking a pay raise through?

Being the Superintendent or County Manager in Arlington is no walk in the park. The job requirements call for a strong compensation package. At the same time, being the highest paid county employees means there should be the highest level of transparency when it comes to setting that compensation. If the Boards feel that strongly about increasing the pay, they should be willing to go on the record as to why.

On Sept. 28, the Columbia Heights Civic Association will host a meeting and discuss the idea of putting a gondola system along Columbia Pike. As pictured, the “pods” remind me of a childhood trip to the Magic Kingdom to ride the now dismantled Skyway. It is far too early too tell what the feasibility of such a system along the Pike would be, but the flyer says it would be privately funded. That would be a good place to start.

Delegates Hope and Sullivan picked up the endorsement of the Virginia Farm Bureau. Seems a little odd to endorse candidates with no real farming interests to speak of in their districts. But every political interest group likes to up its “win percentage,” so they can tell their members 90 percent or more of their endorsed candidates won. Endorsing Hope and Sullivan seem like an easy call to do just that.

A recent study from Realtor.com found a household income of $87,000 could afford a $403,800 home in the region. Not that you can find many places to live at that price in Arlington, but that income figure seems low, particularly if you have more than one person trying to live on it. It certainly would be difficult for a family of four or more to pay that mortgage and the rest of the family’s bills. By way of comparison, In Arlington the median income is just over $103,000, and the average home sales price is right around $600,000.

by Mark Kelly — August 20, 2015 at 2:00 pm 1,087 0

Mark Kelly

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.

Turns out inspectors had discovered the rail defect that caused the Aug. 6 Metro derailment at a July inspection. News that WMATA knew but did nothing about it is the latest safety failure for the system. WMATA is fortunate no one was injured this time as opposed to the tragic incident in January.

General Manager Jack Requa said what he should say about the defect being ignored. It is unacceptable, should never have happened, should never happen again.

At what point, however, do we say enough is enough?

In July, the Washington Post reported that Metro’s former general counsel Kathryn Pett quit her $200,000 job to sign a contract for more than $311,000, plus travel expenses. That contract was canceled, according to the Post, because it violated a ban of hiring former employees for a year.

In 2010, I campaigned against my opponent’s support for hiring an art director for WMATA. A six figure salary for the position, I argued, was money that could be better spent on a broken elevator or escalator or any of the other seemingly never-ending maintenance issues of the system.

The relative drops in the budget bucket from these personnel decisions were symptomatic of larger problems and a lack of the right priorities.

There seem to be a multiple of fundamental problems with WMATA, and its governing body seems incapable of getting the whole thing under control. The union contract was renegotiated in 2013 to require WMATA employees to contribute to their pensions, but personnel costs still put a tremendous strain on the system.

No amount of political pressure, including Congressional hearings, or public shaming seem to make a difference. Fares go up. Promises are made. But little improves.

So, is it time for a bankruptcy-like reorganization of the system? One where the federal government or a federal judge steps in temporarily to facilitate the process of turning Metro around.

Tearing down and rebuilding the current management structure or replacing it with a private contractor, reconstituting the WMATA Board, and creating a new labor agreement from scratch all seem like fairly reasonable options at this point.

Yes, it is a radical approach. But do we honestly a light at the end of the tunnel now?

It seems like the time has come for dramatic changes. But whatever the path forward for WMATA is, the end results need to be dramatically different than what we are getting now.

by Mark Kelly — August 13, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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 appears Arlington County is throwing a lifeline to the mothballed aquatics center at Long Bridge Park by floating the idea of a partnership with Alexandria. The pool project went on the shelf after the funding from a bond increase in 2012 still could not cover the projected bid.

Arlington not only needs a partner to cover the construction costs, but also what could be as much as a $4.3 million annual operating deficit.

The last round of bond funding included authorization for $42.5 million of the $79.3 million, at the time, projected to be needed to construct the facility. Many critics in 2012 called for such a large bond sum to be voted on separately from other parks and recreation funding. But the bond passed comfortably under the heading of “Local Parks and Recreation” not “$42.5 million for aquatics center.”

The County Board then issued $10-12 million in bonds to cover anticipated construction costs in 2013. We are paying interest on those bonds but the money is sitting idle.

Fast forward to today. Arlington Republicans are circulating a petition to call on the county to stop future bundling of bonds issues.

Specifically, the petition calls “on the Arlington County Board to commit to presenting stand alone bond referenda for projects that would represent more than 50% of the amount of the bond referendum dollar amount or authorize $25M or more in total project spending.”

Simply put, if the Arlington County Board committed to this course of action moving forward, they would have to let the funding for big ticket projects rise or fall solely on their own merit.

It still would be a tall order to defeat a bond question in Arlington. One could argue that all projects would still pass and move forward, particularly if they secured a positive recommendation on the Democrats’ sample ballot.

However, in the case of a project without widespread public support, it would require the County Board to at the very least debate its merits. Voters could decide if $80 million was too much to pay for a new swimming complex or not. That really is not too much to ask of our elected officials when it is our tax dollars that have to pay for it.

by Mark Kelly — August 6, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Mark Kelly

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 federal district court ruling on Virginia’s Congressional District lines has called into question how and why legislative bodies can create what are known as majority-minority districts.

Virginia’s Third Congressional District is currently about 56 percent African-American, a percentage that has not substantially changed since at least the 1990 Census redistricting. However, the court essentially ruled the most recent map unfairly diluted the voting strength of the African-American population by packing too high of a percentage into one district.

It was widely believed in political circles that the Congressional maps were drawn to protect all 11 incumbents in 2012 when the General Assembly was split between the two parties. The court found that while this may have been true, it was not enough to overcome the racial impact of the map.

However, yesterday a three judge panel rejected Republican requests for an extension from the court-imposed Sept. 1 deadline until after November’s General Assembly elections. So the Republican-controlled body has to decide its next move before the special session called for Aug. 17 to redraw the maps.

Republicans could follow the court order and draw a map that gives all eight Republican incumbents districts they can still win. This puts pressure on Governor McAuliffe to sign or veto it. Or, the GOP can make a bet that the Supreme Court will intervene and uphold the current map.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, the discussion surrounding these maps has re-opened the debate over using an “independent commission” to draw political boundaries here in Virginia, led by Governor McAuliffe.

A plan from the governmental integrity panel would call for a five member commission, four of whom would be appointed by the Republican and Democrat leaders in the General Assembly. These four would then pick the fifth member. Under this plan, those drawing the maps would still be political, just not directly accountable to the voters. What could possibly go wrong?

Supporters do make a good case to make districts geographically compact so that communities of interest are represented. Under the redistricting criteria Delegate Sullivan advanced earlier this year Arlington, for example, would almost certainly become a single State Senate district based on our population versus the average Senate district.

In the last round of redistricting, Senate Democrats divided Arlington into three separate districts in order to try and maximize its overwhelming tilt in their favor in order to secure secure three seats instead of just one. Using political data like this would be a ‘no-no’ under the Sullivan plan.

Supporters of these plans also argue that politicians should not be able to pick their voters, but that voters should be able to choose who will represent them. Yet in the last two redistricting processes the party in control of the Virginia Senate each time ended up losing their majority under maps they drew.

The bottom line is that while politicians may currently try to give themselves inherent partisan advantages when they draw district lines, voters always have the last word on who they want to represent them.


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