The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The County Board returned to in-person meetings this month. While this return to normalcy receives a “thumbs up,” the Board immediately announced plans to lock in higher taxes.

The Board did so by voting unanimously to advertise collective bargaining for county employees and prevailing wage on construction projects, both of which are likely to be approved in July.

The Democrats have held a majority on the Arlington County Board for more than three decades. The idea that they could not have paid county staff and first responders more over the years without collective bargaining is laughable.The politicians were only restrained by their perceived tolerance of the county’s residents to pay higher taxes. And of course, this tolerance is very high compared to most places across America.

When, sadly not if, the Board adopts collective bargaining, these five politicians and their successors will be able to tell county residents there is nothing they can do about the rising personnel costs because of collective bargaining.

“We have no choice,” they will say. “Your taxes will have to go up to cover it.”

This should come as no surprise. This is the same Board that goes through the fake exercise of decrying a “budget shortfall” each and every year which “necessitates” a higher tax burden to bridge the “gap.” Yet, each and every year they find tens of millions in surplus to dole out in the closeout process.

Constraining our county budget with an unfavorable labor contract is not only a lazy way to address compensation, it can cause other long term issues. One only has to look at the financial troubles of Metro to understand just how quickly maintenance and other needs can get pushed aside as personnel costs grow out of control under a labor agreement.

But maybe the current five Board members believe this will simply be someone else’s problem 10 or 20 years down the road? Or maybe they think Arlingtonians will always be willing to write a blank check to cover it?

As for construction projects, the staff report says the adoption of “prevailing wage” will add approximately 15% to the cost of each contract. That could be upwards of $9 million each year in additional costs for the same amount of construction. Over the course of a 10 year capital improvement plan, the increased costs will approach $100 million. By way of comparison, this is equivalent to a new high school building or two aquatics centers.

But taxpayers will not get new buildings or other infrastructure in return.

The County Board’s first in-person meeting in more than a year earns a big “thumbs down” for locking in more spending and higher taxes for decades to come.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The rotating writers of the Progressive Voice often make some interesting claims.

In yesterday’s column, Craig Hines suggested that the results of the past two years in Richmond were “the will of voters.”

While Mr. Hines did point out a handful of Democrats’ wish list item wins, he did leave off a few less popular outcomes.

  • Kids shut out of schools for a year which ignored science and the best interest of children at the behest of special interests.
  • Cities being allowed to burn during riots.
  • A parole board that let convicted murderers with life sentences out of prison without so much as notifying the victims’ families.
  • Energy rules and regulations that will make every good and service more expensive.
  • COVID mandates added on top of tax hikes that are crushing small businesses.

For years, Virginians at large have benefitted from a strong economy fueled by the federal government and a relatively stable regulatory and tax environment. However, Virginia is now ranked 26th for its business tax climate by the Tax Foundation. According to the Chief Executive, Virginia was the 16th best place to do business in 2020, down from 13th in 2019. And according to the Motley Fool, Virginia was the 49th best place to start a small business in 2020.

Mr. Hines’ assertion that the Democrat record is “common-sense” and backed by the public will be put to the test this November across Virginia. There is no question they have more to answer for than liberalizing marijuana possession or eliminating voter ID requirements.

While the assertion that every outcome was the “will of voters” may not hold up, Mr. Hines’ assertion that “elections matter” is spot on. Adopting a total blue state posture will bring blue state results.

In Arlington, after nearly five years of having an independent serve on the County Board, the five member body has snapped back to group think. And, it has been made even worse by a year of virtual meetings.

Contrary to Mr. Hines’ suggestions, John Vihstadt did not lose the 2018 election because an engaged electorate disapproved of the job he was doing. Vihstadt ran more than 30 percentage points better than the Republican on the top of the ticket, and he received over 11,000 more votes than he had four years prior.

Vihstadt’s re-election effort was unsuccessful because Democrats turned out tens of thousands of voters who did not usually vote in non-presidential elections, and who came out to vote the straight party ticket. Anyone who watched closely knows that Matthew de Ferranti’s entire campaign was “I am a Democrat, and John Vihstadt is not.”

It was a prime example of election results in the current age of political tribalism rather than the evaluation of a record or the promise of an agenda. As a result, Arlingtonians are all feeling the loss of Vihstadt’s independent voice which held his colleagues accountable.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

For the second year in a row, the County Board voted to adopt what looks like a pay raise for itself.

On page 28 of the Pay Plan, the salaries for the five member board all jumped by 4.5% compared to the amount described on the county website. Board Members are currently paid $55,147, and the Chairman at $60,662. The Pay Plan for fiscal year 2022 appears to set to raise that pay to $57,648 and $63,413 respectively.

Last year when a 3.5% pay raise appeared in the Pay Plan, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was not funding for the pay raise included in the appropriated budget. However, no public explanation was given or correction made to clear up whether the county website was correct or the pay table was correct. For all the public knows, the Board could have taken the raise last year and just given itself another 1% increase, which mirrors what the Board voted for all county employees.

So for the second year in a row, a Thumbs Down to the County Board for at best creating unnecessary confusion about their compensation or at worst voting itself a pay raise and trying to keep it quiet.

A second Thumbs Down goes to the County Board for the effective 6% property tax increase for homeowners that was included in the budget. The increase was driven by assessments and a stormwater tax rate increase. Not only is the tax increase retroactive to January 1st, it comes as the Board is sitting on a $17.5 million contingency fund provided by the federal government.

Thumbs Up to the candidates for office, both Republicans and Democrats, who are asking questions about the possibility that the Virginia Board of Education may pull back its math curriculum. Our plan should be to maximize the academic opportunities and outcomes for every student, not to lower expectations in the name of equity.

Speaking of candidates for office, this coming Saturday tens of thousands of Republicans will go to convention sites throughout Virginia to cast their ballots for their statewide candidates. After four years of running against a former resident of Washington, DC, the Democrats in Richmond will have to run on their record in 2021.

Thumbs Up to the Republican candidates for focusing on key issues on the minds of many Virginians including: the loss of an in-person school year in too many places, the impact of lockdown policies on our economy, particularly our small businesses, and support for law enforcement to keep us safe.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The County Board is scheduled to vote on the budget and tax rates later today. Sadly, the budget documents have not been posted to the county website as of the writing of this column. At best, the public will have just a handful of hours to review the final FY 2022 budget before it is adopted.

If you do not believe mistakes can happen when a budget is adopted, an accidental pay raise for County Board members was published in the adopted materials last year. County staff rushed out to say it was not supposed to be there and that the pay raise was not funded by the budget itself.

Nonetheless, it is time for the County Board to adopt a 24 hour rule to vote on any matter. If the proposed final budget is not published 24 hours prior to the vote, it cannot be adopted. Nothing would stop an open amendment process where Board members made line item changes if last minute adjustments were necessary. A 72 hour rule would be better, but the way they are going about it now really only leaves open the possibility of critiquing the final product after it has already passed.

On Saturday, the County Board approved $2 million in Neighborhood Conservation projects which will be funded by borrowing. This program was created in 1964 to give neighborhoods the opportunity to recommend improvement projects to their elected officials. Sidewalks, curbs, streetlights, signs, and other beautification ideas can percolate all the way from an impromptu front porch coffee to fruition.

Anyone who has been through the process can tell you that the handful of projects that are ultimately funded often take years to get across the finish line. Judging by the dates on the  plans on record, many neighborhoods have given up on it altogether.

Contrast that the Arlington County Board’s recent decisions to grant County Manager Mark Schwartz $2 million each year as part of the closeout process to spend without County Board authorization.

That’s right: the Manager has an annual slush fund which is equivalent to projects that go through an exhaustive review process to benefit neighborhoods.

While some of us may prefer that 100% of closeout funds be allocated toward reducing the property tax burden, the County Board has largely ignored this plea for years. So for closeout 2021, maybe neighborhoods should ask the Board to take the $2 million County Manager slush fund and apply it to the next round of Neighborhood Conservation projects instead.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Last month I received the following advice from a fellow Republican, “our candidates should stop talking about taxes because it is not a winning issue in Arlington.”

Understandably frustrated, this well-meaning advisor is not totally off base. Many Republicans in Arlington accept high property tax burden as one of the costs of living here and want to talk more about how it is spent. Others certainly view the issue as something that turns away the crossover Independents and Democrats needed to build a winning coalition.

Keeping this in mind, it would be easy to stop pushing back on the County Board every six months or so when the spring budget development and the fall closeout spending spree roll around. However, while in a near permanent minority political status, there is something to be said for acting as the loyal opposition. Republicans believe in letting the people keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible as well as in holding elected officials accountable for how they spend what we give them.

Each year, the County Board is required by law to hold two public hearings. One is to gather input on their spending plan and the other the tax rate. Historically in Arlington, the how should we spend the money hearing is overwhelmed with speakers. Usually many people are there to talk about proposed budget cuts that the Board likely has no intention of ever making. These are the “closing the Washington Monument” cuts that are trotted out as the justification to keep the property taxes as high as possible. Rarely does anyone speak against a spending program. This year’s spending hearing is tonight if you wish to shake things up and speak up for fiscal restraint.

Decidedly less popular is the tax rate hearing which will occur on Thursday. Often there are not enough speakers to fill the statutorily mandated hour. This may be because people are satisfied with paying $7500 or more for the services the county provides, or because people who are not satisfied believe any complaints would fall on deaf ears. As in previous years, take this as encouragement to log on virtually and let your voice be heard. It has never been easier.

Knowing what their constituency thinks about how much money they are taking from us and how they are spending it is a good thing for the County Board, regardless of whether they choose to internalize it or ignore it. This loyal opposition offers a consistent reminder to Arlingtonians that we are the party asking for fiscal responsibility from our elected leaders.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As the pace of vaccinations accelerate and we anticipate a return to a more normal way of life, the County Board and School Board are making budget decisions for the upcoming fiscal year.

Here are seven recommendations for our elected officials as they move forward:

1. Arlington Public Schools should stay on track for five days per week, in-person learning this fall. The academic and mental health needs of the kids are abundantly clear and vaccinations are on track to alleviate the virus concerns.

2. The School Board should consider creating a blue ribbon panel to bring forward recommendations to improve academic achievement. The panel should not consider buildings or school boundaries, but how to put instruction plans in place to raise the level of achievement for all students within the current, robust, budget. And this should not be a report that simply goes up on a website. The School Board should require themselves to take an up or down vote on those recommendations.

3. The County Board should meet in person again as soon as possible. As soon as the board and a handful of key county staff receives vaccinations, they should be able to end their emergency meeting procedures and resume in person meetings. This would show leadership as we all look toward getting back to normalcy.

4. At the same time, the County Board should adjust its rules to allow for virtual public comment on an ongoing basis. This hybrid approach would allow maximum public participation in a process using technology that is already available to us.

5. The County Board should scrap any notion of a pay raise this year. Last year, the Board originally planned to boost their salaries by $10,000. Then they almost, inadvertently according to county staff, put a smaller one in the budget last Spring. If they want to resume discussions of an appropriate pay scale moving forward, 2022 is the year to have that discussion.

6. The County Board should scrub the budget for unnecessary spending items, like the implementation of rank choice voting, and look for a way to cut the property tax rate. (The Board will not cut the tax rate, but if they want to help the community get fully back to work as quickly as possible, they should.)

7. The County Board should add a family pass back into its residential parking program. Any family with a live-in grandparent or adult child living at home should be allowed to purchase at least one extra street parking pass. This plan would alleviate concerns about a rental house full of unrelated people putting four cars on the street while accommodating families who are essentially being told to suck it up by county staff.

And finally, our elected officials should challenge themselves to get through an entire meeting without using buzz words. “Equity” and “missing middle” come to mind. Instead, please focus on explaining in concrete terms what you mean, what you plan to do it about it, and how it will impact the average household.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Days of breathless coverage about books written and illustrated half a century ago is what fills in the 24-hour news cycle when the current president will not take questions from the press and a former president no longer has access to Twitter. In case you missed it though, Arlington’s schools will be fully open to hybrid in-person learning by next week.

While many parents are opting to keep their students at home, it will be the first time in a year most of our kids will have the option to return to school — even if it’s only two days a week. While it is inexcusable that it took one of the most well-funded school systems in the country an entire year to figure it out, here is to hoping we are back to five days a week in the fall.

Maybe the current state of our school leadership will inspire an independent candidate emerging from the parent community and challenging the all-Democrat control of the School Board? If not for the inability to better adapt to the pandemic, an independent voice would be able to start asking some tough questions.

To begin, why is the Superintendent pretending the current school year enrollment drop didn’t happen? According to his proposed budget, Arlington is projecting 29,653 students will enroll next fall after only 26,895 this year. Never mind the fact that enrollment projections were off by two percent in the fall of 2019 and 2018, this year they were off by ten percent. There were five percent fewer students enrolled than the year before instead of the projected five percent more.

The total proposed budget is $704.5 million, or a cost of $23,758 per projected student. If enrollment is off by just five percent again, the total per student cost would rise to $24,917. This would be nearly equal to the current $24,923 cost. Whatever the rationale for the spending levels, there should be a discussion about it. And, the School Board should stop pretending there are not plenty of resources available to get the job done for our kids.

One fish, two fish, red team, blue team. With the November federal elections a fading memory, we Virginians are starting to be reminded that we will have the opportunity to choose a new governor this year. Virginia has regularly, though not always, voted in the opposite party into the governor’s mansion than the one currently occupying the White House. The fields for the statewide offices are crowded in 2021, and Democrats will have to defend their record under unified government. Did they try to move the Commonwealth too far to the left? The voters will decide soon enough.

They probably will not like “Green Eggs and Ham.” The Sun Gazette ran an article this week about a Civic Federation initiative to study Arlington County governance. Should we try to become a city with a Mayor like Alexandria? Should there be more County Board members? Should we elect them by district? What should their pay be?

There is little doubt the County Board will dismiss any proposals, except for a pay raise, just as they did when Arlingtonians attempted to gather enough signatures to put a change of government question on the ballot in 2010. Like a decade ago, this Board has moved back into the mode of 5-0 votes where most of the real discussion goes on behind closed doors with county staff. They should be careful though: this insular thinking could open them up to another independent challenge very soon.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On Saturday the County Board met and slashed parking permits for some residents while paving the way to move forward on the county and school budgets.

The County Board resisted the urge to raise the real estate tax rate, but only because residential assessments went up by 5.6% over last year, which means the average Arlington homeowner will already pay $382 more in taxes this year in a addition to the new proposed stormwater tax. This residential increase offsets a drop in commercial assessments. The Board is also counting on a new round of federal COVID spending to backfill local needs.

One of the budget savings proposed is eliminating 56 currently vacant positions. Many residents may push back at the decision not to fill 10 police officer positions as well as cuts to 9-1-1 dispatching. There were 16 carjackings in Arlington in 2020 after just three the past two years.

You can check out the full budget proposal here or the summary presentation here.

Arlingtonians will also see the proposed schools budget later this week, but the county budget documents suggest they will not see a significant revenue boost. With enrollment down by 10% over projections for the current school year, it will be interesting to see whether APS will assume that those students will return. We do know that according to Superintendent Durán’s most recent presentation, Arlington is operating with a projected $6 million surplus for the current school year even after paying for COVID mitigation measures.

The schools do face a very real challenge of a lost year of learning. Not every student fell behind, but many did. Hopefully the superintendent and School Board use the current circumstances to not only evaluate the needs created by virtual learning, but how to come back better when it comes to preparing our students academically.

The new parking permit program cuts permits from four to two for people who have a driveway. It does not matter how many cars can practically use the driveway. It does not matter how many people of driving age who are related to each other live in the house.

While this is unlikely to create a hardship for a lot of families, it gives no flexibility to families who have a retired parent living with them or an adult children home from college or working while living at home. County Board member Libby Garvey was particularly dismissive of these concerns. Her response was that kids coming home from college in the future probably wouldn’t have cars. Speaking from personal experience, many of them do in fact have cars and now they may have no place to park them.

The County Board should at the very least consider an amendment to the plan that allows a family to apply for additional permits in certain situations before the changes go into effect on July 1st.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Thumbs Up to Governor Northam for announcing schools should reopen by March 15. If Arlington meets this deadline, it will be one full year since the schools were shut down on March 13, 2020. But this must mean in-person instruction, not a glorified study hall where kids learn virtually while sitting in a school classroom. States across America and countries around the world have figured out how to do it safely and responsibly. We have the resources to do it, so hopefully the Superintendent and APS School Board will provide the detailed roadmap soon.

Thumbs Down to those saying it cannot or should not be done. Too many of our kids have fallen behind during this lost year. Too many families have been stretched thin trying to make school happen at home. The time for excuses is over. The time to make it work is long overdue.

Thumbs Up to the bipartisan effort in Richmond to provide tax relief to small businesses. In December, the federal government made tax changes to the administration of the Paycheck Protection Program to allow the funds to flow to small businesses completely tax free. Without a conforming change to the Virginia code, these businesses which are just trying to make it through the pandemic will get an unwanted and unexpected tax bill from the Commonwealth. The compromise proposals currently under consideration in Richmond would cap the benefits so that the smallest businesses would benefit most. Hopefully one will be signed into law very soon.

Thumbs Up to former County Board member John Vihstadt for working toward more transparency for the financial disclosure forms that are required to be filed by our elected officials, top staff, and those appointed to boards and commissions. As Mr. Vihstadt suggested, forms should be available online, particularly for our elected officials. There is no reason this cannot happen, and in short order.

Thumbs Up to county officials for scrambling to make the best of a bad situation on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution front. In January, Governor Northam’s administration suddenly pulled the rug out from under the County Board’s partnership with Virginia Hospital Center resulting in thousands of cancelled appointments. While there have been a few bumps in the road since, and we all wish for faster progress, our officials are on the right track.

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

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In response to School Board Member Reid Goldstein’s column yesterday, let’s talk about schools in Arlington.

First, here are some numbers to provide some perspective. The FY 2021 adopted budget was set to spend $670.3 million. When it was passed, the School Board projected enrollment at 29,142 — an increase of 1,122. The total cost per student was projected to be $23,001.

The official count for our closed school buildings enrollment on September 30th was actually 26,895 — a decrease of 1,125. The total cost per student for this school year is actually $24,923. Few school districts in the country match the resources of Arlington Public Schools.

Instead of talking about how the school board intended to use these resources to solve the current COVID challenges, Mr. Goldstein’s spent 710 words opining on the current buzzword on the left — “equity.” In fact, he did not mention COVID once in the entire piece. It reads as if it was written in January 2020, not January 2021.

At the end, Mr. Goldstein sums it up with these words, “Equity is the path to equality of opportunity for our students.” Providing equality of opportunity for our students is certainly something Mr. Goldstein can find agreement on across party lines. So how should we go about it?

Here are a couple simple suggestions for where Mr. Goldstein and the School Board can start. Read More

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The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At this point each year, we have the opportunity to examine the speeches of the five Arlington County Board Members to gauge their priorities for 2021. There was no doubt from those remarks that real challenges lie ahead as we move into COVID recovery.

Arlington has weathered the pandemic better than many communities. Our economy is still largely dependent on the relatively stable federal government budget. We are able to work from home due to access to technology and strong and fast internet connections. Still we saw businesses close their doors. And many more are wondering how much longer they can hang on.

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took to Twitter and said about his state’s economy, “We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.”

While Virginia’s business closures have not been as restrictive as other states like New York, we still need to have a forward-looking plan to return to normal as quickly as possible.

We need to address our budget in a way that does not put additional pressure on our economy and family budgets. Now is not the time to fund shiny object projects. As the newest County Board Member Takis Karantonis mentioned, he will focus “On fiscally sound, sustainable and accountable governance. This is a challenging year where all our fiscal priorities will have to be carefully re-examined and contrasted against major challenges in the commercial tax-base . . .”

We need to get our kids back in school. The truth is that while some students are thriving in a virtual environment, many are just getting by, and many others are struggling. While the County Board often takes a largely hands-off approach to Arlington Public School policy, they do provide the annual funding for the schools. More could have been said by County Board members about the role schools play in our overall community and economic life, particularly if “equity” truly is as big of a concern as the speeches made it out to be. The schools need to be held accountable now more than ever.

We also need more civility. As Libby Garvey said in he remarks, “We may disagree on something important, but we should respect each other even as we argue vigorously.” As we stare at growing polarization and civil unrest, may we all engage in more self-reflection and less knee-jerk blame in 2021.

Finally, an interesting note is that incoming Chairman Matthew de Ferranti encouraged Arlingtonians to shop local. He acknowledged people may still need to have some things delivered which was an apparent swipe at Amazon. Now that Arlington is home to Amazon’s second headquarters, wouldn’t we still be shopping local? Anyway, in addition to patronizing your favorite local restaurant, remember local charities can also use your support.

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

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