by Mark Kelly March 1, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Delegate Patrick Hope’s bill to give Arlington the authority to hold school board elections is on its way to Governor Northam. The legislation is an acknowledgement that no one is quite sure whether the authority to elect a school board really existed in Arlington.

It may or may not call into question any previous School Board actions from a body that could very well have been elected without specific statutory authority. As such, someone should get a legal opinion on what exactly this all means, including whether there needs to be an immediate election of all five School Board members to new four year terms, rather than waiting for their current terms to expire.

In January, Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol indicated the county would be able to disclose its offer to Amazon to bring the online retailing giant to the county. Now, she seems less sure of when or if that will happen.

Activists, and businesses not receiving special deals, are rightly asking questions about the incentives being offered to Amazon and the level of transparency the county will provide.

The Board should figure out exactly what it can say now to speak to the offer, and say it. In the future, they should not sign any non-disclosure agreement that would keep the public completely in the dark about what kinds of offers are being made. And the Board should continue to look for ways to make our economic environment more friendly to everyone who wants to do business here.

On more than one occasion, backers of the Columbia Pike streetcar project speak of their regret that Arlington did not move forward with the project. This week, news reports surfaced out of Washington that reminded us that promised results from such a project can go awry.

It seems that just two years after the first passenger trip on their initial $200 million streetcar line, DC officials are contemplating a total replacement of their streetcars as they cannot get their hands on parts to make needed repairs.

And they are still not collecting fares, though they hope to figure out how to start collecting in two to three years. Despite the fact they are still not charging for passengers, the District still plans to spend upwards of $500 million more to create two additional extensions of the line.

by Mark Kelly February 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Larry Roberts recently gave up his duties as “editor” of the Progressive Voice to take on the role of Chief of Staff for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

In his farewell column, he made the case for why the column he headed up was needed.

Based on his words in the column, the authors who have participated, and the opinions expressed therein, it was to give a voice to those who generally embrace the direction taken by the Arlington County Board.

Since all but one of our elected officials in Arlington are Democrats, it is fair to say that those who share Mr. Roberts views are already well publicized throughout the community. Democrats not only control the outcome of all the votes, they control all of the information flow as well.

With near universal control by the Democrats, it is good for the public discourse for someone on the right to continue talking about the issues from this perspective. The 300-500 words written through the prism of fiscal conservatism in this forum each week may be the only time some in Arlington ever read that type of perspective.

While the voters have generally continued to provide big margins for Democrats at the polls since I started writing this column, they have elected an entirely new County Board. Included in that new roster is the first non-Democrat to be elected to a full term in nearly three decades. The County did withdraw from what many residents felt was a boondoggle streetcar project.

Instead of pushing for even more funding for a pool project, the County scaled it back. The County hired a new auditor, albeit one who needs some additional support to truly be effective.

These were “wins” for the taxpayer, but there are still many ways the County could improve the way it serves Arlingtonians.

Roberts’ column also caused me to look back over the past five years and scroll through roughly 250 columns or 100,000 words. Looking all the way back to my first column, I wanted to end with a reminder about how the right views local government:

What cannot stand is the notion that all, or even most, fiscal conservatives are anti-government.

In fact, we believe there is an appropriate role for each level of government. The most important of which, outside of self-government, is local government. It is where our tax dollars meet the asphalt. It is where our children attend school, our homes are kept safe, our water is dispensed, and our trash is collected. It is where we can most easily and directly petition our elected officials for assistance. And, at least theoretically, it should be the most responsive to changing community needs with the smallest amount of bureaucracy and red tape.

We just want to do it in a way that makes the most fiscal sense, is accountable, and serves people efficiently. That is why I continue to write.

by Mark Kelly February 15, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Delegate Patrick Hope unsuccessfully tried to move a bill through the House of Delegates to change the way Arlingtonians vote for County Board.

Hope’s bill would not have required the County Board to adopt the new voting process, it would have just given them the option. It is not an option they should have.

Hope proposed what’s known as “instant-runoff voting” which would give voters the ability to rank their choices when voting. This process has been used by local Democrats in recent caucus voting.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the the second choice of the last place candidate is redistributed to the other candidates in the field based on the ranking. The process repeats until someone reaches a majority.

Having come in a fairly close second (for an Arlington Republican anyway) in the most recent County Board special election which resulted in no one receiving 50 percent of the vote, you might think I would be for this change.

However, in a county where the numerical advantage so overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, removing the ability for a non-Democrat to win a plurality vote means the only real practical impact of the proposed change would be to put Independents and Republicans at a further political disadvantage.

The cynic may say the call for instant-runoff voting, much like redistricting reforms, is most often pushed by those who think the change would tilt the political playing field their way. But let’s give Hope and others the benefit of the doubt, that one of the big goals is to find a solution that creates more “civility” in politics. Poll after poll certainly says voters would prefer a better tone during our elections.

In Arlington, general elections are not really acrimonious affairs. Can someone really say that any County Board races have devolved into mudslinging affairs in recent memory? Maybe the problem is just with the tone on the Democratic side in their primary elections?

Another of Hope’s stated goals is to prevent a “fringe candidate” from winning a crowded field with only 25 or 30 percent of the vote. Someone should ask Delegate Hope which “fringe candidate” who failed to receive 50 percent is sitting in office that he thinks fits the bill?

It is understandable that politicians want to be seen as doing something, but changing the system of electing candidates is unlikely to change the current political environment here in Arlington.

If you want more civility overall as a political leader, recruit candidates who will adopt a positive tone in their campaigns. If you want more civility as a voter, do not reward candidates who run scorched earth campaigns with your vote.

by Mark Kelly February 8, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Arlington’s independent auditor, Chris Horton, is soliciting suggestions from the public on what to audit. Encouraging ongoing participation from all Arlingtonians is a good thing.

The current work plan for the auditor includes fleet management, public safety overtime, Business Improvement Districts and the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Commission. It is a good start, but only two of these audits are definitely slated to be completed this fiscal year.

If you look at the what the auditor has identified as the “Audit Horizon,” it is clear that the office should step up the pace. The Audit Horizon includes affordable housing, capital improvement planning, economic development incentive funding, facilities management, the handling of personally identifiable information, procurement and analysis of the county’s financial condition. And that is just a partial list of important items.

The total budget for the auditor in FY 2018 is about $210,000. The County Board should consider a dramatic increase in the budget and staff allocation for the auditor during the current budget cycle discussions to at least $500,000.

There is too much important work to do to spread the audits out over the next decade, or even longer. If the Board is committed to paying more than lip service to this new level of accountability, then it is time to give the office the resources it needs.

The Electoral Board this week announced a competition to design a new “I Voted” sticker. A goal of the project is to help boost turnout in the 2019 election cycle, the historically lowest turnout year in each four-year cycle.

The idea that more voters should take advantage of their constitutional right whenever it is available to them is certainly a noble goal. As we saw this past November, turnout can be dramatically increased over prior years, but it is primarily driven by the circumstances surrounding a given election cycle.

While the holding the competition will draw some additional attention, it is hard to imagine that the stickers would do much. In New York, a city of 8.5 million people, 700 designs were submitted, but only 10,000 people voted on which design they liked best according to the Sun Gazette article. That’s just a little over 1/10th of one percent of the population.

by Mark Kelly February 1, 2018 at 3:50 pm 0

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

Redistricting has been thrust into the spotlight recently.

Courts are increasingly entertaining legal challenges to electoral maps, even based on challenges that the process is too political. Reformers are also seizing on perceived momentum to push for change.

Politicians who favor redistricting reform often do so because they believe the map has been drawn in a way that drastically favors the other side.

Republican Governor Larry Hogan favors redistricting in Maryland as Democrats there have drawn lines in a way to favor them. Portions of the map, which uses bodies of water to connect various portions of districts, resemble an ink blot test.

Democrats in Virginia favor redrawing Congressional district lines because Republicans currently hold seven of the eleven districts here.

Some backers of reform favor redistricting because they believe less partisan districts will produce less partisan public policy results as politicians will have to be more responsive to the middle or moderate voters. Many believe these new policy outcomes will look more like the things they wish would be accomplished.

Will the proposed reforms really be a silver bullet to address political polarization? Would the type of politician elected really change all that much? Will the base of each party lose influence on public policy to the middle? These are the things I hope to address next week in a Civic Federation panel discussion on redistricting.

Speaking of thawing political polarization, it looks like Democrats are once again split on County Board race. Three Democratic elected officials, all women, are backing Independent John Vihstadt’s re-election.

This is a reflection of his 2014 coalition that defied conventional wisdom by producing a comfortable win in a November election after Democrats claimed the special election was little more than a fluke.

The question is what voters will do without a controversial big ticket item like the Columbia Pike streetcar driving the debate. Most prominent Democrats will end up backing Vihstadt’s opponent of course, but the endorsements are a reminder that every once in a while, political polarization stops at the county line.

by Mark Kelly January 25, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Arlington homeowners received some bad news last week when the county announced that residential property tax assessments were up over last year while commercial assessments, driven by office buildings, went down.

The news will put a real strain on the County Board guidance to hold the tax rate steady as they chase the mythical budget gap.

Residential assessments are up 3.9 percent over last year, which means the average homeowner will already pay 3.9 percent more in taxes absent a rate cut. A year ago, the County Board raised the tax rate by 1.5 cents on top of the 2.5 percent assessment.

Overall assessments rose by 1.9 percent, instead of the projected 3.2 percent. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Board doesn’t eventually say they were “forced” into raising the tax rate again this year by another 1 or 1.5 cents.

Lest you think they needed the last rate increase, the Board once again spent millions in extra revenue during the closeout process last fall. It was more than enough to eliminate the need for last year’s rate increase.

Since they do not need the extra revenue another rate increase would bring, let’s take a moment to discuss some of the other go-to talking points when the subject of assessments and rate increases come up.

“Arlington homeowners should be pleased their assessments are going up because it means their homes are worth more.”

Sure, it’s great over the long haul for when you want to sell your home. It is not so good for young professionals trying to buy into the housing market or for retirees trying to age in place. Right now, we have to pay all the taxes out of our income. If your incomes are not rising by 4-5 percent every year, you are not further ahead, you are further behind.

“We use conservative estimates of revenue to determine how much of a rate increase we will need.”

It’s only a conservative estimate if your intention is to give the money back when you consistently estimate the revenue wrong, and in a way that creates a “budget gap” and requires you to raise taxes. And it’s not conservative when your intention is to spend the excess each year in order to raise spending even more the next.

Here’s a challenge to the Board and the County Manager as they continue through the budget process

Step 1 –Continue to write your budget in a way that rates would not to increase under the “conservative” estimates.

Step 2 — At the end of the process, reduce spending by .5 percent across the Board.

Step 3 — Use any closeout revenue available in November of 2018 to cut next year’s tax rate.

by Mark Kelly January 18, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Riders suffered through another train derailment on Metro this week. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Metro was already receiving criticism for its “Back2Good” PR campaign and its expenditure on an ad that ran during the college football national championship game last week.

The ad is part of a larger $7 million marketing budget which many critics say should be spent to improve the system instead. Once escalators work and trains run safely and on time, riders will be more likely to come back, they argue.

Metro is also fighting a lawsuit brought by its union over the arbitrations proceedings for 16 track inspectors who were fired for falsifying safety reports. The falsified reports came to light after an investigation of a 2016 derailment.

According to union lawyers, the firings could not take place because they were not done fast enough. Terminations more than six months after the alleged actions took place is an apparent violation of the union contract with Metro. The lawsuit is a reminder that the union contract, and resulting labor costs, is another obstacle to reform.

Of course, the list could go on and on. The question is, at what point will everyone say enough is enough?

There have been many suggestions out there to change the trajectory of the transit agency. They range from essentially declaring bankruptcy and dissolving Metro altogether so we can start over to writing Metro a blank check for billions of dollars.

Northern Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) introduced a bill in December that represents a middle ground. Metro would receive a 50 percent increase in federal funds to be matched by the other jurisdictions.

Under the proposal, there would be no federal funds available until D.C., Maryland and Virginia agreed to the creation of a new five-member reform board.

Other conditions include reducing the size of the permanent WMATA Board to nine and creating a direct line of accountability to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It also calls for long-term reforms of the union contract, including the employee retirement system for new hires.

Whether everyone agrees with the Comstock approach, or thinks they can improve upon it, it is time for specific action on reform. This is an opportunity for the County Board to show leadership on an issue where we have a clear financial stake.

The Board should adopt a formal position on what reforms they believe need to take place in exchange for ongoing funding of Metro and include that language as part of this year’s budget process.

by Mark Kelly January 11, 2018 at 4:30 pm 0

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

Last month I wrote about the School Board’s lack of explanation for the last minute addition to their legislative package which included a restriction on people of faith. This month, the Arlington School Board is spending meeting time discussing the length of voicemails between the administration and staff.

As you let that sink in, is there anything else the School Board has done that leaves you scratching your head? Turns out, they may not have had the power to do it. Don’t like the new school boundaries? They might not actually exist.

According to Delegate Patrick Hope, Arlington is not technically allowed to elect school board members under our unique form of government in Virginia, despite doing so for the last quarter century. When the General Assembly allowed localities to elect School Board members, they forgot to include us in the change. So, ours are still technically still supposed to be appointed.

Hope has offered a piece of legislation to fix it. While there is no reason to believe the General Assembly will not accept the change, it raises a number of questions.

We all make mistakes, but how did our elected General Assembly members, our County Board, the Superintendent, the County Attorney never realize it until now?

With all the lawyers in this county, how did we all miss it?

Could one of those enterprising lawyers write a legal challenge any and every action the Board has taken over the last two decades as illegal? If so, how would all former School Board members feel when they found out they had no real power to do anything?

It is not a completely far-fetched scenario to imagine a court case springing up here. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down appointments that President Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board because they did not comport with the Constitution.

Without the prior authority to hold an election, could a judge also appoint a temporary board until a new election could be held? If so, would a judge appoint the current members to the seats? And, would it not trigger new four year terms for all five members of the Board?

This is really an intriguing political consideration. Absent Dave Foster, Democrats have ensured control of the Board by electing just one seat for three years, then two seats in the fourth year. Republicans are faced with heads up elections with the odds stacked against them. If all five were elected at once, Republicans would probably have their best chance to pick up a seat on the Board as county voters might be more willing to consider someone else in that scenario to provide a little balance.

In the end, the process is unlikely to change. But hopefully we will soon be on the right side of the law.

by Mark Kelly January 4, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

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

On Tuesday, the Arlington County Board bypassed the longest serving member of the Board not to serve as its chair, independent John Vihstadt, in order to elect Democrat Katie Cristol. Congratulations are in order for the first millennial to take the center seat.

But hopefully voters will return Vihstadt to the Board this fall, and then the Board will give him the opportunity to serve as its chair in his next term.

As Board chair, Cristol is broadly given the opportunity to set the agenda for the year. However, as with every chair, the term is only for one year. It is difficult for anyone in this position to drive even a single pet project through the process in a year.

Cristol, like every Board chair before her, gave the opening speech about her priorities. The speech not only gave a shout out to Odysseus, but provided a lengthy laundry list of issues facing the county. It included everything you can imagine, from community engagement, to housing, to access to childcare and Metro, among many others.

The speech was fine, but it was a missed opportunity to focus like a laser on doing some big things right.

Cristol discussed working for dedicated funding for Metro. Where was the call for Metro to be completely overhauled in a way that warranted our confidence in a long-term funding solution?

Cristol discussed a desire for real growth in our local economy that did not just rely on landing the big fish with economic development incentives. Where was the statement that the time for excuses was over and that by the time the Board met next January, county staff would not be trying to improve processes, but that processes are actually improved? What about ending the regressive BPOL tax?

Cristol referenced the fake “budget gaps.” Where was the commitment to budget process reforms that stopped spending away the annual surplus?

Cristol also took a swipe the “still-unknown” impacts of the recently passed tax reform bill. We know one impact. Many Arlingtonians rushed to advance pay their next property tax bill in late December, hoping they could count it against their 2017 taxes. In doing so, they also hoped to be able to deduct up to $10,000 of state income taxes in 2018.

Why are they doing that? Because the average tax bill could top $7,500 in Arlington in 2018. By comparison, the Virginia average is just under $2,000. The national average is about $2,150.

In other words, we pay a lot to live here. And largely wealthy residents, of all political stripes, are hoping to reduce their federal tax burden as much as possible. Cristol could have made it a priority to keep property tax increases in check via responsible spending. She didn’t.

by Mark Kelly December 21, 2017 at 3:45 pm 0

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

The Arlington School Board supports imposing new requirements on families with deeply held religious beliefs this holiday season.

On December 14, the Board voted unanimously to ask the legislature to require families who seek a religious exemption from compulsory school attendance to reapply every year to maintain it.

Currently under Virginia law, a one-time request can cover a child throughout their school-age years. However, there are already Attorney General rulings that give local school boards the ability to ask parents to reaffirm their desire to maintain the exemption on an ongoing basis. In other words, putting this into statute is completely unnecessary if the local school system wishes to implement a system to periodically check in with families.

This was a late addition to the legislative package. The School Board approved this provision by a voice vote and without a single Board member speaking to the necessity of including it. Arlington’s lobbyist did state the Virginia School Boards Association wanted it, but didn’t say why other than a nebulous desire for “accountability.”

No one told us how many families this impacted here in Arlington. Not a single Board member asked the lobbyist a simple question like, “has there suddenly been an outbreak of faked religious exemptions that we are unaware of here in Arlington?” And if not, why is the government seeking to impose an additional burden on these families?

It was just unanimously accepted by the all-Democrat Board that a new state law requiring annual certification in all jurisdictions was a necessary step to take, even in a community that does not want it.

All we can assume from the facts in front of us is that there is no demonstrable need to do this either in the interest of protecting children or in terms of Arlington Public Schools existing ability to check in with families every year. If you are a person of faith who gained the exemption, it sends a signal that Arlington Public Schools lead by the Democrats on the School Board remain suspicious of you and your First Amendment Constitutional right.

It really should not be that surprising. The School Board has consistently been opposed to any form of parental choice made outside of their control, including charter schools. And they continue to oppose any form of tax credits or deductions of tuition expenses for tax paying parents who believe their child’s needs would be best served outside of public education.

This is not a complaint against the quality of our schools here in Arlington. But our policy should be that every child has the opportunity to receive the education that best serves them.

by Mark Kelly December 14, 2017 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Those of us with kids in school are just one week away from the start of our break, but there is still a lot going on in the world of politics.

Congress continues its work to finalize tax reform and spending bills. The County Board will meet two more times before saying goodbye to Jay Fisette.

Recounts are ongoing to finalize the November 7 election results for the General Assembly. And Governor-elect Ralph Northam is continuing his transition.

Let’s be honest. Most of us are much more worried about finishing, or starting, our Christmas shopping. After we take part in our holiday celebrations, we will move on to some reflection on the year gone by as well as to making those hopeful New Year’s resolutions, plans and goals.

Number one for many of us might be to put down our phone for 30 to 60 minutes more each day to have better personal interactions with family and friends. It might keep some out of pointless political arguments on Facebook. It might prevent you from tweeting something you later regret. Or maybe it will just help lay off the cat videos on YouTube.

For the elected leaders in Arlington, could you just one time acknowledge that holding tax rates the same does not mean you are not raising taxes.

Our county is really flush with taxpayer dollars for you to spend, so can you eliminate “shortfall” from your budget vocabulary? Or maybe could you resolve to not borrow money just because you can and maybe pay for things we can afford now.

For the General Assembly in Richmond, it looks like you will have one vote margins in both the House and Senate. Can you resolve to spend your time and political capital on the things that have the most impact on our everyday lives?

Transportation, education, and moves that help our economy grow so people can find well paid jobs that have healthcare benefits rather than relying on Medicaid or Obamacare would be a good place to start.

Last week the Progressive Voice, included this paragraph about positive leadership from our elected officials:

On a national level, perhaps not. But in Virginia and Arlington, we have an opportunity — an obligation, even — to lead in just that get-it-done way, despite the harmful policies some office-holders are pushing nationally. Democratic elected officials in Arlington hold the majority, Virginia’s new governor and newly-elected crop of state delegates have buoyed our spirits and options for problem-solving.

I hope this was not a suggestion that only Democrats can solve problems. Not only would it not be true, but it would not be helpful in achieving the stated goal. Maybe we can all resolve to look for the good in our political opponents whenever possible and trust that we share the common goal of advocating for the best interests of the people even when we disagree on how to get there.

by Mark Kelly December 7, 2017 at 3:45 pm 0

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

Tolls are reported to have reached as high as $40 on I-66 this week. A Republican bill to block those tolls failed last year after Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) expressed his strong opposition. The Governor dismissed concerns the tolls would ever reach close to $20.

Maybe you are happy with the Governor’s decision because people who drive through Arlington to get to DC should be taken to the cleaners by the tolls. Maybe you have had to pay one yourself.

One thing is for sure – elections have consequences.

In Arlington, Democrats have completely dominated county government for the past three decades. A Republican or Independent has been elected, but never more than one at a time.

Every action taken by the Arlington County government is 100 percent owned by the Democratic Party here in Arlington. Sure, they occasionally try to blame Richmond or Washington, particularly when they can preface those statements with the words “Republicans in.”

And once in a while Richmond does take a direct swipe at Arlington, see the hotel tax or the recent towing ordinance (which Democratic state Sen. Barbara Favola helped overturn along with Governor McAuliffe).  But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

At no time did we ever see that elections had consequences here in Arlington more than 2014. After John Vihstadt won the special election early in the year, largely on the issue that the Columbia Pike Streetcar represented a big county boondoggle, Democrats claimed it was a low turnout fluke. The County Board continued to march forward with the plan. Within days of Vihstadt winning handily again in November, the County Board canceled the controversial project.

Voters should understand that the Board did not do a 180 degree turn on the project. Both Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes still wanted it to go forward. However, they recognized political realities. If they insisted on moving forward, they could lose additional seats on the Board.

Outside of the aquatics center, the issues before the Board now do not rise to the same level of “shiny object” as the streetcar. However, over the long term, they matter just as much.

How will we manage school enrollment? What will we do with metro? Will we continue to favor anti-car transportation policies which create more congestion on our streets? How will we invest in infrastructure? Will our budget process be transparent and will the Board continue to favor a budgeting process that requires annual tax increases? How will the county improve its permitting processes?

No level of government impacts your everyday life more than your local government. It was encouraging to see the voters be willing to set partisanship aside in 2014 and put an independent voice on the Arlington County Board. The need for that voice has not gone away just because the streetcar is in the rear view mirror.

by Mark Kelly November 30, 2017 at 4:15 pm 0

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

It was a busy week for the County Board. They made the final allocations of the $25.5 million of revenue that came in over the original budget projections for the 2017 fiscal year, as well as the $5.2 million of unspent funds in the closeout process.

The Board also approved borrowing for an additional $60 million for the new aquatics center.

Granted, the previous cost of the proposed project was inching closer to $100 million. Assuming that this project is at or near the top of “must-haves” for Arlington, the Board should not hurt their arms patting themselves on the back for saving money. We still have no reliable estimate for what the ongoing operating costs for the pool will be. A safe bet is more than the $1 million figure currently being discussed.

Also, it is important to remember the bond funding proposal approved by voters never included the words “aquatics center” or “pool.” It said “parks and recreation.”

This is why many of us have called for projects of this size to be the subject of stand-alone bond votes. If Board members are so sure county residents want the project, then they should have the political courage to let the project rise or fall on its own merits.

Borrowing money because you can is not only a terrible reason to do it, it puts you in a box for future project that are “needs” not “wants.” Board Member John Vihstadt essentially pointed this out when he outlined his opposition to the aquatics center plan.

But the Board does not even need to use new borrowing to pay for the pool. They had two other options that seemed to receive no serious consideration.

  1. Add the pool to a new middle or high school. Contrary to the sales presentation from county staff, this new pool is not walkable for many people, and it is certainly not close to any school.
  2. The no new bonding authority option. Using some of the closeout funds this year and the next two years, along with reprogramming from existing bonding authority to cover the costs of the project.

Yes, using some or all of the closeout funds would mean less bonus revenue would be transferred to the schools the next two years. But like the county, the schools are running a revenue to expenditure surplus in their budget already.

Contrary to tales of woe the School Board may tell, APS is not scraping by financially even with the influx of students. And by saving room for bonding authority, it would ensure no future school building is held up because we are spread thin by borrowing for county projects.

It was also disappointing to see the Board continue its tradition of putting forward budget guidance documents that assume a fictional “budget gap” despite taking in more than $25 million of additional tax revenue last year (just like every year).

by Mark Kelly November 16, 2017 at 3:45 pm 0

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

This week ARLnow posted a letter to the editor on the ongoing school boundary discussions:

For full disclosure, our children have always attended South Arlington schools, and we currently have at least one child in elementary, middle, and high school. They ride a bus to elementary school and high school and are in the walk zone for middle school.

The author’s thesis seems to be that diversity in our schools should be given the highest priority. The author says it is “arguably best for the future of the entire school system, and in turn, the country.” Though nowhere does the author argue why other than calling it a “value” of the county.

I hope the underlying suggestion is not that if an Arlington school has more low income kids, by definition it offers an inferior educational experience? Lower incomes in a community could be a major factor in an area where a school district is relying on a limited tax base for funding, but it is certainly not for lack of financial resources here in Arlington.

If any school is not performing here, then there should be pressure on the school board, the superintendent, the principal, and the teachers to fix what’s going on at the school immediately.

The author does note that 55 percent of families with middle schoolers live in the walk zone. In the next paragraph, the author argues that this is a “small group,” a subset of Arlington that should not be allowed to use proximity to override diversity as a priority.

But it’s not a small group. It’s a majority of the families which is why the school board should give them a great deal of consideration when considering school boundaries. And many of them value their proximity to school, and it’s not a value limited to North Arlington.

School boundary decisions are never easy. Some families will be forced to move schools. There is no way to avoid it. But after reading this letter, it is still unclear why forcing more kids to move in the name of diversity would be best for our kids, Arlington’s school system, or “the country.”

While the School Board sorts through the landmines of the boundary issue, on November 28 the County Board will consider whether to award a $60 million contract for a new aquatics center.

The price tag is still high considering they could add an expanded pool facility onto the next high school or middle school building at a fraction of the cost. Maybe they could even set aside closeout funds the next two years to pay for it rather than borrow more money.

by Mark Kelly November 9, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

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

The 2017 election is in the books. Well, it’s almost in the books. One race in the Virginia House of Delegates is separated by just 13 votes.

If that lead holds, Republicans would have a 51 to 49 majority in the House of Delegates. If not, it will be a 50 to 50 split. This falls into, “if you don’t think your vote counts in an election, think again,” category.

While the overall size of the win for Democrats across Virginia was bigger than most predicted, polls had shown this was the likely outcome since the statewide candidates won their nomination in June. Time will tell all the reasons Democrats turned out in such big numbers on Tuesday. But the bottom line is, the party which turns out more of its voters wins. In 2017, the Democrats had the winning strategy.

It was disappointing to hear State Senator Barbara Favola call Republicans “evil” at the end of the campaign. It was equally disappointing to hear those in attendance laugh and applaud in approval of the comment. This should go without saying, but just because someone believes strongly in an opposing political philosophy does not make them evil. Hopefully that was a comment made in the heat of the moment that Senator Favola now regrets.

Now that the ominous campaign ads are done airing and the rhetorical flourishes are set aside, Virginians can focus on the issues that impact our future.

We cannot rely on the federal government to prop up our economy forever. What will politicians in Richmond do to stop Virginia’s slide in the national business rankings? Will they make the regulatory environment easier to navigate? Will they provide any tax code reforms to make us more competitive with states like North Carolina who are reforming their codes?

What more can they do to improve our transportation infrastructure here in Northern Virginia? Will Virginia and Arlington demand that Metro reform its ways?

Also here in Arlington, will our County Board and School Board offer new ideas, reforms or even increased accountability? Will they ever stop the annual cycle designed to raise taxes and spend more, regardless of needs or even the bounds of our annual budget? Will our economic development plans move beyond offering taxpayer-funded incentives and into creating a business-friendly environment?

As we weigh back into the public policy debates, we will be reminded this weekend of Veterans Day where we honor those who served our great nation. These women and men defended us, so that we can have free elections as well as the freedom to say and write things to try and shape public opinion on important issues. To those who served, thank you.


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