Fully Fund Arlington Libraries

First, I want to applaud the County Manager for several initiatives outlined in his message to the County accompanying the FY17 proposed budget.  Among them are plans to consolidate recreation programs and web based services offered by both the County and APS.

Also under consideration are plans to scrap parking stickers and manage real estate records in one place. This is all good, as consolidation of services is the most efficient and least disruptive way to reduce costs.

Another proposed initiative, providing so-called library pop-up space, doesn’t fit that category. It would cost $250,000 while providing only temporary benefits to a limited number of county residents to be paid for out of one time funds (book 12, web 20).

Don’t get me wrong, I am a vocal supporter of Arlington Library. As someone who regularly petitions outside Central Library, I am constantly amazed at the steady stream of residents from other jurisdictions who patronize the facility. My guess is that half the people who frequent Central Library are from out of the County. Ditto for Shirlington Library.

Demand for Arlington library services is strong and growing. But the way to meet the demand is not to add yet another particularized benefit. A much better approach is to expand branch library hours.

Four branch libraries, including Aurora Hills, Glencarlyn, Westover and Cherrydale, are closed on Sundays. I urge the Board to open them seven days a week in FY17 and keep them open the following year if demand warrants it.

Establishing a new library even a temporary one requires additional overhead in the form of rent and administration. Extending existing hours does not. It’s time for the County to treat its library system as the invaluable asset it is instead of a neglected, four eyed step child. Seeking to expand services on the cheap will cost more in the long run.

More Ways To Provide More Classroom Seats

At a projected cost of more than $2 million per additional class room and nearly $19,000 per student per year, APS must reduce its capital and operating outlays to cope with increasing enrollments. At previous School Board meetings, I’ve recommended the use of modular classroom design, historic preservation tax credits, energy efficiency retrofits and renewable energy. All of these techniques have been demonstrated to cut capital and/or operating costs, sometimes by a lot.

Another possible opportunity to explore is the recent closure of St. Charles Elementary School on Washington Boulevard near Clarendon due to declining enrollment. Continue reading

More Ways APS Can Save Money

I was very pleased with the Budget Advisory Council (BAC) end of year report, particularly its acknowledgment that it represents all Arlington taxpayers, not just the subset with children in school. I also welcome the fact that BAC has embraced the recommendations of the 2012 Gibson Report, which evaluated APS on behalf of the Virginia Department of Education. Among the principal findings of that report, BAC cited the recommendation to explore increasing pupil-teacher ratios to address soaring costs:

“The cost of a lower pupil-teacher ratio is significant in terms of staffing. If the APS determined overall teacher positions based on a ratio of 12:1 – a 15 percent increase from the current level of 10.4:1, but still below all but one of its peers – it would need 277 fewer teachers (p. 2-7)”.

The Gibson Report advises that if facility related expenditures are added to instructional expenditures, APS could realize more than $30 million in savings annually by bringing its pupil-teacher ratio in line with neighboring school districts. Continue reading

How APS Can Save Money

Most of the commentary at recent School Board meetings has been about where to construct new schools. There has been virtually no discussion about the estimated $435 million cost, presumably because everyone agrees with the Superintendent that Arlington can raise the money by issuing more bonds.

Even though the cost of the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars has ballooned to $515 million, County Board has assured taxpayers that the project will be financed by leveraging the commercial real estate surcharge tax. So it says school construction will not compete with the trolley projects for bonds financed with residential real estate taxes.

Nevertheless ACB’s latest CIP indicates that $267 million for the trolleys will come from as yet unidentified federal and state grants. If those funds don’t materialize by the time construction is underway, the County will be forced to issue GO bonds or form a taxpayer subsidized Public Private partnership to finish the projects. That could place APS’ classroom capacity expansion project in jeopardy. Continue reading

Debt Service on Trolleys Not Included in County Debt Ratios

The County’s proposed ten year capital budget (CIP) allocates over half a billion dollars for the Crystal City and Columbia Pike trolleys. This represents more than half the transportation capital budget and 19 percent of the total capital budget of $2.7 billion. Yet according to the Underlying Assumptions section of the Debt Capacity Analysis (B-15), the debt ratios utilized to determine the County’s bond rating do “not include revenue bonds anticipated to be issued for transportation projects [including the trolleys] and supported by the commercial real estate tax or the Crystal City TIF.”

In effect the debt service on $137 million worth of bonds to be issued to finance the Crystal City and Pike trolleys is off budget. Why? Continue reading

What’s Not To Like About Arlington County’s FY 2014 Budget?

The controversy over a $1 million bus stop on Columbia Pike has eclipsed other boondoggles that taxpayers will pay for with the 3.5 cent real estate tax increase just approved by County Board. But the bus stop on the Pike is just the tip of the iceberg. Other wasteful projects include the Artisphere, Long Bridge Park, the year round homeless shelter, the Black Box theater and a firing range 25 miles away in Dulles, Virginia. Continue reading

Seven Million Dollars for a Firing Range at Dulles Airport?

The Arlington County Manager’s FY14 budget touts Arlington County’s low tax rate relative to other localities. Yet the Revenue Summary shows that even before the proposed tax increase, the tax and fee burden of Arlington residents is greater than any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia except Falls Church (p. 123).

Closeout funds from excess prior year taxes will be used to fund a variety of capital projects, including:
• $1.25 million for play features for Long Bridge Park
• $4 million for a firing range at Dulles Airport; Continue reading

Bond Referenda Are Ultimatums

One of the key questions before the voters on November 6 is whether to approve four bond referenda that will fund transportation, parks and recreation, community infrastructure and the public schools. The Sun Gazette reports that 70% of Arlington County bond issues are approved. But the fact that the voters are uncritical of bond referenda doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be. Continue reading

Artisphere Task Force Says There’s a Place for Us in the Budget

On November 29, the Artisphere Task Force appointed by the County Manager last April presented its report on the troubled Rosslyn entertainment venue and its recommendations for making it financially viable. At first blush the report seems like a refreshing change from business as usual, as it presents an unvarnished appraisal of the flawed planning that went into the project. Continue reading

County Board Echoes Fudged Numbers

At its April 16 meeting, Arlington County Board voted unanimously to adopt a budget for FY12 that includes no real estate tax increase and very limited restoration of library and public safety cuts enacted in 2009 and 2010. In doing so County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman repeated the carnard that county residents pay lower real estate taxes than other Northern Va. jurisdictions.

Unfortunately Zimmerman is wrong. Continue reading