Arlington County Board finally bowed to pressure from the Arlington Green Party and other homeless advocates, opting at a contentious December 13 hearing to purchase the Thomas Building at 2020 14th Street to house a new year round shelter. No one disputes the need for such a shelter, but at what cost? The county has offered to purchase the building for $25.5 million and put up another $9 million to retrofit two floors to house the homeless. The remaining floors will house county staff. The county will forego $155,000 a year in tax revenue from businesses evicted from the building once it’s acquired from its unwilling owners, probably by eminent domain.
Owners of nearby condos are outraged that their first knowledge of the plan came from newspaper accounts. They are also concerned about the impact of the sale on neighborhood property values and safety issues arising from vagrants congregating outside the shelter. But sychophants for the county waived these concerns aside, arguing that safety isn’t an issue, because there’s a police station next door; residents don’t complain about other nearby shelters; and property values have nowhere to go but up in the high demand Courthouse neighborhood, where the shelter will be located.
The question nevertheless remains why spend $35 million of taxpayer money for a facility that by any reasonable estimate should cost no more than $1 million? Why not simply renovate the existing A-SPAN winter shelter one block down the street? This is not an idle question, considering that Moody’s Investment service has taken a step towards downgrading the county’s Triple A bond rating, by deciding on December 7 to maintain a “negative outlook” on county municipal bonds due to likely cutbacks in jobs and spending by the deficit ridden federal government. In view of Moody’s concerns about the county’s financial picture, County Board should tighten its belt, forego major capital expenditures and look for least cost alternatives where investments are needed.
Instead it’s going on a major spending spree, evicting established tenants and presenting county taxpayers with another fait accompli. At the very least the County Manager needs to do a cost benefit analysis examining other alternatives and explaining why such an exorbitant outlay is needed to provide such a minimal service as a year round homeless shelter. Chris Zimmerman insists that the County Manager will research this question when the county issues a special exception use permit for the facility. But considering a use permit for one facility cannot answer the question whether another facility might better serve the homeless and county taxpayers. That question has to be answered before the Thomas Building is acquired, not after.