May 27, 2017

May 2017 Porker of the Month Selected

Porker of the Month is a dubious honor given to lawmakers, government officials, and political candidates who have shown a blatant disregard for the interests of taxpayers.

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The nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has announced its selection of the May 2017 Porker of the Month, and he is Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). He was selected "for his reckless push to revive earmarks, which are one of the most wasteful and corrupt practices in the history of Congress."

Here is CAGW's justification for selecting Rep. Rooney:

"On May 4, 2017, Rep. Rooney introduced a resolution that would change the definition of a “congressional earmark” to allow Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation water projects to be earmarked in areas of the country that include his own district.  Rep. Rooney’s press release that same day dubbed earmarks a “fictitious boogeyman” and included a remarkably thoughtless, illogical, and arrogant attack on taxpayer advocates like CAGW:  “Frankly, if anyone is padding their pockets and buying votes in Congress, its political action committees that maintain their relevancy by perpetuating this idea that earmarks are the root of all evil and dysfunction in Washington.”

"CAGW President Tom Schatz said in a statement:  “It is sad to see Rep. Rooney fall into the same trap as countless disgraced, big-spending congressmen before him.  There is no such thing as a ‘limited’ exemption for some earmarks.  Cracking open that wasteful door will open the floodgates to the worst days of pork-barrel earmarking.  As voters made clear last year, it is time to clean up the swamp in the nation’s capital.  But Rep. Rooney is so much in love with earmarks that he is blind to the corruption and disarray that they have caused, including the loss of the House Republican majority in 2006.”

“His repeated and ill-advised attempts to restore earmarks cannot go unchallenged.  By attempting to undermine and circumvent the budget process in the name of personal and parochial interests, Rep. Rooney reveals everything that is wrong with the discredited and dysfunctional system.  As CAGW has noted, earmarks adversely impact agency priorities, reward special interests at the expense of taxpayers, and allow members of Congress to indulge their narcissistic vices, while a disproportionate amount of earmarked projects go to members of the Appropriations Committees such as Rep. Rooney himself.  In comments to The Atlantic on November 25, 2016, Rooney said of earmarks, ‘That’s governing. That’s solving problems.’  Our message to Rep. Rooney: Earmarks are not the solution to Congress’s problems; earmarks are the problem.”

"Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) famously said, earmarks are “the gateway drug to overspending.”  Passing budget-busting legislation should not be the aim of Congress when the national debt is poised to top $20 trillion.  Since 1991, Congress has approved 110,442 earmarks costing taxpayers $323.1 billion, including infamous boondoggles like the Bridge to Nowhere.  The very real result of a decade of earmark scandals was the incarceration of members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists."

For more information about Citizens Against Government Waste, click here.

May 26, 2017

Arlington County to Issue $185 Million of Bonds. Too Much?

A news item earlier today at the Arlington Sun Gazette says Arlington County has retained its AAA bond ratings.

According to the Sun Gazette:

"As it prepares to move forward with a new issuance of public debt, the Arlington County government has retained its top scores from the nation’s three major bond-rating houses.

"The AAA/AAA/Aaa ratings from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s will allow the county government to continue borrowing funds at low interest rates. County-government officials also tout them as evidence of strong fiscal management.

"Government officials plan to shortly plunge into the bond market in an effort to sell up to $185 in general-obligation bonds, with the funds supporting a host of projects backed by voters in series of referendums in recent years.

"If market conditions are right, county officials also will try to refinance up to $200 million in existing debt at lower interest rates."

The news item closed by noting, "Arlington has maintained top ratings from all three agencies for 17 years, but on occasion during the period, one or more of the agencies has voiced concern about the overall health of the Washington area’s economy and its potential impact on local governments."

Two separate county press releases discuss these bonds:

  • On Tuesday, May 23, a press release announced that the Arlington County Board had "approved the sale of Series 2017 General Obligation (GO) Public Improvement & Refunding Bonds" to finance Schools and County projects. The county also announced, "Since 2009, unprecedented low interest rates have allowed the County to refinance more than $590 million of County, Schools and Utilities Fund general obligation debt – saving Arlington taxpayers more than $36 million."
  • A second press release, issued Wednesday, May 24, announced that the County's so-called Triple-Aaa bond ratings were reaffirmed. One of the two bullets in the press release noted that Arlington is just "one of only nine Virginia counties to receive highest rating from all three credit agencies." A second bullet said the "agencies praise County's solid financial position, conservative budgeting."

The items in the second bullets may indeed be true. However, according to a "GO Scorecard - Factors, Sub-factors, and Weights" published by one of the three credit rating agencies lists four factors:

  1. Economy/Tax Base -- 30%
  2. Finances -- 30%
  3. Management -- 20%
  4. Debt/Pensions -- 20%

The first factor -- economy/tax base -- includes three sub-factors: 10% each for full market value of taxable property; full value per capita; and median family income. So while management of our local county government deserves credit for keeping the finances and budget in peak condition, without the income and wealth of Arlington County taxpayers, it's unlikely the three credit rating agencies would look nearly so favorably on Arlington County.

The County Board action at its Tuesday recessed, May 23, 2017. meeting was based upon the Manager's report (Agenda Item 19). Growls readers may want to review the Manager's report since it contains some useful financial information, e.g., the amount of bonds authorized, issued, and remaining approved by Arlington voters in the 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 bond referenda for capital improvement projects.

The "fiscal impact" statement from the Manager report for agenda item 19 is especially worth reading. It says:

"A June 2017 closing date is planned to meet project scheduling and cash needs. The County’s previous general obligation bond issues have been rated Aaa/AAA/AAA by Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings, respectively. Ratings on this year’s bonds should be received on or around May 26. Based upon current market conditions, staff estimates that the County’s bonds should attain an average interest rate in the range of 2.7 to 3.2 percent.

"The combined $185.30 million new money bond issuance for County and Schools needs is estimated to increase annual debt service for the County by $7.4 million, and Schools by $7.5
 million, for a total of $14.3 million in FY 2018. The estimated debt service is within the amount included in both the County and Schools’ Adopted FY 2018 budgets, and complies with the County’s debt management policies including the debt ratio guidelines."

So, not surprisingly, the increased debt will require increasing taxes in succeeding years -- in the neighborhood of two cents on the real estate tax rate.

Which brings us to the question of whether Arlington County have too much debt? In his weekly opinion column, Peter's Take, yesterday at ARLnow.com, Peter Rousselot discusses just that question. He presents a number of factors that should be considered in making that determination. His conclusion, though, says:

"By continuing to focus on maintaining our AAA/AAA credit rating as the determinant for deciding whether to incur more debt, we are making a mistake. Attaching too much weight to this factor ignores other county debt. It also assumes that borrowing the maximum amount allowed by the ratings agencies is wise, and that Arlington’s tax base has a virtually unlimited capacity to absorb ongoing tax-rate and assessment increases without suffering ill effects."

Rousselot includes a chart from a Connection Newspapers 2o14 study that compares the per capita debt loads of Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Arlington County's per capita debt was third highest.

 

Kudos to Mr. Rousselot for his outstanding analysis, and for pointing out the County's focus on its Triple Aaa bond rating. While the county deserves praise for maintaining its financial and budget management positions, it's important to point out there is a cost to maintaining all that debt.

Do you think the county maintains too much debt? Do you think the county's debt per capita is too high? Should the county finance its capital project through so-called "pay-as-you-go" funding? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 25, 2017

A Thought about Socialism and the Estate Tax

"Socialism has a specific meaning as an economic system, hinging on public ownership or control of wealth and capital. But it also has a wider moral and metaphysical basis: it stands for the supremacy of “society,” of human beings as an undifferentiated collective, over the rights and life of the individual. That’s the socialist premise that has taken residence in a lot of people’s heads, even people who would be considered staunchly on the Right. To the extent they agree to think about “society” instead of individuals, to the extent they cede moral authority to the “interests of society,” not as a mere aggregate of the interests and rights of individuals, but as something that supersedes those rights, they have allowed a little dominion of socialism over their thinking.

"Now we can return to . . . (the) question about why the Left is so determined to keep the estate tax, although it currently raises very little revenue. They want to keep it because they hope someday to expand it, the way they have expanded every other power of government, with the goal of totally expropriating the wealth of every person upon his or her death. They fight to keep the tax in place, even at a small level, in order to preserve the principle of the tax, the principle that everyone’s wealth ultimately belongs to society and therefore can be seized by the state. That’s a principle with much wider application than the estate tax, so you can see why they invest a seemingly small thing with such importance."

~ Robert Tracinski

Source: his May 10, 2017 column, "Even Prominent Conservatives Have Socialism Hiding Inside Their Heads," posted at The Federalist.

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Robert Tracinski is a senior writer at The Federalist, and editor of the The Tracinski Letter.

May 24, 2017

Audit of Arlington County Fire Department's Ambulance-Process

A news story in today's Arlington Sun Gazette tells about the reforms to the Arlington County Fire Department's (ACFD) ambulance-process.

According to the Sun Gazette:

"Arlington public-safety personnel and their families have lost a perk that county officials acknowledge most probably should not have had access to in the first place.

"As a result of an audit of ambulance-billing services conducted last year, the Arlington County Fire Department has eliminated its practice of “courtesy waivers” of the cost of ambulance service to county personnel and their families.

“It went adrift,” acknowledged Fire Chief James Bonzano, who told County Board members that the original policy had applied to personnel transported to the hospital in what were expected to be workers’-compensation cases.

"Bonzano, who was named fire chief a year ago, said the department already had held discussions about eliminating the waivers before then-auditor Jessica Tucker singled out the policy in a review of ambulance-billing issues.

“We turned the ship around,” Bonzano said of the policy.

"Arlington long has charged for ambulance transport, and the fees are not insubstantial, ranging from $500 to $850, plus $12 per mile. Annually, the fees bring in about $3 million to county coffers.

"Tucker’s audit of ambulance billing was the only one finished during her five-month tenure in office. She departed later in 2016 for a job in California, and was replaced by Chris Horton, who had been an auditor with Fairfax County Public Schools.

"The ambulance-fee review brought up a number of other issues, including the relationship between the fire department and the billing contractor, and the agreement between the fire department and county treasurer’s office, which handles delinquent bills."

The Fire Chief reports, "All the recommendation have been implemented."

The Sun Gazette concluded their reporting by noting:

“This audit is really the first fruits of the new county auditor position,” said County Board member John Vihstadt, who with board chairman Jay Fisette serves on the panel overseeing the auditors’ work.

"Vihstadt praised the fire department for 'fine work' in implementing the recommendations."

Do you want to know more about the audit of the Fire Department's ambulance billing process? Do you want to know more about the work of the County Auditor? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 23, 2017

A Thought about the Peoplel Fit to Govern

"It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than people fit to govern others."

~ Lord Acton

Source: Lord Acton Quote Archive, Acton Institute.

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton, (born January 10, 1834, Naples [Italy]—died June 19, 1902, Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany), English Liberal historian and moralist, the first great modern philosopher of resistance to the state, whether its form be authoritarian, democratic, or socialist. A comment that he wrote in a letter, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” today has become a familiar aphorism. He succeeded to the baronetcy in 1837, and he was raised to the peerage in 1869. (Britannica.com).

May 22, 2017

Federal Environmental Prosecutions Fall to Record Low

A report released today by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University, says:

"The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during the first six months of FY 2017 the government reported 152 new environment prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 304 for this fiscal year. According to the case- by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), this estimate would be the lowest ever recorded since the Justice Department started tracking its environmental prosecutions over two decades ago. (emphasis added)

"The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with environment-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Year-to-year comparisons suggest that FY 2017 prosecutions will be down 22.6 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 393. This assumes trends are unchanged for the remainder of this year. See Table 1.

"Compared to five years ago when there were 612 new prosecutions filed, the estimate for FY 2017 environmental prosecutions is down 50.3 percent. Prosecutions over the past six months are also much lower than they were ten years ago when the annual number of defendants accused of breaking criminal environmental laws peaked at 927.

"The long term trend in environment prosecutions for these matters going back to FY 1997 is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of environmental prosecutions recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars."

The following chart was part of the TRAC report:

 

By category, most prosecutions were for "environmental crimes related to protecting the nation's wildlife. Of the 152 prosecutions in the first six months of FY 2017, 14 involved prosecutions of businesses; the rest involved individuals. Two agencies -- Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency were responsible for almost 70% of the referrals.

The Pew Research Center reported on December 14, 2016, "Most Americans favor stricter environmental laws and regulations." Specifically, Kristen Bialik writes:

"A majority of U.S. adults (59%) say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, compared with roughly a third (34%) who say such regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, according to the survey, conducted Nov. 30 to Dec. 5."

She also wrote that adults favoring stricter environmental regulation can vary by state. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed, she wrote, that people "living in states with relatively high per capita incomes . . . are more likely to support stricter environmental regulations."

Could it be that during the past eight years, federal bureaucrats were so concerned with saving the planet from global warming that they fell asleep at the wheel, failing to adequately protect the public from other significant environmental issues, e.g., the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the toxic water spill into Colorado's Animas River?

Are you satisfied that your representatives in Congress are effectively representing your views on the environment? Are you satisfied your representatives are providing effective oversight of the agencies charged in protecting the environment? Have you provided your Congressional representatives your thoughts about the environment recently? If not, Growls readers are urged to take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives. Contact information is available at the Library of Congress' Congress.gov. Taxpayers living in Virginia's Arlington County can contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Don Beyer (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

Ask for a written response. And tell them ACTA sent you.

For more information about the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), click here.

May 21, 2017

Federal Government Wasted at Least $144 Billion in 2016

Susan Jones of CNS News reported on Thursday, May 18, "Improper payments by the federal government are costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year – more than a trillion, if you add them up over the years, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday." She added that Dodaro said, "These are payments that should not have been made or were made in the wrong amounts,” in his opening statement.

In addition, Jones reported:

"The problem is growing, he said, from $125 billion in 2014; to $137 billion in 2015; to the most recent estimate of $144 billion in 2016. “This includes estimates for 112 programs at 22 federal agencies, so it is a pervasive problem,” he added.

"Since 2003 – when Congress required many executive departments and agencies to estimate the amount of improper payments annually – the cumulative total is estimated to be “in excess of $1.2 trillion,” Dodaro said. “So it’s a significant amount of money.”

"Dodaro said three big federal programs – Medicare, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit -- account for most (75 percent) of the improper payments. “But there are a number of programs across government where this problem is an issue,” he said.

"And the problem is worse than the numbers indicate, because 18 “risk-susceptible” programs – including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- do not report estimates at all. SNAP (food stamps) stopped reporting in 2015. And the $144 billion in 2016 does not include estimates from the Defense Department, which could be a sizeable number, Dodaro said.

"Dodaro said the issue of improper payments “is an area that I believe requires additional and more aggressive congressional oversight.”

"In the case of welfare payments – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – Dodaro said the Department of Health and Human Services believes it lacks the statutory authority to ask the states for information to estimate improper payments."

The problem, unfortunately, is probably worse. For example, Jones writes, "SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, reported improper payment estimates through 2015, “and then they identified a problem with the quality of the information” in 42 of the 53 states and territories. Dodaro said he expects SNAP to resume making estimates once they fix the problems." In addition, she points out, "The Defense Department’s estimates of improper payments 'aren’t accurate' because the department does not 'document the full universe of transactions.'"

She includes the following chart that breaks down the "improper payments."

   

Are you satisfied that your representatives in Congress are providing sufficient oversight of your tax dollars? Have you provided your Congressional representatives your thoughts recently? If not, Growls readers are urged to take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives. Contact information is available at the Library of Congress' Congress.gov. Taxpayers living in Virginia's Arlington County can contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Don Beyer (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

Ask for a written response. And tell them ACTA sent you.

For more information about CNS News, read here.

May 20, 2017

Arlington County's Own "Field of Dreams"

We growled on February 26, 2014 after the Arlington County Board, the previous evening, authorized $6.6 million for construction of a year-round homeless facility that will be "located on the second and third floors of 2020-14th Street." The contract was authorized "in an amount not to exceed $5,508,274, plus a contingency of $1,101,655, for a total contract authorization of $6,609,929," according to the Board's February 24 recessed agenda (recessed item 12)."

And two years later, what do we have? In this week's Arlington Sun Gazette (page 3), Scott McCaffrey reports, "New regional data suggest that Arlington's efforts to eradicate homelessness will not be a straight line down to zero."

McCaffrey continued, writing:

“We have a long way to go – homelessness is still a serious problem,” said Kathleen Sibert, CEO of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN), after new figures from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments showed a 33-percent increase in the number of homeless in Arlington, from 174 in 2016 to 232 in 2017.

"That growth, which came after years of declines, put Arlington outside the mainstream of other regional jurisdictions, which saw their homeless counts either stay flat or decline between 2016 and 2017.

"Regionally, a total of 11,128 people were noted as homeless in 2017, down 9 percent from the year before, based on a count taken Jan. 25 and reported May 10. Figures represent both those living in shelters and those on the streets.

"Arlington’s efforts to eliminate homelessness over a decade-long time frame seemed to be moving in the right direction until the most recent figures were handed down. Homelessness in the county had been cut more than in half prior to the recent spike.

"In a statement, Arlington government officials described the change from 2016 to 2017 as a “slight rise” – perhaps an odd phrase for what was a one-third increase.

"Sibert, whose organization runs Arlington’s year-round homeless-services center under contract with the county government, said the higher number for 2017 was caused, in part, because of a larger number of families in local shelters, and because more people were using the government’s hypothermia shelters due to extreme cold when the count was taken.

"Overall, she said, the trend remains positive."

Your humble scribe had an opportunity to weigh-in on the latest homeless counts from the Metropolitan Council of Governments (MWCOG):

"But Tim Wise, who heads the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, wondered aloud if the new homeless-services center may be serving as a magnet.

"While Arlington officials say those from other jurisdictions are not allowed to use its services, Wise is dubious.

“Build a homeless shelter, and the homeless will find it,” he said."

Check the table, which McCaffrey includes with his article for  the homeless counts of the nine jurisdictions in MWCOG's annual effort. Here's the link to the 125-page 2017 MWCOG report and archive of earlier annual reports.

Arlington County's May 12, 2017 press release includes the following two paragraphs:

“We believe that the increase in Arlington’s numbers this year do not reflect the long-term trend in our County,” said Arlington County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol. “Since 2008, when we launched the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, Arlington has cut its number of homeless persons by more than half. We’ve made great strides in housing veterans and chronically homeless individuals and families,” she said. “We have a strong continuum of care, which includes County programs and community partners and supports our goal of ensuring that every individual and family in Arlington should have access to decent, affordable housing.”

"Cristol, who is the Board liaison to the County’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness effort, said she was encouraged by the decline in homelessness regionally. “That decline was achieved through programs like shelter diversion and homelessness prevention, which have been drivers of our success here in Arlington. At the same time, the regional data highlights our greatest challenge: the need to increase the supply of affordable housing available to the lowest-income households.”

Are you concerned about the operation of the homeless shelter?  About the cost? About the public safety? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 2017
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Items in Growls are written by individual ACTA members and do not necessarily represent the views of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, Inc. Please send comments about Growls to The Growl Meister