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May 31, 2005

Beware Politicians Promising Transportation Studies

A column in last week's Richmond Times-Dispatch reports a promise made by the independent gubernatorial candidate to "convene a blue-ribbon commission on transportation as soon as he is sworn in, (and) then convene a special session of the General Assembly to adopt its recommendations." The columnist then proceeds to identify all the transportation studies undertaken since 1986 beginning with Governor Baliles' Commission on the Future of Transportation in the 21st Century. Other transportation studies were started or completed in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. If that's not enough, the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission are charged with studying transportation. That's just the beginning. The column notes the most recent call for a study was made by State Senator John Chichester, Finance Committee chair, who "announced formation of a promised . . . study of Virginia's transportation needs and ways to finance them." The lesson seems to be that transportation studies are a dime a dozen.

May 30, 2005

Tale of Two High Schools, Part I

Over the past five weeks or so, we've growled several times about the new Washington-Lee High School, recently noting that it was well on its way to being, and exceeding, a $100 million high school. As we noted, the school will house 1,600 students, and will be mostly paid for through a $72 million bond issue approved by Arlington voters last November. In today's Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, we noted the troubles being encountered in Fauquier County in getting their third high school built. The school will house 1,500 students and that "voters approved borrowing $39.6 million in construction funds. There are a number of similarities between the planned construction projects, e.g., as we previously noted, the County Board must grant the Washington-Lee project a use permit so that the new school can exceed the allowed height limit while the paper writes, "But before construction can begin, Fauquier's five-member Board of Supervisors must approve a land-use plan amendment . . . and grant special exceptions for the site to be used as a school and to add a special above-ground pumping facility." What struck us most from the article, however, is the apparent cost differential between the two schools. Given the contemporary nature of the two construction projects, we will make a special effort to compare the two projects in greater detail. ACTA members or interested Arlington residents should contact ACTA's president if they would like updates on this particular issue.

May 29, 2005

The Real Problem with Local Government is Their Spendthrift Ways

The editorial in today's Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star laments the attention being paid by the two major gubernatorial candidates to the real estate tax burden. Tim Kaine (D) would "allow local governments to create 'homestead exemptions' sheltering from taxes up to 20 percent of a home's value" while Jerry Kilgore (R) proposes "capping real-estate assessment increase at 5 percent annually." The editorial notes that real estate property taxes are the most important revenue source for virtually all of Virginia's local governments. Nowhere in the editorial, however, is there any mention of the spending sprees that some local governments are on. For example, since 2000, real estate taxes are literally flooding into Arlington County's coffers. During this period, per capita income is up 19.1%, but tax payments on the average single-family residence are up 94%. Nowhere in the editorial is there any mention of the need for government officials to control their spendthrift ways.

May 28, 2005

Greed or Ambition? Depends Upon Your Point of View.

Liberals, but especially their related leftist brethren the progressives, always talk about their desire to soak the rich in order to produce the revenues so they can meet all the unmet needs they are capable of inventing. A column in yesterday's Rocky Mountain News by Mike Rosen clarifies the difference between greed and ambition. Here's the quote, but I encourage you to read the entire column.

"Greed is a word leftists use to describe what conservatives call ambition. Ambition and reward are what fuel prosperity in a market economy. When you impose penalties and restrict rewards on economic activity - such as by excessive taxation - however noble your motives, there are consequences. You get less work, savings, investment and output. If that weren't the case, we could tax ourselves rich. The fatal shortcoming of socialist economies is that they don't sufficiently reward excellence, so, predictably, they get less of it. It's that fundamental conflict with human nature that seals socialism's ultimate doom." (Emphasis in the original)

Hat tip to Andrew Roth at Club for Growth.

May 25, 2005

Is the Iron Law of Taxation Made of Tinfoil in Arlington?

An editorial posted at Virginia News Source today begins with a summary of the peasant tax revolts in France during the 1630's. For example, it notes that "One unfortunate young clerk working for a tax collector was cut into pieces by enraged peasants and parts of his body displayed as a warning to revenue officials." While the king's response was to crush the peasants' revolt, the death penalty was decreed for anyone spreading rumors of new taxes. The lesson, though, was that both the masses and kings lived in fear of higher taxes. The editorial then goes on to argue that the Iron Law of Taxation holds true even today. We're not so sure that law holds as strongly in Arlington County, however. As we noted yesterday, since 2000, the per capita income of Arlington residents has increased 19.1%, but the taxes on the average residential homeowner is up 94% over that same period. More surprisingly, there is no palpable sign of a tax revolt although sparks of a rebellion were seen on April 16 when the County Board approved the FY2006 budget and set the real estate tax rates for the year.

May 24, 2005

An Argument Familiar to ACTA Members

Over the years, ACTA members have watched County Board members dance around the issue of taxes and tax rates, always avoiding the fact that Arlington taxpayers are paying higher taxes every year. For example, according to information from the FY2006 proposed budget, since 2000, per capita income of Arlington's taxpayers is up 19.1%, but tax bills on the average residence is up 94%, even though tax rates have been reduced 14.5 cents since 2000. Now come the two major candidates for Virginia governor (Tim Kaine (D) and Jerry Kilgore (R)), and their battling advertisements. The headline of one article in today's Augusta Free Press asks, "Did Kaine cut taxes? Or didn't he?" According to the political analyst cited by the paper, "Does a vote to cut a tax rate make one a tax cutter? What happens when property assessments rise and wipe out any cuts that would come from action on the tax rate? This is the sort of debate where both sides can present their cases, and both be right because there's really no right or wrong answer." There may indeed be no right answer, but it's an argument ACTA members recognize well.

May 22, 2005

Arlington Public Schools' World-Class Prices

During the School Board's May 5 meeting, ACTA's president spoke during public comment. Because of Arlington's world-class costs, he recommended the Board contact Governor Warner's office in order to secure one of the efficiency reviews being conducted as part of a new initiative by Governor Warner (D). The ACTA president noted that according to March 2005 data from the Census Bureau published by the Education Intelligence Agency (Adobe required), the Arlington Public Schools rank as the 13th ($13,334; operating expenses only) most expensive school in America. As EIA notes, "Generally speaking, people who spend the money want more of it to spend, and people who pay and collect the money don't want to give more, especially if they lack assurance that the money is being effectively spent." An efficiency review of the Arlington schools would provide that assurance to Arlington's taxpayers. The EIA data is for the 2002-2003 school year. An earlier study by the Clare Booth Luce Public Policy Institute found that "Arlington taxpayers paid more to educate each student in their public schools than Governor Mark Warner paid to send each of his children to private Burgundy Farm Country Day School ($13,555 - $14,225), and almost twice as much as the tuition paid by non-Catholics to attend Arlington's 1500-student Bishop O'Connell High School ($7,900)." The Luce study used school spending data for the 1999-2000 school year, but used total expenditures, which includes not only normal operating costs, but also costs of facilities, debt service, and other program costs. While the Arlington schools undoubtedly do a fine job of educating Arlington's students, it seems they should be able to do so without resorting to world-class prices.

May 21, 2005

New Washington-Lee High School Heading Quickly Past $100 Million?

Within the past month, we growled several times about the rising construction cost of the new Washington-Lee High School. The most recent involved an increase of $12 million in the estimated cost. More bad news for Arlington taxpayers is likely on the way. Today's Virginian-Pilot reports that bids for Chesapeake's new high school "has come in $2 million higher than budgeted for, even after cost-cutting design tweaks . . . The low bid came only after changes were made in plans for the facility, administrators told board members." Examples of that cost-cutting: "A stained concrete floor was substituted for more expensive but longer-lasting terrazzo . . . The number of tennis courts was reduced from 12 to eight." The school was budgeted to cost $52.3 million, but the bids came in at $54.3 million. The school will have a capacity of 2,400, compared to Washington-Lee's 1,600. Will the Arlington School Board make any design changes to reduce the cost of W-L, or will they find it easier to off-load the higher costs onto the backs of Arlington's taxpayers?

May 20, 2005

Your Federal Tax Dollars at Work. Er, Non-Work?

Two stories today address different aspects of the waste and inefficiency coming from the Congress and the federal agencies. One piece in Human Events onlin, written by the president of the National Taxpayers Union, discusses the pork in the highway bill that has been passed by both houses of Congress, and contains $23 billion of pork -- probably $11 billion in the Senate version and $12.4 billion in the House version. The other piece was written by the Heritage Foundation's expert on the federal budget, and explains several ways the government is wasting your tax dollars.

According to the HEO piece, "the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act stipulated that the federal government was supposed to get out of the road-building business in 1972, after completion of the interstate highway system." The Heritage piece first notes, "This year, Washington will spend an eye-popping $22,039 per household . . . $5,000 per household more than Washington spent just four years ago." Several examples of wasteful spending are cited, including an audit of credit cards at the US Department of Agriculture where employees were using their credit cards for such personal expenses as "Ozzy Osbourne concert tickets, tattoos, lingerie, bartender school tuition, car payments, and cash advances." Even worse, of the 55,000 USDA credit cards in circulation, 1,549 are "held by people no longer employed by the agency."

When is someone going to get fired for the waste going on in the federal government? And we don't mean just the Congress critters!

May 17, 2005

Results of Joint Worksession on Construction of New W-L

The County Board and the School Board held a joint worksession this afternoon (Adobe required) to review several aspects of the design and construction of the new high school. This includes the "height" issue that was covered by a recent story in the Washington Post (see our May 7 "Growl") plus issues raised by the Planning and Transportation Commissions. The meeting opened with the school architect providing an opening briefing, which provided such basic information as the proposed school having 90,000 square feet more than the current school although the old and new schools will house the same 1,600 students. Other information in the briefing included an overview of the planning process, and included mention that two of the committees involved both chose "the most difficult design to phase," meaning the most expensive. The briefers also said they always knew that building height would be taller than permitted but expected it to be "ironed out" during the permit process. The architectural briefer said they had to "build higher so that the footprint could be smaller to create more open space." Why was that important? The answer was provided somewhat earlier when a briefer noted they wanted "to create the feel of open space as you drive by on Washington Boulevard." Are you getting the impression that fiscal restraint was not a requirement? Any hope of that was eliminated when the architectural briefer noted that they showed members of the school's building-level planning committee pictures that were "inspirational." More information about the replacement of Washington-Lee High School can be found at this Arlington Public Schools webpage.

May 10, 2005

Is the Arlington School Board Building a 'Taj Mahal' High School?

Last Friday and Saturday, we growled about the continuing problems of the proposed replacement of Washington-Lee High School. Now comes news from the Spotsylvania school district, thanks to today's Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. The newspaper reports "The Spotsylvania County School Board could save $31 million over the next five years by bringing the cost of building new schools in line with the state average, according to an independent efficiency review." Citing a recently completed review of the school district, the paper noted the school district had "built nice schools, but at a significantly higher cost than most in the state . . . (the) last six schools cost 23 percent more than the state construction average on a per-pupil basis." Prior to last fall's elections, we ran an ad in the Arlington Sun-Gazette, which noted the new W-L would have 208 square feet per pupil compared to the current 142 sf/pupil. We also noted in the ad that two Virginia high school put under construction in 2002-2003 averaged 163 sf/pupil. A friend who just returned from Iraq noted that School Board members seem to build schools the way Saddam used to build palaces . . . "lavishly and as monuments to themselves -- all at the expense of the hard-working people." A prudent action for the Arlington School Board would be to send the architects back to the drawing board to wring-out about 72,000 square feet (1,600 students x 45 extra sf/pupil) of more out of the current design. That would be the least they could do for Arlington's overburdened taxpayers.

May 09, 2005

County Logo Redux

In search of a "fresh, hip, and modern feel" to the county logo, and $39,000 of taxpayer money, the County Manager last year introduced a new county logo. One astute Arlington resident called it the "Oscar the Grouch trashcan." (We growled about it here). This year's award undoubtedly plundered far fewer taxpayer dollars, but is probably far more ridiculous. On Saturday, May 7, ACTA's president asked the County Board chairman to explain the need to provide names to the three conference rooms (A, B, and C/D) on the first floor at Courthouse Plaza. They may have been deserving of names, but ACTA's president questioned why it was necessary for the Board chairman's personal assistant to survey the various commission chairmen to determine whether the rooms should be renamed and who should make such a momentous decision. ACTA's president wanted to why, with real estate taxes up 14% this year, county employees were frittering away taxpayer money on such silly projects. When given the opportunity to refute the information presented by ACTA's president, the County Board, including the Chairman, chose to remain silent. If you think too many county employees are spinning their wheels, visit the County Board office, and then let them know what you think about their spendthrift ways.

May 07, 2005

A New Day, A New Problem for Washington-Lee High School

Yesterday, we growled for the second time about the exploding costs for the replacement of Washington-Lee High School -- thinking that was the major issue involving the replacement high school. The front-page of the Metro section in today's Washington Post, however, raised a new issue. According to the Post, "As designed, the four-story building would be nearly 30 feet taller than Arlington's height limit and cannot legally be built." The story continued, "Realizing the mistake, school officials this week rushed to the county's planning commission asking for a change to the county's zoning laws to permit a 75-foot tall high school building." Furthermore, (p)lanning commissioners were not amused."Although the commission voted 6-3 to support a change in the zoning. it makes taxpayers wonder if there are other issues that have not yet surfaced. Although heigth may be "the least of our problems," as one School Board member commented, such issues have a nasty habit of piling on, and could eventually sink the project.

May 06, 2005

Sun-Gazette Says "Cost of New (Washington-Lee H.S.) Explodes"

Last Wednesday (4/27), we broke the news that the cost of a new Washington-Lee High School had increased from $82.8 million to $95.2 million, and the bids haven't even arrived, yet. The Arlington Sun-Gazette was the only paper to cover this story in this week's edition, which is dated May 5. According to the Sun-Gazette story, the School Board was told the increase is "due largely to the rising cost of construction materials. School Board members discussed various options at the April 27 budget worksession, including obtaining voter approval of a third bond issue, but the paper's story quoted Dave Foster, the School Board's vice-chairman, saying, "We cannot do another bond for this project . . . The voters have been generous." We hope at least two other Board members have that same view.

May 02, 2005

Pennsylvania Taxpayers Fight School Board's Plan for 'Taj Mahal'

Mountain States Legal Foundation announced on April 22, 2005, that a lawsuit was filed by five Pennsylvania taxpayers against the Manheim Township School District in Lancaster, Pennsylvania challenging the school board's "plans to construct a high school that critics have labeled a Taj Mahal because of its exorbitant cost." The taxpayers allege the school district failed to submit the proposal to a referendum. Under Pennsylvania state law, school districts are limited in the cost of construction unless they submit the more costly plans to the citizens in a referendum. The press release also notes that the new high school would exceed state size limitations by 23% and "the construction plan will increase property taxes by 10 to 15 percent for the next twenty years. Given the large increase in the cost of Arlington's Washington-Lee High School, as reported here on Growls last week, it seems stronger controls are needed over the Arlington School Board to prevent them from exorbitantly plundering Arlington's taxpayers. Hat tip to Townhall.com for posting the press release.

May 01, 2005

Maybe 'We the People' Need to Holler Louder

In a stirring op-ed in the April 11, 2005 issue of Insight magazine, Herman Cain focuses on the fiscal mess that Congress has dug for the country. Things like the "stiffling effects of the 9-million word tax code," the "impending insolvency of the Social Security system," and the "ever-growing budget deficit." Cain, however, has some advice which the American people need to send to Congress: "We must holler until they start to follow. Instead of reading poll numbers, Congress must start reading thousands of e-mail messages from angry voters in their districts and states. Instead of listening to their political advisers, Congress must start listening to thousands of phone calls from people who are fed up with the income tax code, the dysfunctional Social Security structure, and runaway deficit spending. Instead of focusing on partisan politics and the next election, we must force Congress to focus on not leaving this mess for the next generation." Some outstanding advice in our opinion. And while you're at it, don't leave out Arlington's members of the Virginia General Assembly or Arlington's gang at the Courthouse.