« June 2005 | Main | August 2005 »

July 30, 2005

Arlington's Living Wage: Who is it really helping?

On June 30, the Arlington County Board chairman gave a "State of the County" speech at Arlington's Chamber of Commerce. The July 28 edition of the Arlinton Sun-Gazette (second item) reports that although questions for the Board chairman were submitted beforehand, he was unable to answer questions about the cost or the number of beneficiaries of the county-determined minimum wage who live outside the county. After almost a month, county staff finally determined that 23 full-time and 188 temporary county government workers benefited from the County Board's social engineering legislation. The cost? $250,000. However, county staff could not determine how many of the contractor employees receiving the socialistic living wage reside outside of the county. Now comes a new study from the Employment Policy Institute (link is to the executive summary, but access to the entire report is provided, Adobe required). The authors of the study "found that living wage ordinances do little to actually increase the standard of living for low-income families." This occurs because "for every dollar in increased earnings from a living wage ordinance, families can expect to lose up to $2.12 in cash assistance" benefits. In summany, "the authors have found that living wage ordinances do little to actually increase the standard of living for low-income families." We growled about this bit of county social engineering on several occasions, most recently on July 10, but also as long ago as August 2003.

July 29, 2005

Tea Parties and Lei Parties: The Aftermath

The Associated Press reports that taxpayers in two Louisiana parishes will be picking-up the tab for fewer taxpayer-paid trips in the future, including "trips by elected officials to far-off places like Hawaii." According to one parish legislator, who actually attended the Hawaii convention, reducing the number of people who can attend is "not punishing anyone . . . It's cutting down the cost." We've growled about the travel by two Arlington County Board members to the annual convention of the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Honolulu, most recently on July 19. The criticism in Louisisana's St. Charles County resulted from 22 elected officials and government employees attending the Hawaii convention at a cost to taxpayers of $50,000, reported the Associated Press. At present, we don't know whether any Arlington County employees accompanied the two Board members to Hawaii although we have heard that one constitutional officer attended.

July 28, 2005

Working Together to Clear Away Taxes and Regulations

Yesterday, ACTA joined with 29 other citizen groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, Alliance for California Taxpayers, Buckeye Institute, and Tennessee Tax Revolt, to tell Congress to "clear away taxes and regulations" to "let new providers compete with cable for video services," according to this press release from the National Taxpayers Union, which organized the statement to Congress. The coalition's letter to Congress said: "Local franchise regulations, fees, and taxes on both cable companies and new entrants in the video services market are having the practical effect of impeding the spread of competition, thereby depriving consumers of the economic benefits this process normally provides." Go to the bottom of the press release to access the letter to Congress (Adobe required).

July 27, 2005

Liberal Virginia Newspapers Read From Same Liberal Talking Points

In an editorial yesterday, the liberal Virginian-Pilot newspaper claims that people in Virginian are not only "wary of anti-tax message," but that they "approve of the 2004 tax increase." That's an interesting conclusion drawn from a survey done to evaluate the race for governor (see article in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch and their statement on the poll's methodology). The Virginian-Pilot's opinion seemed questionable from the very beginning when it began: "Despite months of vitriol from the anti-tax, anti-government, free-lunch bunch." Writing with much the same anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric, the liberal Roanoke Times editorial writers reach much the same conclusion, i.e., that "Virginia's happy place" is "the moderate middle." Both papers' liberal editorial writers need to stop drinking the liberal, tax-me-more kool-aid, and get back to a reality-based world.

July 26, 2005

Corporate Welfare: Arlington County Style

Last month, an Arlington County press release announced that publishing firm BNA, Inc. would be moving its operations from the District to South Bell Street in Crystal City. A subsequent press release from Gov. Warner's office noted that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and a $1 million grant from the Governor's Opportunity Fund helped facilitate BNA's move to Crystal City. Thanks to reporting in the July 7 issue of the Arlington Sun-Gazette, we also learn that Arlington taxpayers will be ponying up $1 million as well. The weekly newspaper wrote, "County officials confirmed that they will spend $1 million in enhancements to the area around the South Bell building . . . The $1 million is a required local match of (the) state grant." While the $2 million used to entice BNA to move to Arlington is nothing to sneeze at, it was minimal compared to the $287 million that North Carolina taxpayers will provide to get the Dell Computer company to locate a manufacturing plant there. Interestingly, the British online newspaper The Register reported that "Virginia was thought to be in the running for the Dell plant and helped push North Carolina's bid higher. In the end, it turned out that Virginia was only willing to offer $40 million. The Register also reported that a "lawsuit on behalf of seven individuals who want a court to decide if using tax revenue to fund such grants is constituional" has been filed. The article also provides a link to what it term's Dell's "plush package." Additional details on the BNA move to Crystal City are provided by The Arlington Connection.

July 25, 2005

Arlington Public Schools: Ordinary Services. Extraordinary Prices?

Back on May 22 of this year, we growled that Arlington's public schools were not just the most expensive in Virginia from a taxpayers' perspective, but ranked 13th nationally on a cost-per-student basis. Yesterday, we growled that the cost of the Washington-Lee replacement high school would exceed by a significant margin the "Top 10%" of the most expensive high schools in the nation.

Today, we looked and found school facilities cost data at the Virginia Department of Education's website, and it shows the Arlington Public Schools have a habit of building the most extravagant schools in Virginia. For example, in 1999-2000, 14 new elementary schools were put under construction (Adobe required). Of these, the average school provided 102 square feet per student, but the Arlington School Board provided 118 square feet. The average cost for the 14 was $107.51 per square foot, but Arlington's elementary school cost $146.68 per square foot. The bottom line was that while the average cost per student for the 14 schools was $10,916, the cost per student for the Arlington school was $17,297.

Eight high schools and Arlington's Langston facility were put under construction in 2001-2002. For the building costs only, the average for the eight high schools was $99.43 per square foot, but for Langston, it was $137.80.

During 2003-2004, construction on four middle or intermediate schools was begun, including Kenmore Middle School. The average square feet per pupil for the four schools was 172, but for Arlington's Kenmore M.S., the Arlington School Board provided 225 square feet. The average cost per square foot for the four was $125.66, but for Kenmore it was $141.68. For the four schools, the cost per
student basis was $21,569, but for Arlington's Kenmore M.S., it was $31,830.

When either the Arlington County Board or the Arlington School Board talk about Arlington being a world-class community, the taxpayers of Arlington certainly understand the price of that kind of talk. Unfortunately, Arlington voters continue approving school bond referenda by a significant margin.

July 24, 2005

Cost of Four High Schools, Part IV

Our initial impression that the Arlington School Board is building a 'Taj Mahal' in replacing the current Washington-Lee High School becomes stronger with each additional comparison. On July 7, we growled and added Culpeper's second high school to the list of high schools in advanced planning or recently started construction. We now have:

Washington-Lee/$95.2 million/cost per student -- $59,500
Fauquier's 3rd H.S./$50.6 million/cost per student -- $37,500 (Note 1)
T.C. Williams, Alex/$88 million/cost per student -- $35,200
Culpeper's 2nd H.S./$53 million/cost per student -- $35,333

To see just how extravagant the replacement W-L high school really is, we also looked at construction cost data information posted at the National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities; specifically the 10th Annual School Construction Report for 2005. Data in Table 5 of this report shows the median national cost per student for high schools is $24,641 while the cost per student for the "Top 10%" of high schools is $49,020. Translated to W-L, this means that Arlington's taxpayers will have a high school that will cost significantly more than the top 10% of all high schools in America. Sure sounds like "Ordinary Services at Extraordinary Prices." Putting it another way, the school board is spending every dime they can plunder from Arlington's taxpayers. We previously growled about the cost of W-L on June 7, May 30, and May 21.

Note 1. We previously reported this cost as $33,733 per student based upon 1,500, but we subsequently learned the school is being built for 1,200 students with "core services" being built for 1,500 students. So we're splitting the difference.

July 23, 2005

A Costly Lesson in Arlington County

Arlington County awarded a contract in September 2003 for the construction of the Aurora Hills fire station for almost $4.3 million, but the contractor "was terminated for default" on June 1, 2005. According to the Manager's report to the Arlington County Board, dated June 20 (Adobe required), the contractor had been paid almost $3.1 million, but an additional $3.3 million is needed to complete the fire station. That's a $2.1 million cost overrun, which computes to 49.2%. Was anyone held accountable for this fiscal fiasco? The best the Manager could tell the County Board on July 12, when the Board approved an emergency agreement with another contractor, was "There were lessons learned -- we've got to pay closer attention to the wording of our contracts," according to the July 21, 2005 edition of the Arlington Sun-Gazette. The newspaper reported that fiscal watchdog Bob Atkins asked the Board, "Who was minding the store on this one?" A mighty good question indeed! An even better question might be when will the Arlington County Board wake-up, and realize the taxpayers of Arlington County need an Inspector General?

July 20, 2005

Understanding Concept of Taxpayers vs Taxeaters in Arlington County

Last month, I growled about the political economy of Arlington County after reading an interview with Steven Malanga about his new book, The New New Left. I suggested the book might provide a better understanding of why taxes rise inexorably in our county. Another interview with Mr. Malanga is posted at TechCentralStation today, which clarifies the need for all Arlington taxpayers to pick-up and read Malanga's book. He notes, for example, that various groups, most of which are active in Arlington, "began recognizing that they had the same interest in an ever-expanding government and started working together in coalitions that support bigger government and government solutions. In many states and cities the coalition has now gathered so much power that it is in control of the political agenda." Thus the difference between taxpayers and taxeaters. He's hopeful, though, saying, "I think we are starting to see a new taxpayer revolt emerging in the U.S. based on the huge fiscal stress that the public sector economy has imposed in many places." A big round of taxpayer applause to Mr. Malanga!

July 19, 2005

Tea Parties, Lei Parties, Update III

Two Arlington County Board members have jetted off to the annual convention of the National Association of Counties (NACo), reports last Friday's Washington Times. We last 'growled' about the trip on July 6, so we won't spend a lot of time this evening. Suffice it to note, however, that ACTA's president is quoted in the article. Two items are worth noting in the Washington Times article. One is the wide variance in the cost of the plane tickets of the two Board members (one paid $900, but the second paid only $667); the other is that the newspaper, unlike its Washington competitor, expanded coverage to report what other Virginia counties are doing, and not just Arlington County. One cartoonist has used his artistic skills to comment on the NACo convention in Hawaii, noting that roast taxpayer was the main course. (hat tip to Tax Guru).

July 18, 2005

Arlington County Board Knows How to Spend Windfall Money, Too

A story in Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch detailing the efforts of NASCAR driver Ward Burton in conserving 1,143 acres of forestland along the Staunton River brought to mind similar efforts by the Arlington County Board three years ago. Not quite similar, but both stories involve trees. According to Burton, his effort is "to teach young people stewardship" of the land. Back to Arlington County. Three years ago, the County Board used $700,000 of taxpayer money "to improve the County's 'green infrastructure," the Manager told Arlington residents in his cover letter to the Fiscal Year 2003 Adopted Budget. He told residents the County Board's budget included an additional $500,000 (for a total of $700,000) and 3.5 additional positions "to preserve, protect and restore the County's tree canopy through development of a tree master plan . . . (and) increase the annual planting of trees on County property from 880 to 1,280 trees." Let's be clear. In no way are we opposed to planting more trees; afterall, trees are good things. Recall, however, the County Board has been intimately involved in clear-cutting many trees as a result of their desire to add to the county's tax base through denser construction, especially in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor. The spending of $700,000 three years ago to enable the planting of 400 additional trees has obviously been a burr under our saddle, and recently we learned from Virginia's Department of Forestry that forests comprise a larger percentage of acreage in the Commonwealth today (15.9 million acres, 62%) than in 1940 (14.4 million acres, 56%). The bottom line, the County Board's spending of $700,000 on their so-called 'tree initiative' was nothing but pure symbolism, and would not measurably add to the Commonwealth's forestlands. Put another way, the spending three years ago did nothing but fulfill Board members 'anointed visions.'

July 17, 2005

Arlington Public Schools Know What to Do with All That Money

Taxpayers in Arlington County wondering why their property taxes are rocketing out of sight need look no further than a recent report on staffing in Virginia’s school districts published by the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute (requires Adobe). The report looks at the relationship between instructional personnel in a school district and student enrollment. In its introduction, the report notes: “In an efficient budgeting process, taxpayers would expect school staff positions to increase when student enrollment goes up and . . .expect school staff positions to decline when student enrollment goes down.” That is not what the data shows, however. For the eight fiscal years 1997 through 2004, 56 of Virginia’s school districts had more students while 74 school districts had fewer students (one district had no change at all). During the eight years, though, 125 of Virginia’s school districts had more instructional personnel (includes principals, teachers, teacher aides, guidance counselors, and librarians) while only 6 had fewer. So where did Arlington come out in this analysis. All of Northern Virginia’s school districts fell into the “more students, more personnel” category, but Arlington came out worst. Arlington had 748 more students, but employed 625 more instructional personnel. On the other hand, Fairfax County had 17,760 more students, but employed 3,643 more instructional personnel while Loudoun County had 18,780 more students, and only 2,185 more instructional personnel. Since each one of those instructional personnel costs Arlington taxpayers about $65,000 in salary and benefits, it’s important that Arlington tax dollars be used as productively as possible. This study raises questions as to whether Arlington taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. Additional detail is available in the district data tables (Adobe required). Unfortunately, the comparison gets even worse when one looks at recent county data. According to Arlington County's fiscal year 2006 adopted budget (page 557; Adobe required), which just started, schools enrollment is up by 486 students since FY97, but there are 603 more full-time equivalent employees.What a money pit!

July 13, 2005

Is there any accountability left in the Federal Government?

A fair and balanced answer can only be: Obviously not. And when you ask how I know, I point no further than to yesterday's testimony by the General Accounting Office (GAO) before the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management of the U.S. Senate (abstract, highlights, or entire report Adobe required). The testimony concerned GAO's study of improper payments, a 25-cent term if there ever was one. Rest assured, however, that taxpayer dollars are involved. GAO notes that such payments "are a longstanding and significant problem, and, incredibly, they are a growing problem, increasing from $20.7 billion in 1999 to $45.4 billion in 2004. Even worse, they are likely to go higher, the GAO says, because there were no estimates in 2004 for 12 programs with outlays of $248.7 billion. Of the 12, five agencies told GAO they expect to report estimates in 2005, but four programs did not bother to report when they plan to even though such reporting is required under the Improper Payments Information Act (IPIA) of 2002, and were previously required under OMB Circular A-11, a policy directive of the President's Office of Management and Budget. Question for your Senator: has anyone in the Federal government been fired for failing to report improper payments?

July 11, 2005

Virginia Budget Impasse, Redux?

An op-ed in yesterday's Newport News Daily Press by Pat McSweeney, former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, provides the historic details of the 2004 budget impasse in Richmond. McSweeney tells that story to provide the context for asking whether the table is being prepared for a repeat in 2006, or whether tax increases should be legislated as "independent matters." Adding context, he notes, were "(n)ews reports from Minnesota, North Carolina, and California about government shutdowns or threatened shutdowns due to budget impasses in those states." In 2004, the two major players in the budget impasse were Governor Mark Warner (D) and Senator John Chichester (R). While Warner's term will be over at the end of this year, Chichester will still be there. McSweeney notes that Chichester and "his Senate colleague Russell Potts (R), an independent gubernatorial candidate, have proposed a substantial hike in special fund taxes (for example, the motor fuel tax) to pay for new transportation projects. McSweeney opines, "The responsible course is to resolve in advance not to have legislators enact another state budget with a gun at their heads, the gun being the threat of a government shutdown. Legislation to increase taxes should be address as an independent matter." Unfortunately, as he notes, "Special interests that favor tax hikes won't be pleased with this approach." Ah, yes, the special interests have to be taken care of first, even when the money is being pilfered from the taxpayers' pockets.

July 10, 2005

Explanation of Arlington County's Socialistic 'Living Wage'

Thanks to the generous and compassionate Arlington County Board, in Fiscal Year 2005, which ended on June 30, county taxpayers forked out at least $650,000 to cover contractors' extra cost attributable to the 'living wage' ordinance passed by the Arlington County Board. A column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Friday pretty much summed up the economic justification of the so-called 'living wage' schemes: "Mix voodoo economics and fuzzy math to justify a government-mandated 'living wage' and you get a study that's insightful in spite of itself." Advocates of the 'living wage' rules seemingly always claim these schemes help the poor, however, the 'labor-friendly nonprofit organization' cited in the column contains the following: "Living wage laws have proliferated around the nation, partly as a response to the stagnation of state and federal minimum wages, as well as to the increasing privatization of city services as a means to cut costs. These laws are designed to remove the incentive for government to contract out jobs to low-wage employers, thus leveling the playing field for city contractors." Any wonder that unions are the biggest supporters of the 'living wage?' [Hat tip to Real Clear Politics, July 9]

July 08, 2005

Repeat After Me: Giving Money and Power to Politicians . . .

If you don't believe there is wisdom in P. J. O'Rourke's humor when he said that giving power and money to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys, you're not paying attention. We were reminded of the wisdom in that humor by these postings (here and here) at the National Taxpayers Unions' GovernmentBytes blogsite. Both referenced this Associated Press story about rising state revenues. However, state spending is growing, too, and there are also those "long-delayed spending needs" which just have to be met. And, as if to prove the wisdom of O'Rourke's quip, the AP quotes Iowa legislator Bill Dix who said, "We made state government a little bit leaner, and that's good" but the paper added "Now, he said, with more cash, it's harder to say no." If there is any better reason why Virginia taxpayers need a Colorado-style Taxpayer Bill of Rights, I don't know of it. Last month, we growled about Virginia's growing tax revenues that were fueled by the 2004 tax increase that was engineered by Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Senator John Chichester (R).

July 07, 2005

Tale of Four High Schools, Part III

At least four school districts in the northern half of Virginia are currently in the process of planning or constructing high schools, including Arlington (Washington-Lee), Alexandria, Culpeper, and Fauquier. We growled about the expected cost of replacing Washington-Lee High School on May 30 and June 7 of this year. We first started comparing W-L and Fauquier's 'third high school,' but added T.C. Williams, and will now add Culpeper County's second high school, which appears will be built for 1500 students (compared to 1600 for W-L). According to yesterday's Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, the new Culpeper high school will cost $53 million ($42 million for construction and $11 million for so-called 'soft costs'), as compared to W-L, which is approaching $100 million. Fortunately for the taxpayers of Culpeper, their board of supervisors seems to be adamant about holding their school board accountable for bringing in the new school on budget. The newspaper quoted one supervisor as saying, "[The School Board] said they could make $53 million work, and that's what we're going to New York to borrow." Brave new words? For the sake of Culpeper taxpayers, we hope not. And furthermore, the time is past for Arlington's school leaders to provide a complete accounting of why W-L has to cost significantly more than the other high schools.

July 06, 2005

Tea Parties, Lei Parties, Update II

Today's Waynesboro News Virginian reports that only one Augusta County supervisor will be attending the luau shindig (aka annual convention) of the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Hawaii later this month although two were originally budgeted to attend. The paper reports that "Some officials in Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin cancelled trip reservations amid public criticism." The article also reported that one NACo member from Nelson County "nixed the notion of sending a delegate simply because of the cost." This article also notes that conference attendees were provided "'pointers and precautions' for telling local news organizations about the trip. It suggested informing reporters in advance of the conference program, and even inviting them to Hawaii." What chutzpah! [See the July 3 post about this year's NACo convention, also.]

July 03, 2005

Tea Parties and Lei Parties, An Update

Today's Richmond Times-Dispatch provides comprehensive coverage of the annual convention of the National Association of Counties (NACo) being held later this month in Hawaii. Last month we growled about the attendance by two Arlington County Board members after coverage by the Arlington Sun-Gazette and the Washington Post. In addition, last week's Sun-Gazette gave critics (presumably us since ACTA has been the primariy growler of the trip). The Times-Dispatch story, however, makes us feel vindicated. According to the story, Arlington County Board members will be able to have luaus with about 60 Virginia county officials for the "national convention whose exotic locale has been questioned and mocked by critics around Virginia and the nation." One thing did surprise us, which was the number of counties sending larger delegations larger than Arlington's two County Board members, including Rockingham (all five supervisors plus county administrator) and Charles City County (five convention delegates), "a rural county of fewer than 7,000 people. The story noted, "Taxpayers, political rivals and news organizations have questioned the wisdom of attending. At the least, some critics argue, doing so is politically tone-deaf." Finally, when compared to the dismal coverage of convention by the Washington Post (only Arlington's attenance, and only in their weekly editon), the Times-Dispatch deserves special kudos.

July 02, 2005

Transportation Security: 'Latte Spending' with Questionable Results

The 'above-the-fold' headline in Thursday's Washington Post told readers the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) "lost control of over $300 million spent by contractor to hire airport screeners." The original contract was estimated to cost $104 million in February 2002 and increased in stages ($343 million, March 2002; $600 million in November 2002; and to $741 million in April 2003), according to a defense contract audit report obtained by the Post. Even more outrageous were the numerous examples of how taxpayer dollars were spent. For example, $1,180 for 20 gallon ($3.69 a cup) for Starbucks coffee at a Santa Clara hotel or $4.4 million for a 'no show' fee for competency exams that were not taken by job applicants. In a press release, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) called the audit results "an outrage, and the CAGW president said, "This ranks as one of the most wasteful government contracts in memory. The bottom line is that American taxpayers spent $12,350 to hire each airport screener, whose first-year salary was $23,600. What a government!

July 01, 2005

July 1: Another Reminder of Virginia's 'Gang of Five'

Although the headline in today's Washington Times told us Virginia "Residents will pay more tax on tobacco, less on food," July 1 is another reminder of the largest tax increase in Virginia's history, which passed out of the 2004 General Assembly. That $1.38 billion tax increase was the project of Governor Mark Warner (D) and Senator John Chichester (R), leader of the Senate's self-named Gang of Five. Among other features of that tax increase, "The package also increased the sales tax and the tax on real estate transactions and imposed an excise tax on tobacco products." However, the word from the governor's office continues to be that it was tax reform, i.e., "Tax reform was really that," said the governor's spokeswoman. Excuse me, but $1.38 billion is a tax increase. For more on Virginia's Gang of Five, see this report from the Washington Post. Governor Warner even took direct aim at critics of his record-setting tax hike during his monthly radio call-in show where the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported "He emphasized that members of the GOP-dominated House (of Delegates) budget committee sought more than $2 billion in additional spending requests last session."