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September 30, 2006

Double Kudos to the Washington Examiner

In an editorial Friday, the Washington Examiner reported that “Metro riders and the Washington region’s taxpayers who pay much of the transit system’s costs, as well as residents of Alexandria, now have access to comprehensive compensation databases for both bodies. These databases are the latest additions to the Washington Examiner Community Action Network, this newspaper’s initiative to partner with the region’s residents and civic groups in expanding the resources available for independent analyses of local and regional public services.”

The Examiner is constructing a website that will bring “public accountability resources together in one place” with the hope to make “it possible to focus hundreds or even thousands of pairs of eyes and brains on key government activities or services.” At the moment, you can access information about Metro, Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Montgomery County schools  salary information with other information coming.

ACTA looks forward to using a lot of information on WECAN to provide Arlington taxpayers with more information about Arlington’s so-called world-class government.

September 28, 2006

Arlington County School Bonds Face "Rare Opposition"

In this week’s Arlington Connection, Seth Rosen reports that for the first time in years, there is “Opposition to this year’s $33.7 million bond package — the smallest in a decade,” and that it “is crystallizing among some prominent school activists, especially those who live in south Arlington.” Rosen adds, “School officials acknowledge that there is more antagonism in the community toward the bond package than in any previous year. The Civic Federation’s Schools Committee voted 6 to 4 earlier this month against supporting the proposal.”

According to the article, “School officials should first finalize how many classrooms the new school will have, how many parking spaces will be needed and the size of the pool before they bring a bond before voters, said Beth Wolffe, a former candidate for School Board.” Sounds like excellent advice!

September 27, 2006

Arlington County Board Continues Losing Streak in Courts

Back in 2004, the Arlington County Board approved a project “by a developer and the First Baptist Church of Clarendon to build a 116-unit apartment complex on the site of the present church, with 70 of the units available for rental by those with low and moderate incomes. The remainder of the units, which are proposed to range in size from efficiency to three bedrooms, would be rented at market rates,” according to this story by Scott McCaffrey of the Arlington Sun-Gazette.

 

However, McCaffrey wrote that “(i)n a unanimous ruling handed down (September 15) by Justice Cynthia Kinser, the high court ruled that the government and Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Kendrick misinterpreted local zoning rules, and sent the case back to the Circuit Court for follow-up action”

 

You can read the entire case, which is available at the Virginia Supreme Court’s website. It’s Renkey v County Board of Arlington County, case number 052139, September 15, 2006.

September 26, 2006

Arlington County Announces Welfare Program Cuts

Today’s Washington Post and the online Arlington Sun-Gazette report that Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee announced a preliminary plan to control welfare spending. It responds to reports in July that the county's LPACAP methodology had run afoul of federal auditors. We growled most recently about this on July 13, 2006.

 

According to the Post’s Annie Gowen, “Arlington County is planning to slash 30 jobs and make cuts in about 40 human service programs to cover a $7.5 million budget shortfall, officials said yesterday. The far-ranging service cuts would affect such key programs as housing for the mentally disabled, prescription drugs for seniors, mental health counseling and nutrition services. Longer waiting lists and heavier caseloads for social workers are likely, officials said.” The Sun-Gazette adds, “The loss of the grant funding might have been absorbable in past years, when the county government had plenty of tax dollars flowing in from the booming real estate market. But the market has cooled substantially this year, and is likely to result in little growth in real estate tax revenue in the coming year.”

 

The county press release, announcing the cuts, is here, and the Manager’s 17-page memo to the Board detailing the plan is here (Adobe required).

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September 25, 2006

$135 Million for a 'World-Class' Health Club in Arlington County?

Further details emerged last week concerning a platinum-plated (gold-plated just ain't good enough for Arlington's Grand Poohbahs) health club that Arlington officials have been planning at North Tract, "land just south of the 14th Street Bridge in Arlington -- with its sweeping view of the Potomac River and monuments," as described by Annie Gowen of the Washington Post last Thursday.

Arlington voters approved a $50 million bond in November 2004, but the Post story notes the cost estimate for the first phase is now hitting $90 million. The new FY 2007-2012 Capital Improvement Plan shows an estimated cost of $66 million for the second phase. The County Manager told the Post that the final cost is estimated to cost more than $135 million. Arlington's Super Watchdog, Wayne Kubicki, told the Post, "They told the design team to give them world-class architecture, and that costs." County plans for North Tract are in the FY 2005-2010 and FY 2007-2012 Capital Improvement Plans.

According to Seth Rosen, writing in last week's Arlington Connection, wrote, "In the meantime, design and architectural design work has been halted on the North Tract project, the largest capital park undertaking in Arlington’s history." He then quotes Wayne Kubicki who said, "The county spent a whole bunch of design money for a property it didn’t own, and now seemingly is having trouble trying to buy" although Rosen cites a county official suggesting that acquiring the property through eminent domain is an option.

Can you spell SNAFU? We growled about this on September 11, which included a link to the press release in which last year's Board chairman touted a "land swap" in which a developer would pay the county $25 million. WTOP's news summary is here.

ART Bus Joke

Why do the ART buses have tinted windows?

So that the taxpayers, who fund this white elephant, can't see how few people are inside.

September 21, 2006

Hey, General Assembly: Listen Up!

The General Assembly is set to meet in a special session next week to take up the issue of transportation. The editorial advice in yesterday’s DC Examiner to the pols, “Lose the ‘more taxes or more gridlock’ nonsense,” is sound.

The battle in Richmond, notes the Examiner, is between the tax-raisers in the Republican-controlled Senate and Gov. Tim Kaine (D) on one side against the Republican-controlled House of Delegates that wants to start using some of the money in the regular budget for transportation. The editorial is rightly concerned the politicians will try to offer Northern Virginians the false choice of ‘taxes or gridlock.’

Arlington taxpayers concerned about higher taxes to pay for transportation excesses should contact their state deletates or senators. See the September 16 Growls, which has links so you can send them e-mail directly.

September 20, 2006

State Tax Trends, 1981 – 2006

A research study of state tax trends (requires Adobe) by Americans for Tax Reform, released last month, shows that tax increases are down, but that revenue sources are shifting. Among the key points found during the research study:

+ State policy has “fundamentally changed” because the restructuring of state economies has forced policymakers to adopt more competitive policies. In addition, “the tax issue has become more potent in political campaigns.”

+ “Tax increases are getting smaller . . . Tax cuts during growth periods are becoming more prevalent . . . Revenue sources have shifted away from income taxes.”

ATR concludes that “(d)espite the progress on taxes over the last 25 years, more needs to be done to build on this foundation.” We agree!

September 19, 2006

More of Your Federal Tax Dollars Down the Rathole

This time it’s the Legal Services Corporation, which Congress set-up to provide legal services for the poor. That may be their mission, but they manage to take very good care of themselves, including their “leased lavish offices on the Georgetown waterfront at $8 more per square foot than any other tenant,” perhaps overpaying almost $2 million, according to the National Review Online. But that wasn’t enough because LSC employees spent $55,000 for conference accommodations in Puerto Rico.

Much of this wasteful spending was uncovered by the agency’s Inspector General, but unfortunately, agency management is trying to show him the door. And while Congress should be looking for ways to cut the LSC budget, appropriators in Congress are looking to increase the agency’s budget. Sheesh!

September 18, 2006

Reforming Congressional Pork Barrel Spending

In a press release Friday, the National Taxpayers Union congratulated the House of Representatives for climbing another two rungs of the ladder on their way to reforming pork barrel spending. The vote was 245-171 to change House rules. Unfortunately, Arlington’s Representative Jim Moran voted against the change (roll call vote 449).

The previous day, NTU issued another press release congratulating the House of Representatives for passing their version of Senator Tom Coburn’s bill, S. 2590 (passed unanimously), that would set up a data base for disclosing all federal grants and contracts.

Leading the fight against Congress’ pork barrel spending has been Porkbusters and the Club for Growth. Their websites are well-worth visiting. For additional background on pork barrel spending, see this 2005 Tax & Budget Bulletin (Adobe required) by Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. Finally, see the editorial in today's DC Examiner, which says President Bush will soon sign S. 2590.

September 16, 2006

Tell Your State Legislators Your Opinion about Efforts to Raise Taxes

The National Taxpayers Union’s Taxpayer Action Center recently alerted some of its members that “(t)he Virginia General Assembly is preparing to meet in a special legislative session to discuss transportation funding. Concerned taxpayers will not be surprised to hear that there is a concerted effort in the legislature to raise taxes and fees on Virginia's families and businesses. A proposal by Delegate Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) and Delegate David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) would swipe an additional $417 million from your wallets by raising vehicle registration fees - as well as hotel and rental car taxes - in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties.”

The alert also said “(p)roponents of such a plan claim that a tax increase is necessary to fund Virginia's burgeoning transportation needs. This argument is not only disingenuous, it's simply untrue. Virginia's current budget is 19 percent larger than the last biennium, far outpacing increases in population and inflation. In fact, the state's budget has more than doubled in the last decade. Surely the state could have diverted more of their new revenue to transportation improvements.”

The Washington Post has been banging the drums this week for higher taxes with articles not only today, but also on September 13 and September 15. There’s no doubt we need better roads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean higher taxes. Tell Arlington’s Senator Mary Margaret Whipple your opinion, and Delegates Robert Brink, Al Eisenberg, Adam Ebbin, and David Englin, too.

September 15, 2006

Another Day, Another $513,000 for New W-L High School

According to the online Arlington Sun-Gazette, “Alington School Board members on Sept. 21 will be asked to authorize an additional $513,000 to help get the Washington-Lee High School construction project back on track after a series of unexpected delays.” The Sun-Gazette adds: “Most of the funds being requested by Superintendent Robert Smith - about $495,000 worth - will go toward purchasing more than 6,000 cubic yards of filler material needed to replace remnants of old buildings buried on the existing school site in the 1970s, and for removing some of the remnants from the site.”

Arlington taxpayers deserve to know why this was never known, or at least discussed, before the bond was presented to the voters, or before the contract was awarded so that tradeoffs could be made to keep costs stable. What did the soil tests indicate? After all, the property was always under control of APS.

The request to the School Board is item E.3. on the School Board's September 21 agenda.

September 14, 2006

Growing Government: Arlington Schools Sure Know How

On July 31, we growled after reading in that morning’s Washington Times about ACAP, “a prominent Arlington nonprofit organization” that had received millions of dollars to run a Head Start program had run afoul of federal auditors. We even provided a link to the HHS IG’s report.

Today’s Washington Post reports on page 5 that the Arlington Public Schools “is seeking to take over the county's Head Start program for disadvantaged children after the nonprofit organization that had run it for many years was closed in June in response to revelations of significant accounting lapses.”

The justification? The Post has this at the bottom of the article: “Mark Johnston, Arlington's assistant superintendent for instruction, said the school system is eager to take over the program because it would enable the Head Start children to blend in with students in other preschool classes. ‘We're trying to have a consistent, coherent pre-kindergarten experience for the kids,’ Johnston said, adding, ‘The sooner we get the children into our schools, the more academically successful they are.’” So ok, it’s “for the children,” but where’s the evidence?

September 11, 2006

‘Back to the Drawing Board’ for Arlington’s North Tract?

At least it’s back to the ‘negotiating table,’ according to a story written by Scott McCaffrey that is posted at the online Sun-Gazette. According to McCaffrey’s story, “County government officials said on Sept. 8 that they would reopen negotiations with Monument Realty LLC, which in July 2005 tentatively agreed to give the county government $25 million as part of a property exchange in Crystal City. Given changes in the state of the real estate market, Monument wants changes to the agreement before a final deal is inked.”

McCaffrey explains, “The deal would increase the North Tract recreation site from 28 to 30 acres. Monument agreed to give the county government $25 million as part of the deal, which was slated to augment $50 million in bond funding already approved by voters to develop the North Tract facility.”

Last year’s County Board chairman, Jay Fisette said at the time, “This is a monumental day for Arlington and a real win-win for everyone involved,” according to this county press release. In fact, the County Manager lists the land swap as #8 among the county’s “Top 10” accomplishments of 2005.

Seems the County Poohbahs need to learn how to make their bank deposits before writing the press releases.

September 10, 2006

Seems Every Segment of Arlington County Government Costs More

Each year in Virginia, the State Auditor of Public Accounts accumulates financial information from every county, city, and town in the Commonwealth to produce the Comparative Report of Local Government Revenues and Expenditures. This report provides a “valuable analytical tool to review local government fiscal activities," and which can help "the public and General Assembly to better understand the sources and uses of public funds."

Below are just a few numbers from the State Auditor’s Fiscal Year 2005 report (opens into an Excel -- .xls – spreadsheet) comparing Arlington County’s per capita expenditures with comparable spending in Fairfax County and Prince William County.

----------/Public/% State/Health &/% State/Parks/% State
County/Safety/Average/Welfare/Average/& Rec/Average
Arlington/$659.62/200%/$640.40/241%/$244.67/329%
Fairfax/$449.52/136%/$396.73/149%/$113.19/151%
Prince William/437.19/132%/$170.71/64%/$96.30/%129

The numbers above compare the financial spending of three categories in each jurisdiction as well as showing the percentage of each jurisdiction's percentage of state average spending in each category. They do not show, for example, the level of services provided. Arlington County officials would be correct to point out there are many more high-rise buildings per capita in the county which probably requires a more expensive set of staff and fire apparatus, and thus the higher per capita spending. Nevertheless, the State Auditor’s comparative report is a helpful first step for citizens concerned with the cost of their government. Makes you wonder where the County Board has hidden their copy.

September 08, 2006

Taxes and Development Are Focus of Candidates Debate

Arlington voters interested in knowing where real estate taxes are headed got a small taste at Tuesday evening’s candidates’ debate sponsored by the Arlington County Civic Federation. The online Arlington Sun-Gazette summarizes the results of the debate between the three candidates for the Arlington County Board.

The paper’s Scott McCaffrey reports that “(incumbent Chris) Zimmerman (D) sidestepped a direct question on whether he would support raising real estate tax rates next year, a politically unpleasant prospect facing the County Board as it grapples with a flattening real estate market. Over the past five years, board members have been able to use rising home values to cut the real estate tax rate significantly, while still reaping a windfall in real estate tax revenue. Most residents have seen their tax bills double during that period; while some have complained, incumbents have not been held to account for the increase at the polls.” On the other hand, challenger Mike McMenamin (R) said , “’We are driving the middle class out of Arlington,’” largely due to increasing taxes,” according to the paper.

And McCaffrey quotes Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner saying, “In a few more years, Arlington will be completely empty of the economic and ethnic diversity that the County Board claims to value.”

We encourage ACTA members to take a look at the candidates by attending any of the candidate debates sponsored by their civic association or other service organizations.

September 07, 2006

Arlington County Has Spent $50 Million on Emergency Preparedness

According to Dave Francis in today’s DC Examiner, “Arlington County has spent almost $50 million on emergency preparedness infrastructure since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon. Of this, about $33 million came out of Arlington’s budget. Roughly $16 million came from federal grants.”

The newspaper reports “Since then, the county has spent $4 million to install new public safety radios in emergency response vehicles, $5 million on the construction of a new emergency operations center, $14 million on radios for the station, $5.5 million on technical equipment for the center, $2 million on fiber-optic cables linking sites around the county, and $1.1 million on integration of new and old systems.”

County residents know that “Arlington law enforcement, fire and emergency medical authorities were the first to respond to the Pentagon attack,” as the Examiner reports. Was the entire $50 million needed? Well it’s likely the $16 million in federal money required some matching funds on the county’s part. There was probably a need to upgrade some technology. Whether the rest was needed is a hard question to answer. Given Arlington’s location next to the nation’s capital, it’s hard to question most of the spending.

September 06, 2006

Tomorrow You Begin to Lose Some of Your Freedom of Speech

“Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s from the First Amendment. Then what is McCain-Feingold? We growled last Friday that beginning tomorrow, September 7, Americans will be forbidden to criticize members of Congress through broadcast advertising.

In today’s New York Post, Ryan Sagar updates us on current court case that attempts to remove the McCain-Feingold muzzle on free speech. What is it about the Bill of Rights that Congress and the Courts have trouble understanding?

HT: Club for Growth.

September 04, 2006

Politicians Offering the Same “Stale Solutions”

In an op-ed in Friday’s DC Examiner, Melanie Scarborough tells Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va) that he should be looking to reform management of the Metro system before asking America’s taxpayers for a bailout. Davis managed to get a $1.5 billion “bailout” bill though the U.S. House of Representatives that also requires matching money from the localities, which Metro serves.

Scarborough explains, “Both proposals are way off-track. For starters, dedicated funding is almost always a bad idea. Guaranteed revenue eliminates the need for government agencies to justify their budgets. Metro should have to compete with other entities for tax money, to make the case for each dollar it is given. Add to that the fundamental unfairness of federal dollars subsidizing local transportation. Why should taxpayers in Peoria help pay for the commute of Washington-area residents? More precisely, why should they contribute more than they already do? Many government agencies offer employee subsidies for Metro, which is money from federal taxpayers.” Her questions about Metro spending will get you even more upset.

Makes you wonder just what do the political hacks on the Metro board do. And why doesn’t the Arlington County Board’s representative ever talk about the accomplishments of the Metro board? Make Metro a lean, mean transit machine, and then explain to the taxpayers why it needs more money. Show us that it's the low-cost provider of public transportation, and maybe, just maybe, taxpayers might reach into their own pockets.

September 03, 2006

Virginia Teachers Union Pushes for Increased Pay

The Martinsville Bulletin reports the teachers’ union, the Virginia Education Association (VEA) “is conducting a media campaign this month to shore up support for its teacher-pay initiative, which seeks to raise teacher pay in school divisions across the commonwealth to at least the national average, which was $47,808 for the 2005-2006 school year. The state average was $45,347 in 2005-06.”

The motive of the VEA initiative is to get voters to get the message to their state legislators in Richmond. According to the newspaper, “But while the VEA's teacher pay initiative may hang on what delegates and state senators do in Richmond, before they will vote in favor of fully funding public education, they must first hear that message at home, said VEA President Princess Moss." For the record, Arlington’s Senator Mary Margaret Whipple patroned SB324 in the 2006 regular session. The bill, as introduced, would have set a goal of raising Virginia teacher pay to the national average. Fortunately, the Education Committee of the House of Delegates managed to substitute much of that language.

How about letting the market determine pay levels rather than politics?

September 02, 2006

The Looming Federal Government Train Wreck

In what should be required reading for every member of or candidate for Congress, Dan Mitchell and Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation write: “Given the political and media discussion of deficits and taxes, Americans might reasonably assume that deep tax cuts are causing today’s deficits and, more important, will cause huge long-term deficits. While it is widely understood that spending on retirement programs will increase as the baby boomers retire, it is also commonly believed that the Bush tax cuts mean falling revenues in the future. Nothing could be further from the truth.” (Emphasis added)

They write that federal revenues are likely to increase from their current 18.3% to 24% by 2050. The real problem, they write, is federal spending, noting “The (Congressional Budget Office) estimates that entitlement spending on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, if left unchecked, will more than double from 8 percent of GDP to over 19 percent by 2050.” Unless steps are taken soon to rein in the explosion of entitlement spending and control the rise in the tax burden, America may end up with a sluggish economy such as Europe has. And if you’re tempted to think that these are just the concerns of a conservative think tank, check out the charts produced by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the pending "budget imbalance."

The next time your favorite politician is out kissing babies, make him or her work for their living by asking them what they’re doing to prevent the looming train wreck!

September 01, 2006

Part of Our Liberty Dies Next Thursday

Andy Roth, blogging at the Club for Growth, called it the year’s best editorial. I’ll let others make their judgment, but the editorial in today’s Examiner newspaper is well-worth reading, especially the first paragraph, which reads: “Something almost without precedent in America will happen Thursday. That’s the day when McCain-Feingold — aka the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — will officially silence broadcast advertising that contains criticism of members of Congress seeking re-election in November. Before 2006, American election campaigns traditionally began in earnest after Labor Day. Unless McCain-Feingold is repealed, Labor Day will henceforth mark the point in the campaign when congressional incumbents can sit back and cruise, free of those pesky negative TV and radio spots. It is the most effective incumbent protection act possible, short of abolishing the elections themselves.”

The Examiner editorial then goes on to urge that “McCain-Feingold should not simply be repealed; it ought to be replaced with a new law that uses transparency in campaign finance rather than censorship in political expression.”

Yes, the First Amendment does read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” How McCain-Feingold became law is much too long a story to be told here, but the Examiner’s recommendation is a good start.