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Does Arlington Need a 'Taj Mahal' Aquatic Center?

The editorial in this week’s Arlington Sun Gazette opined about the four bonds referenda that will be on the ballot Tuesday, November 6, saying they “are decidedly not equally worthy of passage.” The newspaper endorsed the schools, Metro and transportation, and community infrastructure bond referenda. However, they did not support the local parks and recreation bond, saying:

“This is the bond where voters should say “enough is enough” with the self-aggrandizement of county officials, as the bulk of this bond is to pay for a Taj Mahal aquatics/fitness center at North Tract that most Arlingtonians are unlikely to ever use. County officials have not laid out how they plan to get the extra $25 million or so that is needed for the aquatics center off the ground, and, if given the green-light from voters for this project, already are planning for an indoor athletic field on the site that could cost another $80 million.

“Voters should turn this bond down and not fear the repercussions, as county poobahs have the dollars in reserve to fund the other, much more needed parkland components that are within the bond package.”

Meanwhile, the Arlington County Civic Federation, which tends to track the overall liberal bent of Arlington County came close to turning down the parks and recreation bond (26 in favor, 22 against, and 3 abstentions), but ended up endorsing all four bonds. The next closest vote was the schools bond (38-6-6) with the community infrastructure (42-2-4) and Metro/transportation (45-2-4) bonds receiving almost unanimous approval.

The Sun Gazette’s Scott McCaffrey has a comprehensive report of the Civic Federation bond debate posted online. Here’s a portion:

“Why do we need a $79 million swimming pool?” asked delegate Burton Bostwick.

< . . . >

“Others asked why the three indoor government-operated pools – at Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield high schools – weren’t enough.

< . . . >

“Delegate Pat Spann wanted to know why, if the Fairfax County Park Authority is able to recoup 100 percent of the cost of operating its pools, Arlington only expects to be able to cover 80 to 90 percent of its costs.

“If there’s such a great demand, why can’t we recover 100 percent?” Spann asked.”

You can read the entire bond referenda report (requires Adobe) prepared for the Civic Federation’s monthly meeting by it’s Revenues & Expenditures Committee and it’s chairman, Wayne Kubicki. The report includes a comprehensive review of the background and all four bond referenda. The R&E committee recommended approval of three bonds, but opposed the local parks and recreation bond. The following is the committee’s justification for opposing the bond:

“County revenues are facing considerable uncertainties on the immediate horizon due to BRAC federal office relocations, possible federal sequestration and an overall restructuring of the federal budget.  Two recent articles in The Sun Gazette on August 13 and August 16 (copies of which are attached at the end of this report) highlighted increasing office vacancy rates and the possible ripple effect on Arlington homeowners.

“Coupled with certain near-term cost increases delineated in the CIP for such projects as the Arlington Mill Community Center (operating subsidy of $3.3M/year), the Metro Silver line ($800K/year), the DHS consolidation ($2.343M/year), the year round homeless shelter/additional office space project ($631K/year), the operating subsidies for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars ($7.6M/year), and new costs for the ConnectArlington fiber optic project ($600K/year), along with additional cost pressures from Arlington Public Schools due to increased enrollments and possible increases in pension fund contributions due to shifting accounting rules, R&E sees the Long Bridge aquatics center as a luxury the County cannot afford. R&E accordingly recommends that Federation delegates vote to oppose the Parks/Recreation bond.”

With rumors the 2013 real estate assessments are likely to be virtually flat, suggesting a significant increase in the real estate tax rate, it seems that voting in favor of the local parks and recreation bond is a high risk proposition. There may only be a technical risk to the county’s highly vaunted AAA bond rating, but it seems reckless to even risk losing it.

If you want to learn more, next Wednesday's monthly meeting of the Committee of 100 will include an extended discussion of whether Arlington voters should approve the bond that includes the Long Bridge Aquatics Center.

Other references: In addition to the references available in the R&E committee report, readers can browse the Capital Improvement Program webpages of Arlington County's department of management & finance.

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