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Taxpayer Subsidies for Aquatics Center for how Long?

In an online story today, the Arlington Sun Gazette's Scott McCaffrey reports, "With the design of the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness facility approved and the timetable for construction starting to tick, Arlington officials are back to a basic, yet still unanswered, question:

"How much will taxpayers be asked to subsidize operation of the facility once it opens?"

McCaffrey explains:

"The matter took up a relatively little amount of the time spent by County Board members on Nov. 28, as they approved the design and contractor for the $54.7 million Crystal City project. But it is one that will hang over County Board members, who ultimately will have to balance cost to aquatics-center users against cost to the broader community.

"The best guess from county staff assumes a first-year operating cost of $4.25 million and revenue of $3.19 million, leaving a gap of just over $1 million.

"But that projection comes with this caveat, from staffer Erik Beach in a memo to County Board members: There may be some lean times before the facility hits its financial stride.

“A ramp-up period is possible for the first few years,” said Beach, who has spent much of his Arlington government career involved in the Long Bridge Park project.

"It was concerns over operating costs that led County Board member John Vihstadt to cast the lone vote against moving forward with the long-stalled aquatics-center facility.

“It is simply not fiscally prudent to ask Arlington’s taxpayers to take on this new and costly capital project,” Vihstadt, the board’s lone independent, said. “The county has more important needs and priorities.”

But here's how McCaffrey described the views of the four Board members who voted to move forward with construction of the aquatics & fitness center:

"County Board member Christian Dorsey said the revised proposal was far superior to past incarnations, which had pegged annual operating shortfalls at between $1.9 million and $3.8 million.

“We’ve gone a long way to try to solve that problem,” Dorsey said.

"But the projected gap is still on the high side of what had been anticipated when County Manager Mark Schwartz resuscitated the dormant project last year.

"(The operating subsidy does not include the cost of paying off the construction cost. Using a rough-and-tumble estimate with an interest rate of 3.65 percent and a 20-year term for the loan, the debt-service cost would average somewhere around $3 million per year for the aquatics-center portion of the project.)

"Wayne Kubicki, a veteran civic activist who has watched the aquatics-center project evolve from the beginning, was left shaking his head.

“I’m amazed that four board members still voted to proceed with the new plan,” he told the Sun Gazette, voicing concerns that the taxpayer subsidy – counting debt service – could reach $5 million annually in the facility’s early years.

“With the increasing budget demands for Metro and the schools, a new $5 million a year will only mean increased tax rates, with assessment growth looking to remain relatively weak,” he said." (emphasis added)

McCaffrey closed out his reporting by discussing how "parks-and-recreation chief Jane Rudolph . . . responded to concerns the facility could end up being used by residents of outside jurisdictions more than those who are paying for it." He specifically pointed out:

“We really see this as a facility that will serve Arlingtonians,” said Rudolph, who added the facility would have “appropriate revenue” through memberships and ancillary fees.

"What constitutes “appropriate”? “We’re not quite at the point yet” of recommending a cost structure, said Peter Lusky, who oversees recreation facilities for the parks and recreation department.

"Dorsey, who is often vocal about fiscal restraint in his remarks from the dais, said he believed the cost to facility users should not be so high that it leaves many local residents on the outside looking in.

“This is not a facility [only] for people of a certain amount of economic means,” Dorsey said. “I hope we don’t respond with a knee-jerk reaction to just jack up the fees.”

He also noted that voters approved a park bond issue in 2004 by a 76-percent majority that "would cover the entire cost of the Long Bridge Park project," but due to 'mission creep' "county leaders in 2012 had to seek additional funding through another park bond." However, he added:

"Voters in 2012 gave the proposal the green light, but the margin (63-percent support) was almost 20 percentage points lower than several other bond packages on the ballot. That result was a foreshadowing of the voter revolution two years later that propelled Vihstadt to the County Board and, indirectly, led to the scuttling of two other major projects: the Columbia Pike streetcar and the Artisphere art center."

In growling about the approval of the aquatics center's design yesterday, we encouraged taxpayers to take some time to read the fiscal impact statement that appeared in the Manager's Report to the County Board since the Manager admits to the likelihood of several, if not many years, of taxpayer subsidies.

Growls readers concerned about the fiscal soundness of the Long Bridge Park Aquatics & Fitness Center are encouraged to engage the Arlington County Board. Take a couple of minutes to make your views known to the Arlington County Board. Remember, construction doesn't start until next summer. Just click-on the link below:

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

And tell them ACTA sent you. And thanks again to John Vihstadt for being seemingly the only fiscal conservative member of the Arlington County Board.

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