Will Superbond Fly?

Will Superbond Fly?

$67 M county bond could find opposition in Arlington electorate, play role in County Board race.

For the last 14 years, Jonathan Cole has lived in Arlington. And for the last 14 years, he’s voted yes to fund projects in Arlington through bond referenda.

"As far as I can remember, I’ve voted for every bond issue," Cole said.

This year could be the exception, though. Cole is upset by the inclusion on the ballot of a so-called "Superbond," a $67 million bond for "community projects," that would fund dozens of county programs, parks and neighborhood projects.

The Superbond combines funds for updating county fire stations, the county’s Neighborhood Conservation program, traffic calming projects, sidewalk construction, bus stations, and the county’s contribution to the Metro authority.

The $67 million bond may be the largest single county government bond referendum. It will share space on the ballot with a $79 million school projects bond, the single largest school bond referendum in Arlington history, plus a $12 million bond referendum, which would fund renovation of the county’s wastewater treatment plant.

Some activists fear that the sheer size of the Superbond will dissuade voters from approving the bond, leaving many neighborhood projects in the lurch.

Cole says they have reason to be afraid – the amount of money and the number of the projects could leave voters feeling like the county’s trying to cram the bond down their throats.

"It seems like it’s a done deal," he said. "Since Arlington is big on process, it seems like the only way to take part in the process is to vote against the bond. It doesn’t seem like a good precedent to set."

<b>LEWIS BROMBERG HEARS</b> echoes of Cole’s concerns from voters around Arlington. Bromberg is president of the Waverly Hills Civic Association, chair of the county’s Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee, and co-chair of the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Committee, both funded by the Superbond.

If there is enough sentiment against the bond, it could mean that Neighborhood Conservation and traffic calming projects would sit unfunded for the next two years. That would leave some Arlington neighborhoods without streetlights, without sidewalks, and could mean improvements to neighborhood playgrounds or parks would fall by the wayside.

"You never know what could happen if the voters voted against this bond," Bromberg said. "All of the things we do, conservation, traffic calming, everything would stop for two years. In two years, we would pick up where we left off."

That doesn’t mean that the need for such projects would decrease, though. Instead, it would just add to the queue of neighborhood conservation projects waiting for funding, and could end some projects altogether.

<b>IF A NEIGHBORHOOD</b> hopes to find funding for streetlights this year, if the bond doesn’t pass, they will not get the lights. Even if the current projects were proposed for the 2004 bond, residents would have to come back to the county and say that streetlights are still their most pressing need.

"If they have a problem with their roads in two years, the streetlights might never get installed," Bromberg said.

To fight for those projects, Bromberg is co-chairing the Vote Yes for the Bond Committee along with Jay Wind, chair of the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Committee and head of the Arlington Heights Civic Association.

The two are taking the next months to visit all of Arlington’s civic associations, urging them to endorse the Superbond to neighborhood voters. Wind was the first to use the name "Superbond" at the July 20 County Board meeting, as he urged the board to break the bond into smaller items.

As he talks to Arlington voters, he’s come to wish he hadn’t. "It’s too pejorative," he said. "Because of the magnitude of this bond issue, it’s going to be a lot harder to explain."

It’s already been a tough sell, both because of the price tag on the bond, and the number of projects rolled into one bond referendum. "It’s easier to promote a single bond issue to the voters," Wind said. "If for no other reason than that the flier can be shorter."

<b>THE VOTE YES</b> co-chairs are also hoping that county leaders and County Board members past and present will add their endorsement.

So far, Bromberg said, they have gotten the approval of all current Board members, and they’re hoping to get the seal of approval from the Arlington Democratic Committee.

Most of the opposition to the bond, however, will come from the other side of Arlington politics, and Bromberg said he is hoping to get some support for the Superbond from Arlington Republicans.

The size of the bond will become an issue in the County Board election, where current Board Chair Chris Zimmerman, a Democrat, will face Republican challenger Mike Clancy.

Clancy promises to make it issue in the race. But he’s not sure which way he’ll swing on the bond.

"I’m still struggling with that," he said. "Neighborhood conservation, parks and traffic calming are way underfunded. But this all or nothing approach really deprives voters of the right to vote for individual projects. The average voter might just vote ‘No’ and jeopardize critical programs."

He offered a compromise to voters, though – vote for the bond, and vote for Mike Clancy.

<b>"I DON’T THINK</b> this represents a real threat to Chris Zimmerman," Wind said.

Cole agreed. "I’m not sure that voting against Chris Zimmerman would necessarily outweigh the message of voting against the bond," he said.

Still, Bromberg said the feedback he’s hearing on the bond as a member of the Vote Yes committee worries him as a member of the Zimmerman reelection campaign. "I know I’m going to have to redouble my efforts," he said.

But Zimmerman himself was not concerned about possible resistance to the community projects bond. "It is a large bond. But bond issues are always groupings of various parts," he said, and the board has typically only offered four or five referenda, not many more than the three on this year’s ballot.

If history is any indicator, the size of the bond won’t even be an issue. "If votes were all over the place," Zimmerman said, then the board could be accused of trying to force voters to choose all or nothing.

But in recent elections, bonds have regularly pulled 75 percent of the vote or higher, Zimmerman said. In the last comparable election year, 1998, the bond referendum with the least support still drew 76.1 percent of the vote.

Bromberg said those numbers will probably hold true this year too. "I’ve spoken to or received e-mail from about 110 people, and 10-15 percent say they can’t support the bond," he said. "They would’ve supported it, but won’t because it’s bundled together. Others say they’ll support it, but they’re still very concerned."

That could play a role in future bond decisions, and in county finances. Economic analysts do examine the amount of support for bonds in setting interest rates for local governments. If the Superbond erodes support for Arlington’s bond referenda, it could mean that higher interest rates in the future.