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Civ Fed Asks for Better Designs on Bonded Projects

Resolution also calls on county and school boards to consider bringing bonds to voters in odd-numbered years.

Eight years ago Arlington voters overwhelmingly approved a $4 million bond for the construction of a new Westover Library.

A joint project between the school system and county was initiated in 2001, but the two sides soon ended the collaboration due to divergent funding schedules and priorities.

Next month residents will be asked to accept an additional $8 million bond for the library project, which is still in its infancy nearly a decade after it was originally conceived.

"Eight years later the old library building is still standing there," said Beth Wolffe, head of the Civic Federation’s Schools Committee.

To ensure that a similar saga does not occur again in the future, the Civic Federation — an umbrella organization of neighborhood associations — passed a resolution last week calling on the school and county boards to only place construction projects on bond referenda if design plans are "reasonably complete" and cost estimates finalized.

"We are concerned that we are being asked to vote for things where there are no solid plans," Wolffe said during the group’s Oct. 3 meeting.

IN RECENT YEARS a series of prominent projects have been rushed into bonds before proper cost estimates were completed, Civic Federation officials said, citing the examples of the Cherrydale Fire Station and Washington-Lee High School. In some cases the nature of projects has changed drastically after the bonds were passed.

As revenue growth slows in the coming years due to the cooling of the housing market, it is imperative that the county and school system be more prudent about bonding projects before they are fully fleshed-out, said Burt Bostwick, chair of the Civic Federation’s Revenues Committee.

"What we’re asking here is for [the county and schools] to give themselves a little flexibility and do it right," he added. Both entities "need to get a little better idea what the costs of projects are going to be" before they place them on bonds.

County Manager Ron Carlee said he agrees with the spirit of the resolution, and that the county is trying to do more initial design work on a project before including it in a bond.

"We’re working toward getting more planning done up front," added Barbara Donnellan, an assistant county manager.

The rapid escalation in construction expenses over the past several years is the main reason why some prominent projects have cost more than originally anticipated, county officials added. Construction costs region-wide have increased by 15 percent over the past two years, and risen by 24 percent since the beginning of 2003.

County officials said they understand residents get frustrated when projects take years longer than originally anticipated, but maintained that even the most thought-out plans are sometimes adjusted if a better idea comes along.

"If it takes an extra one, two or three years to get right a building with a 50-year life, I think that’s worth it," Carlee said.

THE CIVIC FEDERATION resolution also urged the county and school boards to consider floating bonds in odd-numbered years if plans and budgets are ready, so as not to delay projects.

Following the defeat of several bonds in 1975 and 1979, Arlington officials decided to only place bonds on the ballot in even-numbered years, when voter turnout is highest. This also helped bolster the legitimacy of the bond in the eyes of rating agencies, which monitor pass rates and turnout.

Carlee said that while the county has not discussed floating bonds in odd years, he "would consider" doing so if there was "a good reason."

Other officials reacted negatively to the Civic Federation’s suggestion. School Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey said it would be harder to get school bonds passed in odd-numbered years when voter turnout was lower. She added that the school system "is not interested in running a political campaign every year" to secure the support of the community.

The issue first surfaced this past spring when the School Board divided over whether to include $24 million in construction funding for Yorktown High School on the 2006 bond or wait until the 2008 election.

School Board member Dave Foster, who cast the deciding vote to put the Yorktown money in this fall’s bond, said he wished he had the option of delaying for one year.

"We could have taken the design further if that had been an option" and still not had to delay the start of construction, he said.

If the Civic Federation gets its way, Foster may have such a choice next time around.