All Mike McMenamin wanted from the county was a four-way stop sign.
The president of the Maywood Civic Assocation was fed up with cars constantly speeding along a side street near his house, using it as a shortcut to bustling Lee Highway. The children in the neighborhood play on the street most evenings, and many parents feared for their safety.
The residents, led by McMenamin, pleaded with the County Board to help them get the four-way stop sign — but to no avail. Three years after the request was first made during the board’s “walking town meeting” of Maywood, there is still nothing to slow down cars on the busy street.
The reaction, or lack thereof, was emblematic of what McMenamin views is a growing disconnect between the priorities of the all-Democratic County Board and the needs of residents.
“I don’t think they are very responsive anymore to our concerns,” McMenamin said over a plate of eggs and home fries last week.
The skirmish surrounding the stop-sign served as a “tipping point” for McMenamin. In his mind, in recent years, the County Board has devoted most of its attention to improving the Metro corridors at the expense of the other districts in Arlington.
What was needed on the board was someone who would represent the interests of the residential neighborhoods. This fall McMenamin, the Republican Party nominee for County Board, is hoping to convince Arlington voters that he is that individual.
“I started this campaign as a guy basically upset about projects not getting completed, neighborhoods not being listened to and taxes being too high,” McMenamin said, pounding home the central planks of his campaign.
Though McMenamin is president of the Maywood Civic Association and a member of the county’s fiscal affairs advisory committee, he is a relative newcomer to the Arlington political scene.
REPUBLICAN LEADERS ADMIT that McMenamin faces an uphill climb to unseat three-term incumbent Chris Zimmerman — who has the advantages of name recognition, greater experience and the financial resources of the county’s Democratic organization. But Republicans believe that many county residents are more open this year to voting for the GOP nominee and breaking the Democrats’ monopoly of the board.
“The time for change has come,” Geoff Schwartzman, McMenamin’s campaign manager said. “The County Board needs new blood.”
In a county where 74 percent of voters punched their ballots for Democrat Tim Kaine in last year’s gubernatorial race, having one’s name on the Republican sample ballot is a disadvantage; no Republican has won a regular County Board election in more than two decades.
Yet McMenamin’s advisors say he will be more successful than his predecessors because of his relentless focus on giving neighborhood leaders a greater voice in the county, and a general frustration with higher real estate and car taxes.
“He comes at it from the perspective of a civic association president who sees the system is broken,” Schwartzman said. “He is a genuine, honest guy who will listen to what residents want.”
Democratic leaders agree that there has been rising anger in the county over higher taxes this year, but argue that the County Board has little leeway since the state does not let it set different tax rates for commercial and residential properties.
“I do think there is grumbling [on taxes], and some of it is legitimate,” said Peter Rousselot, chair of the Arlington Democratic Party. “But Chris [Zimmerman] has been able to point out that there are constraints on what local governments can do. People… should turn their discontent on Richmond.”
While some residents may agree with McMenamin that taxes are too high, they will be unwilling in the current political environment to vote for a Republican candidate who is out of touch with their values on other issues, Rousselot added.
One of the centerpieces of McMenamin’s campaign is the need for the county to exercise greater fiscal restraint and to lighten the tax burden on homeowners.
The average home assessment shot up by 19 percent last year, and has more than tripled over the past six years for many families. This is driving the middle class out of Arlington to surrounding jurisdictions, McMenamin said.
McMenaim pledges not to raise real estate taxes if elected, and to ensure the county “lives within its means.”
He has sharply criticized the board for increasing the car tax by 40 percent last year. “There was no reason to raise the car tax given how much money the county was taking in revenue,” he added.
The county budget — which grew by 9 percent last year, the highest number in more than a decade— needs greater oversight, McMenamin said. “We have to look at our priorities, and decide what can stay and what can be taken out.”
McMenamin declined to vocalize what county programs or services he would like to roll back if elected. But he added that greater management of the School Board budget is needed.
While he does not believe the County Board should tell the School Board how to spend its money — which it receives from the county as part of a revenue-sharing agreement — he contends that the two entities must work together more closely on determining priorities. There should also be a larger conversation on how the school system spends any surplus funding, McMenamin added.
On the campaign trail McMenamin has attacked Zimmerman for not ensuring the timely completion of several prominent community projects, such as Cherrydale Fire Station and the Westover Library. Too often the board is “rubber-stamping” development projects without providing the necessary oversight to make certain they are done to satisfaction, he said.
MCMENAMIN IS BACKING a recent resolution passed by the Civic Federation calling on the county to only bring bond projects before voters once designs are finalized and budgets established. “We should only bond projects when the schematics are done, it’s fully designed and the project is ready to go,” he said.
McMenamin has been especially vocal in his concerns over the North Tract athletic and aquatic facility, which ran into some trouble last month when a developer pulled out of a land swap deal. McMenamin said he is not against the project, but believes its $135 million price tag is too lofty a sum for the county to pay right now.
He suggests the county build the soccer fields but hold off on the aquatic complex until the fiscal environment improves.
“I’d love to have [the swimming pools], but we should come back and do it when we understand how much it will cost and when we have the money,” he added.
Arlington voters have already approved $50 million in bonds to fund the project, and McMenamin said that a portion of that money needs to be redirected from North Tract to neighborhood conservation and traffic calming programs.
This fiscal year $800,000 has been allotted to the neighborhood conservation program, which is far below what is needed to pay for crucial sidewalk and road work, McMenamin said.
“Everyone is upset that neighborhood conservation funds have been taken away,” he added. Residents “work so hard to get these projects and they want them done. But it’s not going to happen this year.”
If elected he would ensure the program gets significantly more funding each year, and would also work to simplify the process for getting a project approved.
Finally, McMenamin has been outspoken in his desire to increase the pay of police officers and fire fighters so that they do not leave Arlington. “We train a lot of officers but because the pay isn’t good they go to work for our neighbors,” he said.