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Candidates Clash Over Spending Priorities During Debate

Incumbent Zimmerman defends record against attacks from Republican and Green Party challengers.

Every time there is a heavy downpour, 18th Street floods, making it difficult for children to catch the school bus and deluging adjacent yards in the Cherrydale neighborhood.

Maureen Ross and many of her fellow Cherrydale residents spent countless hours last year crafting a plan for the county to build sidewalks and gutters on the street to mitigate the problem. But there was only enough funding to complete Neighborhood Conservation projects already in the pipeline, and the Cherrydale initiative was put on hold.

Ross said she and her neighbors have become frustrated with how the county allocates its money, questioning why officials are pursuing a $135 million aquatic and athletic facility near Crystal City if they don't have enough funds for needed sidewalks.

"People are very discouraged that they worked so hard on all these projects and then most of the time it is a waste," said Ross, president of the Cherrydale Civic Association.

Ross's concerns took center stage last week at a debate between the three candidates for County Board. As the race enters its final week, the Republican and Green party contenders hoping to knock off three-term incumbent Democrat Chris Zimmerman have focused their attacks on what they perceive as the current board's lack of attentiveness to the most pressing issues facing residents.

"This is emblematic of the lip service that is paid to grassroots participation in Arlington," said Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner, referring to Ross' disappointment with the Neighborhood Conservation program.

Both Ruebner and Republican candidate Mike McMenamin admitted that Zimmerman was the presumptive favorite at the beginning of the campaign season; he was re-elected with 61.3 percent of the vote in 2002.

But they say that a combination of higher taxes and a series of recent actions by the County Board has fueled a level of concern with one-party rule in the county. If Ruebner can siphon off a significant number of votes from the left, Republican leaders believe they have their best chance in years to break the Democrats' hold on the County Board.

"There’s a lot more opportunity for a Republican this year to challenge the status quo because of the disillusionment,” said Arlington Republican Party Committee Chair Jeff Miller earlier this fall. “A lot of the civic activists are frustrated with the way county government is going.”

Democratic leaders agree that some voters — particularly the vocal minority who attend debates — are upset by higher taxes, but retort that, on the whole, residents are pleased with Zimmerman's leadership during his decade tenure on the board.

"Voters are going to look around at Arlington and the quality of life they have here... and realize they are basically pretty happy," said Peter Rousselot, chair of the Arlington Democratic Committee. "And that is why Chris will win an overwhelming victory."

DURING THE OCT. 25 debate in Cherrydale's fire station, Zimmerman touted his record of accomplishment, highlighting the increase in public safety personnel and the amount of green space that has been added to the county since he joined the board.

Zimmerman said that he spearheaded the expansion of the Neighborhood Conservation program — stating that it is the initiative he is most associated with — which has completed 218 projects during the past decade.

"Frankly, I had a lot to do with that, and I'm proud of that," he said.

Additionally, Zimmerman said he has been instrumental in fashioning the county's land-use policies, which have turned Arlington into a model community for walkable streets and smart-growth.

Ruebner retorted that Zimmerman's land use policies have led to a significant loss of affordable housing in Arlington, driving many low-income families out of the county. Between 2000 and 2005, Arlington lost 52 percent of its affordable housing — nearly 10,000 units.

The centerpiece of Ruebner's campaign has been that runaway development is causing Arlington to lose its cultural and economic diversity.

"Over-development is leading to a homogenized community and turning Arlington into an exclusively upper-income community," said Ruebner, a grassroots coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

During the debate Ruebner, a newcomer to the Arlington political scene, showed that he is still struggling to learn the job responsibilities that come with being a board member.

"Nothing confuses me more than the zoning and re-zoning process," he said.

Ruebner again excoriated Zimmerman for his vision to transform the Columbia Pike corridor, where Ruebner lives. The lack of an affordable housing requirement for new projects will lead to the "gentrification" of the Pike, Ruebner said.

MCMENAMIN HAS BUILT his campaign around the belief that the current board is "disengaged" from the needs of residential communities, citing the cuts in the Neighborhood Conservation program. He has questioned the board's spending priorities, calling for the board to scale back the scope of the North Tract athletic complex.

"Arlington is about residential communities, and this board just isn't listening to us," said McMenamin, president of the Maywood Civic Association and member of the county's Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, to a loud chorus of applause from the audience.

Both McMenamin and Ruebner honed in on a series of prominent projects that have not been completed in a timely manner, including the Cherrydale Fire Station. Why, they both asked Zimmerman, has a new Westover Library not been completed when voters approved funding in a bond eight years ago?

"One party rule in the county helps explain why we can't get fire stations and libraries built, and is why we need a change in direction," Ruebner said.

As he has in most debates, McMenamin hammered Zimmerman — and the other four board members — for a lack of fiscal restraint and for not doing more to curb the escalation in real estate taxes. Raising the car tax last year was a big hit to middle class families and discourages individuals from buying newer, more expensive fuel-efficient vehicles, he added.

A "fiscal crisis is coming" because the board has been too reckless with its spending, McMenamin said.

"The county was making money faster than ever imagined, but it had no rainy day fund," McMenamin said. "Instead of tucking away the surplus, they decided to spend it all."

Zimmerman countered that no fiscal crisis was looming over the horizon, thanks to flatlining residential and increasing commercial real estate rates. "It will be easier to budget when we have more stability."

Zimmerman pointed out that most of the increase in the budget in recent years has gone to provide for education. He also noted that McMenamin has put forward no concrete ideas about what programs he would reduce or services he would roll back.

"It's easy to talk about cutting taxes and everyone wants to do it," he said. "But significant tax cuts call for a significant spending cut for services."