Like a pugilist trapped in a corner of the ring, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman took a pounding from the left and the right in the first debate of the campaign season.
From the left, Green party candidate Josh Ruebner accused Zimmerman, and the four other Democrats on the board, of fomenting the exodus of low-income families from the county.
"I am tired of watching Chris Zimmerman and the other Democrats shed crocodile tears over the loss of affordable housing, shrug their shoulders and claim that there is nothing they can do," Ruebner said during the Civic Federation’s debate last Tuesday evening.
From the right, Republican challenger Mike McMenamin knocked Zimmerman for doing little to stop the rapid escalation in real estate taxes and for not ensuring the timely completion of several prominent community projects.
"The current board is becoming more and more disengaged from our neighborhoods, and the board’s one-party make-up does not … allow for a balanced, deliberative process when it comes to how our money is spent," said McMenamin, president of the Maywood Civic Association.
But like all good fighters, Zimmerman was able to get off the ropes and counter-attack. He touted his accomplishments during a decade on the board, including increasing funding for emergency responders, nurturing the county’s arts groups and making Arlington a safer community.
Zimmerman also highlighted his dedication to creating a more business-friendly environment in Arlington, while implementing smart-growth development policies.
"The local economy is stronger than ever, as is our commitment to sensible planning," said Zimmerman, who also serves on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.
Zimmerman was re-elected in 2002 with 61.3 percent of the vote, and it has been more than two decades since a Republican won a November County Board election. Yet Republican leaders believe there is enough disillusionment with the status quo to give their candidate a chance to win, if Ruebner can steal a sizable percent of votes from Zimmerman on the left.
WHEN IT COMES to county politics, Ruebner admitted he’s a bit of a "neophyte." But he’s become increasingly frustrated by the sharp drop in the amount of affordable housing in Arlington, and fears that the county is losing its prized diversity, he told the audience of more than 150 at the Virginia Hospital Center.
Between 2000 and 2005, Arlington has lost 52 percent of its affordable housing — more than 9,900 units.
To Ruebner, the only families who can now afford to live in the community are the "wealthy and super-wealthy." And he blames the County Board members, all Democrats, for helping foster this situation.
"Developers [are] working hand-in-glove with the County Board to gentrify Arlington into an exclusively upper-income community," said Ruebner, a grassroots coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.
Zimmerman agreed with Ruebner that the lack of affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges facing the community right now.
Arlington has had some success preserving affordable units and complexes, adding a total of 1,771 affordable units since 2000. This year's budget includes $17.5 million for affordable housing programs.
Last year, County Board members, developers and community activists fashioned a compromise plan requiring developers to provide affordable units, or otherwise contribute money to a housing fund, whenever the county board grants projects additional density beyond what is permitted by existing zoning rules, Zimmerman said.
"We have programs beyond what anyone else in the region is doing," Zimmerman said.
MCMENAMIN IS CENTERING his campaign on the belief that the current County Board is neglecting the views of neighborhoods and turning its back on their pleas for tax relief.
The Republican said he was spurred to run by the roadblocks he encountered from the board when his neighborhood tried to get a four-way stop sign put in. He also criticized the board for not spending more on neighborhood conservation and traffic-calming projects.
McMenamin contends that the County Board must lower 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.
The sudden rise in real estate taxes has resulted in "a real crippling effect on the middle class in this county," McMenamin said.
McMenamin also called for greater fiscal restraint, citing a budget increase of 9 percent last year, and criticized the board for raising the car tax by 40 percent last year.
"We need to bring balance to this board and move it back to the center, or we’ll just continue to write checks," said McMenamin, a member of the county’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee.
There is little the county can do to control real estate values, Zimmerman said, and the board’s hands are tied because Virginia does not allow localities to distinguish between commercial and residential rates, shifting the burden to homeowners.
The County Board has introduced targeted relief for poor and elderly homeowners, Zimmerman added.
Transportation was the other hot topic of discussion during the debate. Zimmerman highlighted his work in introducing the ART bus system, making Arlington a more walkable community and pushing for a streetcar system along Columbia Pike.
"Columbia Pike is now on the move," he stated.
Yet Ruebner vehemently disagreed with Zimmerman’s plan for updating the Pike’s transportation system, calling the streetcars a "140 million boondoggle" because of a lack of secure funding.
Ruebner said there was nothing wrong with the buses that currently run up and down the Pike, and that the board was using the streetcars as a means to gentrify "the last remaining place in the county" where low-income families can afford to live.