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Votes

Issues To Watch In Arlington

Housing, schools and politics are among the major issues of the day in Arlington.

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Arlington Democratic Party head Peter Rousselot talks with Governor Tim Kaine. Local Democrats are trying to garner a high turnout in this November’s election.

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The Arlington County Civic Federation is in a time of flux after the death of its newly-installed president, Frances Finta.

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Relations between School Board Chairman Ed Fendley, shown here, and Board Member Frank Wilson have been strained in recent months.

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Foreclosed homes in Arlington have tended to cluster in these three neighborhoods, according to a recent report.

<b>Boundaries</b>

<p><b>Proposals to redraw the boundaries of Arlington’s public elementary schools have been on the front of many parents’ minds since late last year.

<p>That was when the Elementary Capacity and Crowding Committee, a group established by the School Board to examine overcrowding in North Arlington elementary schools, presented their findings. The committee called for the freezing of transfers to North Arlington schools and making several South Arlington schools open to students from across the county.

<p>Then, Superintendent Robert Smith weighed in on the issue. He recommended a plan that would have radically altered school boundaries and would have changed the home schools for more than 600 students.

<p>Some parents were outraged by Smith’s plan and showed up to public meeting en masse to criticize it. “The Superintendent’s proposal is a terrible proposal,” School Board Chairman Ed Fendley said, agreeing with the scores of parents who came out against it.

<p>Ultimately, the School Board adopted a more modest plan to address elementary school overcrowding. They opted to move less than 60 students out of Tuckahoe Elementary School and change the locations of several pre-school programs.

<p>But many have said that these measures do not adequately address the over-enrollment problem in North Arlington and the Board is scheduled to revisit this issue later this year. However, now that hundreds of parents are passionately involved in this process, it is unlikely that any kind of consensus can be reached.

<p>“This whole process has spiraled into an emotional and political morass,” Tuckahoe parent Ronald Molteni said.

<p><b>School Board Disharmony</b>

<p>At the most recent meeting of the Arlington School Board, Frank Wilson swiveled in his chair and leaned into his microphone.

<p>“I know you’re probably going to say ‘Don’t go there, Frank,’ but I’m going there,” he said as he stared at his colleague, Board Chairman Ed Fendley, across the dais.

<p>Wilson, a 24-year veteran of the School Board who will be stepping down at the end of this year, proceeded to criticize Fendley for unwillingness to compromise on the issue at hand. “It ain’t about me or you,” Wilson said, as Fendley nervously shifted in his chair. “It’s about what we can do to accommodate the county and these kids and these citizens.”

<p>This sort of tense exchange has become commonplace at School Board meetings in recent months. As the Board has discussed the most pressing issues facing Arlington Public Schools, such as elementary school boundaries, capital projects and minority outreach, Wilson and Fendley have been at odds more often than not.

<p>The clash between these two local politicians has spread to the rest of the School Board. The two newer Board Members, Abby Raphael and Sally Baird, have allied themselves with Fendley while veteran Board Member Libby Garvey has more often sided with Wilson.

<p>“I’ve never seen the Board fight so much,” said longtime school activist Jim Rock.

<p>The discord between Wilson and Fendley was played out this spring in the Arlington Democratic Party’s School Board Endorsement Caucus. Six candidates were running to be endorsed for a seat on the Board and Wilson and Fendley backed separate candidates. In the end, neither of their chosen candidates won.

<p>Wilson and Garvey have more than three decades of School Board experience between them whereas Fendley, Baird and Raphael are relatively recent arrivals.

<p>In an Arlington Connection interview conducted earlier this year, Wilson slammed Fendley, saying that he won his seat on the Board because of his involvement in the Democratic Party, not his experience in the schools.

<p>Rock, who was himself a candidate for School Board three years ago, said that it is becoming a real problem.

<p>“The factions on the board are disconcerting,” he said. “Taxpayers don’t want board members to agree on every issue, but civility needs to be maintained.”

<p><b>Budget & Taxes</b>

<p>This past spring, Arlington’s real estate tax rate was increased for the first time in over a decade.

<p>In the past, as home values in the county soared, the tax rate was adjusted steadily downward to lessen the impact on local homeowners. But now, as the national and regional economy continues to sour and County revenues plateau, it appears as though that trend has ended.

<p>This year’s $1.18 billion Arlington County budget reflected the more austere times. In addition to the tax rate increase, it also featured cuts in programs and no major new initiatives.

<p>“We can talk about all the grand ideas we want,” County Board Chairman Walter Tejada (D) said, “But if we’re not careful with our funds, we won’t be able to do those things.”

<p>Next year’s County budget could be even more constrained as inflation drives costs up and real estate assessments, which are the main source of County revenue, continue to trend downward.

<p>Along with the increase in the real estate tax rate of three cents per $100 of assessed value, the Board also approved an additional 12.5-cent increase on commercial real estate earlier this year. The funds raised by this tax increase will be allocated for local transportation projects.

<p>County Board Member Barbara Favola (D) was the lone Board Member to vote against this additional tax increase on commercial real estate. She said that the County should not place too large of a burden on taxpayers when trying to balance its budget.

<p>“At what point do we reach our taxing capacity?” she asked. “I don’t know, but I have to believe we are close.”

<p><b>Election</b>

<p>When Governor Tim Kaine (D) came to Arlington earlier this month, he praised local Democrats for thinking outside of their county when it comes to politics.

<p>“You couldn’t elect any more Democrats,” he said. “But … you weren’t content to have a Democrat in your own back yard. You wanted to make sure there were more.”

<p>As one of the most Democratic-leaning jurisdictions in the county, Arlington Democrats are looking to help elect candidates in other areas of the state and country.

<p>The local Democratic Party has challenged itself to turnout 80 percent of the registered voters in Arlington this November and to have 80 percent of those voters choose former governor Mark Warner for Senate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president.

<p>In recent presidential election years, turnout in Arlington county has hovered around 70 percent.

<p>In the past, high turnout in Arlington has made a difference. In the 2006 Senate race between Democrat Jim Webb and Republican George Allen, a large number of votes from this area helped push Webb to a razor-thin upset victory over the incumbent Allen.

<p>This year, Arlington Democrats are hoping that their turnout efforts can not only win Virginia’s other Senate seat for the Democrats, but that they can also help give Virginia’s 13 electoral votes to Obama.

<p><b>Columbia Pike Streetcar</b>

<p>Plans for a streetcar that would run down Columbia Pike from the Pentagon to Fairfax County hit a snag this year when millions of dollars in state funding for the project was nullified by the Virginia Supreme Court.

<p>The streetcar project was to be funded in part by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, or NVTA, a group that had the power to levy taxes for transportation projects. However, in February of this year, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the NVTA had no legal taxing authority.

<p>This invalidated $300 million in funds that would have gone to a variety of Northern Virginia transportation projects, one of which was the Columbia Pike streetcar.

<p>“We’ve got some problems in terms of funding,” Arlington County transit bureau chief Steve Del Giudice said. “We’re hoping that the Legislature does something to resolve the… funding that was struck down by the court.”

<p>Under the nullified funding plan, the streetcar was to be up and running by 2014. However, that date is in flux now as local officials search for new means of funding the project, which local government and business officials say will revitalize the Columbia Pike commercial strip.

<p>“Revitalization and transit go very much together,” said Lander Allin, president of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, a group that advocates for the area’s businesses. “Developers like streetcars. They like the permanence of streetcars.”

<p><b>Pentagon Memorial</b>

<p>On Sept. 11 of this year, the Pentagon Memorial will be dedicated in Arlington.

The memorial, which is located at the southwest corner of the Pentagon, is a tribute to the 184 people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon.

<p>A group called the Pentagon Memorial Fund, which is headed by Jim Laychak, created the memorial with private funds. Laychak is a consultant who lost his brother David in the attacks and has raised more than $19 million for the project since 2003.

<p>“We have come a long way in a very short amount of time,” he said. “We still have a ways to go, but I’m confidence we’ll get there.”

<p>The memorial features 184 granite benches, one for each victim. The benches are arranged by the age of the victim, from ages 71 to three. Underneath each bench is a pool of illuminated water that is meant to represent calm and reflection.

<p>“It’s kind of soothing, like waves,” said Alexis Fisher, whose father-in-law, Gerald, died in the attacks.

<p><b>Life After Finta</b>

<p>Frances Finta was one of the most active, organized and vital members of the Arlington County Civic Federation before she died late last month at the age of 81.

<p>She had officiated over meetings, kept records and volunteered her time for the group, which is a coalition of neighborhood organizations that advises the County Board on civic affairs.

<p>“She was our core,” longtime local activist Jim Pebley said. “You knew that she made all the trains run on time, wound all the clocks, sent out all the newsletters, kept meetings on track and was the soul of the Civic Federation.”

<p>Only weeks prior to her death, she had been elected as the Civic Federation president. Now the group’s Vice President Stan Karson has stepped in temporarily to fill the leadership duties.

<p>But it remains to be seen whether the Civic Federation will remain a vital voice in Arlington without Finta’s massive institutional knowledge.

<p>“You never conceived how we could get along without her,” Pebley said. “She was – is – too vital to us all to contemplate.”

<p><b>Referenda</b>

<p>Candidates’ names won’t be the only things on this November’s ballots. Arlington voters will be asked to consider two proposals that could have far-reaching effects on the future of the county.

<p>One item that will be on the ballot this year would, if passed, establish a County housing authority that could purchase and maintain below-market-rate housing. Proponents of this referendum have said that establishing this authority will make it easier to create badly-needed affordable housing in the County.

<p>This referendum, which was placed on the ballot by the local branch of the Green Party, has received very little attention thus far. But, if approved, it could radically change the way affordable housing is created in Arlington.

<p>Arlington voters will also be asked to approve a package of bonds that would go to fund capital projects in the county. Details of this year’s bond package are still unclear as the County Board approved the final version earlier this week after this story’s deadline.

<p>But the package will almost certainly contain funding for the rebuilding of Yorktown High School and possibly for the rebuilding of Wakefield High School, two high-profile projects that have garnered a great deal of community interest.

<p><b>Foreclosures</b>

<p>Arlington has been spared much of the pain that has been felt by other jurisdictions in the foreclosure crisis.

<p>A report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments stated that from March 2007 to February 2008, there were 167 foreclosed homes in Arlington. However, the report also stated that, in Arlington, 22 percent of those foreclosed homes were located in three small neighborhoods: Columbia Forest, Claremont and Nauck.

<p>These three areas, which are situated south of Columbia Pike and west of Glebe Road, have borne the brunt of Arlington’s foreclosures in recent months as well.

<p>“Foreclosure activity is becoming increasingly concentrated,” the report states, “which indicates that … there may be more activity there in months to come.”