Paying for World Class in Arlington

Paying for World Class in Arlington

Budget discussions target county spending.

“It’s that ‘world-class’ attitude. If I never hear that phrase again, it’s too soon.” — Barbara Taylor, resident

There’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot during County Board discussions about new projects: World Class. A new recreation center is going to be “world class.” A stretch of sidewalk might be renovated with a new “world class” bus stop. Typically it’s an innocuous descriptor of a project, but citizens at the county’s Budget Roundtable on Oct. 13 said over the years it’s become a mindset that’s poisoned the budget.

The budget roundtables ask Arlington citizens where they believe the county should step up its services and, more importantly in a time where the budget is under mounting pressures from schools and the Metro system, where the county should look to make cuts.

Barbara Taylor, a local resident, said that she frequently looks across the Potomac to all of the arts and museums across D.C. and wonders why there’s a push for Arlington to have its own art centers.

“I look at what we’re spending money on and I just don’t understand it,” said Taylor. “As a taxpayer, I love Arlington, but I’m increasingly concerned about spending more and more to be world-class.”

Taylor and other residents also said this mentality can be seen in spending in Arlington’s public schools. Last year, Arlington spent an average $18,616 per student, nearly double the national average of $10,700. Arlington outranks all of its neighbors in spending, with Alexandria spending an average $17,008 and Fairfax County spending $14,432 per student.

Michelle Winters, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, said the school populations mostly come from large families in single family homes. Winters suggested one solution to help cover school costs could be to tax the sale of single family homes. But some cuts, most citizens said, will need to happen on the school side.

“We get these super euro designed schools with custom furniture and it drives me insane that we’re spending so much,” said Winters. “We have these super overdone dog parks. Just have some mud. Dogs love mud. It doesn’t have to be gold-plated world class standard.”

“It’s that ‘world-class’ attitude,” said Taylor. “If I never hear that phrase again, it’s too soon.”

Nora Palmatier from the Urban Forestry Commission said she’s believed the county and school should approach projects the way any resident might approach making renovations to their kitchen: lay out their budget and see how much improvements they can make with the money on hand instead of setting the lofty goals first and scrounging up the funding to meet it.

“When I see our school designs, it seems like we’re being driven by architects rather than common sense,” said Julie Lee, a local resident. “We need to be sensible and realistic. We need to focus more on where we can put that funding into the actual classrooms.”

Some of the citizens said they aren’t opposed to paying more taxes or fees, but only if the county can show that it can spend that money wisely.

“I don’t want to hear about additional fees on anything until we can figure out where this spending is coming from,” said Taylor. “I’m willing to spend more on taxes if it’s really necessary … but the county seems to think we’re bottomless pits for tax dollars and we’re not.”

Edie Wilson, past president of the Shirlington Civic Association, said that in her discussions with local merchants there’s been a feeling that any increase in taxes or fees on the local business community would need to come with a long overdue rehaul of the county’s inspection process.

“The pace of improvement from the county is just not acceptable,” said Wilson. “[Business owners] were promised a one-stop shop.”

Wilson also encouraged Arlington to review the structure for how the fee system charges businesses. Currently an inspection for a local small business costs the same as it would for a big box retail store. Others spoke up in agreement and shared their stories of poor service from Arlington’s Inspection Services Division.

“Permitting and fee costs have increased but the fees are not justified; the process doesn’t work properly,” said Michael Grace, adding that in his experience the office shuffles business owners through several long lines. “It’s incomprehensible to a normal citizen.”

There were a couple topics of disagreement. Charles Nesby said he was unhappy with all the county funding and street space being devoted to bike lanes. Nesby said he favored having bikes integrated with traffic.

“Traffic is increasing in Arlington but bike lanes are taking up more of the streets,” said Nesby. “I would seek a reduction in bike lanes.”

But Palmatier noted that bicycle use in Arlington County has continually been on the rise over the last few years and more Arlingtonians are biking to work, which means the county needs to provide support in transportation infrastructure.

“I biked here. I bike to work. Biking is on the rise,” said Palmatier. Like the other pressures of growing density and a growing population, Palmatier tried to put a positive spin on it. “We are simply too popular.”

October marks the end of the FY 2017 budget. The county manager will receive preliminary budget guidance from the County Board by the end of October, and around December/January the draft budget will be proposed. In mid-February, the manager will present the budget to the County Board, which will host work sessions throughout March and April to review and refine the budget before final adoption scheduled for the last week in May.