I hope that you had a bountiful Thanksgiving, but still have room to digest the latest on several County issues.

GOOD NEWS ON THE ANNUAL BUDGET SURPLUS

One of my top priorities on the Board was budget reform. On November 19, I shared my perspective with former colleagues on a key agenda item—the annual budget surplus and what to do with it! I stressed three points.

  1. Don’t short-circuit the annual operating budget cycle. Last fall in my final year on the Board, the Manager and the Board broke their habit and finally agreed with me and the Arlington County Civic Federation and carried over roughly 75% of the previous year’s surplus for consideration in the context of the next year’s budget rather than immediately allocating every penny of it to a handful of favored programs. Again last month, despite lobbying by certain groups, the Board voted to carry over the lion’s share (60%) of the roughly $23 million surplus as a down-payment for consideration next spring during the FY 2021 budget process. The Board allocated the remainder of the surplus to fortify reserves and replenish the Manager’s “Operating Contingent” for unanticipated and emergency needs.
  2. Mandate that the Manager provide an annual public accounting of how he spends his discretionary set-aside and stem the recent phenomenon of “Manager’s Contingency Creep.” I won’t begrudge the Manager a reasonable contingency fund. But this special pot has grown from $1 million just three years ago, to $1.25 million two years ago, to $2 million today. I called on Mr. Schwartz to provide a transparent accounting of exactly where the money goes in plain English.
  3. Engage the expertise of the community to evaluate current County reserve fund balances. This year and last, the Manager said that the County must “adopt a longer-term approach towards gradually increasing reserves” in order to maintain our sterling AAA credit rating. Agreed. But let’s tap the community to help by calling upon the County Treasurer, our Independent County Auditor, and others to get the job done together—not in a vacuum.

A LOOKBACK ON THE STREETCAR DEMISE

Did you catch Scott McCaffrey’s retrospective on the 5th anniversary of the County Board’s 4-1 vote to kill the costly streetcar? Enjoy a stroll down Memory Lane.

As noted to the Sun Gazette, I have no regrets about helping to lead the charge. Streetcar boosters claimed that Columbia Pike would stagnate without it, yet the Pike is now undergoing a vibrant renaissance.

  • Over the last five years, over 2,000 new rental and for purchase housing units—both affordable and market-rate–have come online or are now under construction on the Pike. Still more are on the drawing board.
  • On the commercial front, a new Harris Teeter grocery with a Starbucks at the corner of S. George Mason, along with a boutique Why Hotel, just opened. All of this growth has come with minimal displacement of diverse and established communities.
  • Premium Transit is arriving on the Pike (though more slowly than I’d like, thanks to Metro and ART bus challenges). Infrastructure improvements continue.
  • Finally, in terms of community facilities, hundreds of new high school seats are being added to the Career Center campus, with structured parking, new athletic fields and performing arts space all proposed for completion by 2025.

Read more on the Pike’s progress.

A POTENTIAL SHAKE-UP FOR RESIDENTIAL PERMIT PARKING

Whether you work, live or play in Arlington, a place to park a car is an increasingly precious commodity. With the County Board moving to both increase density and shrink on-site parking requirements for new commercial and residential developments in transit corridors, along with facilitating accessory dwelling units and home-sharing platforms in single family neighborhoods, life across the County for those dependent on cars is not getting any easier. Meanwhile, in 2017, the County imposed a moratorium on expansion of our confusing but popular Residential Permit Parking (RPP) Program. The RPP manages on-street parking demand in 25 mostly low-density residential neighborhood zones near transit corridors, schools, Virginia Hospital Center and other community facilities with high parking demand, through restrictions on hours and days of the week.

Spurred by a jump in neighborhood petitions seeking their own RPP and concerns of equity in curbside management, the staff review to, in the County’s words, “improve the program’s “efficiency, user experience and fairness” has now passed the half-way point. County staff briefed the Board two weeks ago. For an even deeper dive, including a map of all RPP zones, check this.

The initial fears of many neighborhoods that the RPP program could disappear may not, fortunately, be realized. Rather, the evolving sentiment is one of “mend it, don’t end it.” Among variables in flux:

  • Whether all households in a RPP district should continue to have access to the same number of permits and passes, or should access be determined, in part, on whether a house has a driveway or garage, or in the case of a condo or apartment dweller, whether the unit has dedicated surface or structured parking available?
  • In RPP districts, how could parking be made easier for household visitors? Should metered street parking be installed with exceptions for pass/permit holders?
  • User fees defray 75% of RPP administrative and enforcement costs, with general taxpayer support comprising the rest. Should fees be set to cover all program costs?

Motivated to weigh in? Next steps include an open house and online comment, public hearing and County Board action and full implementation of revisions by spring 2021. Let me know what you think.

Wishing you and yours a festive holiday season!

John Vihstadt