MAINTAINING FISCAL SUSTAINABILITY AND RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT
- Improve the efficient delivery of County services to make our tax dollars go further by providing adequate resources to the County Board’s Independent Auditor
- Ensure a balanced and transparent allocation of budget dollars by stopping the practice of immediately allocating every penny of the annual budget surplus to program spending; instead, carry the surplus over to the next budget cycle for contemporaneous consideration with all budget priorities
- Invest in core services including public schools, transit, community infrastructure, public safety and our social safety net, with prudent consideration of cost and value and being mindful that taxpayers do not have unlimited resources
Fiscal Oversight and Accountability
Alarmed that Arlington County did not have an independent County Auditor reporting directly to the Board, I made this my top priority as soon as I was sworn in four years ago. Teaming with Virginia Delegate Patrick Hope, we secured unanimous legislative approval to allow Arlington to move forward, and Governor McAuliffe signed the bill in 2015. After completion of initial analyses on ambulance fees, management and emergency response center operations, the Auditor has reviews pending on public safety overtime and, soon, on procurement practices and economic development incentive funds. Yet a staff of one, even with occasional contractor help, can only do so much. Only with additional resources will regular performance reviews of every County Department—a common practice in other localities—be possible.
Meanwhile, I’m glad we’ve implemented a Waste, Fraud and Abuse Hotline for both employees and the public, and a whistleblower protection protocol to ensure that employees are not at risk of losing their job for reporting alleged wrongdoing. I look forward to the next meeting of Arlington’s Audit Committee, which I co-chair, for important updates on these and other oversight initiatives.
Funding Process Reforms
It is also past time to end the imprudent habit of immediately spending, or allocating for future spending, almost all of our annual County budget surplus on select recipients. Of course, there may be exceptions when true and sudden emergency needs must be accommodated, but, generally speaking, all spending decisions should be weighed in a comprehensive, holistic manner and with the normal rigor of our usual public processes.
During our biennial Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) process, the Board crafts its capital spending plans over a ten-year horizon. I have been concerned for several years that our Neighborhood Conservation (NC) program, as valuable as it has been in building community and funding needed improvements to streets and parks, needs major reform. Accordingly, I secured the agreement of my colleagues to direct the Manager to appoint a Neighborhood Conservation and Community Infrastructure Working Group to undertake “a thorough assessment and review, including a potential restructuring, with a focus on ensuring that necessary community infrastructure be funded and delivered in the most efficient, cost-effective, equitable and timely manner possible.” I look forward to following this new initiative very carefully.
Taxes and the Budget
Finally, in the face of some community voices who advocated otherwise, I believe that the County Board made the right decision this year not to increase the property tax rate in our FY 2019 budget. After all, even with a level tax rate, the average homeowner still confronted a higher out-of-pocket tax bill of nearly $400, and with rising assessments many incurred increases of twice that or more. In March, when the Board determined our maximum possible tax rate as a prelude to our budget discussions, I led a Board majority to keep the tax rate level, despite opposition by two colleagues who wanted to advertise the prospect of a higher rate in order to preserve “flexibility.”
The Board’s determination to hold the line refocused our efforts on prioritizing among many needs and wants, and to make difficult decisions that balanced personnel and program cuts to many County departments (for the first time in nearly a decade) that also enabled selected increases for core essentials. Raising taxes would only have postponed our day of reckoning in the face of a still-stubbornly high commercial vacancy rate and the surprises that continue to be thrown our way by the Federal government.