November County Board Update

November was a bittersweet month. We just couldn’t overcome the hyper-partisan national atmospherics that sank our independent purple tugboat.

Yet November also brought me great satisfaction as a County Board member, and served as a coda of sorts for what we’ve been able to accomplish since taking office in April 2014.

 

VICTORY ON ANNUAL BUDGET SURPLUS DIRECTION

Since 2015, I have made motions each fall, mostly without success, to defer the allocation or spending of the bulk of our annual surplus to the following fiscal year’s normal budget process, when all money, and all programs and services, can be considered simultaneously, holistically, and equitably, with everything weighed and prioritized together. Instead, the Board’s usual approach has been to immediately spend your money on certain favored programs with little public debate.

This year, I was finally able to convince the Manager and my colleagues to agree with me. For the first time in memory, the Manager proposed to defer $16.5 million—approximately 75%—of our $21.9 million in FY 2018 unspent, unrestricted “close-out” funds for consideration in our FY 2020 budget that will be adopted next spring.  

In light of the significant budget gap next year given that we are spending more than we are taking in, this was the only prudent thing to do! In approving my motion to accept the Manager’s recommendation, we also hiked our operating reserve from 5% to 5.5% of our annual operating budget (still lower than many area localities), and provided the Manager with an operating contingent of $2 million to meet emergency or unforeseen needs (e.g., litigation expenses, software licensing fees and consultants) without having to reprioritize or cut other programs.

We also gave the Manager direction to craft a menu of operating budget options for FY 2020, including one within the existing property tax rate.


MORE INDEPENDENT AUDITOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS

One of my most impactful achievements was to secure the position of an independent auditor that reports directly to the Board, rather than to the County Manager. As co-chair of our County Audit Committee, I have been trying for months to bring our Audit Committee and the Arlington Public Schools Audit Committee together to review findings of the long-awaited APS schools construction costs study. (After all, thanks to our Revenue Sharing Principles with the Schools, APS receives almost 47% of the County budget each year, and school enrollment is now at an all-time high of over 27,000 students.)

At long last, the joint meeting of the two Audit Committees occurred right before Thanksgiving, when we heard from the APS consultants who produced the study on schools construction costs.While the study found that our schools construction costs were by and large comparable to those elsewhere in the DC region, the study did make a number of key recommendations to economize, including procurement reforms like pre-qualifying certain contractors through on-call contracts, creating APS-specific furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) contracts with volume-driven discounts, standardizing certain building elements and systems, and earlier and more formalized value engineering.

I certainly expect that our County Audit Committee will keep tabs on whether the Superintendent will be implementing any or all of these key reforms (some of which, frankly, might be valuable for the County, as well).

 

FOUR MILE RUN VALLEY & REED SCHOOL PLANNING APPROVED

Also in November, two important planning initiatives for which I served as County Board liaison concluded.

First, just two months after the Board approved the new 4MRV Parks Master Plan (to which I also liaised) for the revitalization of Jennie Dean Park, Shirlington Park and Shirlington Dog Park, we approved the new Area Plan for the Four Mile Run Valley. This was an ambitious effort that serves as a blueprint to retain and accommodate a mosaic of uses across a 95-acre South Arlington crescent that includes one of the last light industrial zoned areas of the County that hosts many small businesses important to our economy, to an emerging cultural district, Nauck Town Square, residential areas and the above-referenced parks. Take a look.

Second, the Board approved a Use Permit to allow the construction of the new 732 seat Reed Elementary School adjacent to Westover Library. Reed will come online in September 2021, two years after the new Fleet Elementary, the new Wilson School (which will house the HB Woodlawn program), and a renovated and expanded Stratford Middle School.

What’s next for me? When one door closes, others open, and I’m mulling multiple options to stay active and continue contributing to Arlington civic life. What do you think?  Mary and I value your friendship and ask that you stay in touch on the issues of the day.

 

John Vihstadt
Member, Arlington County Board