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Our Pricey Swimming Pool, Criminal Justice, and the Lines of a Contortionist

Late last year, in leaving the County Board, I vowed to keep tabs on my now former colleagues and continue to weigh in on issues of the day. Yet little did I think I would be back to 2100 Clarendon Boulevard so soon! On Tuesday, January 29, I was on the other side of the dais as I spoke to the Board during public comment on the agenda item to approve a contract of over $400,000 for an elaborate audio-visual system for the pricey Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center.

Due to my note to the County Board observing that the entire project budget appeared to have jumped by $3.2 million, from $67.5 million in November 2017 (when the Board voted 4-1 to award the construction contract) to $70.7 million in January 2019 (just 14 months later), the Board removed this item from the so-called ?consent? agenda in order to allow public comment and discussion. Staff insisted that the total budget hadn?t budged after all—that it had been the higher $70.7 million all along–but that they had inadvertently failed to include $1.5 million in project management fees and $1.7 million in consultant costs in the original $67.5 million figure publicized at that time. So much for transparency! See what the Sun Gazette wrote.

Other questions linger, as well, including:

How much will the annual operating shortfall be? Initial estimates show a minimum operating subsidy needed of $1.1 million per year, but until a menu of fees and charges is adopted and financial modeling done, it?s really anyone?s guess.

What impact on Aquatics and Fitness Center patronage and revenues will the new 24/7 St. James Sports, Wellness and Entertainment Complex in Springfield have, just off the Beltway and no more than 20-30 minutes from anywhere in Arlington? This privately owned facility, built without a penny of public financing, is over six times the size of the Arlington facility and, in addition to an Olympic-sized pool and water park, boasts multiple indoor soccer and lacrosse fields, gymnastics, basketball and racquet courts, batting cages, virtual golf, ice and hockey rinks, a gargantuan fitness center, upscale restaurant and snack bar and children?s birthday venues.

The County Board at my urging, back in 2016, directed the Manager to mitigate project costs through exploring partnerships with higher ed and the nonprofit community, and through sponsorships with the private sector. When will these efforts start to bear fruit? If stadiums, arenas and other major public facilities can attract outside dollars through naming rights and certain usage privileges, why not the Aquatics Center?

In my view, given tough fiscal times, we should have reprogrammed the bulk of this money to (a) assist APS in providing a pool at a new South Arlington high school, (b) parks maintenance and upkeep, and (c) land acquisition.

Also in January, the Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) saluted my work as County Board liaison during my Board tenure. The CCJB, mandated by the Commonwealth to ensure that localities properly coordinate local criminal justice initiatives, had, in my view, become a perfunctory, humdrum body. I sought to invigorate it with new purpose, and spearheaded programs on topics such as ?ban the box,? which County government implemented three years ago so that prospective employees were not immediately turned away and disqualified for every position just because they had a conviction on their record.

Other recent and impactful topics that we explored included Arlington?s multidisciplinary approach to the opioid crisis, resources for children of incarcerated parents and cash bail reform. Chief Judge R. Frances O?Brien of Arlington General District Court led remarks, followed by Deputy Commonwealth?s Attorney Andrew Parker (Theo Stamos was in Richmond) and Public Defender Brian Haywood. Though some reforms require state legislation, we can do more locally.

I would love to hear from you, so please connect at any time.

John Vihstadt

P.S. Did you catch the good news out of Richmond last week? Finally, both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly seem poised to pass legislation mandating nonpartisan redistricting via a constitutional amendment, so that voters will pick their legislators rather than the other way around. It?s time to end the contortionistic lines drawn by whichever party holds power! Read the rundown by local columnist Peter Rousselot.