“Testicular Fortitude”, Boeing’s Benevolence & Questions of Density

From the annual gala at Arlington’s prized seniors retirement complex, Culpepper Garden, to Father’s Day with my almost 99 year-old father and his two grandsons, June was a spectacular month! Of course, no month is ever just fun and games.

  • Did you hear the news about the County Board’s pay heist? Just weeks after they effectively raised property taxes by an average rate of 5 percent (the highest in a decade), they conveniently shielded themselves from their own action by voting to raise their salary cap from roughly $60,000 to $90,000, setting the stage next year for a potentially significant pay hike. The Board quintet compounded this troubling coincidence by making their move one week after the candidate filing deadline for the November elections. The Sun Gazette blasted the Board for lacking the “testicular fortitude” to have considered the pay raise in an open and transparent manner earlier in the year; instead, they gamed the electoral calendar to stifle competition.

Yet the Board’s action was wrong on more than procedural grounds, as I shared with my former colleagues at the time of their vote.  (A) While some argue it’s not fair for County Board members not to be paid "full time" when most treat it as a full time job, the fact is that a Board member knows what (s)he is getting into when they run, including the pay. They receive generous healthcare benefits, a retirement plan, and ready access to a county car and a well-paid, professional staff.  (B) Though some charge that outside income distracts from the work, I believe that having an outside job - without conflicts of interest - actually keeps one connected with the private sector. It’s also a reminder that so many other households juggle jobs, schedules and budgets every day.  (C) There’s the contention that a major pay boost would allow a younger, more diverse, less well-heeled group to serve. Yet the current Board's ages range from just over 30 to mid-60s, includes a variety of family situations, and members of modest means. The fact is, public office is a public service, and includes an element of sacrifice!

As I also testified, let’s start a conversation about whether Arlington could actually benefit more from expanding Board membership to seven members, perhaps with a combination of at-large and district seats. The smaller City of Alexandria, for example, has seven members. Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, both bigger, have nine and ten, respectively. Expanded membership would open opportunity to more people, reduce fundraising demands for those in districts, spread Board workload among more membersimprove accountability, and hopefully add still more diversity to the Board, including greater diversity of thought!

  • Giving credit where credit is due, I’m thrilled that the County Manager earlier in June announced a long-sought breakthrough in securing private monies to help fund the $71 million Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center. Nearby Boeing made a $10 million donation to support operational expenses (already estimated at north of $1 million a year net of fee-based income) in return for naming rights to the 50-meter pool and the adjacent outdoor athletic fields, as well as access and programming opportunities for active duty military. This is exactly the type of private sector sponsorship that the County Board, at my urging, has prodded the Manager to pursue since plans for a (somewhat) less pricey, downsized pool complex were resuscitated in 2016. For further economies, I’ve also urged continued exploration of similar partnerships with the non-profit and educational sectors. The Aquatics Center is due to open in early 2021.

 

  • In her January 2019 New Year’s remarks, outgoing County Board Chair Katie Cristol asserted that “It is time to revise our zoning ordinance to allow different, diverse and more affordable home types throughout the County, and not just [in] our commercial corridors.” We’ll have a better idea of what that could mean as the new “Housing Arlington” initiative gets into full swing. On the table are new land use tools (including the potential scrapping of single family zoning to allow duplexes, triplexes and even fourplexes in single family neighborhoods, similar to what Minneapolis just did) and financial tools (e.g., developer incentives, special taxes, housing bonds) to boost housing affordability—and density—across the County. Yet we still perform no cost-benefit studies for most new development (despite County Board guidance to the Manager that I authored in 2018), our impervious surfaces continue to expand, and school trailers are sprouting faster than our tree canopy. What do you think? You can also write the County Board (CountyBoard@arlingtonva.us). Please share your perspective with me, too.