This evening, we look forward to the challenges and opportunities that await Arlington County in 2017 and establish Board Member priorities to ensure we deliver responsive government and effective services for our residents and stakeholders.
First, I’d like to take a minute and look back—at 2016. And in retrospect, I’d have to say it was, on balance, a pretty effective year.
Mr. Schwartz, you have had a full year as County Manager without the “Acting” designation and I applaud your performance and appreciate your careful and effective management of our government and your leadership in inspiring the quality work performed by our talented staff.
We proved able to deliver high quality services and reduce project backlogs in a fiscally responsible manner.
We deftly navigated course corrections, such as was the case in developing a plan to relocate Fire Station #8. Although the staff recommendation was different than what the Board directed, the progress toward siting this community amenity is producing a result better than I anticipated.
We made substantial progress toward advancing major projects like the Lubber Run Community Center, transit stations on Columbia Pike, and the Long Bridge aquatics and health facility with practical project scopes and design/ build approaches that will deliver quality infrastructure and amenities while placing a premium on value for our taxpayers.
It is a best practice for governments to move with “all deliberate speed”—ours, however, tends to over-emphasize the deliberate part of the phrase. But, in 2016 we showed that, when necessary, we can move expeditiously without sacrificing quality. Some were high profile efforts such as our legalizing and sensibly regulating short term rental uses; making AHIF loan funds available to secure, for the next six decades, affordable housing in Westover; and finding a temporary solution for families and a childcare provider who were displaced by fire. And many others happened routinely outside of the public eye, such as the emergency constituent concerns that are resolved by our ombudspersons and other staff.
Of course, there are many other efforts to be proud of, and it is also true that we didn’t do everything as well as necessary. A notable area is our inconsistency with public engagement. I see progress and am quite pleased with the resources and the engagement team that are in place, but we cannot be satisfied until the manner of public participation we have with our indefatigable volunteers or our infrequent engagers is consistently excellent.
Which brings me to this year…
Everything that we did well last year must continue and we must make progress on strengthening the areas of relative weakness. In my assessment, we face circumstances that will require the very best from our staff, this Board and our community.
There is a certain unpredictability at how national issues and actions will affect us locally. We must be ready to embrace every opportunity to improve our community and quality of life while being defiant in the face of any attack on our values.
Our challenges locally are more clear.
Increasing school enrollment, while not as acute as projected, is still at a level that exceeds easy solutions and may require investments that strain our debt capacity and our annual operating budget. And, we will need APS leadership to determine how to deliver superior curriculum and instruction considering our capacity limitations.
And then, there’s Metro. Increased costs, a litany of unaddressed maintenance and safety concerns, declining ridership and flat subsidy levels have combined for a toxic stew that the region can no longer stomach.
As your representative to the WMATA Board, I will see that the funds are prudently budgeted and responsibly spent—but make no mistake—millions more will be required from Arlington, a number that requires our making hard choices and perhaps delaying or forgoing other priorities.
Metro’s importance to Arlington and our region cannot be overstated. It has helped our region grow without a corresponding increase in roads, congestion and environmental degradation. Making sure this asset can continue to be the backbone of a successful regional transit network is a high priority.
Our public schools and Metro are key components of what I see as our chief priority—growing, maintaining and enhancing our infrastructure assets.
Where practicable, we are expanding our public land inventory by acquiring land outside the county and leasing other sites, but these are not sustainable solutions for all our needs. Delivering the government services taxpayers deserve, housing a modern bus transit network, transporting more students and equipping a 21st century emergency operations facility are among the needs that require more space than we have.
At the same time, we can sure use more programmed parks, more unprogrammed open space, and more cultural and athletic facilities.
And I imagine that most would prefer those kinds of uses in their neighborhoods compared to ones that serve our municipal operations. I need to be very clear—that just won’t be possible.
That said, I trust that there are creative solutions to meeting our facility needs and there will be robust opportunities for our public to engage in finding those solutions. Given our expertise in master planning sites and land use planning of our neighborhoods, I am confident we can effectively utilize space and create municipal infrastructure that is reasonably attractive in form and efficient in function.
Speaking of planning, I look forward to continued progress on planning the future of the Four Mile Run Valley and to commencing, in earnest, planning segments of Lee Highway. It is also my hope, that we look strategically at the Columbia Pike Corridor to see where public investments or public-private partnerships can accelerate our revitalization goals. And we should make it a priority to imbue these planning efforts and other land use decisions with quantitative analysis of near and long-term fiscal and demographic impacts.
When I talk about asset management, I’m not just talking about land, facilities and neighborhoods, I also mean human capital.
And that’s why economic development is such a priority. A diverse revenue base means more income for residents who then have more to spend—creating demand for goods and services that help small businesses with what they need most—customers. The paradigms that guided much of our non-residential commercial development have changed. We must be nimble and creative in seizing opportunities during these changing market dynamics.
And, of course, when it comes to maximizing human capital we can’t forget the primacy of housing affordability. It is a core element of our being a diverse community and in increasing opportunities for families. We must maintain our investments in affordable housing, reserve the capacity to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and on the non-spending side; become permissive of and encourage lot designs and housing types that create market affordable units—a condition that is necessary if we are to meet the housing needs of our working families and people on fixed incomes.
The docket of priorities that we have mentioned are beyond our capacity to sufficiently address all at once. We are going to have to:
- Prioritize the allocation of resources,
- Fit infrastructure and uses where there may be initial neighborhood resistance, and
- Delay or decline action on projects where in a better world, we would commence right away.
I recognize this sounds quite negative. It is not meant to be so, but it is important to be clear and to manage expectations. Despite all I have just said, I remain optimistic.
Because when unlimited dollars are not the answer, creative solutions often are.
And there seems to be something about Arlingtonians that compels our working together toward the common good. While elsewhere parochialism and narrow interests define community conversations, I have every hope that Arlington residents and stakeholders will rise to the occasion and go counter-cyclical by:
- Working with us to meet all our facility needs even if it means locating uses in their “back yard,”
- Embracing inclusivity and recognizing the value of diversity despite the national conversation, and
- Being patient in the face of delayed priorities or attention to areas where there might not be direct personal benefit.
If we all do our part, this challenging year can become a very rewarding one, and I am ready to get to work.