Arlington County Board Member John Vihstadt’s Jan. 2, 2018 Remarks
Thank you, Madame Chair. Happy New Year, everyone.
At the outset, I want to thank the County Manager and our entire County workforce for a productive and rewarding 2017.
I salute Jay Fisette for his firm and even-handed chairmanship of the Board over the past twelve months, and for his decades of community service. I learned a great deal from him. While we occasionally had our differences, no one can doubt his dedication to Arlington.
Fresh breezes continue to course through County government. I welcome our newest colleague, Erik Gutshall, and the leadership of incoming Chair Katie Cristol and Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. Libby Garvey, your seniority will be helpful to all of us. Yet headwinds from across the Potomac River heighten our challenges as we work to realize our potential as a sustainable and inclusive community. Who knows what the ultimate consequences of federal tax reform and the next federal budget hold for Arlington? Job losses? Lower real estate assessments? How many more surprises from Washington are coming–and for whom? Combine this with what the demographers tell us: By 2040, another 60,000 people will live in our 26 square miles, boosting our population to 280,000; that’s a 25 percent increase from today. We can meet these uncertainties, as unsettling as they are, by making sure that our communities are at the center of every Arlington government service, policy and initiative.
I believe that we can center ourselves, weather these uncertainties, and even thrive, by focusing on three key areas:
- Managing our growth;
- Ensuring greater openness and transparency in our County government, and
- Instilling a greater sense of fiscal discipline in how we work.
FIRST, we can manage our growth, through new partnerships with our Public Schools and with the private sector. It’s high time we implement a cardinal recommendation of the 2015 Community Facilities Study – cost/benefit fiscal impact analyses of every new development, including a study of the consequences for our schools, parks and tree canopy, infrastructure, and more. Other jurisdictions do this; so can Arlington. Let’s leverage the new political dynamic in Richmond by broadening the scope of community benefits to find new ways to help offset the cost and stress of additional development on our surrounding neighborhoods.
We must foster greater collaboration with our schools, higher education like Northern Virginia Community College, and our businesses to ensure that we meet our classroom capacity needs on a timely basis and that our children are educated for the 21st Century economy. Healthcare classrooms at the expanded Virginia Hospital Center and hospitality education with our Crystal City hotels are just two ideas worth exploring. I look forward to working with our School Board colleagues to innovate the ways we teach our kids. We must account for – and balance – increased demand for active and passive green space, athletic fields, and cultural resources in our pending update to the Public Spaces Master Plan, and our pending Four Mile Run Valley planning process. I welcome the new ideas that the affordable housing community has just published about streamlining our planning and permitting requirements, relieving regulatory barriers, and exploring creative financing tools.
On Columbia Pike, we must continue the push for premium transit and economic rejuvenation.
And it’s imperative that we work regionally and statewide to secure a permanent, dedicated funding stream – combined with management and labor reforms – for Metro, Arlington’s lifeblood and the metro area’s circulatory system.
SECOND, we must ensure greater transparency and openness in County government. Community-centered government begins with you! I’m excited about our new multi-step community engagement framework. We need a “no surprises” policy – with citizens and stakeholders involved from the start. But we also need to do a better job of coordinating projects with our utility companies and VDOT. Our 50-some advisory boards and commissions do not yet adequately reflect the rich diversity or the full range of views of our population. New voices at the community table are a must, if government actions are to be embraced by all corners of our many communities. Term limits may help us get there. Our residents deserve more details on big-ticket projects when they’re asked to support millions in new spending. The ballot wording of our bonds may meet the letter of the law, but I will push to give additional details for HOW we will invest the public’s capital funds. I applaud the Manager’s Open Data Initiative, but the data that drives County decision-making must be accessible to the public in a timely manner (not many months or over a year later) — and available without someone having to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get it.
THIRD, we’ve got to instill a stronger sense of fiscal discipline and efficiency in County government. Cost and value must be a part of every conversation – from the start. I’m pleased that the Board last month directed the Manager to propose a new budget for FY 2019 with no property tax hike, after having raised taxes 1.5 cents this year. Every year we like to say that we have to make tough choices. But this coming spring, those won’t be empty words. Tradeoffs are coming. It is becoming harder to recruit and retain our police and firefighters. Drug treatment beds are in short supply as the opioid crisis hits home. Housing affordability is a problem. Yet, rising property taxes are also an affordability issue when they go up faster than wages and salaries. They’re a particular hurdle for many of the 70 percent of Arlington seniors who own their own homes and who may wish to age in place.
Let’s build on the early success of our new, independent County Auditor by conducting thorough performance reviews of the largest programs in every County department on a regular but random basis. And, we need more effective management and procurement reform to avoid disruptions like those encountered with the new Homeless Services Center, the new ART bus light maintenance facility, and multiple Neighborhood Conservation projects. Cost overruns, defective workmanship, and missed delivery deadlines are never acceptable.
From Stratford School in 1959 to the Pentagon on September 11, to our recent statements and actions on behalf of our immigrant community, Arlington has shown resiliency, a spirit of hope, and a confidence to do what’s right for everyone. I have every expectation that, working together, we will continue to do so. And we, on the County Board, can do our part by making sure that everything we do in government has our community at the center.
Thank you, Arlingtonians.