- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Four years ago, I was elected to serve Arlington’s historic Maywood neighborhood as its president. Typically, it’s a specific issue that inspires one to seek such an office. For me, it was a badly needed four-way stop sign. Traffic calming for a busy intersection that over the years has only gotten busier with development gone unchecked by the Arlington County Board.

I’ve learned a lot in those four years. More than I ever wished.

The county board, chaired this year by Chris Zimmerman, who is seeking re-election in November, raised the car-tax bills for most Arlingtonians by 40 percent. In fact, Arlington was the only county in all of Virginia to raise the car tax, and now it “boasts” the highest rate in Northern Virginia.

Residential property assessments are up 18 percent, but the real estate tax rate was only reduced a meaningless $0.06 per $100 of value — the lowest reduction in Northern Virginia. Coupled with the significant rise in assessments, that actually translates to a 10 percent tax increase over 2005, representing the fifth consecutive year of double-digit tax increases for property owners. Throwing a political bone by way of a token rate reduction to Arlingtonians doesn’t fool anyone. Property owners deserve real relief, not the rigged results of a shell game played with our money.

Mr. Zimmerman claims that the increased car tax will pay for raises for our police and firefighters. They certainly deserve raises, and much more in the way of modern equipment, improved facilities and additional manpower. Had Mr. Zimmerman and the board not invested so much in non-priority pet projects like designs for decorating a sewage treatment facility and more arts centers, the County could have afforded those important pay raises without increasing taxes.

Success is not determined by the size of a budget, but what creative and innovative officials can do within their budget. In other words, by results, not rhetoric.

This year, the county board approved a record $1 billion budget that included a 9 percent spending increase, the largest increase in the last 20 years. $1 billion for one county with 200,000 residents. That’s roughly $500 million more than the annual budget for Fiji, an entire country with a population of 900,000, a House and Senate, its own military, airports, international treaties to comply with, and a land mass slightly smaller than that of New Jersey.

Since the board approved that budget, I’ve asked Mr. Zimmerman in debates, “Where has all our money gone?”

The real answer? Not toward maintaining our infrastructure. Transportation maintenance has been funded at well below historic levels for the past four years. As a result, two full paving cycles have been deferred. Drive along Wilson Boulevard and feel the proof.

Our parks have also been neglected. In fact, some of our playing fields have deteriorated so far beyond simple maintenance that they require serious restoration to ensure safe play for our children.

The fact is that Mr. Zimmerman and his colleagues on the board have nearly maxed out the county’s credit card on debt capacity. To maintain our triple/triple A bond rating, our rubber-stamp board talked itself into cutting critical programs from the new Capital Investment Plan.

Which programs were cut the most?

Essentials like neighborhood conservation, traffic calming and storm drainage. All are high-priority bond projects that were either eliminated or drastically cut by Mr. Zimmerman and his friends.

We can easily maintain our rating and still put money back into Arlington’s real priorities. In September, my campaign showcased one example of a project that has been mismanaged by the county from its inception, costing Arlington millions already without even having broken ground.

The proposed development for the North Tract area in Crystal City was originally to have included three indoor swimming pools at a cost of $40 million in taxpayer money — now estimated to be roughly $135 million. It’s a project that would serve only a small portion of Arlington, and would likely attract more residents of Alexandria and the District.

The county spent millions of dollars on designs, only to watch the deal with developers that would have transferred land essential for the project’s completion — along with $25 million to help finance the construction — fall apart. Millions already wasted on a project that never even had the full funding secured — much less the land to build on.

Common sense says we should delay building the three pools.

Instead, let’s dismiss the idea of employing eminent domain as suggested recently by the county manager and let’s complete the environmental remediation at the site, finish the first two soccer fields, and then stop for now. We can free up bonding capacity and restore funding for real priorities like neighborhood conservation, traffic calming and storm drainage. The essentials.

Arlington can do better with honest deliberation and a new, responsive voice on its county board. We’re the gateway to our nation’s capital, and should serve as a much better example for our elected officials across the river.

Michael T. McMenamin is a candidate for the Arlington County Board.

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