BALLSTON-VIRGINIA SQUARE

Civic Association Newsletter

October/November 1997 - Volume 21, No. 1



BOARD CANDIDATES RESPOND TO ACTA QUESTIONS

On October 14, 1997, the Arlington County Taxpayers Association(ACTA) reported in the ACTA Watchdog that the elections on November 4, 1997, may well be a landmark event in Arlington County. Come January 1, 1998, four of the five County Board members will have been elected within the past two years. Also, they reported that Arlington County taxpayers may have an opportunity to see a new, and more, responsible, direction for fiscal policy. In this issue of the ACTA Watchdog, the Taxpayers Association presented a comparison of County Board candidates' positions on nine fiscal issues. For our members information, three of the nine fiscal issue questions and the candidate responses for these three questions follow. Because of the filing deadlines involved and the time needed to publish the ACTA Watchdog, the Taxpayers Association reported that they did not obtain responses from Ms. Arlene Smith (Reform Party). The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association obtained permission to run the ACTA Watchdog information in the BVSCA Newsletter.

ACTA Question Number 1. Affordable Housing.

In FY92, the County Board established a housing policy goal of increasing the supply of affordable rental units until the supply of committed affordable (CAF) housing units reaches 10% of the rental stock by the year 2000. When this year's County Board Chairman recently inquired about the number of affordable units in the housing stock, the Manager told her the number of affordable housing units as a percentage of total rental units was 1.2% in 1979, 3.7% in 1989, and 7.5% in 1996. Specifically:

Barbara Favola's Response: Studies indicate that there is a reduction in social service spending for families who move into affordable housing because these families now have more disposable income available for childcare, food and transportation. We may want to re-visit the 10% affordable housing goal given the changing demographics in Arlington in the last 10 years. However, I believe that setting an affordable housing goal is good public policy and using county monies to leverage federal dollars to achieve this goal is appropriate.

Jay Fisette's Response: I support reasonable affordable housing efforts, both for low- and moderate-income persons. While "committed affordable" housing units have increased, I believe the total number of affordable housing units in Arlington has decreased since 1979. I do not know the true correlation between affordable housing and spending on human services, though I would support efforts to quantify the broad impacts on our community of affordable housing efforts.

Joszet Hudson's Response: Please define "welfare spending." Yes, I believe there is a correlation. Yes. Probably through direct housing-related subsidies. With the lack of rent control, the cost of most housing is quite high for the average low to middle class person.

Amy Jones-Baskaran's Response: I am particularly concerned about the long-term fiscal impact of this policy, and I believe there is a correlation between the Board's aggressive subsidized rental housing policy and the increased demand on county services and school overcrowding. I support a comprehensive study to examine this impact, as well as the alleged justification for the policy.

Other jurisdictions are holding the line on subsidized housing; Arlington should too. We cannot afford to continue the ever- increasing spending associated with the subsidized rental housing re-development and the concomitant disproportionate increase in welfare spending. It is robbing money from neglected basics -- like fire and police personnel and equipment.

Further, the ever-increasing tax burden will continue to drive out Arlington's middle class, retirees, and businesses. Where is the accountability to taxpayers? One clear way to make housing more affordable is to control the level of taxation for real property, which impacts home ownership and rental housing as well. I have proposed a home ownership initiative to give tax holidays for a limited time for home improvements -- similar to a program recently adopted in Fairfax County -- to help families put down roots here and invest in the future and the long-term quality of life in Arlington.

Ben Winslow's Response: A. There may be a correlation, but key data is not available. I support the plan initiated on the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission to do a comprehensive "housing study" to answer this and other pressing questions: such as why lax code enforcement still allows so much sub-standard housing in Arlington. We should have a mix of income levels among Arlington's residents, but the current Board will not let us openly discuss how to achieve that in a cost-effective way. Rather than the current County benign neglect of housing codes, we need real fines and jail sentences, if necessary, to enforce the law.

B. Affordable housing doesn't have to mean only subsidized rental housing; I continue to support an expanded home ownership program in Arlington.

Question Number 2. Time for an Inspector General? There have been sufficient examples of wasteful spending and questionable processes to ask whether Arlington County needs an Inspector General (IG). An IG would provide the County Board with an oversight mechanism for exerting management control of County and Schools operations. The first example of wasteful spending is the sweetheart deal at Stuart Park involving the 1990 County purchase of a small parcel of land and the subsequent 1996 sale for $365,000 even though Crestar Bank simultaneously sold a smaller, adjacent parcel to the same developer for almost $900,000. A second example is the virtual disappearance of $25 million in Schools construction money that was approved by Arlington taxpayers in bond referenda. A third example is the Loop Bridge fiasco several years ago that saw the cost escalate from less than $1 million to amounts estimated at $4 or $5 million. Although no one has yet questioned the amount of spending for the Demeter House program, an independent review of the program's cost-effectiveness might be helpful. When asked about the effectiveness of residential programs for a September 23, 1996, story in The Washington Post, Arlington's director of substance abuse programs said, "Whether that serves us well in the long run, we don't know. What direction would you encourage your fellow Board member to take on the question of an Inspector General?

Barbara Favola's Response: I am not opposed to the concept of an Inspector General; however, I want more information on the financial oversight activities currently being done by the County. Dollars and resources are needed to support an Inspector General, so I would have to be convinced that this expenditure would really yield some benefits.

Jay Fisette's Response: Having been an auditor with the US General Accounting Office, I am open to the concept of an Inspector General yet do not believe there is a pattern of fiscal mismanagement that would suggest the need or justify the staffing expense at this time.

Joszet Hudson's Response: No. I do not see a need for an Inspector General. There is no point in expanding the bureaucracy.

Amy Jones-Baskaran's Response: I wholeheartedly support the establishment of a position of Inspector General for Arlington County, to protect the taxpayers, and county employees who can assist in identifying waste, fraud and abuse such as the incidents outlined in the question: the Stuart Park giveaway, the $25 million shortfall in the Schools Capital Improvement Plan, and the Loop Bridge fiasco. There are other instances of questionable fiscal practices. For example, as President of the Volunteers for an Independent Arlington (VIA) Coalition, I presented to the Board in public hearings our research findings that for many properties acquired by the County, on average, the County paid 62 % above assessed value (for details, check the Via Coalition website http://www2.dgsys.com/~via). Just recently, we saw the county pay $3 million for property assessed at $2 million to use as parkland. Arlington County already spends the most per capita in the entire region ($100 per person) on parkland. While it is constantly acquiring more, the County does not properly maintain and keep safe the parks and recreational facilities we have already.

Ben Winslow's Response: I support the concept of an Inspector General. However, there are important underlying issues: who would hire and fire such an individual? and who would the IG report to? If the County Board could hire and fire, without limits, the position is unlikely to be effective; if the reports are not made publicly available, the position is unlikely to be effective. Two options are feasible: 1) Establish a Commonwealth Inspector General, appointed by the Governor for a fixed term and confirmed by and reporting to the legislature, who could act upon requests from both localities and individuals, and 2) ask for specific legislative authority for the creation of an appointed or elected IG for Arlington County with appropriate independence. As a Board member, I would ask that both options be in Arlington's legislative package and see what the legislature is willing to do first.

Question Number 3. Domestic Partners' Health Benefits. A key provision of the FY98 budget approved by the County Board on April 12, 1997, was the provision that expanded the eligibility criteria for dependent health and dental benefits to one adult dependent who may be the spouse, domestic partner, or other adult whom the participant claims as a dependent on their federal income tax return. In our June 30, 1997, newsletter, we noted the County was able to avoid enabling legislation by the General Assembly because the County self- insures itself. Since the County Board's own estimate of the cost of this expanded benefit is so broad, ranging from $100,000 to $400,000, ACTA is concerned that a few episodes of serious illnesses such as AIDS could cause Arlington real estate tax rates to skyrocket. Although a recent Internet search for "domestic partners" found many corporations offering health benefits to domestic partners, we note the editorial concern of the Northern Virginia Sun that the County Board made a giant decision without gathering any input from the public. Should the County Board revisit its' defacto decision to expand health benefits to domestic partners?

Barbara Favola's Response: I do not believe the County Board should revisit its decision to expand health benefits to domestic partners. Providing the opportunity for employees to extend health coverage to domestic partners or an adult dependent is simply the right thing to do. Many Fortune 500 companies extend health benefits to domestic partners because it makes good business sense. Employees able to provide health coverage to their loved ones are more productive and more likely to stay with their current employers. Anyone can get sick with a serious illness; it is not fair to discriminate against a certain group of people.

Jay Fisette's Response: I fully support the domestic partner benefits policy that was adopted. It is fair and equitable. As you acknowledged, many Fortune 500 companies have adopted similar policies, including IBM, Apple, Fannie Mae and Disney.

Joszet Hudson's Response: There should in most instances be a public debate.

Amy Jones-Baskaran's Response: The County Board should revisit and rescind the decision to extend health care benefits to County employees' "domestic partners." The decision was, at the very least, fiscally irresponsible -- bypassing all normal channels for review, and avoiding (studiously) any public debate on the matter. On a purely fiscal level, the decision leaves the County open to unlimited liability and fraud. On a more fundamental level, it is requiring taxpayers to subsidize conduct that they may find objectionable on legal, moral or religious grounds. I learned from the Washington Blade publication that my opponent worked diligently behind the scenes for two years to get this adopted, and I have also learned that he did not reveal this to the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, while he was serving on the same.

Ben Winslow's Response: Yes, the Board should revisit this issue. There was no meaningful public discussion. After a thorough report on the costs and legal implications, the Board should hold a well advertised public hearing on this matter. I called for such a report and such a hearing in 1995. The current system seems so poorly analyzed that a County employee could have both a spouse and a domestic partner. It was so poorly defined and communicated that most employees receiving those benefits don't realize that the benefits are taxable.



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