My comments from FY19 Budget Vote – April 23, 2018

There are a lot of good things to acknowledge about this year’s budget, and I don’t think we take enough stock to recognize how fortunate we are as a community, compared to even our peers in the region, much of Virginia, and the country.

I’ve got 5 things I think have been good and 5 that I think we could have done better:

Starting with the good –

1) If the full budget passes as proposed, the fact that we’re giving 3% raises to both general government and school employees, which I stated early that equity across the entire city is an important principle for me.

2) On the salary note, as a whole, teacher salaries are within the 3-5% goal (set several years ago) of Arlington and if I recall from our work sessions, we’d be within 1% of Arlington if the full budget passes. Let’s make sure we give pause on achieving one of of the highest salaries in the area for teachers, as it clearly shows our commitment to education and the Councils before me who made that commitment. For a little city of our size with a fraction of the tax base than anyone else in that top echelon, I think it’s important to recognize that remarkable achievement.

Arlington – for example faced a $25+M revenue shortfall due to their real estate valuations being dragged down by commercial. That shortfall was split across the county and schools because of their revenue sharing agreement and while they gave raises, there were also layoffs across the county and class size impacts in schools. We don’t have to worry about that this year.

3) We’re setting aside some money for expansion of tax relief for seniors which is important show of commitment towards our social values and towards economic sustainability via more diverse demographics. I think there’s more discussion to be had and I’m a little concerned how many more people we’ll actually help. But any expansion that is fair to the rest of the taxpayers is a good thing and an important step to make the commitment now.

4) Metro turned out way better than expected and thanks to Mr Snyder, staff and state reps for pushing hard for the region. Going from 2.5 cents to .5 cent, especially if it paves the way for future funding, is important. However, don’t think we’re done – much of the region has fallout transportation impacts because we’ve robbed Peter to pay Paul. We’re also going to continue to have other big transportation funding issues – that many term the “Virginia Fiscal Cliff” – in future years’ budgets.

5) Finally we’re on the first year of a multi year capital plan, that we know is a big lift for us. The fact that the 6-15 cents needed to fund the capital plan is partly offset by 3 cents in operational savings is a cause for celebration. The 3 cents savings is mostly because revenues are strong and operation budget discipline. I was one of 5 of us who voted for 2% guidance last year because of the ambitious capital plan we have, similar to the principle of a  budget “diet” much like the city took on when building MEH, and that was a fraction of the amount of bonding (and risk) we’re about to take on. The guidance wasn’t arbitrary.

I don’t think I need to remind anyone about size of the debt we’re taking on, debt per capita, and other scary, scary metrics. I recognize that I advocated for the “build new GMHS” option as it was the best out of many options we looked at, but it doesn’t mean the risks on the horizon don’t give me pause.

However, we would be foolish to think we’re going to have it this good every year. To be able to start the first year of this big lift with 3 pennies of savings – we had the perfect storm of good, lucky things: flat student enrollment + strong revenues + increased property values. We can continue doing our part with economic development to keep revenues going, but we have a lot of debt coming and won’t be immune to a national recession when the time comes.

So those are the good things –

On the flip side – here’s what I think we could have done better:

1) The bottom line impact for many is still significant. Yes, 2.5 or less is way better than 5.5 cents. Because of the increased property assessments, the median homeowner will still have to pay $431 more. And you know what – while I’m not the newest elected member up here, I haven’t forgotten the 3000+ doors I knocked a few years ago – not everyone can afford $431 easily. And now that we know the SALT deduction cap is a certainty, it means more people will have a bigger federal tax burden. With our tax rate higher than our peers already, we should be concerned that the tax rate is not an endless spigot where we can just tax our way to more spending.

2) While we’re on the topic of affordability, we still haven’t done anything in this budget to address housing affordability. There’s a timing issue between discussions about several buildings in town and the housing policy work group just underway, so my hope is that those will wrap up so we can get serious about it in next year’s budget.

The gap between the have and have nots is only getting bigger and while it’s an issue everywhere, it’s even more pronounced here. It’s not just teachers who can’t afford to rent or buy here (who even if we gave 10% raises – which I would personally love to do –  frankly doesn’t address how the profession is undervalued as a whole and doesn’t help them overcome the high cost of living). I am saddened when the arguments for budget funding devolve into “you must fund the budget request because teachers can’t afford to live here” or “you must not support teachers.”

Let’s not forget it’s also our paraprofessionals, police officers, restaurant servers, artists, and many others we rely on to be an important part of a complete community who don’t make a living wage and can’t afford to be here. When we reflect back on our goals and values, we are simply are not doing enough here – not just for teachers, for many people.

I also believe we’re not addressing the fundamental issue of competitive pay in teacher salary bands where we know there are gaps – like Mr Kelly who spoke to us last time – there are probably others. Again, post budget and in future years as the SB get to decide how the transferred money is spent – I hope the SB and Superintendent will address that because a straight 3% COLA, while equitable, doesn’t address the root cause of Mr Kelly’s concerns.

3) Likewise – there are many other unfunded needs across the city that we haven’t addressed and I won’t go through them here – parks, sidewalks, public safety, special events like the marches so many of us take pride in. I could go on, but my point is not to show whose unfunded list is bigger. We should all think about what makes a complete community – is it just about the schools?

4) It’s not about the money in this year’s budget. We are really only $350K apart – which is insignificant in a $93M total budget.

Instead of squabble over 350K, we could be working together and rally the community to advocate for the $15M grant we’ve applied to build walkability improvements at the Haycock, Broad, Shreve intersection that would help students, commuters more safely travel through there. That is 45 times the amount of money being debated here. And of course, Mason which I’ll get to shortly.

5) Overall, I’m disappointed in both the tone of the deliberations in the community. It is not how we should be working together.

I had high hopes we would have more candid and open conversations this year, but I feel like we are once again in such a divisive budget battle, which is disappointing.

As this is my 3rd budget season, I’ve compared this one to be the past two and reflected on what we can do better. To be frank, this has been similar to my first year, which I think by many accounts was ugly when there were calls to bring out pitchforks to lobby for the budget. The messaging and tone again felt like my first year. Instead of class sizes, we were beaten over the head about COLAs and psychologist this year.

It’s disappointing that we’ve again resorted to taking sides, divisiveness, guilt-shaming. Again.

I appreciate the candor in Chairman Webb’s email to us over the weekend and I told him as such when we spoke – where he said, ” If the Council decides to reduce the School Board’s request we plan to use the funds provide for a 3% COLA for our staff.” As a a parent, I’m glad that the COLA is a top priority, but I would have appreciated that candor much earlier in the process. Yes, there would other tradeoffs that would have to be made, and I understand those would be tough and unpalatable too, but it’s misleading for citizens writing us only about that soundbite without context of other things in the budget. “All cards should be on the table” as Mr. Litkenhous said. It’s unfair that teachers are put in the middle of this.

The most disappointing part of the process, to me, is the lack of positive intent. For the amount of hours I’ve personally invested in reading every document about the budget, asking questions, hearing from citizens, holding office hours, writing blog posts so that people can intelligently engage – to be told that I’m asking too many questions or that I haven’t taken the time to understand the information or that I’m being stubborn is simply offensive.

It is my job to ask tough questions. It’s all of our jobs. Assuming that a different point of view means laziness or stubbbornness is ultimately detrimental to the integrity of the process.

When there are places of disagreement, I start with trying to understand where people could be coming from – we have different information in front of us and therefore draw different conclusions. That is why I spend so much of my time in writing a blog, holding office hours, and sharing information – so that people have the opportunity to work off the same data I have and be informed. We have such an engaged and smart community, I believe if we give them accurate information, they can intelligently engage – even if we end up in a different place. And that is ok.

Budget setting should be a rational process and can be, if we – just for a second – consider that there are multiple points of view out there. We are all trying to do the right thing, balancing multiple needs, with the individual lens that we wear. Let’s stop taking artificial sides.


Some of us take pride in our funding levels for the schools and other important services in the community, but the rate of growth cannot be sustainable in the long run. We can’t afford to increase the tax rate every year – we have a lot of needs and while we got lucky this year on a few fronts, I worry about the pace of our needs outstripping the pace of growth. While the revenue pie is slowly adding more commercial tax base – which means we need to keep the pipeline of projects going –  the impact still largely falls on residential homeowners.

With a tax rate much higher than our peers, we are turning into a pretty homogenous community with residents who have little incentive to live here except for having children in the schools. It creates an affordability downspiral and future sustainability issues as a city, if we only have residents who can afford to live here from K-12 and then move out because of the high taxes.

We need to have room in the tax rate for unforeseen needs, and with so many capital projects, we will have unforeseen needs. In a year when we are just starting off on the capital plan, being conservative is being responsible.

GMHS is the big thing coming. And in order to pull that off together, we need to be collaborative and start from a place of compromise. That project is too big to fail and too big to be about city vs schools. Needs to work in concert – need to balance economic development on the site in order to afford the $120M school. The two need to mesh well for both to be successful. Needs to incorporate community needs and not just school requirements. and so forth. All compromises.

And so that we can keep our eye on the prize, I will support this year’s budget because of the good things in this year’s budget and the fortune of having the tax rate increase lower than predicted, but not because I condone the tone of the discussions or the tactics used.

My hope is that this show of good faith means we can quickly get serious about two things:

1) look for cross city efficiencies in the budget – I’ve asked for it my 3rd year now and specifically added it to guidance but still haven’t seen any movement. Because we won’t get so lucky again in future years. We are too small of a city and will have too much debt to not look at creative options that lean out our budgets.

2) I also sincerely hope we make some big changes in the budget process and interpersonal interactions so that we graciously accept input, listen to the tough questions, and have real discussion instead of soundbites. Let’s take the emotional warfare out of it – whether that’s revenue sharing or some other more neutral framework to guide budget allocation. If we are going to succeed together, we should be partners. To quote Ms. Hockenberry’s comments earlier, “there’s gotta be a better way.”