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Peter’s Take: The New Normal of Arlington’s Budget Choices

By Peter Rousselot

Tuesday - 2/26/2013, 2:20pm  ET

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column published on Tuesdays. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotEven Arlington can’t have it all.

How Arlington decides what it can afford says a lot about the realism of our leaders. Are they making the hard choices, or just struggling to preserve the illusion that some choices are unnecessary?

I’ve been thinking about this since I received a political fundraising letter earlier this month saying the following:

“Our goal should be to balance the short-term budget adjustments with the long-term needs of our community. We should ensure that our schools remain among the very best, that we maintain a strong social safety net, and that we continue to provide affordable housing options. We must also continue to make needed capital investments in transportation and infrastructure that will improve the quality of life and protect the future vitality of the community.”

It’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t:

  • balance short-term budget adjustments with long-term needs, or
  • ensure that our schools remain among the very best, or
  • maintain a strong social safety net, or
  • continue to provide affordable housing options, or
  • make needed capital investments in transportation and infrastructure

But, we need to move far, far beyond the framing of this particular fundraising letter and ask ourselves questions like these:

  • What’s a short-term budget adjustment and what’s the new normal?
  • In the new normal, what projects and services should be cancelled?
  • What’s a needed capital investment and by what criteria should need be measured?
  • What must be done to ensure that our schools remain among the very best?
  • When the only way to ensure that our schools remain among the very best is to do without other county services or capital investments, will our leaders step up and say so?

We must define or redefine what our core services are because those are the services that ought to be guaranteed funding. Some of the other services and projects must be placed in a “so sorry, no can do” category. We must take these steps because the likely rate of growth in the value of Arlington’s commercial real estate tax base will be flat or very low for many years compared to the past. This is the new normal.

As the budget season unfolds, I will use this framework to define which specific Arlington services and projects (or categories of services and projects) should be retained, and which should be set aside to adjust to the new normal.

Peter Rousselot is a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.