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Peter’s Take: Prioritize Core Services, Stop Funding Artisphere

By Peter Rousselot

Tuesday - 3/5/2013, 1:45pm  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 Rousselot

In last week’s column, I explained why a new normal has arrived for Arlington’s budget. I concluded that business as usual in setting budget priorities must change. In response, one commenter named “Courthouse Diva” said “[I] love the idea of defining core services — everything does not need to be core.”

Courthouse Diva nailed it.

Arlington needs to develop standards to define core services, and then use those standards to decide which services and programs are core services and those that are at the edge or outside of that core.

How does Arlington handle this now?

For the FY 14 budget now under review, the County Board essentially told the County Manager, “If you think there’s going to be a $50 million shortfall, design a budget that eliminates that shortfall by relying half on spending cuts and half on tax increases.” The manager was then left to recommend a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, using that very general guidance.

How would a core services approach be different?

Under a core services approach, programs and services at the center of the core would have much greater protection from any cuts. The farther out you move from the core, there would be less and less protection. The size of a cut as a percentage of the total expenditures in its category would be greater the farther out from the core.

An example of how a core services approach might work is illustrated in this chart from Regina, California:

I am not suggesting that Arlington ought to adopt every last detail of Regina’s core services approach. Arlington must adopt its own customized version of a core services approach, and then apply it to decide the priorities in its budget.

For example, if Arlington had a core services approach, the County Board could have provided this kind of guidance to the County Manager: “If you think there’s going to be a $50 million shortfall, design a budget that eliminates that shortfall by relying 25% on tax increases and 75% on spending cuts to programs and services outside the core.” This is a much better way to decide on budget priorities than the way Arlington does it now.

I will devote more future columns to examples of specific Arlington programs and services that would be treated differently — and much more appropriately — if a core services approach were in place. Here is one much-discussed example: Arlington should extricate itself completely from the Artisphere. There is a place for public support for culture and the arts in Arlington. However, such support belongs at the very discretionary end of the core spectrum.

In the new normal, programs at that end of the spectrum must be subject to deeper cuts to protect programs and services closer to the core.

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