Arlington County Board chairman Joseph S. Wholey, beginning a third year as head of the county's five-member governing body, sees 1977 as a year when Arlington will be most concerned with taxes, transportation and efforts to conserve and nurture the resources of a small and changing urban county.
Wholey, who has chaired the county board twice before, in 1972 and 1974, sees tax reform as the major issue confronting Arlington this year. Although any increase in the county's taxing authority, like that of other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, is tied to the approval the state legislature's coming session, Wholey envisions the need for tax relief as taking a number of different forms.
Tax relief for Arlington's growing elderly population has always been one of Wholey's primary concerns. In his first term as a member of the county board, he campaigned vigorously in the state legislature for a state law granting property tax relief for the elderly and drafted the resolution that made Arlington the state's first jurisdiction to put it to use.
Now, Wholey said, as "taxes are taking a bigger portion of elderly people's income," he is looking for an expansion of both the eligibility requirements and the amount of a reduction granted to those 65 years and older.
With Arlington's general population declining and the majority of its residents living in apartments, Wholey is also looking for a break for the county's single-family home-owners, whom many Arlingtonians see as the key to maintaining the quality of life in their county.
Since the county went on an annual real estate assessment procedure three years ago Wholey said, single family homeowners have seen their property assessments go up an additional $100 each year, while commercial properties and apartment buildings have not increased at the same rate. With a tight budget raising the possibility of increasing the real estate tax. Wholey said, it becomes all the more necessary that local governments be given the option of finding other sources of revenue, so that the primary burden of the total tax bill does not fall on the shoulders of the single family homeowner.
Favored Wholey alternatives to the current tax structure are a 1 per cent local sales tax and a 4 per cent local option gasoline tax. Wholey described himself as "very hopeful" that the gasoline tax might gain the approval of this year's General Assembly, since under local option the tax would not have to be levied area-wide by all the Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
Wholey estimates that a local sales tax could mean $5 million in revenue while a gasoline tax could raise $2 million, which could not only help pay the county's share of Metro costs but "free up local money" for other purposes.
Another potential revenue-raising alternative, Wholey said, would be a local option income tax, which the 40-year-old chairman would like to see conditioned on the local government making a corresponding reduction in the real estate tax, thereby shifting the tax burden more equitably onto the shoulders of both homeowners and apartment dwellers. Wholey, However, sees less chance of such an income-tax package passing the state legislature than he does of the gasoline tax.
Current budget guidelines for the coming fiscal year. Wholey said, include a "high" option of $108 million and a "low" option of $102 million. If the county is forced to make do with the $102 million that existing taxes are expected to bring in, Wholey said, it may require reductions in existing county programs and lay-offs among schools and county employees.
Talk of the county's financial situation, however, leads Wholey at once to the subject of zero-base budgeting, a topic he discusses with an enthusiam others might reserve for a prize-winning rose garden or the Washington Redskins. As opposed to traditional budgeting concepts where a county department head would step into the budget tray prepard to justify the need for an additional allocation beyond the amount of money given him in the last year, zero-base budgeting would require that same department head to itemize and explain the need for every dollar he plans to spend.
Last year, Wholey introduced the county to a less extreme form of the same theory, starting from the base of 90 per cent of last year's allocation. Basically, said Wholey, said Wholey,"what we were saying to each department was,"Suppose you only had 90 per cent of what you had last year - what would you give up?"
The concept, Wholey said, was "terrifically effective" during last year's budgeting process. "It gave us much more insight into how things worked in the county, and resulted in alot of substantive dialogue from the department heads. I think we all came away with a lot more understanding about how the budget process operates."
Another important objective this year, Wholey said, would be the development of a five year capital improvement program that would enable the county to take stock of what it has and what it needs in a more organized fashion than the usual collage of individual bond issues. "We had gotten into the position in Arlington," Wholey said, "eith the tight budgets that we have had, of not having any long-range program that set of priorities."
The failure two years ago of seven out of eight bond issues on the ballot indicated to Wholey and other board members that county taxpayers weren't at lal convinced that many county projects couldn't be built on a pay-as-you-do basis rather than taking on the kind of 20-year obligation a bond issue represents. A capital improvement program, Wholey said, would give the board an idea of just what it could finance out of each year's budget and what might take a referendum.
Projects included in the program might range from commuter parking lots next to Metro stations to new lighting and sidewalks for the older neighborhoods Arlington is anxious to preserve. "People love sidewalks in Arlington," Wholey said. "In an urban county like this, there is a huge demand for them. Bicycle trails, "he said, "are particular favorite of mine."
Apartment conservation, the renovation of small business and the strengthening of the general moreale of the business community in Arlington are other directions in which Wholey wants to see the county continue to go in order to keep it a vital community.
Wholey remains sanguine about public education in Arlington as well, despite the fact that the school system is weathering one of its worst financial crises in memory. A declining school population, Wholey said, should mean an increase in the per pupil expenditure - "If we don't use it all up in salary increases."
The year may alos bring some form of local para-transit to Arlington, in the form of a shared subsidized taxicab program in exchange for either cutting back on less needed bus lines or not adding additional bus service.
In addition, Wholey daid, "there is the coming subway system. For people used to being tied up in traffic jams, it will be a different world. Public transportation," he said, "is very much related to the quality of life. Like the free enterprise system, it allows people a variety of choices."
Metro, of course, will also mean major redevelopment in the Rosslyn-Ballaton corridor through which the subway will travel, and Wholey sees the county board tackling a large number of rezoning decisions.
There's great fear in Arlington that everything will be torn down for high-rises," Wholey said. He is hopeful, however, that a commission set up by last year's passage of an historic district ordinance will have a "terrific power to preserve what's there" in the county's many close-knit communitites.
Wholey has plans as well for the five-member county board, currently divided between a three-members coalition endorsed by the county Democratic party and the Arlingtonians for a Better County organization and two members endorsed by the county Republican party. As a board, Wholey said, he plans to "defer to the other members a little more and try hard to create a consensus."