Arlington County Board and school officials will spell out in unprecedented detail this fall how they plan to spend borrowed money for long-term capital projects — a response to several years’ demands from residents for more transparency.
Voters will be asked in November, as they are every two years, whether to allow the county to borrow money by issuing general obligation bonds to pay for new schools, facilities, transportation and parks projects.
But while in 2014 a typical ballot question sought $105.8 million in bonds to “fund the design and construction of various school facility projects including new elementary schools, building additions for additional classroom space and maintenance capital projects,” a question on the ballot this fall for $138.8 million in school construction will spell out five specific schools or projects, with costs attached to each one.
The decision to expand the explanations were a direct result of citizens’ complaints that they were not being told enough about what the county was borrowing, said County Manager Mark Schwartz and Deputy County Manager Michelle Cowan.
Although county employees are legally barred from advocating for passage or defeat of bond measures, Schwartz and Cowan said they will be increasing their efforts to inform the public about the proposed projects by newsletter, email, website and civic associations. The explanations also are posted at each polling place, although only the questions appear on the ballot.
In 2012, some voters staged a “vote no” campaign for a $50.5 million parks-and-recreation bond issue, because the wording of the ballot question failed to note that 80 percent of the money would be spent on a controversial Long Bridge aquatics center.
The bond request passed, but about 36 percent voted no, nearly twice the typical no vote for such a question. It was a rare example of voter pushback in a county that has not turned down a bond question since 1979.
County Board members, who approved the wording of the questions Tuesday night, said they were happy with the expanded explanations, even though some residents have requested even more detail.
Those supporting the wording include John Vihstadt (I), who based his 2014 election campaign on opposition to what he called extravagant spending on capital projects.
“You’ve come a long way with providing the details voters deserve when they are voting on multimillion-dollar initiatives like this,” he told the county manager at the board’s workshop meeting earlier this month. “I’m hopeful that the County Board will work to provide even greater details in future years,” he said later.
Audrey Clement, who as a school board candidate in 2014 objected to the terse description of school projects that would be paid for with bond funding, said the 2016 version is much more explicit.
Clement, who is running an independent campaign for County Board against incumbent Libby Garvey (D) this fall, said she still disagrees with some of the spending plans but is glad voters will know what the county and schools intend to do with the money.
The four questions that will be on November’s ballot ask voters to allow the county to contract a debt and issue general obligation bonds in the amounts of :
●$58.8 million for the local share of WMATA’s capital improvement program ($30 million) and street paving ($24 million), as well as bridge renovation, street lights, traffic signals and similar projects.
●$19.3 million for parks, which will include $3 million for land acquisition. Much of the rest would fund a trail modernization program, design and planning at Jennie Dean Park, construction at Tyrol Hills Park, and playground, courts and other parks infrastructure improvements.
●$98.85 million for community infrastructure. That will include $46.5 million for a new four-story Lubber Run Community Center, $12 million for neighborhood street improvements, the Nauck town square, planning and design of Fire Station 8’s reconstruction, renovation of the Barcroft sports center and a county child-care facility.
●$138.8 million for public schools. That will include $26 million for the new middle school at the Stratford site; $78.4 million for the new school at the Wilson site; a $12 million renovation at the Career Center; $10 million for planning for secondary-school seats elsewhere; and $12.4 million for capital needs such as roofing and heating and cooling systems.
Details on the complete $3.3 billion capital improvement plan are available at https://budget.arlingtonva.us/cip/