Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

The new Arlington County Board has a full plate this year, as reflected in the statements made by the board members during its first meeting of the year on New Year’s Day.

Walter Tejada, the Board’s new chair and first Latino, set the pace. He emphasized three broad issue areas: a healthy environment and community; affordable housing; and inclusion – or diversity.

In the health and environment arena, Tejada said that the county must continue to lead in the national efforts to combat global warming by continuing our plan to reduce county emissions by 10% by 2012; creating community emissions reductions plans to involve our citizens in the effort; promoting a car-free diet, presumably by encouraging more use of mass transit and use of plans such as flex-cars; elimination of smoking in public places; and eliminating trans-fats in restaurants. Ambitious goals!

Affordable housing is also high on the agenda and is a problem that has nagged Arlington for a long time. In fact, it was the issue that originally got Tejada involved in Arlington politics.

Among the items on his agenda: making tenant relocation payments mandatory; implementing the Buckingham affordable housing program; approving affordable housing units on the county’s Arlington Mill Community Center site; sponsoring a county assisted-living facility; zoning permits for accessory dwelling units; and planning for affordable housing units in the redevelopment of Columbia Pike that already is in the works.

These programs led into his broader, and vaguer, goal of promoting diversity and inclusion. This, as is the case in the first two goals, is largely a continuation and expansion of current programs. Here, Tejada talked about Arlington’s commitment to “a diverse and inclusive urban community … in which each person is important.” This included expanding opportunities to pursue citizenship, broader English language training programs, a February town meeting on preventing youth violence and gang involvement, development of community leaders, and creation of a task force to explore ways to “build bridges across cultures.”

The other county board members generally supported the thrust of Tejada’s remarks, with a few twists of their own. Chris Zimmerman mentioned crucial transportation issues in connection with his upcoming chairmanship of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Barbara Favola reiterated some of the achievements under her chairmanship in the areas Tejada emphasized, as did Jay Fisette.

All in all, it was very upbeat. However, there were some warning signals that need to be heeded. Favola played the first note in a minor key. “In 2008, County revenue streams will begin to level off,” particularly in the area of real estate taxes. “…the leveling off of revenues combined with escalating costs associated with employee health care, new requirements to recover retirement liabilities, dollars for capital maintenance, carrying debt and the need to increase the County’s reserves will make 2008 a challenging year.”

The newest member of the County Board, Mary Hynes, emphasized public accountability and the growing fiscal demands of the county’s aggressive capital improvement programs. “It is unlikely that we will be able to meet all of the promises of the last few years in the next few years,” she warned. “At the same time, it is critical that we develop a comprehensive approach to address these needs – one that is both realistic about funding and strategic about spending.”

Hynes was the last speaker. The county launched into a new year on that appropriately cautionary note.