Arlington voters will be asked to approve a modest package of bond referendums in November, if County Board members accede to a request made May 18 by County Manager Mark Schwartz.
The proposal calls for a bond package of $62.5 million (not counting an expected school-bond request) that would fund Metro, paving, courthouse renovations and Neighborhood Conservation projects.
The funding will help support a $1.25 billion, three-year capital-improvement plan (CIP) proposed the same day by Schwartz.
Normally, Arlington voters get bond packages for approval each November of even-numbered years, the theory being the larger turnout for presidential and U.S. Senate races will help assure passage.
The timetable, simple as it is clever, has worked: Since it was implemented in the 1986, county voters have not turned down a single bond referendum.
No local bond referendum has gone down in Arlington, in fact, since 1979, and you have to go back to 1975 to find a year when voters rejected a majority of the referendums that were on the ballot in front of them. Both 1975 and 1979 were low-turnout election years during times of economic malaise and a cranky electorate.
Going off-cycle for a bond-referendum package in 2021 was not unexpected. Last year, Schwartz and the County Board significantly downscaled bond requests due to the uncertainty surrounding the virus and economic situation, saying they would re-evaluate the situation this year.
“Our county – and our residents – are still facing longer-term economic uncertainty, and this plan was built with that reality in mind,” Schwartz said. “My proposal takes a more constrained approach that will continue to bridge us through the next year.”
Assuming no economic calamity derails things, Arlington voters likely will be asked to cast verdicts on another round of bond funding in 2022.
The Arlington government has benefited in recent years from rock-bottom interest rates, which have allowed the government to maintain its policy that principal and interest payments on an ever-increasing municipal debt will remain under 10 percent of the county government’s total budget.
Critics will point out that the county government has had to redefine “total budget” in recent years to make sure the debt service doesn’t bump above that 10-percent threshold.
So far, bond-rating agencies do not seem concerned about the total debt being piled up by the county government with the acquiescence of voters. Arlington retains top “AAA” bond ratings from three major rating houses.
County Board members are expected to take a final vote on the bond package in early summer. The ultimate decision, though a largely pro-forma one, to put bonds on the ballot rests with the Circuit Court.