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The Right Note: Caution TIFs Ahead

By Mark Kelly

Thursday - 1/17/2013, 3:00pm  ET

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

GOP county board candidate Mark KellyA major source of opposition to trolley-driven development on Columbia Pike is that it will destroy the last corridor of market rate affordable housing in Arlington. Board Chairman Walter Tejada has cited this concern in the past as giving him pause about supporting the project.

Enter a tax increment financing district (TIF).

Earlier this month, Chairman Tejada announced he would seek a new TIF on Columbia Pike to create a fund for replacing affordable housing along the corridor. And, other Board Members voiced support for his 2013 agenda.

Just like that — a virtually done deal.

The TIF concept has been used by local governments across the country to finance pet projects for some time – Chicago has well over 100 of them — but it is a relatively new concept here in Arlington. The Board created the first TIF in Arlington in Crystal City, in large part to use as a financing mechanism for that portion of the trolley.

So how does a TIF work?

Essentially, Arlington County freezes the tax base of a defined area and dedicates tax revenue from that base to the general fund. The additional future revenue, or a percentage of it, is then earmarked to spend solely in that area, presumably with a pet project in mind.

The general fund, on the other hand, is used to pay for the ongoing county services we all use: schools, transportation, police, fire, parks, and other services. Absent future board action to reverse course, none of these priorities will receive consideration for future TIF revenue in either Crystal City, or presumably Columbia Pike, districts over the next 20 years.

Arlington needs to stop creating TIFs before the practice becomes ingrained in our way of doing business.

We have a long tradition of bringing funding projects through the traditional budget process, seeking public input. We also have a tradition of putting bonding authority before the voters. It is supposed to be the Arlington Way.

Our Board has already packaged bonding authority together to avoid straight up or down votes on big or controversial projects. For example, the aquatics center in November was voted on as part of a parks and recreation bond.

Our Board has already put the trolley on a path to be financed, at least primarily, by revenue bonds backed by the Crystal City TIF and commercial property tax surcharge. These bonds require no public vote.

The use of special interest TIFs to avoid future public debate, scrutiny, and up or down votes on such projects is a bad idea, plain and simple. It will not only avoid additional public input, but it will inevitably lead to higher tax rates for all of us. When schools, roads, public safety and other services face a squeeze in future budgets, the Board will tell voters they simply have to raise taxes to pay for it.

The County Board should not lock Arlingtonians into this fiscally irresponsible path.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.