Virginia’s local governments are required hold a referendum in order to get the voters’ permission to issue bonds on behalf of the city or county. Bonds are usually used by governments to raise money for large capital expenditures when particular projects cannot be funded through general funds and tax revenues.
Let’s be perfectly clear: Bonds are debt. When they are sold, the issuing government receives an immediate influx of cash from the purchasers. But, like a bank loan, all of that cash must be repaid over time (plus interest). As such, bonds should be used sparingly, and only for large, unusual projects where funding them directly from the general fund is not possible.
Bond referendums almost always pass by a large margin in Virginia, in part because the voters do not fully understand what they are. Many are simply voting ‘for’ the agency or service that will benefit. After all, who wants to vote ‘against’ schools, parks, or transportation? We should, however, be more discerning and seriously consider whether the project in question warrants the associated increase in government debt.
The 2013 bond questions for Loudoun County are.
Parks and Athletics
Shall the County of Loudoun, Virginia contract a debt and issue its general obligation capital improvement bonds in the maximum amount of $34,255,000 to finance in whole or in part, the cost to upgrade irrigation systems of athletic fields throughout the County; the costs of Dulles South Multi-Purpose Center; the costs of Lovettsville District Park; and other public facilities in the County?
The county Board of Supervisors has proposed over fifty-four million dollars in capital improvements for parks, recreation, and cultural projects, over thirty-four million of which would be funded through this bond referendum. In particular, the county plans to use this debt to improve irrigation systems on athletic fields, expand the Dulles South Multi-Purpose Center, and develop a district park in Lovettsville.
Loudoun County has budgeted only eighteen million dollars in general funding for the operation of the Parks, Recreation, and Community Services department in the 2014 fiscal year, and the department is expected to raise another nineteen million through fees, state and federal aid, and other revenue channels. The entire department’s budget is set between thirty-six and thirty-seven million dollars. Meanwhile, the total planned Loudoun County general fund appropriations for the 2014 fiscal year amount to over 1.8 billion dollars. In other words, if we were to spread the cost of these bonds over, say, five years, it would only require an allocation of less than 0.4 percent of our county budget—a mere drop in the bucket, even though it would add a significant amount to our under-funded park system’s bottom line.
There is no reason we cannot fund these efforts out of the general fund by increasing our expenditures on parks, perhaps by a very slight reduction in the over-the-top allocations for Loudoun County Public Schools (which receive an incredible fifty-six percent of all county appropriations). I endorse a NO vote on the parks and athletics bond referendum, because these kinds of low-cost improvements should be funded through the general fund—an increase in park funding out of the county’s existing tax revenues—rather than through new debt.
Potential conflict of interest: I am a property owner in the South Riding community and, as such, pay homeowners’ association dues to the South Riding Proprietary. The South Riding Proprietary has publicly endorsed a ‘yes’ vote on this bond referendum, and has placed advertisements encouraging a ‘yes’ vote on its web site and on proprietary-owned signs in the South Riding community. I have contacted the South Riding Proprietary and objected to their use of my dues for political purposes, but had no other contact with proprietary officials on this topic before making my endorsement.
Roads and Transportation
Shall the County of Loudoun, Virginia contract a debt and issue its general obligation capital improvement bonds in the maximum amount of $3,180,000 to finance in whole or in part, the costs of improvements of Belmont Ridge Road; and other public roads in the County?
The county Board of Supervisors has proposed appropriating over 264 million dollars for badly-needed transportation improvements in the 2014 fiscal year, almost three-times more than was appropriated in 2013. This bond referendum would authorize over three million dollars to begin making improvements on Belmont Ridge Road, and possibly to fund some work on other transportation improvements.
Loudoun County has undergone rapid growth over the past two decades, and although the county had been keeping up better than some of our peers for much of that time, we have recently fallen behind the curve (thanks, in large part, to the previous Board of Supervisors). I am very glad to see the current board working to rectify the situation. They have made huge increases in county transportation funding, required developers help fund infrastructure improvements that support their developments, and thought ‘outside of the box’ with novel, affordable spot improvements—like the temporary roundabout at Poland Road and Edgewater Street, which has eased congestion and improved safety without requiring either a huge expenditure or a lengthy construction project.
The board is even planning to fund a badly needed improvement in Fairfax County (the intersection of Braddock Road and Pleasant Valley Road). It is disappointing that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has skirted their responsibilities to address congestion at this intersection, apparently for political reasons, but I applaud the Loudoun board for its willingness to pick up the slack.
It is unfortunate that this particular project was slated to be funded through new debt, especially considering its modest size. Three million dollars is only about one percent of the total transportation appropriation for the 2014 fiscal year, and less than 0.2 percent of the county’s overall budget. I recognize the critical need to ‘play catch up’ and get our road network back to where it needs to be, and I am normally inclined to support transportation bonds, but there is no reason that this project cannot be funded directly from the general fund. I endorse a NO vote on the roads and transportation bond referendum.
Fire and Rescue
Shall the County of Loudoun, Virginia contract a debt and issue its general obligation capital improvement bonds in the maximum amount of $14,175,000 to finance in whole or in part, the cost to acquire and equip fire and rescue capital apparatus for use throughout the County; the costs of a new Lucketts Fire Station; and other public safety facilities in the County?
This bond referendum is the third in a planned series of bonds for fire and rescue equipment, following in the footsteps of three million dollars in 2011 and nearly three million in 2012. Of the fourteen million dollars in this year’s referendum, nearly three million is slated for new fire and rescue apparatus, and over eleven million for replacing the outdated Lucketts Fire Station.
Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Services are allocated nearly sixty million dollars in funding for the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of about three million over 2013, which still only accounts for about 3.3 percent of the county’s budget. There are about 500 career and 1,500 volunteer personnel who serve the county twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. There were an estimated 17,419 emergency medical incidents and 5,372 fire incidents in 2013.
Meanwhile, the county continues its rapid growth, and still presents the same challenges it did in past years. Our county is a unique mix of rural and suburban, complete with a large river (the Potomac), a major airport (Washington Dulles), cities and wineries, farms and office towers. Our firefighters and EMT’s could be facing a bike accident on the W&OD trail, and then a tractor accident in the Loudoun valley, and then an airliner crash out of Dulles, and then a swift-water rescue on the Potomac.
We need to continue providing our firefighters and EMT’s with the best available facilities and equipment, and the department’s growth needs to keep pace with the county’s. It is worth incurring a modest debt to do so. I endorse a YES vote on the fire and rescue bond referendum.
Schools and Facilities
Shall the County of Loudoun, Virginia contract a debt and issue its general obligation capital improvement bonds in the maximum amount of $10,755,000 to finance in whole or in part, the costs of the Mercer Middle School addition; the costs of the Freedom High School addition; the costs of upgrades to Loudoun County High School stadium; and other public facilities in the County?
Another year, another school bond referendum. This time, we are being asked to incur over ten million dollars in new debt to build additions to Mercer Middle School and Freedom High School, upgrade the Loudoun County High School stadium, and make a slew of other, smaller improvements at other schools and public facilities.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, having had to make the same argument year after year after year, I must again point out that public schools in the United States are among the best funded schools in the world. Here in Loudoun County, our schools receive over fifty-six percent of all county appropriations. According to the county, the per-pupil cost is $11,865 per year, a modest increase over last year, but like last year this number is artificially reduced by excluding school capital expenditures, school debt service, and other costs that get recorded on separate line-items in the budget.
There are an estimated 70,855 students in Loudoun County Public Schools, and the system’s real annual budget—including those capital and debt expenditures, cafeteria costs, vehicle costs, etc.—is a mind-boggling $1,028,092,173.00. That equals a per-pupil cost of $14,509.80, more than twenty percent higher than the misleading ‘official’ number.
That’s an incredible amount of money going into a system that badly under-performs, just like its peers all across the United States. And, like those peers, the Loudoun County school system doesn’t deserve a single cent in new funding until it has properly accounted for where its money is going today, and how it plans to reform itself and begin delivering the level of service that we have a right to expect. Until that happens, I endorse a NO vote on this and any other school bond referendum.