Post #1128: Town of Vienna, it’s deja vu all over again on the property tax rate.

The Mayor and Town Council are more than happy to boast about cutting next year’s real estate tax rate.  But they somehow don’t mention that your actual real estate tax bill will continue to increase.

That’s human nature, I guess.  But the fact is, they’re doing what Fairfax County is doing this year, to within rounding error.  They are offsetting some of the ongoing high rate of increase in the real estate assessments by reducing the tax rate a bit.

And, in typical TOV fashion, when I went to find the key numbers — what’s the new tax rate going to be, and how much will tax bills rise — I couldn’t find either one of them.  Not based on the materials published by the Town of Vienna.  It took a while to sort out all the confusion.

So, for the record, with details to follow:

  • The current tax rate is 0.2250 per $100 of assessed value.
  • The intended future tax rate is 0.2225 per $100 of assessed value (but if you listen closely, that’s not actually the motion passed by the Town.)
  • The difference is about a 1% reduction in the rate, roughly the same as Fairfax County.
  • Tax assessments are rising 4.2% on average.
  • The average tax bill on an existing Vienna home will rise just over 3 percent.

I defy you to find either the 0.2225 rate or the 3 percent increase in anything the Town published about this.

I realize that most people aren’t good with numbers.  But I have to wonder if anybody on Town Council ever bothers to read the background material.  It wasn’t that hard to tell that the numbers as presented didn’t make sense.

So, fair warning.  I’m going to do the math, and I’m going to show my work.  Continue reading Post #1128: Town of Vienna, it’s deja vu all over again on the property tax rate.

Post #1126: TANSTAAFL, or free mulch in the Town of Vienna

This post started out as a tirade about “free” mulch, because TANSTAAFL.  The idea was to compare the value of the mulch to the value of the quality-of-life losses in houses adjacent to the Town’s mulching operation.

But in the end, I wrote this one backwards.  The important part is not this little raggedy bit of analysis that I do next.  The important part is the cost numbers that have been put in front of Town Council, shown at the end.  Unless I’m missing something, getting rid of the Town’s mulching operation seems like a total no-brainer from an economic perspective.

Continue reading Post #1126: TANSTAAFL, or free mulch in the Town of Vienna

Post #G26: Back in the Town of Vienna, our water/sewer rate versus Fairfax County

This post only really matters if you use a lot of water outdoors during the summer.  Hence, it falls under gardening on this website.

People are often surprised to find out just how much water it takes to water a garden, or that running a lawn sprinkler for an hour typically consumes 1000 gallons.

And so, there’s sometimes some hubbub when the summer-quarter water bills come out, here in the Town of Vienna.  Particularly now, as Vienna is half-way through a planned five-year, 50% increase in the water/sewer rates.  People see an unusually high bill and attribute that to the rate increase.  When that may not be the whole story. Continue reading Post #G26: Back in the Town of Vienna, our water/sewer rate versus Fairfax County

Post #G25: Meanwhile, in the Town of Vienna, the latest water/sewer rates are being felt

This is another of my contractual obligation postings, relating to government of the Town of Vienna.

Recall back in Post #448, where I described the Town’s five-year plan to raise the water and sewer rates by about 50%.  The Town didn’t really go out of its way to advertise that, or to advertise that it planned to raise those rates every year for five years running. Continue reading Post #G25: Meanwhile, in the Town of Vienna, the latest water/sewer rates are being felt

Post #751: Shooting range?

I’ve been staying away from posting about the Town of Vienna.  But I just had a conversation with my next-door neighbor about the new Town of Vienna Police Station.  It left me shaking my head, saying, oh, that can’t be right.

Or can it?

I already knew that the new police station was going to be the biggest building they could squeeze onto the lot.  That’s the hallmark of the prior administration.  I knew the Mayor-elect would vehemently defend the proposed police station, because that’s what she was elected to do — defend the decisions of the Powers that Be in Vienna.

But I did not realize that part of the new police station — built like a fortress, as post-911 standards require — and three times the size of the current police station  — has a shooting range.  (Three times the size of what it replaces, with no more residents or police here than when the old police station was built.)

As if, what, they can’t use the Fairfax County range?  As if Town of Vienna police are that likely to have to draw a weapon in Town?  As if their duplicative “meeting space” area didn’t waste enough space?  (This building sits maybe 200 yards from the Community Center, yet has its own meeting rooms presumably for holding meetings with citizens.  That, somehow, the oversized Community Center cannot accommodate?)

I get the fact that if you want to build the biggest possible fill-in-the-blank, you have to use up the space.  I just didn’t realize that one of the reasons was having a handy area for honing gun skills.

To be clear, I’m not against having the cops being trained in the use of firearms.  That’s part of the real world.  I’m not that keen on un-trained people carrying weapons.  I’m a gun owner.  And a health economist.  I’m not strictly anti-gun, though my wife is.  I think that, as a public health measure, easy access to guns is a bad idea.  But that has nothing to do with police training.

It’s just odd to see a major piece of capital infrastructure dedicated to that task.  In a building that is vastly larger and far more imposing that what it replaces.  Given that the sum total of my interaction with Town police has been being pulled over for having a marker light out on my car.

There has been a petition circulated to defer the spending on this obese police station.  I didn’t think it would get any traction with Town government, because … well, that’s the way Vienna works.  A thousand people signed up against the 440 Maple West development, and the in-crowd just shrugged that off.  But maybe I need to rethink that, given this new rumor of Vienna’s own shooting range.

There are maybe a couple of things to say about a petition to divert the spending on this building to other community-oriented purposes.

First, you can’t legally divert money from the capital budget to the operating budget in a Virginia town.  So, the fact that the prior administration “maxed out their credit card” on this police station is just, well, tough shit, from the standpoint of funding operating costs of the Town going forward.  The capital account (borrowed money) can’t be used for that.  Because, among other things, you can’t deficit-spend as a Virginia Town.

So even if you think that putting a dedicated gun range ahead of other needs is misguided, if that money is re purposed, it can only be spent on capital projects. You can’t legally use it to fund (e.g.) social services.

You might say that either our economic priorities are amiss, or our social priorities are amiss, or both.  Or maybe the Powers that Be are planning for the complete breakdown of social order.  Here in Vienna.  In which case, I’d wish they’d let me in on that, so I could get prepared.

As with so much of Town of Vienna government decisions, I can’t make head or tails out of it.  But, ditto, whatever They have Decided, It Cannot Be Questioned.  Which is how I take our new Mayor’s response to having been questioned about this expense.

Second, the ship sailed years ago on this police station project.  Two years ago, and then some.  And, believe it or not, the proposed building is only modestly above industry norms of space per occupant and cost per square foot.  You can read my analysis of that in this post, dated 9/4/2018, dating back to the time when this project was still being billed as a police station renovation.

All-in-all, Vienna has modestly more officers per capita, square foot per officer, and cost per square foot than what I estimated to be the average within the industry.  Particularly the square foot per officer part.  This building looks big, and objectively, it is big.  And when you multiply those three together, you get what you get.

If you want to have a clue to the high cost, just look at the specs.  From that posting:

And if you read further, you will see that the architects are not exactly planning for a friendly small-town police department.  The specs include blast film for the windows, concrete bollards to prevent ramming the building, steeply sloped window sills to prevent bomb placement, and special construction to withstand earthquakes.  This isn’t Andy of Mayberry.

The bottom line is that this building is in large part a reflection of the post-911 paranoid world.  It’s built to withstand terrorist attack.  It’s occupants receive regular training in the use of deadly force.  It truth, it would not surprise me if they had plans in place in case of a breakdown in social order  (e.g., riots), even here in bouzhie Vienna.  Because that’s modern thinking.  Earthquakes included.

And all of that predates the pandemic, and predates Black Lives Matter.  Community policing went out the window on 9/11/2001.  Pretty much, if you want Federal funds, you have to build a fortress designed to protect its occupants from you.  And those occupants have to be trained to deal with terrorism.  Because, as always, we’re fighting the last war.  You can put a nice face on it, and pretend otherwise, and include a “community meeting room” and such.  But a fortress is a fortress.

It’s not what you’d have in an ideal world.  But it’s what we’re stuck with.  For the next 50 years, here in the Town of Vienna.

With any luck, future generations will look back on this as being the high-water mark of the us-versus-the-rioters police architecture mentality.  The embodiment of the 9-1-1 non-war that we’ve been fighting for the past 20 years.  This building is of-a-piece with routinely being subjected to whole-body X-rays if you want to fly anywhere.  Of-a-piece with a government that can legally “disappear” you at will, as part of the PATRIOT act.  (Read it if you don’t believe me).  It is of an era where nobody would even question that every sleepy little high-income suburban town would of course have its own police gun range.

So I applaud the people questioning this building.  And, ultimately, questioning what I see as the post 9-1-1 mentality.  I don’t think they’ll make a dent in Town of Vienna government.  But I applaud them nevertheless.

And if we’re not lucky, and the Town actually needs its own little fortress?  If, down the road, people actually applaud the decision to build a police station that could withstand an assault?  Well, I just don’t want to go there.  I have more important things to worry about, in the here and now, to worry about what this building bodes for the future.

Post #547: The flip side of your declining 401K

The actual 2020 figure is nominally $34.5M.  But it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is just a quick post to calculate what interest rate the Town paid on its (nominally) $34.5M bond issue sold yesterday.  The results of that bond sale are reported on the Town’s website at this link.

The Town agreed to issue bonds with a $34.5M face value, a 1.86% nominal interest rate, and a $3.1M premium.  That last bit — the premium — is the confounding factor.  That extra money is the reason that the true interest rate isn’t 1.86%.  And neither the Town nor any other social-media-type discussion that I have seen has managed to explain it correctly.

So let me explain exactly what that is. (And, separately, in a different post, I’m going to try to track the premium dollars from prior bond issues, because they effectively are not reported with the Town’s capital accounts.  I tried but failed to do that last year, with the 2018 premium.  Those dollars have to be reported somewhere, I just have to find them.) Continue reading Post #547: The flip side of your declining 401K

#532: Last night’s 2/24/2020 Town Council meeting – CORRECTED

Correction:  I looked at the wrong block(s) of Plum Street.  The one block in question does not, in fact, have a sidewalk now.

The Town has already posted its video recording of last night’s meeting.  You should access that by clicking the relevant “media” link on this page of the Town’s Granicus website.

To cut to the chase:  There was not a peep about the (now) $10M parking garage — see just-prior post.  Or about the $1M increase in cost for a proposed Church Street garage, for that matter.  Not a peep about the revised Capital Plan for $35M in borrowings this year.  Again, see just-prior post.  Those two items took maybe ten minutes in total.  But there was more than an hour discussion of sidewalks, leading to a decision to authorize three stretches of sidewalk (on Plum, Cabin, and Holmes) using funds from the Robinson estate.

Those sidewalks were chosen by … the Trustee of the Maude Robinson estate.  At least a couple of Town Council members understood how irrational that decision process was (Majdi, Noble), though I did not see any progress in arriving at something more rational.  One, by contrast (Colbert), applauded the process as democracy in action, or something. Continue reading #532: Last night’s 2/24/2020 Town Council meeting – CORRECTED

#531: The $9M Patrick Henry parking garage?

When did this become a $9M project?  Beats me.  Last I recall, the only number mentioned was something like $4.7M.  Pretty sure that lower number was what was in the discussion of the capital budget.

I guess I haven’t been paying attention, because that’s the first I’ve seen of that $9M number.  But there it is, in black and white, in the documentation for that portion of tonight’s Town Council meeting, which you may access on this Town of Vienna web page.

Wait, doesn’t $9M for 188 spaces work out to be near $50K per parking place?  Didn’t (at least some) Town Council members balk at paying far less than that, for a parking garage on Mill Street?  Again, I must not have been paying close attention, because that’s sure how I recall it.  Isn’t that vastly more per space than the Town is going to pay at a proposed Church Street garage?  What the heck?

How many parking places does the Town need at this location?  You’d figure, you’d get a clear idea of that first, then proceed, right?  Nope.  Not clear that anybody has any estimate of that, but … but the Town will eventually do some sort of study, at some point, to guess at that.  It’s on the calendar for some time a couple of years from now.

How much time does the Town have to think this over?  One month.  According to Town staff, the agreement has to be signed no later than next month’s Town Council meeting.

Does this have anything to do with a modified Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), for the Town Council to re-approve at this meeting?  See materials on this Town of Vienna website page. Maybe, I haven’t quite had the time to look at it, except to see that, when the Town couldn’t fit the $35M borrowing into its current economic model, it … changed the economic model so that the $35M in proposed 2020 borrowing now fits.

Is the 2020 bond issue still, by far, the largest amount the Town has ever borrowed?  Yep.

Do we still burn through all the reserves in the bond fund, down to the agreed-upon $2M minimum safe level?  Yep, somehow, with the new economic assumptions, the reserves fall to exactly $2M with $35M in borrowings, which is exactly the minimum acceptable level.  (This is from materials for Tonight’s Town Council meeting).

Does that new projection include additional 2022 and later borrowings to cover the increased cost of the parking garage?  Not clear, because not shown.  Last time around, the figured the cost of the garage in as about $4.7M, but free to the Town (paid for by some other entity).  So it’s not clear that an additional $9M in liabilities has been worked into the future borrowing scenario.  Here’s how the Town’s projected borrowings stood as of the last (what I though was the final approved) version of the CIP.  (This is calculated from the prior CIP, not the new CIP to be approved at tonight’s Town Council meeting.)

Today, gold hit $1673 per troy ounce (per Kitco).  Does anybody remember or care what happened to meals tax revenues for 2009, during the last recession?  Nope.  Likely I’m the only person in Town who cares about that.  But just FYI, here’s the historical on that one:

Does it bother anyone but me that the Town is projecting no trouble paying for all this, based on nothing but ultra-strong revenue growth for immediate, mid-term, and far future?  Apparently not.

How long does the Town Council get to think about this new proposed CIP?  Per the presentation, no time at all — they have to approve it tonight.

Post #522: The 2/3/2020 Town Council meeting

The Vienna Town Council met last night to consider a few items of business.  You can find the agenda and meeting materials on this web page.

Land at 440 Beulah and 114 Locust converted to government use.  The main item on the agenda was to get the ball rolling on legally allowing a couple of parcels of land in Vienna to be used as part of the new police station project.  The properties in question are the area directly adjacent to the existing police station (114 Locust) , and a house out on Beulah Road (440 Beulah), adjacent to the “Beulah Road Mulch Yard”.  The Town bought that Beulah Road house back 2018, but refused at that time to say why it had bought it.

Unsurprisingly, that proposal passed unanimously.  That was pretty much a given, as they’ll have to rezone at least the house next to the police station in order to build the new one there.

As I understand it, this was just the first step – amending the Town’s comprehensive plan to allow this.  I have the vague impression that they’ll have to come back and redo this, for the rezoning proper, in order to satisfy all the legal requirements.

Town account balances.  A second item of business was one that I think I haven’t seen before, which was a report on the Town’s financial assets — its investment balances.  Given the property values and incomes in Vienna, it should come as no surprise that the Town is in good financial health and has tens of millions (30-ish million?) of dollars invested in various interest-bearing accounts.

I still have not quite puzzled out why I haven’t seen this before, and why I’m seeing it now.  Either I wasn’t paying attention when I researched the budget last year, or this is a new report.  I can recall looking for and being unable to find information on account balances, but simple incompetence on my part could easily explain that.

Councilman Noble will not run for re-election.  The only surprise in the meeting was that Councilman Noble will not run for re-election, citing (I believe) the need to care for a relative.  I think everyone of a certain age can empathize with that.  And those not yet of that age can be glad they haven’t had to deal with it yet.

To me, the right context for this is the controversial vote to approve 444 Maple West, against considerable citizen opposition.  The vote was 5-2.

Of the five voting in favor:

  • Three have chosen not to run for re-election.
  • One was defeated in the last election.
  • One is running for mayor.

Of the two voting against:

  • Both are running for mayor.

In hindsight, that vote, plus the simple passage of time and the occurrence of life events, appears to have been as much of a watershed moment as you are likely to see in the politics of a small town.  But only in hindsight.

As an aside:  I assume the Town will have its recording of this up soon, so I do not plan to post my own recording of the meeting.  I also have to admit that I didn’t much pay attention during the discussion of the police station item, and maybe I’ll replay the tape and see if there’s anything else worth reporting about that.

 

Post #515: Fraud (noun): Intentional use of deceit for financial gain.

The last item on tonight’s (1/27/2020) agenda ticks all the boxes for me.  This is the item whereby the Town Council asks yet a different taxpayer-funded organization to pay for the new commuter garage in Vienna.

Wait, you didn’t know there was going to be a commuter garage in Vienna?  That’s no surprise, because there isn’t going to be one.

I mean, why on earth would anyone drive through this …

… in order to get to the middle of Vienna, park in the new commuter parking garage, then take the (once-per-half-hour) bus back down Maple Avenue, in order to get back to the Vienna Metro?

Nobody’s going to do that.  But our Town government is happy to lie about that, if that fraud means somebody else will pay for the proposed shopper/diner parking garage at the Patrick Henry Library.

On top of committing fraud against the taxpayer by lying about commuter use of this garage, this item has several other features worth noting.  All of which I’ve touched on before.  It’s more-or-less a microcosm of … well, pretty much how I view Town government.

  • Keep Town Council/Public in the dark.  There’s no copy of the staff presentation in the Town Council meeting materials.  This is now standard operating procedure by the Department of Planning and Zoning, and serves to keep both Town Council and (particularly) the public in the dark as long as possible.  Consistent with SOP, if anyone on own Council dares to slap their wrist over this (yet again), DPZ will offer to send them a copy after-the fact.  And the public?  Anything sent out with the meeting packet itself has to be public information, by law.  But if they don’t send it out?  Well, you peasants can FOIA it if you want to have a copy of it.  You can see my writeup of this tactic, as the new norm, in the middle of Post #480, which discusses FOIA issues in general.
  • Ask for a rubber-stamp approval.  Heck, they didn’t even bother to provide a copy of the two items that the Town is backing with this resolution.  I.e., the story here seems to be “just say yes, you don’t need to bother your little heads about the details of what you’re endorsing”.  If that’s not the definition of rubber-stamping something, I don’t know what is.  (And note that the story about the garage continues to change, see below).
  • We’re already overspent the capital budget.  The Town is already so over-spent on its capital budget that it needs this free shopper-diner garage, or it’ll have to scramble to find the money.  So Town Council has no choice but to endorse the fraud.  (See, e.g., Post #504, Post #488, Post #485.)
  • The story keeps changing.  The number of “commuter” parking places in this proposal is less than the number in the prior funding proposal the Town Council approved for the NVTA.  (Versus this new funding proposal, to the NVTC — see last item).  Arguably, that’s because the last proposal, for money from a different local government agency, was totally absurd.  So our story about these fictional commuter parking places continues to morph, even as we apply to additional entities to pay for them.  (See, e.g., Post #447, Post #446).
  • The only option on the table is just plain ugly, but nobody will object.  The only viable parking garage plans result in a new library that squats under a parking garage.  See illustration, and see, e.g., Post #367, Post #369, Post #371, Post #372.
  • Ready-fire-aim.  The Town will, eventually, get some consultant in to tell it how many parking places it actually needs.  But only after it has already funded both a Church Street “commuter” garage and this Patrick Henry “commuter” garage.  Call me cynical, but I bet the consultant ends up telling the Town that it somehow, though sheer guesswork, funded exactly the right number of spaces, whatever that number turns out to be.  (See, e.g., this post or Post #481 for discussion of other ready-fire-aim studies, or Post #510 for the parking study, or this post from a year ago about the economic development plan that will justify MAC zoning after-the-fact.  The point is, ready-fire-aim is the Town’s normal mode of operation in this arena.)
  • Ludicrous cost. The current lie (to NVTC, as opposed to the previous lie, to NTVA) is now stated as a request for $5.5M to buy 84 “commuter” parking places, or $65,000 per putative commuter parking place.  That’s exceptionally expensive, and doesn’t even factor in a reasonable utilization rate (i.e., doesn’t even account for the fact that commuters aren’t going to park there).  See e.g. Post #447 for how the “commuter” garage cost-benefit analysis ought to be done.
  • We have two local government agencies handing out cash?  Where do I stand in line?  Yes, the first application was to the NVTA.  That’s the organization we suckered into paying for half the Mill Street Garage 59% of the Church Street Garage, or whatever-the-heck portion of whatever-the-heck actually gets built, if anything.  (See Post #491 for explanation.)  I mean, it’s the taxpayers’ money, so it’s not like anybody needs to care about it, or anything.  So, whatever. Noted above, we’ve already put in an application to NVTA, promising that all the parking places in this new garage will be for commuters (Post #446).  But this new application, for funding the same garage, is to NVTC, and I don’t think we’re promising every space is a commuter space.  (But how can I tell, since there’s no copy of the actual proposal posted.)  In any case, we haven’t scammed them yet.  In short:  Two different taxpayer-financed tax spigots, two different applications.  The names are so alike that staff stumbled over the acronyms at the last Town Council session on this.

Except for that last point, I’ve documented all of this before, so I don’t see the need to write this up again.  Read the prior posts if you want the details.