Post #1496: Town of Vienna, am I the only one who hears a giant sucking sound?

 

If there’s any topic that’s more exciting than algebra, it has to be accounting.  So, close on the heels of my last post regarding the algebra of the real estate revenue increases, this this post is all about inter-fund transfers in the Town of Vienna budget.

That really gets the blood pounding, doesn’t it?

Let me rephrase that.  This post is about our water and sewer bills.  It’s about how the Town of Vienna has managed to siphon off an additional $1+ million dollars, from those water and sewer bills, between the budget three years back, and this year’s proposed budget, and use that money to fund general government services.

Who cares?

Well, the sharp increases in the Town of Vienna water and sewer bills were sold to the citizenry as necessary to fund much-needed repairs and maintenance of the sewer and water system.  Seems that there was a significant backlog of deferred maintenance.  And so, sewer and water rates were going to have to increase — a lot — or you’d risk catastrophic failure of our infrastructure.

You don’t want us to be the next Flint, Michigan, do you?

At least, that’s how I recall it.  I faithfully parroted that line in defending the initial increases in those rates.

But it’s more than that.  Not only do I not recall anybody saying those water and sewer bill increases would substitute for general tax revenues, I recall a sitting Town Council member going out of his way to deny, in a Town Council meeting, that that would ever happen.  No, the Town had no plans to subsidize the general cost of government with the sewer and water revenues, and anybody who raised that as an issue was just engaging in baseless speculation.

So, here we are, more than a million dollars of baseless speculation later, and ..

Well, to hell with it.  He said, she said, they said, we said.

Numbers.  Just shut up and do the numbers.

And there you go.  Taken from various Town budgets, for which I can supply citation as to document and page number if needed.

The upshot is more-or-less a game of two for you, one for me.  Rounding up, 40% of the increase in the water and sewer bills has gone into the general fund, to fund the general operation of government.

Virtually all of that is in the last three years, where, apparently, a policy decision was made to increase that transfer by a steady $400K a year or so.  To the point where the proposed transfer for FY 22-23 actually exceeds the projected increase in revenues.

Maybe I mis-remember this.  But three years of big increases in that transfer figure just leapt off the page.  That’s completely at odds with everything that I thought I recalled about this issue.

I’m sure the Town will have its own spin on this.  I’ve read what was in the budget this year, and near as I can tell, the explanation this year is “inflation”.   That’s pretty lame, and doesn’t explain the clear change in policy starting two years back.

That said, if I’m the only one who perceives that giant sucking sound, then the Town simply doesn’t have to care.

When it comes to sewer and water, they’re effectively an unregulated monopoly, supplying a good and service with almost completely inelastic demand.  They say it, we pay it.  And Vienna is so bouzhy that none of the people who matter are going to complain about a few bucks on the water bill.  Or what the Town does with that.  It’s just a price we pay for living in such an affluent town.

Post #1495: Town of Vienna, isn’t our Mayor a math teacher?

 

Last week we passed the first day of spring.  That means its time for our property tax and water bills to go up, here in the Town of Vienna.

This looks at the Town’s recent proposal for the real estate tax rate.  In particular, the Town is legally required to tell citizens how much their real estate tax bills are going up, on average.  And, four years into this new legal requirement, once again the TOV made a math error and got that materially wrong.

I’m not even sure why I bother to do this, at this point.  I guess, after four years, this is now a small-town tradition.

But, to me, it’s not really about the math error.  It’s that incidents of this nature seem to reveal that our elected representatives don’t read the details.  Nobody read this and said, hey, that doesn’t make sense.  How can our budget show property taxes going up almost four percent, but our notice to the citizens shows them going up just 1.6 percent?  It really wouldn’t take any more effort or attention to detail than that.  Read the one-pager, and see if it matches what is arguably the single most important number in the budget.

In theory, I’m supposed to be a good do-bee and just quietly inform the Town of the error in their latest notice. 

(Now let the pitch of your voice rise slowly as you read these next few sentences:)  But, four years into a task that requires a three-line spreadsheet to do correctly?  A task that’s a legal requirement for one of the Town’s most important revenue sources?  That can easily be checked four ways to Sunday?   And it’s still messed up?

I’m just not feeling the discretion this morning.  If you don’t want to read about it on the internet, TOV, check your math before you publish the notice.  I list four easy ways to do that, at the end of this posting.  Pick one, any one.  Chaos around this legally-required notice is entirely unnecessary.

It’s pretty clear that almost nobody in the citizenry cares about the taxes or the water bills.  Most are unaware of the timing, e.g., that the Town is in the process of setting the rates for the coming fiscal year right now.  Few show up for the (poorly-advertised but legally required) public hearings.  Some years, for the annual hike in the water and sewer rates, literally nobody shows up.

It’s equally clear that nobody bothers to check the math used in that legally-required real estate tax notice.  Except me.  FWIW.

So, in a very real sense, we have gotten the government we deserve.  And I’m talking to myself.

Which is liberating, because I don’t have to apologize for talking about the math.  Equations, even.  If you can’t stand the algebraic heat, stay out of my numerical  kitchen.

For the few of you out there that are still bothering to read this, the bottom line is that real estate tax bills, on existing properties, are going up an average of 3 percent, in the Town of Vienna.  The Town’s notice shows something around half that.  But that can be traced back to a math error.

The only real importance here is that this notice is a legal requirement.  The Town must, by law, inform its citizens of the coming tax increase.  If the Town materially misinforms the citizens, does that count?  Even if the citizens patently don’t give a crap?


Algebra

Background: Post #218,Post #1128.

A brief note on #218.  After being confronted by Town staff about that post, as I attended a Town Council meeting.  I did the reasonable thing and removed it, and then made light of that in a subsequent post.  I withdrew the post even though the numbers were right.  And now it’s deja vu all over again.  I’m no longer so sure that taking that down and making fun of myself, instead, was the right thing to do.  Why?  Because it’s four years later, and still, nobody checks the math.

The Commonwealth of Virginia requires that local jurisdictions show how much real estate tax bills will rise in the coming year.  Local governments have to do the simple math to combine the change in assessments, and change in the tax rate, and show citizens the bottom-line number:  How much will the tax bills increase, on average.

This is an obvious good-government measure.  Rather than present citizens with a bunch of gobbledygook, local governments must put all the pieces together on one page, do the math, and show citizens the one number that matters to them:   How much more will they have to pay.

While every other jurisdiction that I have looked at in Virginia manages to do this, we can’t seem to get this right, in the Town of Vienna.

The killer here is that concept really isn’t hard.  If assessments are going up 10%, and the tax rate is unchanged, then the notice has to end by saying that tax revenues are going up 10%.  By contrast, if assessments are going up 10%, and taxes are lowered to offset that fully, then the bottom line has to show that there will be no increase in total real estate taxes for the coming year.

Easy, right?

The second killer is that you can (almost) guess the correct number with a simple quick-and-dirty calculation. To get it exactly right, you need to do the math.  But to get close, all you need is a little common sense.  (And so, if you have made a material mistake in your algebra, it’s really, really, really easy to spot it.  If you care enough about it to check your work.)

OK, smart person, off the top of your head, if assessments are going up by 9%, and the tax rate is going down by 6%, how much will the tax bills increase?

If you guessed, um, like 3%?, then you’d be um, like, almost right.  Not four-significant-digits right.  But definitely in the ballpark.

The exact arithmetic is this:

  • Prior assessment * 1.09 * prior tax rate * 0.94  =
  • (Prior assessment * prior tax rate) * (1.09 * 0.94)=
  • Prior bill * 1.025

Or 2.5 percent higher.  So the simple guess was 3 percent, but the correct answer is 2.5 percent.  My point being that it takes more-or-less zero effort to get close.  And so you can easily have confidence in your algebra, if it comes out close to the simple-minded guess.

Let me just pull some numbers out of nowhere, and for no particular reason, redo that calculation for a 9.1 percent increase in assessments, and a 5.555 percent reduction in the tax rate.

New tax bill = old tax bill * 1.091 * 0.9444 = old tax bill * 1.03 = 3 percent increase in taxes.

Hold that thought, as we take a look at this year’s legally-required notice of the proposed real estate tax rate for the coming fiscal year, as posted with the materials from the last Town Council meeting (at this .pdf link).

Notice of tax increase 2022 for FY 22-23

In order to do the calculation, you need to know the current tax rate.  Which the Town of Vienna does not bother to list in that notice.  And never has.  So you have to find it in other Town documents, such as this one, to see that the current rate is 0.2250.

So, the data are:

  • Assessments are going up 9.1 percent.
  • The current tax rate is 0.2250 (dollars per $100 of assessed value)
  • The new tax rate is       0.2125 (ditto).

I’m not here to question the assessment data.  I’ll just accept that.  But, given those data, how much are real estate tax bills going to increase the Town of Vienna?

First, how much is the tax rate going to fall?  The new tax rate is 94.44% of the old one (.2125/.2250 = .9444, to four significant digits, same as the rest of the calculation).

Now do the simple calculation.  How much are tax bills going to go up, in the coming year?  What is 94.44% of 109.1% of current taxes?  It’s (.9444*1.091 = 1.0303), that is, …

Three percent higher, plus rounding error.

If the TOV notice doesn’t say that, then it’s wrong.  Because the entire point of that tax notice is to let the citizens know how much their tax bills are going up.

Well, nope.  The Town says that tax bills are only going up 1.6 percent.

That’s wrong.  That’s a bit over half of the actual number.  And please note, this isn’t an opinion.  It’s a calculation.  Aside from acceptable rounding error, there is no ambiguity here.  Either my math is wrong, or the Town’s math is wrong.

Now let me drag out the spreadsheet that I’ve used the past three years — and made public so that anyone could download it (say, to check their arithmetic) — and see what the prior “known good” calculation shows.

In the meantime, don’t be fooled by the arcane language of that paragraph.  Read the background posts if you want to know more.  But that is, in fact, where the TOV is supposed to tell citizens what the net change in the average real estate tax bill will be.

Or, if you just want to do a common-sense check:  Well, assessments are going up a little more than 9 percent, taxes are coming down a little less than 6 percent, so if you had to guess, you’d guess that the total tax bills are going to go up about 3 percent.

Here’s the exact calculation.  Same spreadsheet I’ve used for the past three years.  Same one that reproduces the calculations shown by other Virginia local governments, to within rounding error.  And when I do the formal calculation, I get what I now know is the correct answer, 3 percent.  That’s the second cell highlighted in yellow, below.

If you trace through it, all of the errors in the Town’s notice come from the fourth line — the revenue-neutral tax rate. Which, once again, is not hard to calculate.  If assessments are going up 9.1%, and the current rate is .2250, then the revenue-neutral rate has to be 0.2250/1.091 = 0.2062, to four significant digits.

The Town, by contrast, shows it as 0.2092.  Hijinks ensue.

But if you really want to drive yourself crazy, try comparing this official notice to what’s in the Town of Vienna proposed budget.  And you will soon see that the 1.6% in this notice contradicts what’s in the budget.  Apparently nobody, not even the folks voting on the budget, thought to compare this legal notice, for benefit of the citizens, to the actual budget numbers.

E.g., on page C2 13 of the proposed FY 22-23 budget, the town shows current and projected property tax revenues, from which you can calculate that the TOV projects a 3.9 percent increase in total property tax revenue.  (That seems approximately correct, because that includes the additional value from improvement of properties, including both replacing small existing homes with larger ones, and the big new buildings along Maple Avenue). (I will note that elsewhere, you can find yet different numbers, but those appear to apply to the median property, not to the average property).


Post mortem

So it’s not as if the TOV can’t do the math.  They just don’t seem to bother to check that the notice informing the citizenry is correct.  And, in a realpolitik sense, that’s entirely appropriate, because as far as I can tell, almost nobody in the TOV cares about the taxes or water bills.  Which is why I end up being the one to find an error, if there is one.

I count at least four easy ways to check the math.  There’s the quick-and-dirty test outlined above.  There’s the spreadsheet that I made available for download in prior posts.  There’s all the notices by other local governments, where you could load their data into your calculation to see whether or not you can replicate their results.  And there’s the simple comparison of what is said in this notice, and what is said in the Town’s own budget documents.

Anyway, the upside is that nobody (but me) cares.  So this has to be classified as annoying but harmless.  Anybody who actually cared about the rates could do the math themselves, I guess.  Actually, substitute “must” for “could”, and you’ll have a more accurate picture of the situation here in the TOV.

Post #1492: Ceci n’est pas un parc, or surrealism in the Town of Vienna

 

With apologies to the master of surrealist painting, René Magritte.  Source for image above, The Treachery of Images entry in Wikipedia.

In the spirit of surrealism, I offer you this post, Ceci n’est pas un parc.  Which I will roughly translate as “this here isn’t a park”.  And, according to a Town of Vienna official, stated clearly and unambiguously at the 4/18/2022 Town Council session, this tract I’ll be looking at, it’s not a park, it has never been a park, and those who keep calling it a park are just stirring up trouble.

Because, I repeat, the thing I am going to describe is not, and never has been a duck.  I mean park.  Even if, at some point, it appeared to have walked like one, quacked like one, and so on.


The subtle surrealism of the current Town of Vienna on-line Zoning Map.

Let’s start in the present, then look at some history.  Right here, right now, the Town of Vienna maintains a current(-ish) on-line version of its official Zoning Map.  This Map, in its official form, has significant Legal Implications for this, that, and the other.  But the on-line version is just so citizens can look up the status of a piece of land.

You can find that map by clicking this link to this this Town of Vienna web page.

If you look in the northern part of town, you’d see this.  The various colors represent different types of zoning in Vienna.

But there’s writing underneath the zoning layer.  If you strip off the zoning layer, you’d see this:

To save you the squinting, let me blow up the relevant portion.  The black annotation is mine.

How anyone could possibly have gotten the notion that the area in question was, at one time, called and considered to be a park, I cannot imagine.  If you are somehow so delusional as believe what is literally written on the Town’s own on-line zoning map, just keep repeating to yourself:  Ceci n’est pas un parc.  Because you’ve been told that is isn’t, and never was, a park.  Eventually you will believe it.

In all fairness, that’s not currently zoned as a park.  But “park” zoning is a recent phenomenon in the Town of Vienna. And that’s after the Town quietly decided it wanted to use that land for another purpose.

Instead, that’s called a park — on the Town’s current map — because — see below — that’s how the Town of Vienna classified it for decades, and that’s how it was used for decades.

If you wish to verify that the Town’s map actually says this, I suggest you hop to it.  This may disappear now that TOV officials are aware of it.  I just couldn’t resist pointing out the irony.  For as long as it lasts.

No, wait, scratch that.  That’s inconvenient.  Just keep repeating:  Ceci n’est pas un parc.

And, also to be fair, if zoning is the sole arbiter of park status, then the W&OD Park isn’t a park, either.  That’s the curved arc cutting through the middle of this view of the TOV on-line zoning map.

Apparently, once a zoning category for “park” was established (late 1990’s?), for whatever reason, the Town did not change the zoning on either of those.  I’m sure there’s some reason for it, in both cases.  Possibly the W&OD exists solely as an easement?  Beats me.  All I know is, it’s not zoned as a park.


Four decades of ancient history and the middle ages.

Before the Town adopted a separate zoning category for parks, the only way to tell that the Town considered a parcel of land to be park land was from the official Land Use Map.  That dates back into ancient history.   And then, at some point, in the Town of Vienna’s middle ages, that map became part of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Both of these have Significant Legal Implications for allowable land use in the Town of Vienna.

The oldest such map on-line on the Town of Vienna website is the 1957 Town of Vienna proposed land use map.  You can find that by clicking this link for the .pdf on the Town’s website.  The orientation is a bit odd, with Maple Avenue runs left-to-right in the graphic below, but you can probably recognize the shape of the-thing-that-was-never-a-park.   Apparently.  Despite the green color, well … the annotation says it all.

Source:  Town of Vienna 1957 proposed land use map, link given above, annotation in black mine.

If we fast-forward two decades, to the 1979 Town of Vienna official land use map (available by clicking this link to the Town of Vienna website), drawn during the Town’s Crayola Period, you’ll get yet another view of that thing which, despite clearly having been lovingly hand-colored in green crayon, is not and never has been a park.  Like so:

Source:  TOV 1979 official land use map, link cited above, annotation in black is mine.

You’ll have to trust me that every official map between those two tells the same story.  (And that I picked 1979 solely because it sorts to the top if you search for land use map on the TOV website.)

It doesn’t stop with the maps.  If you look at official inventories of park land in the Town of Vienna, in their five-year Comprehensive Plans, this same thing — that never was a park — somehow manages to end up on the list of parks, a counterfeit among all the real and true parks.

To understand the truth, you just have to be able to separate the true parks from the fake parks.  But that’s easy.  Allow me to demonstrate.

Just to pick one, like so, yet another couple of decades later, from the 1995 Town of Vienna comprehensive plan, you can find a tabular view of that thing which never was a park.   It somehow smuggled itself onto the Town’s official inventory of parks, with the word park attached to it.

Source:  Town of Vienna 1995 Comprehensive Plan, annotations mine.

See?  Easy-peasy.  Now, that was never a park.


Conclusion

So, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?   Remember, all I’m doing here is agreeing with the Official Party Line of the Town of Vienna.  How anyone in the Town of Vienna could possibly have gotten the notion that this was ever a park is just beyond me.  This was never a park, therefore all the people in that neighborhood who keep saying that are just a bunch of liars.   Trouble-making liars, at that.  Just keep repeating, Ceci n’est pas une pipe, or parc, or maybe duck, and eventually the you will able to double-think your way into total agreement with the official Town of Vienna position on this matter.

Post #1489: Town of Vienna, do you really think DPW routinely featherbeds?

 

Featherbedding (v):  The practice of hiring more workers than are needed to perform a given job, or to adopt work procedures which appear pointless, complex and time-consuming merely to employ additional workers.

Source:  Wikipedia

This is my usual TLDR posting style.  Just skip to the conclusion if you just want the bottom line of what I think I heard at the 4/18/2022 Town Council session on leaf collection and disposal.  With the understanding that it might be just so much wishful thinking. Continue reading Post #1489: Town of Vienna, do you really think DPW routinely featherbeds?

Post #1462: Town of Vienna and leaf collection, the TLDR version

The Town of Vienna is in the process of re-thinking its strategy for fall collection and disposal of leaves. There will be a public hearing at 8 PM this Monday (March 21, 2022), at the Vienna Town Hall.  You can find the background materials at this link on the Town of Vienna Granicus web page.

In this post, I will briefly summarize the facts of what the Town is considering.  Then I’ll make a few points that I plan to bring up at that public hearing.  These are, I hope, points that the Town may not hear from other sources. Continue reading Post #1462: Town of Vienna and leaf collection, the TLDR version

Post #1461: Town of Vienna, leaf collection, and my understanding of the facts.

The Town of Vienna is in the process of re-thinking its strategy for fall collection and disposal of leaves. There will be a public hearing at 8 PM this Monday (March 21, 2022), at the Vienna Town Hall.  You can find the background materials at this link on the Town of Vienna Granicus web page.

And, of course, I’ve already been forward the inevitable social media posting that gets all the facts wrong.   Because misinformation and disinformation is what social media is all about.

So let me start by just copying my response to an email that was forwarded to me.  I’ll do a more extensive post on this in just a bit. But the email more-or-less gets all my main points. Continue reading Post #1461: Town of Vienna, leaf collection, and my understanding of the facts.

Post #876: Town of Vienna, please see the forest through the trees.

This will be of no interest to anyone outside of the Town of Vienna.  Unless you are a student of how “silo thinking” can lead to truly inefficient decisions.

Let me cut to the chase.  The Town of Vienna is using a $16M piece of land to produce (arguably) $20,000 in annual cost savings to the Town.  Probably, less than that.  And using that in such a way that, in practice, prevents any better use of that valuable property for benefit of Town residents in general. Continue reading Post #876: Town of Vienna, please see the forest through the trees.

Post #832: Trick-or-Treat 2020, the Simplified Rules

Source: The Patch.

Homeowners / Candy Givers

  • DO place individual bags of candy in a location clearly visible to passers-by.
  • DO wave at trick-or-treaters from behind a window or glass storm door.
  • DON’T attempt to give out candy face-to-face.

Trick-or-Treaters and their families

  • DO go trick-or-treating with your family (only).
  • DO yell “trick-or-treat” as you take a bag of candy.
  • DO wave back at the homeowners / candy givers.
  • DO wave and say hello from a safe distance as you pass friends and neighbors.
  • DON’T approach a house unless bags of candy are clearly visible.
  • DON’T ring the doorbell or knock on the door.
  • DON’T accept candy face-to-face.

This is my proposal for a simple set of rules that allows for safe trick-or-treating during the pandemic.  Obviously, this is for families and homeowners / candy givers who choose to participate this year. Continue reading Post #832: Trick-or-Treat 2020, the Simplified Rules

Post #831: Madam Mayor, please step up to save Trick-or-Treating in Vienna this year.

Source: The Patch.

We have a Town government that makes a big deal out of our “small town” nature.  I’m not quite so sure they follow through on that in every instance. But they do enough to give that statement some credibility.

This year, in this pandemic, Town government needs to do something that can only be done by a government, in a small town:  Step up and save trick-or-treating this year, in the Town of Vienna.

So I guess this is a plea to our “One Vienna” Mayor Colbert.  We need a Town of Vienna guideline for what we should be doing.  (Why the italics on should?  That’s the whole point of this posting.)

This year, we need a new tradition that works in the changed world we are in.   We need one recommended, agreed-upon, safe approach that that lets kids go Trick-or-Treating, and that doesn’t end up causing yet more division and strife among the citizenry.  We need one official guide on how to Trick-or-Treat in the Town of Vienna this year.

Why?  Let me cut to the chase:  Are you a bad parent if you take your kids Trick-or-Treating?  Or are you a bad parent if you forbid your kids to go Trick-or-Treating?  How are your kids going to feel if you make them stay home, but other kids on the block went trick-or-treating and brought home gobs of candy?  And what are the respective parents, of those two sets of children, going to say to each other afterwards?

We need some simple, common-sense leadership here, so that we’re all on the same page.  We need an endorsed protocol, for the COVID-19 world.  Without that, as I discuss below, we’re already beginning to squabble over Trick-or-Treating.  And that’s just about the last thing we need.

Detail follows. Continue reading Post #831: Madam Mayor, please step up to save Trick-or-Treating in Vienna this year.

Post #828: Meanwhile, back in Vienna VA, I voted against the library bond referendum

I’ll just briefly explain why.  These are all issues that I documented more than a year ago.

The Fairfax County library bond referendum, on the ballot for the upcoming election, includes $23M for replacing the Patrick Henry Library, among other things.  The Town wants to put the new library under a parking garage, although in the final iteration they settled for just two floors of parking, not three as shown above.  I’m hoping they’ll rethink that decision. Continue reading Post #828: Meanwhile, back in Vienna VA, I voted against the library bond referendum