Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Corporate Welfare for Northrop

It's nothing new, and both Republicans and Democrats do it, but it's still corporate welfare.

The latest, trumpeted as a feather in Bob McDonnell's cap (covering that lustrous hair of his), is the announcement that Northrop Grumman will be moving it's corporate headquarters to Northern Virginia.

The cost to the Commonwealth's taxpayers: $14 million.

Is it worth it? Let's see. The move only includes about 300 jobs, mostly of highly pampered executives who have been rumored to be seeking country club memberships in the incentives being offered for the move. These won't be new jobs for out-of-work Virginians--these will be executives moving here from California.

Northrop already employs tens of thousands of Virginians where the real jobs action is: in its manufacturing plants. Those jobs were not at stake.

So, $14 million for 300 people--hey, that's a nifty $50,000 apiece. What business in the Commonwealth wouldn't want a benefit like that? Heck, Governor McDonnell, why not devote the entire state budget to getting businesses here for $50 grand per employee--we bet it would work!

Of course, Northrop Grumman will generate some tax revenues of it's own. The estimate--from the people spending $14 mil to get them here--is that we'll get $30 million in tax revenue OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS.

Now, the first thing you need to know is that such estimates are always rosy. We'd love to see Guv'nor Bob's numbers. We bet it includes things like the gas taxes those 300 executives will ring up over the next 10 years.

Lest we limit our criticism to the GOP governor, however, it appears that the liberal Democratic bastions of Arlington and Fairfax are also falling all over themselves to get Northrop to put its corporate offices in their jurisdictions. A fine use for the kiddie sports tax the Arlington Board just approved.

Louisiana Oil Slick--It Could Happen Here

Now that the drill baby drill folks have succeeded in getting Virginia's offshore areas on the fast track for approval to prospect for oil, it's worth looking at the disaster unfolding off Louisana's coast in the wake of the huge oil rig explosion last week.

A massive oil slick is spreading off the Gulf Coast, growing daily as thousands of barrels of new oil pour forth from the devastated rig. Efforts to contain the slick have failed so far, putting Louisiana's (and other Gulf Coast states') fragile coastline at risk.

The amount of oil estimated to be off Virginia's coast is equal to a few weeks of total U.S. consumption.

Could a disaster like that lurking off the Louisiana coast strike Virginia. Of course it could. And it would only take one to negate the entire value and benefits to Virginians of any oil drilling off our coast.

Of course, by the time that happens, Bob McDonnell and his cronies will be long gone. It will be a future generation of Virginians whose beaches are at risk of being spoiled, whose livelihoods in the tourism, fishing, seafood and other businesses could be destroyed, and whose property values could be brought crashing down.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

From Wallowa To Arlington

We had occasion this past weekend to meet our soccer counterpart from Wallowa County, Oregon. It was interesting to compare notes.

Wallowa is on the northeastern corner of Oregon--the dry, open part of the state. It's a bit larger than Arlington (but aren't they all?):

Arlington = 26 sq. mi.

Wallowa = 3153 sq. mi.

So Wallowa has an area more than 100 times that of little ol' Arlington. Plenty of space for soccer fields!

When it comes to population, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Arlington, with roughly 210,000 residents, has 30 times the population of Wallowa, at about 7200.

Yet, Wallowa is soccer crazy. They have about 225 kids playing soccer there, compared to our 4500. Proportionately, they'd have about 7000 if they had Arlington's population!

It's all a matter of perspective. Ask elementary school soccer kids in Arlington to practice a mile from their school and we'll get a bunch of emails objecting. Of course, the way traffic is in Arlington, 1 mile could be 20 minutes.

In Wallowa, the teams often have to travel several Arlingtons away just to play each other in the regular County recreation league--ALL soccer in Wallowa is "travel" soccer! The Wallowa Valley Soccer Association has a nice website, however--one can't help but notice the barns and mountains in the background of the soccer fields.

Soccer in Wallowa is also a bargain: only $25 per player, less than half what we charge.

The great thing is that we put one of our third grade teams up against one of Wallowa's, the kids wouldn't miss a beat, quickly booting the ball around, having a good time--and wondering what the after game snack would be!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Arlington County's Misguided Kiddie Tax

One of the many hats the Curmudgeon wears these days is that of President of the Arlington Soccer Association. ASA serves more than 5000 kids in Arlington and Falls Church with various soccer programs and activities all year round, and is celebrating its 40th year of service to the community this year.

As President of ASA, the Curmudgeon has been spending quite a bit of time lately fighting against a youth sports player fee that is under consideration by the Arlington County Board. Bear with us here as we explain why this fee is unfair and bad policy. The County Board will decide the fate of the fee this Saturday. (If you want to reach them with your views, it's easy--you can email all five members at: )

The fee under consideration would be $8 per player per season starting with Fall 2010 sports. The fee was put forward by the Parks Dept. as part of its budget for the 2011 fiscal year. The Acting County Manager, however, did not include the fee in her proposed budget; instead, it was included as an optional "tier II" revenue item that the Board could adopt to add more money to the budget.

The rationale of the Parks Dept. for the fee was that it is necessary to implement a "cost-recovery" policy adopted last year by the County Board. That policy was adopted without the County Board ever having a public hearing on it, which is pretty unusual in Arlington.

The cost recovery policy itself, however, is pretty reasonable on its face. It says that the Parks Dept. should recover 65% of the direct costs of youth sports programs in the County. In other words, as a matter of policy, Arlington thinks youth sports are of sufficient importance to the community to merit up to a 35% taxpayer subsidy. So far, so good.

The problem is with how the Parks Dept. has interpreted the policy. Some youth sports programs, such as basketball, are run "in-house" by the Parks Dept. For those problems, the policy is pretty simple--figure out the cost of the program and then set fees so they will recover roughly 65% of the costs. (In fact, the Parks Dept. has set fees at a level where they recover nearly 100% of the costs of basketball; they now say they'll just let the fee stay the same for a few years until it gets closer to the 65% target.)

Other youth sports programs, such as soccer and baseball, are run by private, non-profit groups who are "affiliated" with the Parks Dept. through formal agreements. In those sports, the non-profit organization pays most of the direct costs of the program--referees, equipment, uniforms, administrative personnel, etc.--while the Parks Dept. provides facilities (fields, mainly) and pays the costs of maintaining those facilities and administering them.

In determining the cost recovery target for those affiliate programs, however, the Parks Dept, has completely ignored the direct costs paid by those programs, treating them as if they don't exist. Instead, the Parks Dept. has demanded that the affiliate programs cover 65% of the portion of their costs that are covered by the Parks Dept., using that as an excuse to propose the new player fee--assessed only against players in affiliate programs.

The Parks Dept. interpretation turns the cost recovery policy on its head. If all the costs of ASA's youth soccer program are added together, then the fees parents already pay--to ASA--for their children to participate cover roughly 80% of those costs, well above the 65% cost recovery target. But the Parks Dept. claims it gets 0% cost recovery for these programs because parents don't pay a separate fee to the Parks Dept.

Thus, a policy that was supposed to embody a strong community commitment to youth sports is used to REDUCE support for such programs and serve as the basis for a new tax on soccer and baseball parents.

The County Board could easily put a stop to this charade by stepping in and telling the Parks Dept. that is has misinterpreted the County's policy. But, hungry for revenue, at least some Board members have seemed to signal support for the new fee.

Mind you, if the fee is adopted, the money won't be used to enhance youth sports programs. To the contrary, it will go to restore budget reductions in other areas, such as tennis court lighting. This is a sore subject, because adults who play tennis in Arlington really do pay 0% of their costs--and that's the County's policy. (Likewise, users of the County's 8 dog parks--or "community canine areas"--pay no fees to use them either.)

In fact, the Parks Dept. has been reducing its support for affiliated youth sports over the past two years. First, it shifted field lining responsibilities to soccer and baseball. ASA didn't object to this given budget realities, but it did result in an additional $25,000/year expense for us--that's $5 per player. Then, in the current budget cycle, the Parks Dept. eliminated a stipend that had been used to cover insurance and other costs. Eliminating the stipend will cost ASA another $22,000/year--almost another $5 per player. Again, we did not object to this reduction, which amounted to 14% of the Parks Dept's costs associated with the youth soccer program. That's a big cut on top of the similar cut a year before--clearly ASA is feeling it's share of the budget pain.

At the same time, field maintenance has been reduced; new fees imposed for use of lights in the winter; higher fees extracted for summer camps we run. We understand this--times are tight and we have to do our share.

But adding a new fee just for players in affiliated youth sports is not fair. That's just a tax on those parents, with the money being used to fund other programs. We're not against the other programs, but the money for them should come from the County's general taxes, not a perverse tax on children's sports.

Some people in the Parks Dept., and in groups grubbing for the money, have argued that "it's only $8" as if it couldn't be that big a deal. But it's not "only $8." If you have three children, and they play the fall and spring seasons of soccer, and maybe a couple also play baseball or softball, it's more than $60. That's more than the average homeowner's tax increase based on the proposed new property tax rate.

And while some soccer parents--such as the Curmudgeon--could easily afford it, there's a lot of working class families that will find it quite a burden. Those are the families we don't want to lose. (The Parks Dept. says it won't impose the fee on families that qualify for financial aid, but our data show that many who would qualify don't apply, and there's concern about the paperwork burden.)

We hope sanity will prevail in the County Board this coming Saturday when it votes on the fee. A couple of Board members have indicated their opposition to it. We hope the rest will pay attention to the couple hundred emails they have received from soccer parents on this issue--just the tip of the iceberg. Surely Arlington County can achieve its budget goals without disproportionately penalizing children who play organized soccer on the County's fields.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Experts Are Forecasting An Actice Hurricane Season

Hurricane season officially begins on June 1, but now is the hurricane forecast season, when the so-called experts see if they can do better than a coin toss in predicting the severity (or lack thereof) of the coming season.

Historically, most of the April predictions are not much better than the flip of a coin, but there are reasons this year to worry about a severe season: in March, sea surface temperatures--one of the main ingredients of strong hurricanes--were at a record level for this time of year. Higher, indeed, than last June (the early part of last summer being quite calm in hurricane terms).

For the full scoop, check out Dr. Jeff Masters' summary HERE--if the experts are right, this could be a season like that of 2005!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Why Tiger's Doing Well At The Masters

As usual, the media had it all wrong, what with the conventional wisdom that Tiger would fare poorly at the Masters after his exile from golf and all the issues and emotions on his mind.

Yet, his first day was his best first day EVER at the Masters.

The reason is simple--think about it. This year, he doesn't have to worry about any girlfriends! One LESS thing on his mind. None of those intrusive thoughts--should I get her a gift? Should I text her (or sext her)? Should I try for a threesome? Will she still like me if I shoot a 74?

Nope, for once, Tiger's mind is clear and focused.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Disremembering History The McDonnell Way

So, this is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's idea of inclusiveness: reviving Confederate memorial month?

A certain segment of white southerners are quite romantic about the Civil War. We wish we could send them back there--that's Richmond, above. The reality would not be quite so happy.

Let's review. A small, but vocal, powerful and wealthy group of Southerners--plantation owners--perpetuated an economic system that could succeed only through the barbaric practice of slavery.

As an increasing number of people in states not dependent on this doomed to fail economic system began to clamor for its end, and an end to slavery, this small group of Southern planters manipulated their neighbors into succession and, ultimately, a civil war. More than 90% of southerners stood nothing to gain from either slavery or war.

Despite bold predictions that the Confederacy would succeed, and would prevail in war, succession was an UNMITIGATED DISASTER for the South. Millions of men were killed or disfigured; huge swaths of the South were laid waste to; cities were in ruins; families were torn asunder.

The end of the Civil War hardly brought an end to the ruin that had descended on the South. For another dozen years, federal troops occupied the South, much like American troops today occupy "liberated" Iraq. After the end of reconstruction, the South struggled economically for another 100 years.

It is true that ordinary Confederate troops--most with no stake in slavery--fought bravely against long odds in many battles. But the politicians who led them were fools, taking them down a disastrous path.

If you want to "commemorate" the civil war, do it with a burned out, falling down building occupied by scarred and disfigured people. That would be an appropriate memorial.

Bob McDonnell is the latest in a long line of Virginians who take foolish pride in the Commonwealth's most shameful period.