Don’t Forget the Bond Referenda

bond_referendum3by James A. Bacon

While the U.S. presidential election degenerates into a parody of a banana republic (I hope I’m not insulting banana republics by saying that), Virginia voters may be tempted to avoid the polls. Neither one of Virginia’s two U.S. Senate seats are up for bids, after all, and congressional districts are so gerrymandered that throwing out incumbent congressmen is next to impossible, so why bother? One reason to show up is make your voice heard in local bond referenda to finance local school projects, transportation initiatives and other public amenities.

The most significant votes this year will determine whether Virginia citizens want to continue pouring money into the dysfunctional yet mission-critical Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which has a $6 billion, six-year capital improvement campaign to upgrade creaky, unsafe infrastructure on Metro rail. Fairfax County’s designated share is $120 million; Arlington County’s is $30 million.

Pontificating from afar, I would expect Arlington citizens to approve the bond issue with little fanfare. The Metro is so central to the county’s transportation infrastructure that allowing the system to fail is inconceivable.

The story in Fairfax County is  different. Fairfax residents are far less dependent upon Metro than Arlingtonians. While a significant number do use rail to get to work, even more use the Dulles Toll Road. Many commuters resent how the state has jacked up fares on the toll road to fund construction of the Metro’s rail-to-Dulles extension — even while WMATA refuses to raise rail fares. While the political establishment has backed the Silver Line, many commuters are resentful that they are being singled out to pay for a commuter rail service they don’t use. It will be interesting to see if a populist backlash against the Silver Line manifests itself in votes against the WMATA-subsidy bonds.

Here in Henrico County, voters will be asked to vote on a $420 million package to support schools, parks, firehouses, libraries and roads. More than a third of the sum, $168 million, will be dedicated to modernizing and updating eight schools, the average age of which is nearly 57 years old. Another $100 million will go to relieve school overcrowding and increase program capacity.

Local media coverage on the bond issues has been negligible, and no one is asking questions like, why does the county need to spend $12.5 million to rehabilitate high school athletic fields with synthetic turf? Henrico County is rolling in the dough right now with more money than expected coming in from the meals tax enacted in 2013, so the county can support the bonds without raising the real estate tax rate. There’s nothing like a slew of new schools, libraries and fire stations sprinkled around the county to ingratiate county supervisors with voters.

In theory, the county could have used greater-than-expected meals tax revenue to fund the modernization of government processes that would save money, or, god forbid, reduce the BPOL tax as a spur to business and job growth. But there is no organized opposition to articulate alternative approaches, and Henrico government is generally perceived as well run, so the bonds probably will pass. Who knows, I might even vote for them myself.


  1. Larrytheg

    one thing about bond referenda in Virginia not well understood is the fact that the referenda are not required for the counties to borrow money. The bond referenda are, instead, what Virginia requires if the county is going to be able to use the full faith and credit – General Obligation Bonds to finance:

    here’s an excerpt from an FAQ for one referenda:

    ” 8. What are the consequences if the bond
    referendum is rejected by voters?
    If the voters do not approve the bond referendum, the
    County will not be able to use general obligation bonds
    to finance the four school projects in the referendum.
    An alternative form of financing would need to be
    identified or the scope and timing of the projects would
    need to be altered.”

    Now, if a referenda is soundly rejected, even though the county could, in theory, go ahead and borrow money and do the project anyhow – they risk potential consequences at the next election.

    Finally – while voters can vote yea or nay for meals taxes and such – they have no such ability on specific spending for capital projects unless the county decides to do a referenda. Citizens in Virginia do not have the right to initiate referenda themselves. The only referenda they can vote on are those that are put on the ballot by local and state elected.

    When counties borrow money without putting the question to voters – that ought to be a warning signs for voters because at the least – they are not borrowing money at the lowest rate which they would get with General Obligation financing.