May 24, 2017

Audit of Arlington County Fire Department's Ambulance-Process

A news story in today's Arlington Sun Gazette tells about the reforms to the Arlington County Fire Department's (ACFD) ambulance-process.

According to the Sun Gazette:

"Arlington public-safety personnel and their families have lost a perk that county officials acknowledge most probably should not have had access to in the first place.

"As a result of an audit of ambulance-billing services conducted last year, the Arlington County Fire Department has eliminated its practice of “courtesy waivers” of the cost of ambulance service to county personnel and their families.

“It went adrift,” acknowledged Fire Chief James Bonzano, who told County Board members that the original policy had applied to personnel transported to the hospital in what were expected to be workers’-compensation cases.

"Bonzano, who was named fire chief a year ago, said the department already had held discussions about eliminating the waivers before then-auditor Jessica Tucker singled out the policy in a review of ambulance-billing issues.

“We turned the ship around,” Bonzano said of the policy.

"Arlington long has charged for ambulance transport, and the fees are not insubstantial, ranging from $500 to $850, plus $12 per mile. Annually, the fees bring in about $3 million to county coffers.

"Tucker’s audit of ambulance billing was the only one finished during her five-month tenure in office. She departed later in 2016 for a job in California, and was replaced by Chris Horton, who had been an auditor with Fairfax County Public Schools.

"The ambulance-fee review brought up a number of other issues, including the relationship between the fire department and the billing contractor, and the agreement between the fire department and county treasurer’s office, which handles delinquent bills."

The Fire Chief reports, "All the recommendation have been implemented."

The Sun Gazette concluded their reporting by noting:

“This audit is really the first fruits of the new county auditor position,” said County Board member John Vihstadt, who with board chairman Jay Fisette serves on the panel overseeing the auditors’ work.

"Vihstadt praised the fire department for 'fine work' in implementing the recommendations."

Do you want to know more about the audit of the Fire Department's ambulance billing process? Do you want to know more about the work of the County Auditor? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 23, 2017

A Thought about the Peoplel Fit to Govern

"It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than people fit to govern others."

~ Lord Acton

Source: Lord Acton Quote Archive, Acton Institute.

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton, (born January 10, 1834, Naples [Italy]—died June 19, 1902, Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany), English Liberal historian and moralist, the first great modern philosopher of resistance to the state, whether its form be authoritarian, democratic, or socialist. A comment that he wrote in a letter, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” today has become a familiar aphorism. He succeeded to the baronetcy in 1837, and he was raised to the peerage in 1869. (Britannica.com).

May 22, 2017

Federal Environmental Prosecutions Fall to Record Low

A report released today by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University, says:

"The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during the first six months of FY 2017 the government reported 152 new environment prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 304 for this fiscal year. According to the case- by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), this estimate would be the lowest ever recorded since the Justice Department started tracking its environmental prosecutions over two decades ago. (emphasis added)

"The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with environment-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Year-to-year comparisons suggest that FY 2017 prosecutions will be down 22.6 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 393. This assumes trends are unchanged for the remainder of this year. See Table 1.

"Compared to five years ago when there were 612 new prosecutions filed, the estimate for FY 2017 environmental prosecutions is down 50.3 percent. Prosecutions over the past six months are also much lower than they were ten years ago when the annual number of defendants accused of breaking criminal environmental laws peaked at 927.

"The long term trend in environment prosecutions for these matters going back to FY 1997 is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of environmental prosecutions recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars."

The following chart was part of the TRAC report:

 

By category, most prosecutions were for "environmental crimes related to protecting the nation's wildlife. Of the 152 prosecutions in the first six months of FY 2017, 14 involved prosecutions of businesses; the rest involved individuals. Two agencies -- Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency were responsible for almost 70% of the referrals.

The Pew Research Center reported on December 14, 2016, "Most Americans favor stricter environmental laws and regulations." Specifically, Kristen Bialik writes:

"A majority of U.S. adults (59%) say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, compared with roughly a third (34%) who say such regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, according to the survey, conducted Nov. 30 to Dec. 5."

She also wrote that adults favoring stricter environmental regulation can vary by state. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed, she wrote, that people "living in states with relatively high per capita incomes . . . are more likely to support stricter environmental regulations."

Could it be that during the past eight years, federal bureaucrats were so concerned with saving the planet from global warming that they fell asleep at the wheel, failing to adequately protect the public from other significant environmental issues, e.g., the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the toxic water spill into Colorado's Animas River?

Are you satisfied that your representatives in Congress are effectively representing your views on the environment? Are you satisfied your representatives are providing effective oversight of the agencies charged in protecting the environment? Have you provided your Congressional representatives your thoughts about the environment recently? If not, Growls readers are urged to take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives. Contact information is available at the Library of Congress' Congress.gov. Taxpayers living in Virginia's Arlington County can contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Don Beyer (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

Ask for a written response. And tell them ACTA sent you.

For more information about the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), click here.

May 21, 2017

Federal Government Wasted at Least $144 Billion in 2016

Susan Jones of CNS News reported on Thursday, May 18, "Improper payments by the federal government are costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year – more than a trillion, if you add them up over the years, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday." She added that Dodaro said, "These are payments that should not have been made or were made in the wrong amounts,” in his opening statement.

In addition, Jones reported:

"The problem is growing, he said, from $125 billion in 2014; to $137 billion in 2015; to the most recent estimate of $144 billion in 2016. “This includes estimates for 112 programs at 22 federal agencies, so it is a pervasive problem,” he added.

"Since 2003 – when Congress required many executive departments and agencies to estimate the amount of improper payments annually – the cumulative total is estimated to be “in excess of $1.2 trillion,” Dodaro said. “So it’s a significant amount of money.”

"Dodaro said three big federal programs – Medicare, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit -- account for most (75 percent) of the improper payments. “But there are a number of programs across government where this problem is an issue,” he said.

"And the problem is worse than the numbers indicate, because 18 “risk-susceptible” programs – including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- do not report estimates at all. SNAP (food stamps) stopped reporting in 2015. And the $144 billion in 2016 does not include estimates from the Defense Department, which could be a sizeable number, Dodaro said.

"Dodaro said the issue of improper payments “is an area that I believe requires additional and more aggressive congressional oversight.”

"In the case of welfare payments – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – Dodaro said the Department of Health and Human Services believes it lacks the statutory authority to ask the states for information to estimate improper payments."

The problem, unfortunately, is probably worse. For example, Jones writes, "SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, reported improper payment estimates through 2015, “and then they identified a problem with the quality of the information” in 42 of the 53 states and territories. Dodaro said he expects SNAP to resume making estimates once they fix the problems." In addition, she points out, "The Defense Department’s estimates of improper payments 'aren’t accurate' because the department does not 'document the full universe of transactions.'"

She includes the following chart that breaks down the "improper payments."

   

Are you satisfied that your representatives in Congress are providing sufficient oversight of your tax dollars? Have you provided your Congressional representatives your thoughts recently? If not, Growls readers are urged to take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives. Contact information is available at the Library of Congress' Congress.gov. Taxpayers living in Virginia's Arlington County can contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Don Beyer (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

Ask for a written response. And tell them ACTA sent you.

For more information about CNS News, read here.

May 20, 2017

Arlington County's Own "Field of Dreams"

We growled on February 26, 2014 after the Arlington County Board, the previous evening, authorized $6.6 million for construction of a year-round homeless facility that will be "located on the second and third floors of 2020-14th Street." The contract was authorized "in an amount not to exceed $5,508,274, plus a contingency of $1,101,655, for a total contract authorization of $6,609,929," according to the Board's February 24 recessed agenda (recessed item 12)."

And two years later, what do we have? In this week's Arlington Sun Gazette (page 3), Scott McCaffrey reports, "New regional data suggest that Arlington's efforts to eradicate homelessness will not be a straight line down to zero."

McCaffrey continued, writing:

“We have a long way to go – homelessness is still a serious problem,” said Kathleen Sibert, CEO of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN), after new figures from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments showed a 33-percent increase in the number of homeless in Arlington, from 174 in 2016 to 232 in 2017.

"That growth, which came after years of declines, put Arlington outside the mainstream of other regional jurisdictions, which saw their homeless counts either stay flat or decline between 2016 and 2017.

"Regionally, a total of 11,128 people were noted as homeless in 2017, down 9 percent from the year before, based on a count taken Jan. 25 and reported May 10. Figures represent both those living in shelters and those on the streets.

"Arlington’s efforts to eliminate homelessness over a decade-long time frame seemed to be moving in the right direction until the most recent figures were handed down. Homelessness in the county had been cut more than in half prior to the recent spike.

"In a statement, Arlington government officials described the change from 2016 to 2017 as a “slight rise” – perhaps an odd phrase for what was a one-third increase.

"Sibert, whose organization runs Arlington’s year-round homeless-services center under contract with the county government, said the higher number for 2017 was caused, in part, because of a larger number of families in local shelters, and because more people were using the government’s hypothermia shelters due to extreme cold when the count was taken.

"Overall, she said, the trend remains positive."

Your humble scribe had an opportunity to weigh-in on the latest homeless counts from the Metropolitan Council of Governments (MWCOG):

"But Tim Wise, who heads the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, wondered aloud if the new homeless-services center may be serving as a magnet.

"While Arlington officials say those from other jurisdictions are not allowed to use its services, Wise is dubious.

“Build a homeless shelter, and the homeless will find it,” he said."

Check the table, which McCaffrey includes with his article for  the homeless counts of the nine jurisdictions in MWCOG's annual effort. Here's the link to the 125-page 2017 MWCOG report and archive of earlier annual reports.

Arlington County's May 12, 2017 press release includes the following two paragraphs:

“We believe that the increase in Arlington’s numbers this year do not reflect the long-term trend in our County,” said Arlington County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol. “Since 2008, when we launched the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, Arlington has cut its number of homeless persons by more than half. We’ve made great strides in housing veterans and chronically homeless individuals and families,” she said. “We have a strong continuum of care, which includes County programs and community partners and supports our goal of ensuring that every individual and family in Arlington should have access to decent, affordable housing.”

"Cristol, who is the Board liaison to the County’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness effort, said she was encouraged by the decline in homelessness regionally. “That decline was achieved through programs like shelter diversion and homelessness prevention, which have been drivers of our success here in Arlington. At the same time, the regional data highlights our greatest challenge: the need to increase the supply of affordable housing available to the lowest-income households.”

Are you concerned about the operation of the homeless shelter?  About the cost? About the public safety? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 19, 2017

How About Rethinking How You Tax Arlingtonians

At the Arlington County Board's recessed meeting on Tuesday, May 23, the Board is being asked (agenda item #38)to adopt amendments to the Code of Arlington County "to increase the residential utility tax rates" that will become effective July 1, 2017.

Earlier today, we learned from the Arlington Sun Gazette:

"Higher Arlington taxes on electricity and natural gas will not have much of an impact on those who use little energy for their homes, nor on those who use a lot.

"Those in the middle, however, will see their tax bills rise slightly under changes coming to Arlington starting in July.

"Under the plan, set for adoption by County Board members, the current local residential electricity tax of 0.341 cents per kilowatt-hour will rise to 0.5115 cents, while the current residential tax on natural gas of 3 cents per 100 cubic feet (also called a “therm”) will rise to 4.5 cents.

"All told, county officials expect to bring in an additional $652,000 from the higher tax rates."

Interestingly, the Sun Gazette noted, "What percentage of households do not use enough energy in a given month to trigger any tax? Arlington officials say they don’t have precise enough information to provide specifics, but do have some informed guesses."

The report to the Board for agenda item #38 includes a chart comparing residential utility tax rates and minimums in Northern Virginia for FY 2018.

The Manager even spells out how the $652,000 will be spent:

The estimated $652,000 increase in revenue from this recommended change in residential utility tax rates was included in the FY 2018 adopted budget and was allocated to personnel costs related to shifting a Principal Planner (1.0 FTE) from the General Fund to the AIRE program ($150,000); consultant expenses associated with energy analysis and modeling for a review of the CEP in 2018 ($100,000); and with the remaining $402,000 used for increased investments in energy efficiency in County and APS facilities. In FY 2018, APS will receive $303,832 under the Principles of Revenue Sharing agreement from the increase in this local tax."

But remember, the Arlington County Board is concerned about your tax burden since the Manager reports, "Arlington remains the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia that excludes the first 400 kWh of electricity usage and the first 20 CCF of natural gas usage from taxation. Arlington also remains the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia that does not impose a monthly minimum tax on consumers."

Never fear your tax dollars have not been abused. The Manager reports the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy (AIRE) program has operated for more than 10 years and "significant progress has been made." He even provides a "sampling of major accomplishments, e.g., a "10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from County operations."

Are you concerned with how Arlington bureaucrats use the utility tax revenues they extract from Arlington County taxpayers? For example, for so-called efficiency rebates, or for light bulb exchanges or for "innovative educational programs like the Energy Journey?" If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

May 18, 2017

A Thought about the Art of Government

"In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other."

~ Voltaire

Source: page 92, "As Certain as Death: Quotations About Taxes," 2010, compiled by Jeffrey L. Yablon, TaxAnalysts.com.

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According to Britannica.com, "Voltaire, pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet (born November 21, 1694, Paris, France—died May 30, 1778, Paris), one of the greatest of all French writers. Although only a few of his works are still read, he continues to be held in worldwide repute as a courageous crusader against tyranny, bigotry, and cruelty. Through its critical capacity, wit, and satire, Voltaire’s work vigorously propagates an ideal of progress to which people of all nations have remained responsive. His long life spanned the last years of classicism and the eve of the revolutionary era, and during this age of transition his works and activities influenced the direction taken by European civilization."

Several You Tube histories of Voltaire are also available, including a 36-minute one here.  Another, nearly two-hour one on Voltaire's philosophy, according to Will Durant, is here.

May 2017
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Items in Growls are written by individual ACTA members and do not necessarily represent the views of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, Inc. Please send comments about Growls to The Growl Meister