Fairfax County, VA supervisor: Prioritize schools, pensions, not ‘bailing out a bank’

ARTS CENTER: Fairfax County is assuming a $30 million debt to save a failing arts center in Lorton. Photo courtesy of workhousearts.org.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — What do you do when your county’s outstanding debt is more than $2.5 billion, school buildings are aging and public pension obligations are burdening the future?

Not bail out a bank that entered into a bad loan deal on a failing arts center, says Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield District, the lone dissenting vote against a board of supervisors move this week to take on $30 million owed by what’s known as the Lorton Arts Center.

To make things worse, Herrity said the $30 million bailout the board voted for 9-1 won’t come close to solving the center’s financial troubles.

“We’ve got a lot of needs in the county right now, and bailing out a bank on a bad loan shouldn’t be at the top of the list,” Herrity said in an interview with Watchdog.org on Wednesday.

One of the nation’s wealthiest counties and the hub of many D.C.-related industries, Fairfax County and its 1.1 million population is an integral part of Virginia’s economy. But its size only magnifies its problems, revealing on a larger scale the issues facing so much of the rest of the state.

Fairfax County residents make up 13.5 percent of the commonwealth’s population, but account for

PRIORITIZE: Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity was the only supervisor to vote against taking on a $30 million debt of a failing arts center.

more than 20 percent of all local taxes collected, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service — meaning Fairfax residents pay more taxes than most. And yet, the county is still facing fiscal woes.

What are some of those problems?

“Clearly, I think that we’ve got huge capital requirements in terms of school and county construction and renovation,” Herrity said. “We’ve got huge pension obligations. We’ve got a declining commercial tax base. And those are the things that kind of keep me up at night that we need to address.”

So, with all those fiscal issues to handle, why would supervisors vote to keep the struggling arts center afloat? For one thing, a foreclosure on the center would have been an embarrassment for the county, which has already invested $16 million into the center since it was converted from a prison to an artist colony in 2008.

“The worst thing we can do at this point in time is let the Lorton arts center fall down after we invested $16 million in it,” Supervisor Jeff McKay, D-Lee District, said in Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.

The county worked out a deal with Wells Fargo to cut the loan owed by the Lorton Arts Foundation from $60 million to $30 million.

But the $30 million won’t solve the problem, Herrity said.

“Bailing out the loan doesn’t address the real issues in the long-term success of Lorton arts,” Herrity said.

The center is in a low-traffic area that doesn’t easily attract visitors. It needs construction improvements that the $30 million won’t address at all.

“Going forward, success depends on an events center that’s still going to require capital outlay,” Herrity said. “I mean, that wasn’t mentioned (Tuesday). But there’s still a capital outlay that’s going to be required in order for this thing to be successful, or have a chance of being successful.”

Herrity said other options — like monetizing some of the surrounding 56 acres the center occupies — need to be considered, not taking on more debt.

For now, assuming another $30 million in debt shouldn’t be a priority, Herrity said.

“I have a sense of frustration that we haven’t really solved the real issue at Lorton Arts, even with the $30 million bailout,” Herrity said.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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