Zimmerman Runs on His Decade of Service

(Tuesday, October 24, 2006 6:36 AM EDT)
Should Arlington residents be worried about their county's fiscal health and apparent lack of affordable housing? County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman doesn't think so.

In an interview, Zimmerman stood by his efforts to address both issues, and intimated he thinks Arlington is moving in the right direction.

“We can't meet needs for everyone,” he said. “[But] I'm optimistic that we'll maintain the highest quality human services and a low tax burden.”

A Democrat, Zimmerman was first elected in 1996 to fill the term of Mary Margaret Whipple, who was elected to the state Senate. He won re-election in 1998 and 2002. This year, he is opposed by Republican Mike McMenamin and Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner.

First elected as a fiscal moderate, Zimmerman this year became the first County Board chairman to preside over a $1 billion budget. This year, the county government is asking voters to approve $207 million in bonds, another record.

To Arlington residents who might be wary of all the money being poured into county projects, he said he recognizes that Arlington has many projects in the works, but that the board has already slowed down on starting new ones.

“In reality, the capital improvement plan is going as expected,” Zimmerman said in a recent interview with the Sun Gazette.

The County Board traditionally sends its bond referendums to voters in alternate Novembers, and some critics - including the Arlington County Civic Federation - openly have voiced concern that some bond projects are being rushed to the voter.

Zimmerman said he thinks the schedule for sending the bonds is fine. He said the bond referendums are “just asking permission” of voters, not spending the money right away.

“When voters vote for a bond, that doesn't mean they're going to be issued,” he said. “We're not going to sell the bond until we're ready to go.”

Sometimes, however, being “ready to go” takes time - funding for the Cherrydale fire station was approved more than a decade ago, but nothing has been built. In the meantime, costs have escalated, and county officials have had to come back with supplemental requests on a number of bond projects.

While county staff members privately have voiced concern in recent months that the combination of a cooling real estate market and high levels of spending will lead to a government cash crunch, Zimmerman said the cooling residential homes market could have a positive effect.

“The real estate market has been constraining,” Zimmerman said. Because there was faster residential growth than there was commercial growth, homeowners were bearing more tax burdens than their commerical counterparts, he said.

The turnaround, he said, “is a good thing.”

Zimmerman said he views the loss of affordable housing as being the result of Arlington's high quality real estate.

“We can't be pushing harder than we are [for affordable housing],” he said. “But if you have a great school system and great transportation, of course more people are going to want to live here.”

The current board chairman's relationship with the development community has been strained in recent years, and the county government has found itself on the losing end in the courts and state legislature when it has had disagreements with the business community.

He acknowledged the county government's sometimes troubled relationship with developers.

“There's an inherent tension because we don't represent the developers. We represent the community,” he said.

Because state law gives landowners significant inherent development rights, sometimes the county government must work with developers to get the best deal for the community, Zimmerman said.

On the development front, the County Board recently had its knuckles rapped by the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the board broke its own zoning rules in approving a plan to turn part of the First Baptist Church of Clarendon site into affordable condominiums.

Zimmerman said the board simply followed the counsel of County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac on the matter.

“We didn't do anything in opposition to our attorney's advice,” Zimmerman said. “We were trying to achieve broad community goals, and we weren't able to make everyone happy.”

* He said he is a strong advocate for small businesses. Finding alternative locations for businesses driven out by new development is a priority.

* He supports the building of the estimated $120 million Columbia Pike streetcar system. He said he believes that within the broad scheme of transportation costs, $120 million is a relatively small figure.

* He recognizes that the lack of affordable housing in Arlington is also a regional matter. He is open to more collaboration with the surrounding Northern Virginia jurisdictions to lessen the housing problem.

* He believes strongly in making sure there are safe routes to school.

* He advocates for tax relief for the elderly residents in Arlington.

* He thinks that the federal and state governments should take more responsibility in areas such as law enforcement, transit and health services.

Zimmerman lives with his wife, Mary Beth, and their children in Douglas Park. His campaign Web site is www.chriszimmerman.org.

County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman

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