Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My Prolonged Absense

This is simply a post to let you all know that I'm still alive.  My semester at George Mason was far busier than I had initially anticipated it to be, and therefore I've been unable to write.  I have several things in progress to post when I'm through with this semester, but unfortunately do not see that I will be able to get them up until May.  Watch for a series of entries on transportation in Loudoun and the continued model of low-density residential development in Loudoun. 

In the meantime, go check out some older entries in my non-political blog www.2nd100k.com.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Code of Ethics--Why Bother?

On the surface, voluntary codes of ethics are a good thing.  They signal to a constituency that a particular group of individuals will hold themselves to a higher standard.  The reality is, they're meaningless if there is no enforcement mechanism.

As far as the Loudoun board of Supervisors deciding not to have a code of ethics during this term, my thoughts are this:  while implementing a code of ethics is a good PR move, if it's not going to be enforced, and the politicians are planning on acting unscrupulously whether or not there is one in place, it really doesn't matter if they have one or not.

The fact of the matter is this, several fields do not employ codes of ethics, including my own; Economics.  Generally speaking, the only true value of a code of ethics is simply the piece of paper it's written on, especially if it's unenforceable, as they have been historically with the Loudoun Board of Supervisors.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Preserving our Rural Heratige

Economic Terms Used in this entry with definitions:

Economic Profit: Economic profit arises when revenues exceed the opportunity costs of the production inputs.  This differs from accounting profit in that in most industries the economic profit is zero.

Opportunity Cost: The cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best use of that resource...for example, my opportunity cost of my time for writing this blog entry is watching Season 3 of Big Bang Theory on DVD.

I'm a huge proponent of preserving the rural heritage in Loudoun County.  However, the conservation groups are going about it all wrong.  While I strongly believe conservation has a place, forced conservation through regulation is highly inefficient and not the best way to achieve the goal.

Piedmont Environmental Council, for example, while part of what they do is a great means to the end of protecting land in Loudoun (they run a highly successful program of establishing conservation tracts of land in Loudoun) part of what they do is ineffective.

At present PEC has set up land easements and has conservation pledges for nearly 50,000 acres of land in Loudoun.  Between PEC and the Virginia Outdoors large swaths of Loudoun are protected from ever being developed.  This, however, is only the beginning.

One thing the advocacy organizations fail to realize however, is the single most effective means of protecting land is by buying it.

Let's take a hypothetical.  If I own 100 acres of land in Loudoun County and I want to sell it, I list it on the market.  If the bidding is blind, and I don't know who is bidding on my land, or what they're planning on doing to it, I'm going to sell it to the highest bidder, and what they do with the land is their prerogative.  As soon as I sign the deed, what happens to that land is none of my business.  Through the markets, we can easily determine the most effective use for that land be it conservation or development.  The most effective use is whatever the highest bidder for that land is going to use it for.

Let's say a conservationist feels protecting the aforementioned land is worth $1 Million.  That conservationist will bid up until the point that the price of the land reaches $1 Million.  If a developer, however, will see $10 Million in economic profit (There is that term listed at the beginning of the blog...) by buying that 100 acres and turning it into 100 new homes, the developer will be willing to bid up to $10 million for the same property, assuming that their economic (not accounting) break even point for the development is at $10 Million.  In this case, the developer will clearly win the bidding for that property, and will end up developing it.

A quick search through PEC's website revealed that their annual budget is approximately $4 Million.  With that $4 Million budget PEC could conceivably purchase and protect permanently a few hundred acres annually.  If PEC chooses to lease that land back to local farmers, or chooses to re-forest the land and create wildlife refuges on it, that's their choice once they own it.  Where I differ with PEC is they should not be using the courts to tie up development on land that they did not have any interest in purchasing.  Not only is it a waste of their finite resources because more often than not they fail to prevent development (See: One Loudoun, Kinkora, etc...) but they're tying up resources they could be using to buy and permanently protect land, the latter of which is their stated mission and goal.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Those Pesky Window Stickers...

Those of you in Loudoun County are familiar with the annual late September ritual of renewing the window sticker for your car/truck/motorcycle/RV or whatever other motorized means of transportation that you and/or your family own.

$33.00 isn't a huge amount of money to spend on a mandatory means of showing pride in your county, so you write the check; stick it, along with the little stub in the envelope, affix a stamp to it, and wait for 30 days until the new sticker comes in the mail.  When it does finally arrive, you take it out to the car, remove the old one (hopefully you remembered to fold back a corner on the one you put on last year, otherwise removing the thing is going to be a pain.) and stick the new one on (remembering to fold back a corner for ease of removal next year).

Some of you (the author of this post included) are procrastinators who wait until the last minute to go in person to do it at the Loudoun County treasurer's office.  So I got to thinking, how much does it cost us to administer the sticker program as a county annually?  Please don't flame me, I searched the entire 2012 Loudoun budget to see if I could figure out how much the decals cost as opposed to what they bring in but it wasn't in there at all, so the best I can do are estimates using similar items that I know what they cost.

General rough calculations including labor, are that it will cost the county approximately $2,000,000 to administer the calculation.  This is based on a lot of assumptions made by me, and a lot of estimations as well.  Using Loudoun's current population of approximately 300,000 the program will bring in approximately $10,000,000 annually assuming each resident owns on average one vehicle.  Overall, that means the program is an efficient use of county resources.

The big question though is this:  How much of that $10,000,000 could still be brought in if we eliminated the stickers?  My guess is by switching the decal fee to a "Annual Registration Fee" with no sticker at the same price we would still collect most of the $10,000,000 anyway, but we would cut the cost of the program by almost 100%.  The argument the county will give is that the sticker is necessary to enforce the property tax ordinance.

Why is the decal necessary to enforce property taxes anyway?  The fact of the matter is this:  it isn't.  The property tax system is entirely computerized.  Knowing what I know about computerized databases, it's easy to pull a list of people who are presently delinquent on their taxes. Our county has all the information they need to find the vehicle that is delinquent on taxes, and plenty of law enforcement and legal mechanisms for dealing with delinquent property taxes, up to and including repossession.

By eliminating the sticker (as our neighbors to the east, Fairfax County, and several other localities throughout the state have done) and keeping the fee, the county will save money and time for both employees of the county and residents of the county.   Therefore, the sticker should be eliminated.

Update and Revision History:

12/2/2011 10:02 PM- Correct 2 grammatical errors from the original post.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Beginning.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia is an interesting microcosm.  Due to it's location, and demographics, it is very representative of the entire state of Virginia.  We have Eastern Loudoun, which typically thinks and votes more like Northern Virginia, and Western Loudoun, which thinks and votes more like the rest of the state.

One of the interesting things about Loudoun, however, is we have lots of policies that create winners and losers, primarily because the interests of people in eastern Loudoun are so different from the interests of people in western Loudoun.  For the purpose of this blog, I am going to call eastern Loudoun any part of the county that is east of US Highway 15, and western Loudoun any part of the county west of US Highway 15, although increasingly, the interests of those along Harry Byrd Highway west of Leesburg are starting to mirror the interests of those in the eastern part of the county as development spreads to and around the Purcellville area.

The differences between Eastern and Western Loudoun are so stark, that many times I've found people (sometimes ardent Republicans others die-hard Democrats) who agree more with people of the opposite party in their geographic region than people of the same party outside of their geographic region.  Because of this, my goal with this publication is to remain as politically neutral as possible, rather to look at the policies proposed for Loudoun, and analyze them with economic reasoning to determine whether the policies are good or bad.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, that means your politicians are going to be more heavily criticized on here than the Democrats, largely because at present time Democrats hold zero seats on our board of supervisors, so there is nothing I can really criticize the democrats for, although there were several items, especially the redistricting plan pushed by the Democrats.  So, Republicans, if you don't want me to only criticize you, make sure some Democrats get elected in four years.

While historically I have been a Democrat, and have voted Democratic, there are areas where the Democrats in Loudoun County have missed the mark economically speaking, so that being said, I expect to offend all sides equally.

That being said, items I'm planning on exploring in the first few weeks are how we have developed the county, plans for future development in the county, transportation in the county, policy suggestions for development, and of course, as the new Board of Supervisors gets sworn in I will be watching what they say and do closely for material among other things.

If you have any ideas please post them in the comments section.  This blog will be published semi-regularily, but I can't guarantee a time frame since I am a full time student, either for publication or for new material to hit me.  The best way to get these posts is for you to follow this blog.

Addendum: 12/1/2011- 8:22 PM:

For those unfamiliar with the geography of Loudoun a map of the county with roads and towns mentioned in this post can be viewed here.