Local Commentary

Editoral: Welcome to Fiscal Reality

We knew it was coming sometime, but the fiscal reality of the so-called housing crisis suddenly rose up and popped the Falls Church City Council on the nose Tuesday night, and it’s clear it will take them all awhile to get used to it. Suffice it to say, their handling of the crisis for the first time Tuesday was something short of elegant.

The matter was brought to the fore by the simple exercise executed by Council member David Snyder when the agenda item to transfer funds of about $241,000 for City Hall improvements came up. All he did, really, was set the proposed new expense in the context of a giant elephant sitting in the corner of the Council chambers. That was a just announced, projected $640,000 shortfall in the current year’s operating budget due to lower than anticipated residential real estate assessments. The news had been the subject of a special memo to Council members last week from the City’s chief financial officer. To wit, it seems the world we’ve been actually living with, and reading about in the papers for the last year or more, exists after all!

So while the Council was set on cruising through its agenda, and rubber stamping an earlier OK for the City Hall East Wing improvements, Snyder inquired about the deficit. He asked, “How can I sit here and vote to spend another $241,000 when we’ve just learned we face a $640,000 deficit?” What ensued was a half hour of verbal Keystone Cops, replete with denials that the two have any relationship to each other, insistence that this money is different than that money, and that the sky isn’t falling, or maybe it is. Ironically, it was the same chief financial officer who’d warned of the deficit last week that was at the microphone explaining the need for the transfer of funds that would make possible the City Hall expenditure.

He had to correct the strident assertions of some on the Council that the $241,000 could not be used to redress the $640,000 deficit, even if the Council wanted to. Yes, it could be, he said. He also noted that he was in discussions with the city manager (not present at the meeting) about programs to reduce the $640,000 deficit. Even more ominously, he suggested that the fiscal squeeze will be considerably worse, still, for the next budget cycle. Snyder asked, “Wouldn’t it be prudent to include the proposed City Hall expenditure among the cuts the city manager is considering?” It was a plausible question, but then the negative implications for the timetable of the City Hall improvements arose, giving the large majority on the Council the pretext it needed to spend the money as it had originally planned.

Citizens should note that when the measures are announced to close the $640,000 deficit gap, the Council had the option to delay the City Hall makeover to help mitigate them. But it acted without any consideration to what kinds of budget cuts would ensue.