City Manager’s Call to Arms is Unprecedented
It was scene unlike no other in memory for the City of Falls Church. On a pleasant fall day yesterday, approaching the Community Center at 10 a.m., swarms of people were seen streaming out of City Hall and walking over to the center.
Others were moving from the parking lot.
For the taxpaying citizens of Falls Church, these 200 people represented the planning, zoning, inspection, finance, street maintenance, water utility, arborist and many other functions that make the City’s 2.2 square miles work every day.
With City Hall officially shut down for an hour, they gathered on folding chairs on the cushioned gym floor of the Community Center, and were quiet and attentive as City Manager Wyatt Shields stood to greet them all. Never before had the entire workforce of the City been pulled together like this, apart from a celebration, to hear some sobering words about where the City is heading in the face of the continued, cascading economic crisis gripping the region, nation and globe.
The morning’s headlines in the Washington Post reported that neighboring Fairfax County is planning, facing a $43 million revenue shortfall in the current year, a one-day furlough of all county employees. Another headline reported that Prince George’s County in Maryland is planning furloughs of two weeks for its employees.
Shields opened his remarks by saying there is good news. “There will be no reductions in force or pay cuts this year,” he said. He added that the pension funds for City employees will be maintained at full value, even if City taxpayers have to make up for losses in the stock market. However, he cautioned that there will be “tougher news” coming in the next budget cycle, which is why he called everyone together to begin understanding the process.
Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner told the News-Press later that she felt the unprecedented meeting was a good idea, to bring everyone into the dialogue and to be aware of where things are headed.
Speaking to the group, Shields noted that property and sales tax revenues are down $800,000 below projections in the current fiscal year. He said it was only one percent of the City’s $76 million annual budget. Of the shortfall, the city’s school system will make up its proportional share, about $370 million, he said.
(Shields told the News-Press Tuesday that the schools have found a way to make up the shortfall without any reduction in service to their students).
For the City-side cuts of $430,000, Shields told the gathering that “this is a manageable problem,” and will be addressed by delaying computer refreshing, cutting back on storm water efforts, cutting overtime in some areas, reducing supply purchases and not filling vacancies automatically.
“This is not a hiring freeze, but we will use increased scrutiny in hiring,” he said.
With these moves, there will not be the need for reducing the City’s staffing, or imposing any pay cuts, he stressed.
Reasons for this, he delineated, include the fact that the City has actually begun spending less in the last three years, with the size of the budget down a million in absolute terms. “We saw the economic downturn coming and prepared for it,” he said.
Another reason is the considerable economic development that has occurred since 2001, he said. The large-scale mixed use projects in the commercially-zoned areas of the City have already contributed ten cents annually to the overall real estate tax rate, or a value of $600 to every citizen in the City.
The third reason that things remain manageable in Falls Church, he said, was the fact that when housing values ballooned between 2002 and 2006, doubling their overall assessed values in that period, the City remained very prudent in its use of the fiscal windfall, limiting spending the additional amounts to equipment purchases and contract services, such that when the revenues began to decline, the City did not face untenable conditions for its operating budget.
“All this has been because of good stewardship by our City leaders,” Shields said.
But, “there will be a big challenge for next year,” he went on. “We’re all in the same boat, all our City residents as well as City employees.”
In tough times, residents will demand the highest and most cost-effective services, and the best way to move forward, he stressed, is to improve service by having all City employees working the problems through together.
As the budget squeeze hits, he said, “It is not a time to hunker down, but to step forward with leadership.”
“We all need to step up with better customer service, based on a vision and values shared by the entire community. It is a question of leadership,” he said, substituting an appeal to better communication, cooperation and service to any estimates of revenue or expenditure shifts for the time being.