Local Commentary

Editorial: Explaining the Low Turnout




A major effort on the part of the City of Falls Church professional staff and elected officials to convene a town meeting about the City’s fiscal crunch, held at the Community Center last week, left at least one City Councilman sorely disappointed, and the rest searching for explanations about why the turnout was so low.

Aside from paid City staff and elected and appointed officials on the City’s boards and commissions, there were, by the Councilman’s count, only about 15 citizens who showed up for the well-organized, two hour event.

Faced with a $3 million budget deficit, even with a pay freeze, cuts in almost all City departments, and a numerically-even-with-last-year average tax bill for City residents, City officials were seeking both to explain the parameters of the financial squeeze, resulting from the overall global economic downturn, and to listen to what local citizens consider their priorities, or fresh ideas to cope. It was an extraordinary effort, never attempted before in the City’s 60 year history. Rather than the usual public hearings held after the city manager issues his recommended budget, this time the meeting was held ahead of time.

The city manager is required, by law, to present a proposed budget that incorporates the School Board’s recommended budget (that will be finally adopted next week), and that is balanced. The manager was looking for public input on how much of the $3 billion deficit should be made up for in program and personnel cuts, including where and whom, and how much in a tax rate increase. City Manager Wyatt Shields has said he plans to craft his budget to include the wage freeze and to increase the real estate tax rate to offset a decline in average assessed values and keep the average tax bill the same as last year. But that will still leave him with $3 million to cut, and there was little concrete guidance provided by the handful of citizens last week, although there is little doubt that the City’s GEORGE bus system will take a pretty big hit, if not shelved entirely, at least for now.

The debate at the City Council’s work session Tuesday was about how to interpret the low citizen turnout last week. Was it symptomatic of a troubling apathy on the part of the public, or was it due to the fact that Falls Church residents, with otherwise busy lives, fundamentally trust their elected officials and paid staff to do the right thing? We tend to think it is more the latter, and should be taken as a vote of confidence by those in the City’s leadership positions. Citizens come out in big numbers when goaded by special interests, such as in Fairfax County in December when the school board there was mulling eliminating, or charging exorbitant fees, for certain high school extracurricular sports. Cuts like those, that hit home, or a sudden spike in the tax rate, cause slumbering citizens to lurch to their feet. But the City of Falls Church’s woes are mild compared to others in the region.