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Lay Offs, Wage Freeze, Bus Dumped in F.C. Budget Plan

City Manager’s Proposal Gets Sent to Council

For the first time in the almost 60 year history of the independent City of Falls Church, its budget for the coming fiscal year will not only be less than the year before, down by 5.7 percent, but will involve the elimination of jobs, a wage freeze for all City employees, and possibly the termination of a local bus system.

On top of this, an increase in the residential real estate tax rate is also in the cards, adding from four to six cents to the current rate of $1.03 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The only good news in the proposed $66.5 million budget submitted to the City Council Monday by City Manager Wyatt Shields is that it is not as draconian as others in the region, including neighboring Fairfax County and area neighbors Prince William and Loudoun Counties, in particular.

In Fairfax County, the board of supervisors, facing a 3.7 percent decline in its overall $3.3 billion coming fiscal year budget, voted Monday to authorize a tax rate increase up from 92 cents to $1.05. They also face a $58.2 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, and had to move $18.7 million from its stabilization fund to help cover it.

The problems reflect those being felt throughout the U.S., and globally, as the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression has devastated home values, wiped out personal 40lk and stock investments, and driven official unemployment over 10 percent in many states.

The most contentious issues facing the City of Falls Church budget deliberations are the uneven approaches to salaries between City and school system employees, and Shields’ proposal that the local GEORGE bus system be completely de-funded.

While Shields has proposed an across-the-board wage freeze for all employees on the City side of the budget, the Falls Church School Board, in the interests of maintaining the competitiveness of the system in fighting to attract and retain good teachers, offered a modest half-step salary increase for all its employees.

Morale issues among City employees were cited Monday by Shields, himself, as a liability of the two-tiered imbalance, especially given that the City side budget includes the de-funding of seven personnel positions. The City Council, as it goes forward toward a final adoption of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, which begins July 1, does not have the option of stripping the half-step salary increase out of the School Board budget.

It can only decrease, increase or adopt the monetary total of the schools’ budget, and even if the Council voted to reduce it the net amount of the salary increases, that would be no guarantee of what the School Board will do.

But the City and Schools have worked in good harmony leading up to this budget, given the shared recognition of the tough economic times, and two work sessions involving both the City Council and School Board will be held in coming weeks.

In the GEORGE issue, Shields noted that the City-owned bus system that links neighborhoods to the East and West Falls Church Metro stations is a $568,000 drain on the budget. Providing only 70,911 rides in FY2008 at that cost, the cost to the City comes to $7.89 per ride, more than the cost of a cab ride from either Metro station to anywhere in the City limits.

GEORGE was initiated earlier in the decade with a federal grant to showcase the use of an innovative, alternative fuel bus. But the experiment failed, and after the federal grant money dried up, the City continued the system on grounds that it would contribute to its economic development goals.

But its high cost caused the City Council three years ago to scale back its operation during midday weekdays and on weekends.

Still, some residents have continued to support its on-going use, and the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce is on record in support of retaining its potential for bringing business into the City.

In his proposed budget, Shields offered options for a further-scaled back use of the bus system, including options that drop its cost from $568,000 to $345,000. Even though Shields recommended eliminating the system, altogether, he left the options open to the Council and suggested the residential real estate tax rate might go from $1.07 to $1.09 to subsidize a partial use.

A dust-up occurred Monday between Council member David Snyder and Mayor Robin Gardner over the GEORGE issue, when Snyder argued for the pro-business use of the bus system, and Gardner challenged Snyder’s pro-business sentiments.

The two then parried over which would be more willing to catalogue their pro-business voting records in public.

(A letter to the editor from Vice Mayor Hal Lippman referring to the incident appears elsewhere in this edition).

Shields’ proposed staff reductions include four full time positions and three part-time. One involves not filling a currently-vacant police officer slot, and an emergency management post.

It was suggested that federal stimulus dollars targeted to public safety use might be available to fund those jobs, at least for two years.

Shields said that other layoffs will involve an office administrative assistant in his own City Manager’s office, a housing development specialist. Three part-time slots he proposed to eliminate are a human resources specialist, an urban environmental inspector and reduced hours for a food service provider for the Senior Citizens Center at Winter Hill.

All the individuals associated with the proposed job cuts had been previously notified, Shields said.

On the positive side, the City is expecting fresh new revenues from the reinstatement of its Photo Red Light system on July 1, and will keep the same hours for its library and Community Center hours.

While there will be a charge for the delivery of mulch for the first time, there will also be no change in the City’s water and sewer fees, for the fourth straight year, keeping its rates below the average for the region.

The Council begins its work on the City Manager’s proposals with a work session tonight (March 12) when a financial overview will be provided by the City’s Chief Financial Officer John Tuohy.

Council work sessions dealing with each division of the City government will begin March 16 every Monday and Thursday through April 16, including with the schools on March 26 and April 6.

Public hearings on the budget will be held March 23, April 13 and April 27, the night it is expected to adopt the budget.

If the Council adopts Shields’ proposed real estate tax rate hike to $1.07, it will cost the average city homeowner an extra $76 (a 1.2 percent increase) in their annual tax bill. Shields proposed no other tax rate changes, and also eschewed the option of raising the commercial real estate tax rate to a level higher than for the residential rate (something that both Fairfax and Arlington counties have done).

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