F.C. Council May Opt for Steeper Tax to Keep Bus

Holds Options for Leap to $1.09 Rate

Voting Monday to give themselves the option of raising the real estate tax rate even higher than the four-cent boost recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, most on the Falls Church City Council expressed the desire to keep some form of the City’s own GEORGE bus system intact.

Shields’ proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget released earlier this month called for the complete de-funding of GEORGE while also raising the tax rate from $1.03 to $1.07 per $100 assessed valuation.

But this Monday, the Council voted 6-1 to establish a ceiling for a tax increase to $1.09, and only one member, Lawrence Webb, appeared to share Shields’ view that the bus system should be scrapped.

David Snyder was the only councilman to vote against a preliminary approval of the higher tax rate, but he also assailed Shields’ proposed budget for cutting GEORGE and some public safety areas.

Shields’ argument for terminating GEORGE, whose subsidy is a hefty $540,000 item in the City’s $70 million annual budget, was based on both the need to reduce spending in tough economic times, and GEORGE’s relative lack of use, which has apparently leveled off with only about 70,000 total rides annually for the last three years.

The cost amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $8 per ride, while to keep it operating at its present level will require adding almost two cents on the real estate tax rate, hitting all City residents who are also being squeezed by the bad economy.

But one councilman, Dan Maller, said he’d consider raising taxes to keep GEORGE, even if in a scaled-back form. He then backed away from that comment by saying the entire matter of GEORGE, and possible options, requires more study.

“I am not ready to support my suggestion (of raising taxes to keep GEORGE), but there must be an open discussion,” Maller said. He conceded that GEORGE “should have been self-sustaining by now,” since it was originally conceived in 1999 and began operation in 2001.

Snyder railed against Shields’ proposed budget, saying “it does not reflect my values,” and including “the elimination of public transit” as among his objections. Shields’ proposal “is irresponsible in the short term, and even more irresponsible in the long term,” he said, and suggested that axing GEORGE was a “political ploy.”

Webb retorted that calling the option of de-funding GEORGE a political ploy “is politicizing, itself,” and “does nothing to better the community.”

Councilman Nader Baroukh voted for the preliminary budget, but said he has “serious misgivings” about it. The Council does not vote for a final adoption of the budget until April 27.

Mayor Robin Gardner said, “I hope raising the tax rate to $1.09 doesn’t happen,” and added, “GEORGE isn’t working for us now, and we need to fix it.”

Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester presented the recommended Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) portion of the budget, noting that due to the economy, $2.4 million that had been in the plan for FY 2010 last year had been scaled back to $130,000 of City money, with the rest of funding for CIP projects coming from state and federal funds.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting Monday, Tanille Parker, head of the City’s Government Employee Advisory Council, spoke on behalf of the City’s 350 employees, including many who sat quietly in the Council chambers until she was called up to speak.

Parker, citing Shields’ recommendation of a salary freeze for all City employees and the de-funding of seven positions, touted the value of City employees’ efforts for all citizens, and urged the Council to “value equally” all employees.

It was a reference to the fact that the School Board portion of the budget allocates a “step” increase for all school employees, in contrast to the freeze on the City-side.

Webb was the only councilman to express concern for that inequity at Monday’s meeting.

Others spoke in defense of the City’s support for the Northern Virginia Community College, for the need to expand the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and for maintaining GEORGE in some form. Letters included one opposing cutting City support for the New Year’s Eve Watch Night celebration and one citing the Village Preservation and Improvement Society’s support for GEORGE.

Shields announced that two more informal public hearings on the budget have been added to the schedule of hearings, deliberations and work sessions between now and April 27. They will be held the next two Saturdays, March 28 and April 4, at 10 a.m. in the Community Center, and will be more in the form of a dialogue than a formal hearing.

The GEORGE issue will come back for major consideration by the Council at its next formal business meeting April 13.