F.C. Council Calls Public Hearing Tonight, Budget Deadline Looms

The Falls Church City Council has called a special public hearing for tonight, April 23, as it faces a Monday deadline on tough decisions required to balance the coming fiscal year budget.

The hearing will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Council’s chambers at City Hall.

As the Council struggles to limit the real estate tax to a minor increase, in average net dollar terms, it has narrowed its difficult choices to about $170,000 in the $66.5 million budget. Will that sum go to fulfilling the request of the City’s School Board to fund the City’s world class school system, or will it go to prevent the layoff of three full-time City employees, as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields last month.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors has agreed unanimously to adopt a $3.3 billion budget, subject to final approval Monday. It will raise the tax rate by 13 cents to $1.05 per $100 assessed valuation, include 300 layoffs, but maintain the same level of funding for the county school system.

In Falls Church, the school board’s recommended budget is $400,000 below the current year’s, even before the threat of an additional $170,000 cut. Also on the potential chopping block are funds for the F.C.’s annual New Year’s Eve and Halloween celebrations, although the dollars involved in both are only a few thousand each.

The F.C. Council is expected to hold the City’s tax rate increase to $1.07, up four cents but when set against major declines in assessed real estate valuations, amounts to about a net $75 annual increase for the average household.

What was looming as one of the biggest bones of contention in the F.C. budget, whether or not to continue the City’s heavily-subsidized GEORGE local bus system, was apparently defused as the Council and Shields figured out the program could be sustained on a scaled-back level for the next year by using the City’s share of Northern Virginia Transportation Council trust funds.

Therefore, GEORGE will stay in force, with a reduced schedule cutting its operating cost roughly in half, with no impact on the City’s operating budget, at least for the next year. Under the plan, the Council will appoint a citizen task force that will examine the options for the future of the system and make definitive recommendations prior to the start of the next annual budget cycle.

The real basis for the contention over the $170,000 is a perceived inequity in salaries between school and City-side employees. The School Board’s funding request includes a half-step salary increase for all its employees, amounting on average to a few hundred dollars a year.

Meanwhile, on the City-side, Shields has recommended not only a salary freeze for all City employees, but the de-funding of seven City positions, four of which are full time, and one of which is a currently-vacant position.

Shields told the Council at its work session this Monday that if it took $170,000 from the School Board’s request and shifted it to the City-side, then he would use it to retain the three currently-filled full time posts, while retaining the overall salary freeze, leaving the unfilled full time post (for a police officer) and part-time jobs for elimination.

The full-time positions are in the Housing, City Manager and Public Safety divisions of the City government. At Monday’s work session, Councilman Dan Sze said that even at the risk of sounding like a “bleeding heart liberal,” he couldn’t ignore the length of service and prospects for future employment of the specific employees involved. Another told the News-Press that the fact one is a member of a racial minority could also not be ignored.

But in a letter to the editor published in this week’s edition of the News-Press, School Board Chair Ron Peppe noted that last year, it was the school system that laid off eight full-time positions, while there were no layoffs on the City-side.

He added that the schools have also returned nearly $375,000 to the City government to “in an effort to ‘share the pain’ of a projected $800,000 shortfall in state sales tax revenue.” He added that the school board’s request is $400,000 less than the current year’s budget, despite anticipated enrollment growth in the fall.

This included the school board’s decision to reduce the school salary increase from a full (as recommended by Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin) to a half-step. The school board has insisted that the small increase is vital to retain and attract top-shelf teachers, as the City’s schools are lagging behind the region in salaries currently, and the increase would bring them toward the middle of the pack.

The school board met in a work session Tuesday night, but the News-Press was told there was no sentiment among any of its members to make any revisions to its request. Council member Hal Lippman sat in on the meeting.

Even if the Council cuts the school board request by $170,000, it will have no say in where the school board makes its corresponding cuts in its budget. It could determine to cut in places other than salaries.

Other letters this week include one from Joel Block, head of both the F.C. City Education Association and the Professional Educators Advisory Committee, opposing cutting the schools’ request, and from Charley O’Hara of the Advisory Board on Recreation and Parks, urging the continuation of the annual Halloween Carnival.