Troubled ‘Fiscal Advisory Board’ Plan Stalled by F.C. City Council

Concern Persists That ‘Tail Could Wag the Dog’

The dust-up over whether or not the Falls Church City Council should create a so-called “Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee” dominated another Council work session this Monday, as it was agreed to postpone any action until another work session and then a formal meeting in mid-September.

Although most on the Council supported the idea in comments Monday, there were still sufficient misgivings, some of which were expressed vehemently, to cause all to confirm the need for a delay and more information.

But for those who hoped such an advisory group, theoretically to be composed of volunteer City residents with expertise in financial and fiscal management, might weigh in with some advice during the coming budget cycle, it might already be too late.

In fact, the group known as the “Gang of Eight” is slated to meet tonight at City Hall. This group is composed of two members of the City Council, two of the School Board, the City Manager, the City’s chief financial officer, the School Superintendent and chief of the school’s financial office.

This meeting will already begin to set the parameters for what is expected to be an even more difficult budget year coming up than the one completed last spring. Moreover, next spring will also bring a City Council election to further complicate matters, with three seats among the seven on the Council sure to be hotly contested.

In terms of whatever plans are being set in motion as of tonight’s meeting, any new advisory body would be late weighing in.

In fact, it was conceded this Monday that if such a fiscal advisory body was approved in September, it would take time to recruit, review and appoint prospective members.

Vice Mayor Hal Lippman said that while he was encouraged by interviews he did members of the Arlington County Board and Alexandria City Council about their experiences with a fiscal advisory group, “I still have concerns,” he said. “This will have to be very carefully managed.”

“We can’t have a situation where the tail wags the dog,” he added. “This body would not be for the purpose of weighing into budgetary programs, but only to advise on broad policy and long-term issues.”

Councilman Dan Maller said he was concerned that financial experts “bring a very conservative viewpoint,” but that “we need a Falls Church solution to our problems, not necessarily what’s right for bigger or better-endowed jurisdictions.”

He said, for example, that the policy issue of universal health care is being buffeted by analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, a situation he said he could see paralleling something that might happen in Falls Church.

He added that “participation” with such a fiscal body “without the full School Board support” will be “very difficult.” He noted that the School Board is unanimous in its opposition to the idea of such a fiscal advisory body.

Councilman Dave Snyder said he also wants no contamination of the political process by a prospective group. “To me, it’s a matter of planning well so we don’t sacrifice anything going forward,” he said.

Councilman Nader Baroukh added, “It is important to get this right, but I don’t want to stretch it out too much to miss getting input for the next budget cycle.” He said he agreed with the notion that a fiscal group could offer good advise on how to plan into the future on pension fund issues, for example. Councilman Lawrence Webb concurred.

Snyder said he hopes work on long-term issues by a fiscal group would “avoid a tax revolt like the one that led to Proposition 13 in California,” he said.

Mayor Robin Gardner said that she wants more information on how and why a Fiscal Advisory Board was created by the Falls Church City Council in the early 1990s, during another deep recession, and why it was disbanded later that decade.

Following the “Gang of Eight” meeting tonight, the Council will convene for a formal business meeting and public hearing on Aug. 10, but will then be off for three weeks before its next work session on Monday, Aug. 31.