Mayor Gardner’s Annual Chat With N-P: ‘Challenges Loom’

City of Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner sat down at Panera Bread with the News-Press for what has become a long-standing annual “State of the City” summertime interview last week, and the first item that came up was a pessimistic article in the Washington Post about how the coming year will bring considerably more grief to state and local governments than this past one.

Further evidence of that, pertinent to Falls Church, became clear with the memo from the City’s Chief Financial Officer, John Tuohy, to City leaders reported in last week’s edition of the News-Press. While revenues will remain flat, at best, costs will rise as the City’s taxpayers will be required to make up for market losses in City employee and teacher retirement and pension funds.

This comes as City residents are struggling in the recessionary environment, themselves, and the legally-mandated tax rate hike could add seven or eight cents to the real estate tax rate before any other budget discussions even begin.

For Mayor Gardner, who was engaging in her fourth annual “State of the City” interview since taking the reigns as mayor in 2006, the tough times ahead are a given. A practical North Jersey native, her focus is on finding solutions and preparing for action.

That includes early planning on the coming year’s budget, some reality talk with citizens about pet programs they may not want to give up, not losing focus on the core values and benefits of the community, hoping citizens will remain level-headed as the next City Council election approaches next spring, and getting the best the City can from the economic development opportunities that do exist.

1. Economic Development. While there is no evidence of movement on any of the large-scale development projects that were approved by the City Council before the economic downturn struck a year ago, Mayor Gardner cited the promise that completing the new BJ’s Warehouse on Wilson Blvd. early next year will bring in sales tax revenues to the City, the benefit of some other smaller retail start ups in the pipeline, and the two benefits of the federal stimulus initiative that could create jobs and some modest economic growth in the City.

On of the fed stimulus programs is the “green learning laboratory” initiative, a unsolicited bid by the City submitted this summer for $25 million in Department of Energy stimulus funds, with collaboration from Dominion Power, to turn the City’s 2.2 square miles into a veritable laboratory for experimentation in new green, energy-saving technologies, such as “smart meters” at every address.

The other comes by way of the state, in the form of added federal funds that enabled the City’s submission last month for a senior affordable housing project to be built in its downtown area to receive tax credits from the Virginia Housing Development Authority. She said she hopes that construction on it can begin by the spring.

She also cited the “branding study” that is now in development commissioned by the Economic Development Authority that is being spearheaded by the Smith-Gifford Marketing Firm of Falls Church. This could begin to not only help define the City in a clear fashion for residents and visitors alike, but could include some concrete ideas for stimulating economic activity.

The City cannot lose sight of what it has to offer, she said, in terms of its prime location near two Metro stations, I-66 and the Beltway.

2. The Next City Council Election. With three seats on the seven-member City Council up for grabs next spring, in the context of the current tough times, Mayor Gardner noted that the three whose seats will be up, Vice Mayor Hal Lippman, Dan Maller and Dan Sze have “really worked hard for the City,” and have “acted with the best interests of the City in their heart.” They have, she said, “worked collaboratively and are solution-finders,” and “have been very good for the Council.”

3. A Tough-Times Budget That’s Fair. Mayor Gardner said that with the tough times ahead, getting an early start is vital. “We need an open dialogue early in the process to be fair and equitable,” she said. A key task will be to coordinate the City and school budget timing better, so that their impacts are felt more evenly by the employees of both. That was a problem last spring, when the schools included a higher salary increase than the City was able to.

She noted that transparency will also be enhanced for all citizens as of October 13, when the broadcast of City Council and other public meetings will be plugged into “Granicus,” a service that will allow the meetings to be viewed through the City web site. That will also include the ability to click on specific agenda items to watch on a case by case basis.

The idea of a Fiscal Advisory Board is now being discussed, she said, with the idea it could help divine fact from speculation on budget matters, especially as pertains to planning years into the future.

4. Getting Citizens Used to the Idea of Less. “We can’t go on thinking we’ll be able to hold onto everything,” Mayor Gardner said. “There will be things we simply can’t afford, whether it’s a Halloween party or road repairs. There will have to be efficiencies at City Hall, with no back filling, and service levels may go down.”

5. The Water Lawsuit With Fairfax County. The mayor did not comment, except to note the City’s procedural victory this summer, winning the Virginia Chief Justice’s appointment of a three-judge panel to rule on the case.

6. Zoning Rewrite. Mayor Gardner noted the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Commission will be forthcoming with its recommendations next month, involving a rewrite of Chapter 38 of the zoning ordinance. She said that as the City shifts from a village to a “new urban” model, she hopes it will adapt to “a mix of different types” of structures and uses, while not losing the notion that the City “is viewed as the last small city in the big urban sprawl of Northern Virginia.”