Local Commentary

Editorial: Bracing for the Budget Bomb

By all indications, Falls Church and Northern Virginia will not skirt free from all of the factors that contributed to the near-global economic meltdown of the past year.

Though things may not be nearly as bad here as in other areas of the state, nation and planet, they will be very bad by the standards of what we’ve come to expect year in, year out dating back to the Great Depression. They could get worse, still, before they get better, and they could remain in a down mode for years to come. But the true reality of what we’ve been though will begin to visit state and local budgets in the upcoming budget cycle. What we’ve been though was not just another up-and-down business cycle. It was an explosive worldwide paper asset value liquidation and panic whose outcome was forestalled by extraordinary interventions here and abroad. Those who say we are beginning to recover from a recession are all wrong. No, we dodged a bullet that was headed straight to a new dark age, and recovering from that trauma won’t be easy.

 

Already Governor Kaine has announced another $1.3 billion in cuts in state programs based on just a few months of budget realities, statewide. This sets the table for what it will be like for local jurisdictions in the period ahead. In the case of the City of Falls Church, like surrounding Northern Virginia jurisdictions, massive losses in the value of pension and retirement funds will have to be born, by law, by City taxpayers. There will be dramatic declines in sales and real estate taxes, as well, and almost no meaningful offsets from new development or growth. In the case of real estate, it will be steep declines in the value of commercial properties that will take the greatest toll, eclipsing the recent years’ drop in residential values.

Trying not to appear too nervous, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields has been sending out plenty of warnings and urging the City Council, School Board and taxpayers to be prepared for what’s coming, and to batten down the hatches. Still, it can be expected that when the actual budget process begins early next year, there will be howling and yelling, especially as a local City Council election parallels the process.

Here’s our advice to City Hall: city and county governments throughout the region talk among themselves all the time, but the process is never really public. This year, a concerted effort should be made by all parties to openly share budget-related information with each other to help the public appreciate that the serious issues facing one jurisdiction is not because of bad government there, but because of an array of larger problems tormenting the wider region, overall. This way, citizens are less likely to pin the blame on their own City Hall or County Seat, and more apt to adopt a more constructive posture to help find workable solutions in a widespread crisis. Empathy, more than anger, will need to become the order of the day.