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F.C. Budget Showdown Tonight: Which ‘Draconian’ Cuts Will Fly?

City Council Mulls Consequences of Limiting Tax Rate Hike on Services & School Programs

In one of the more dramatic Falls Church City Council meetings in years last week, Council members abruptly threw out City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposal for incremental adjustments to his recommended budget, and called on him to present scenarios for much more draconian cuts in City and school services and less of a tax rate increase.

Faced with a record revenue shortfall due to the impact of the wider recession, the Council had been mulling a 20-cent real estate tax rate increase that included wage and hiring freezes and $2 million in cuts to the school budget. But that would place undo burdens on City residents, who are also struggling in the recession, most on the Council agreed last Thursday.

Now a week later, tonight, Shields will bring the results of his new task to another Council work session, and everyone in the City government and schools are holding their collective breaths.

In a communiqué to the News-Press late yesterday, Shields provided the general dollar consequences of what limiting a real estate tax rate hike to 10 or 15 cents, instead of the 20-cent hike he’d originally proposed, will look like.

Here are his options:

•  Holding the tax rate increase to 15 cents (above its current level of $1.07 per $100 assessed valuation) instead of 20 cents, will require cutting another $2.3 million above and beyond the significant cuts that have already been proposed. That would amount to $1.15 million each for the City operating budget and the schools, if each is cut equally.

• Holding the tax rate increase to 10 cents, instead of 20 cents, will require cutting another $4.6 million beyond current proposed levels, amounting to $2.3 million each for the City’s operations and schools if the cuts are spread equally between the two.

School officials have responded vehemently to the exercise, saying that further cuts beyond what they have already implemented will cut deeply into the core of the schools’ mission.

 

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VICE MAYOR Hal Lippman (left) and Councilman David Snyder compared notes at last week’s work session. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church School Board Chair Ron Peppe, in a strongly-worded letter published in this edition of the News-Press, wrote, “additional reductions could severely hinder the school system’s ability to deliver quality instruction,” noting that the School Board’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget is already $2 million less than the current year’s budget and reduces staffing by nearly eight full-time positions.

 

School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin, writing on the school system’s web site, said, “Just when we thought the worst was over, we find ourselves on the defensive in the FY11 budget process. I believe we have sacrificed all we can sacrifice without having a detrimental effect on our schools.”

She noted that over the last three years, the Falls Church schools, with its current proposed budget, will have reduced its revenue request and staffing by nearly $2.7 million and approximately 16 full time positions.

In addition, “We will have delayed technology replacements, facilities improvements and maintenance schedules by at least two years, and will have reduced non-personnel expenses, such as textbooks and office supplies, by nine percent. At the same time, we will have absorbed annual increases in health insurance and retirement costs,” she wrote.

Both Peppe and Berlin urged school supporters to attend and speak out at two public budget hearings, one a town hall meeting at the Community Center this Saturday at 10 a.m., and the other at the opening of the City Council’s business meeting in City Hall Monday night at 7:30 p.m.

At this Monday’s joint City Council, School Board and Planning Commission work session, Mayor Robin Gardner explained that a major purpose of tonight’s exercise in more draconian budget cut scenarios “is to show what would happen with holding the tax rate to 10 or 15 cents, instead of 20 cents as currently proposed,” adding, “I know they are draconian cuts, but this (exercise) is a way to show citizens that if we don’t raise the tax rate by 20 cents, then these are the major cuts you’ll get.”

Even at a 20 cent tax rate increase, due to the fall-off of revenues, the current proposed budget slashes 4.5 percent from last year’s expenditure levels.

At last week’s work session, Council members broke from consideration of minor adjustments by Shields when two of them began talking about the feedback they’re getting in going door to door to campaign for re-election in the May 4 race.

Veteran Councilman David Snyder and Vice Mayor Hal Lippman both conceded that their constituents are also facing hardships, and Councilman Dan Sze, though not running for re-election, said he’s taken a lot of heat from his neighbors. He said he’s firm that he wants to limit the tax rate increase to 10 cents.

The debate turned to whether further cuts should be limited to the City’s operating side, or to the schools as well. Snyder said he wanted them limited to the operating budget, but then Lippman said in this environment, “There are no sacred cows,” and said that the sacrifice should be spread evenly.

However, Lippman said that holding the tax rate increase to 10 cents is “unrealistic,” given that 10 cents of the current increase is due to factors over which the City has no control – the elimination of a return on investment from its water fund, and an audit by Richmond which resulted in stripping the City of millions in sales tax revenues.

Mayor Gardner said the challenge of the exercise is to define the Council’s real priorities. “If we fund one program, what will be the consequences for another,” she intoned. “Are we ready to see the entire Department of Parks and Recreation go?”