Local Commentary

Editorial: Final F.C. Budget Decisions

Virtually everything but the kitchen sink has been added to a list of programs and services the Falls Church City Council generated Monday to potentially cut in order to limit the tax rate hike for the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The Council is wrestling with how best it can hold the real estate tax rate hike to closer to 15 cents, rather than the 20 cents recommended by the City Manager.

Five cents on the tax rate in Falls Church amounts to about $1.5 million overall, and with the budget for the City schools off the table (except for the use of $420,000 coming from the state that was not built into the original School Board budget), that is a big sum for the Little City, especially when everything has already been cut to the bone, including wage and hiring freezes.

Everybody is properly concerned about high taxes. But in a city with as many well-informed and intelligent citizens as Falls Church, most are aware of the extraordinary challenges in this year’s budget, given the state of the wider economy and two other factors beyond the City’s control. Those are the circuit court decision prohibiting the City of taking a return on investment from its water fund, now being appealed to the state Supreme Court, and a clerical error on sales tax returns that was corrected in an audit in Richmond that cost the City dearly. Those two factors alone account for 10 cents on the tax rate.

When the difference on the tax bill for average City taxpayers between a 20-cent and 15-cent hike is calculated, it is likely that most residents will prefer to retain the programs and services that would be lost by cutting all five cents.

We hold that there should be no further cuts to the library or the police department. We hold that the existing funding level for the City’s “Weekly Focus” pages in the News-Press be maintained, since scaling back or eliminating them would seriously narrow the City’s ability to notify the public of events or policy changes. In an era when government transparency is doubly important, it is no time for the City to scale back its ability to communicate with all of its citizens.

We hold that a restoration of the City’s fund balance can be achieved through the sale of the Pendleton House, likely to bring double the estimated $300,000 value. That will take two cents off the tax rate right away. We hold that it is appropriate for the City to utilize a portion of the added state funds to the schools sufficient to cover another penny on the tax rate, and for the City to hand the operation of the GEORGE bus system over to Arlington. Finally, if there is a determination to cut even further, then additional furloughs rather than layoffs in positions the Council is considering eliminating could achieve whatever level at which the Council is finally willing to arrive.