It was far from pretty, which is why it surprised many observers that the vote was unanimous on the Falls Church City Council Monday to adopt the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The $62.4 million budget, $4.5 less than this year’s, will go into effect on July 1 with 17.5 fewer full time government positions out of 200 total, and with a 17 cent increase in the real estate tax rate that will boost it to $1.24 per $100 of assessed valuation.
A last-minute appeal by City employee Mary Gonda, head of the Human Resources Division, to consider the consequences of more position cuts added by the Council just last Thursday fell on deaf ears. “We are not FTE’s,” she said, “We are employees.”
She noted that the Human Resources Division, which among other things recruits and evaluates police officers, has, with the latest cut, been diminished from five to 2.5 employees in just two years.
The added cuts made at the Council’s final work session eliminated one additional position and slashed two from full time to part time. The Council also cut its contribution to the F.C. Housing Corporation in half, and refused Councilman Dan Sze’s suggestion to restore funding, at a cost of $5 a year per citizen, to publish its two-page Weekly Focus delivered to every household in the City.
The Council’s zeal in the exhaustive five hour work session last Thursday was to reduce the tax rate an even three cents below the level recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields. With the last minutes cuts arriving past 11 p.m. that night, the goal was achieved, even though the Council had no clear information on what their impacts would be.
By that action, the Council eschewed the opportunity to retain the positions and other programs by a modest use of a second decimal in the tax rate. It was noted Monday night that in the case of 12 Northern Virginia jurisdictions, seven of them have adopted tax rates that carry to the second decimal in order to ensure that vital programs are retained.
For example, two of Falls Church’s closest neighbors, Arlington and Alexandria, adopted rates of $0.932 and $0.973, not rounded off arbitrarily, as Falls Church did, at an even $1.24.
A passing suggestion by Councilman Dan Maller Monday that the Council add a half cent to the tax rate, for example, to provide the City Manager with some resources to restore some employee hours or City programs, was dismissed out of hand.
Instead, the Council seemed to respond to Councilman Dave Snyder’s loud insistence at the beginning of Thursday’s work session that he would not go anything above the $1.24 rate, no matter what. By so doing, the Council shaved the budget by more than $900,000 below what Shields presented as his best effort at a bare-bones budget in March.
Among only a handful of citizens, two of them City Council candidates, who spoke at the Council’s last public hearing on the budget Monday night, City resident Dr. Robert LaJeunesse, a senior economist at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, criticized the Council for restricting the City’s debt to half of what state law allows at the expense of City taxpayers and important local programs. “This is a very conservative budget that panders to the New York bond markets,” he said.
Councilman Maller had earlier suggested that perhaps the City could take a little longer to restore its fund balance to levels acceptable to the New York bond rating agencies, but that was met with strong opposition from Shields and other Council members.
One Councilman suggested that Maller and Sze were more sympathetic to some of the ideas that wound up being rejected due to the fact that they are both “lame ducks,” not seeking re-election next week. That unfortunate comment suggested that other Council members may have put their re-election aspirations ahead of the public interest.
In reviewing the Council’s final budget package Monday night, Shields noted that the City will go to a tax rate that is “right in the middle” in the list of the 12 other jurisdictions in the region. They range from $1.65 in Manassas Park and $1.49 in Loudoun County down to $0.932 in Arlington. Neighboring Fairfax County’s rate was adopted at $1.09 Tuesday for the coming fiscal year.
However, in the case of Fairfax County, Shields pointed out that fees are charged for numerous services there are included in the tax rate for Falls Church. Adding to the Fairfax tax rate charges for storm water maintenance, leaf pick up, pest control, trash pickup and community center fees bring the combined rate to $1.225 for McLean and $1.248 in Reston, almost identical to what Falls Church’s comprehensive rate of $1.24 will now be.
The new budget includes the controversial feature that fees will be required of local high school students for participation in athletic programs, something that could have a negative effect on low-income families.
Fairfax County also added fees, but for both athletic programs and Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) testing. Falls Church decided against fees for the tests, and kept its lunch program free to students from low-income homes.
In addition to the layoffs (23 over a two year period for an 11 percent reduction in the workforce) and hourly reductions, Falls Church will carry a wage freeze for all employees over for a second year, and this time the employees are to pay increased health insurance and pension costs, meaning that their take-home pay will be less.
The severe program and personnel cuts are due fundamentally to three factors beyond the City’s control that dug deep into its revenue stream. First was the wider recession, shrinking residential and commercial real estate values and drying up credit for new construction; second was the decision by the Fairfax Circuit Court, now under appeal to the state Supreme Court, denying the City its annual yield of $2.3 million as a return on investment from the operation of its water fund; and the third, a bookkeeping correction in Richmond based on the discovery that a Giant Food store in Burke was erroneously having its sales tax receipts designated to Falls Church.
The three factors combined to account for all 17 cents of the City’s tax rate hike. While Snyder implied the City Council was to blame for the water decision because it made a “big mistake” to sue the Fairfax County water system, he in fact voted more than once on closed Council sessions to sue as a unified Council followed the advice of three different legal consultants.
Other features of the new budget include the fact there will be no cuts in the number of police on the street, the City-owned Pendleton House will be sold, funding for the GEORGE bus system will be provided only through the first quarter (until Sept. 30) while options are mulled, the closing of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library on Sundays and reduced hours during the week, reducing hours at the Community Center, cancelling the July 4 fireworks celebration beginning in 2011, cancelling funding for the New Year’s Eve celebration known as Watch Night, and reducing the frequency of street sweeping, among others.