In the name of “fiscal responsibility” the new City Council, in office just over one month, is already taking and not taking actions that will affect not only the pocketbooks of taxpayers today, but also the long term sustainability of the City, and indeed its very mission. While each Member of Council no doubt believes firmly in the rightness of her or his decisions, whether the chain of recent decisions truly represents the best long term interests of the community, should be subjected to more wide-ranging public discourse.
In short, the questions to be asked by the community should include: Are the decisions individually and collectively wise? Or, are they penny wise and pound foolish? What is the community’s standard for “fiscal responsibility”? How and who determines the standard and with reference to what criteria? How can the community be assured that “fiscal responsibility” will be applied consistently and without regard to narrow political agendas? Is there useful guidance on these subjects or advice that can be sought and considered?
What I am suggesting is a top to bottom, all-inclusive community discussion of this all-important matter. Otherwise, the community will find that through the accretion of individual Council and City staff decisions, its future has been determined for it. Therefore, it is important to connect the dots with regard to individual spending decisions that are already accumulating to form the City’s future direction, services and its over-all mission. Here are some examples.
On Monday, August 9, the new City Council approved by a vote of 6-1 a non-competed, sole source contract extension, worth one half million dollars of taxpayer funds for information technology services. Under my questioning, the justification given by the City management was that this extension constituted an “emergency,” actually the result of City management’s personnel problems. We also learned, based on a comparison I requested, that the City of Fredericksburg- many times the size of Falls Church-has an IT services budget one half of ours. Did Council Members challenge this action and hold management accountable? Citizens should review the record of the meeting. Was this action fiscally responsible? I respectfully think not.
A City Council majority, based in part on a changed staff position from support to opposition, effectively terminated an office/parking/affordable housing development project that leveraged $10 of federal, state, and private funding for every $1 of City money. This Council also terminated a public transportation system that, despite incorrect numbers originally disseminated by the City Manager, was actually efficient by accepted measures and was started up with hundreds of thousands of non-City dollars. Not that it was a huge fiscal issue anyway, as little as $38,000 in a $60 million budget, that aided the commutes of members of our community and that leveraged $1 dollar of non-City money for every $1 of City money for its operations.
Killing these two projects, including their vast majority of non-City funding, may go a long way to destroying our ability to obtain support and funding concessions from other jurisdictions, the State and our Congressional delegation, all of which supported these projects with votes and funding. This means that trying to provide affordable housing, public transportation, or anything else needing their cooperation, in the future may require much more City money and the City will receive much less outside funding and support. Were these actions therefore fiscally responsible in the long run? I respectfully think not.
Do the decisions so far truly amount to a pattern of fiscal responsibility? Or, is “fiscal responsibility ” a cover for a local form of “base” politics that pervades the national scene? Could these decisions reflect a felt need to support the unelected City Manager by rubberstamping his positions? Are these decisions actually an effective way to concentrate the City Manager’s power by eliminating complicated projects and services not under his direct control?
Regardless, it seems we urgently need a community discussion of what constitutes “fiscal responsibility.” Here is my definition: strong and consistent oversight of the City Manager and his operations, insisting on total accountability for things like preventable anti- competitive contracts and loss of police accreditation, combined with prudent longer term investments to carry out governmental objectives that leverage outside sources of funding, to the extent possible. There may be other definitions, and that is the point.
We need to know more about where the entire community is. After all, this is not just about my opinion or even the opinions of seven people. It is not just about the opinion of those who are perceived to be “supporters.” Rather it is about the collective wisdom of this very wise community.
David Snyder is the Vice Mayor of the City of Falls Church.