It is easy to be gloomy about the City these days. After all, the economy is slow, the commercial development market is awful – and we just lost a big court case over the water system. Some folks are even calling for us to pack it in — unincorporate the City and throw ourselves on the mercy of Arlington or Fairfax County.
I’m not buying it.
We actually have an amazingly good thing going here, if only we have the courage and conviction to take advantage of it. As an “independent city”, Falls Church does not sit within a larger county. It is just us and the state – mano-a-mano. While many consider this status to just be an amusing quirk of Virginia law, it really represents the keys to the kingdom for our future success.
We have a level of local control that most citizens in the country can only dream of.
All of our local tax dollars are spent within a 2.2 square mile area. No citizen has to drive more than 10 minutes to get to City Hall. No outsiders can impose massive development schemes on us, and there aren’t huge transfer payments away from where our taxpayers live. We get to tax ourselves and spend the money on whatever 11,000 citizens want. We don’t have to weigh and balance the demands of 1 million people in Fairfax or even 200,000 in Arlington. This is an extremely rare and valuable gift.
And we have to use it to make the City “extraordinary.” Extraordinary schools and extraordinary government services. There is no value in being “as good” as Arlington, Alexandria or anywhere else. If that becomes the goal then we really might as well just pack it in. Instead, we have the control and the capacity to do better. We just need to desire.
How do we do it?
Increase Investment in the Schools: Now is the time to double-down on what originally made the City great. That means getting away from the “as good” syndrome that is creeping into our school discussions and make big investments in new facilities (particularly a high school), new technology and new programs.
This isn’t the time to cut-back.
Instead, we need the fortitude in this difficult environment to make sure our schools actually do become better than surrounding jurisdictions. The costs might be significant but the benefits won’t be remote. Every homeowner and parent in our Little City sees the returns on these investments.
Quit disinvesting in City government: Our collective investments in City government have not increased in real terms in at least a decade. The continual drive to cut-back and defer is degrading the quality and effectiveness of our local public services. We need to stop it and, instead, thinks of ourselves as a potential model for responsive and effective local government.
We have a level of local control that most citizens in the country can only dream of…And we have to use it to make the City ‘extraordinary.’
How to pay for it?
Allow high density development on our commercial corridors: When the economy recovers we need to move strongly to promote development along Broad and Washington streets – and get over our collective queasiness over density.
Increased density in residential areas is bad. Increased density in commercial areas means needed money.
Sell stuff we don’t need: If we can’t get an equity return from the water system then there is absolutely no reason for the City to own it. Let’s not be nostalgic. Sell the system to the highest bidder (probably a private water company) and move on. While we are at it, sell Mt. Daniel after the housing market recovers a bit and use the money to renovate and expand TJ.
Raise taxes: I am a libertarian-ish, small government Republican, but I am not an idiot. I know that the taxes I pay locally directly impact the quality of government services my family and I consume. I am not going to cheap-out on myself.
It is easy for Council to get the idea that their job is to keep taxes as low as possible. It isn’t.
Their job is to make the City of Falls Church successful over the long-term, and that means making it extraordinary.
In sum, while many would argue that it is time for the City government to cut-back and diminish itself, I am a contrarian and argue that it is actually the time to have courage and position ourselves for a bigger and better future.