Shields Readies Budget


F.C. Manager to Unveil His Plan Monday Night

The “rubber begins to hit the road” for the Falls Church City Council this Monday night, when it receives the recommended Fiscal Year 2012 budget crafted by City Manager Wyatt Shields. From that moment, it will be the task of the Council to decide what it wants to keep or change among Shields’ recommendations, and whether it wants to provide the school system with what the School Board has asked for, or not.

It will mark the first time that two new members of the Council, who came aboard on July 1, will encounter the painful process in brutal economic times of matching the City’s expenditures with its revenues to deliver, as required by state law, a balanced budget. It also marks the first time to do this as mayor for Nader Baroukh.

The City Manager’s office has been guarded and mum against inquiries seeking a glimpse of what Shields’ budget may include. However, it was established by the Council in its guidelines last fall that the budget should include a real estate tax rate that amounts to no practical change for property owners than what they’ve paid in the current year.

The News-Press has learned that while all divisions of the City government were tasked with submitting to Shields budgets totaling 10 percent cuts below the current year’s, the likelihood that Shields will build all those cuts into his budget has diminished somewhat because one major problem – the specter of a $2 million liability to the Arlington Jail – has virtually disappeared, being the consequence of an accounting error. Also, real estate assessments went from a projected decline last fall to actually a two percent increase when they were announced last month.

“It has gone from 10 percent cuts to around two or three,” one department head at City Hall told the News-Press this week. He said the 10 percent cut level would have required layoffs in his office, whereas a two or three percent cut will involve only a reduction in overtime compensation for existing employees.

“That’s a lot better than losing a person,” he said. “Still, all spending cuts create pressures on workload issues.”

Among other things, the guidance from the fall assumes another year of no salary hikes for City employees, a matter that may be more difficult for the Council to deliver given that the School Board has called for a very modest salary increase (in the form of a half-“step”) for its employees in the budget it forwarded to Shields last month.

Another controversial issue will be an anticipated commercial real estate surtax, something permitted by state law but the City has avoided until now. The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce will hold a special meeting at the F.C. Community Center at 8 a.m. this Friday to discuss the pros and cons of the prospect for its members.

Still another matter of concern to the City’s business community comes in the form of prospective changes to the City’s zoning ordinance, which surfaced as a set of recommendations from the City’s controversial Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) were presented to a joint City Council/Planning Commission work session last Monday night.

Although no changes will be made to impact the coming year’s budget, as the ZOAC recommendations will not be subjected to a serious review at City Hall until after the current budget process is concluded in late April, the ZOAC’s recommendations call for devising ways to generate more proffers from commercial district developers, but also call for provisions for greater densities than may currently be available under existing zoning law.

The long-awaited report completing three years of work by the ZOAC was officially presented Monday, and the City’s new planning director James Snyder said that with City Hall’s plate full with developing the Fiscal Year 2012 budget the next two months, no significant action would be taken on the ZOAC’s 19 recommendations until the end of May.

In his oral report to the joint session Monday, ZOAC chair John Murphy said the group decided that rather than present a whole new zoning code, as the City’s consultant group Clarion had suggested, that modifications to the existing code would be more effective. As a result, nine recommendations for changes in the code for residential properties were forwarded, and ten for changes in the code for commercial properties.

It was noted by ZOAC member Bob Loftun-Thur that despite a wide divergence of views among the 10 members of ZOAC, all but two of the 19 recommendations were the result of unanimous votes. “This report marks the beginning, not the end of the community dialogue,” he said.

Commenting on the report, Mayor Baroukh said that it will be important for especially the commercial district revisions to be assessed so that the City is ready if and when an up-tick in commercial development resurfaces.

Among the commercial district proposals are to include a bonus procedure for increasing density (“floor to area ratios”) and for requiring that new commercial structures on the main corridors of the City “are suitable for retail on their first floors.” Overall, a goal of any changes in commercial zoning should be to replace the “considerable by-right” development options for property owners by creating means to “incentivize more,” i.e. through making additional restrictions subject to government approval of exceptions that can derive proffers as a consequence.

“We need to revise the process to provide a stronger negotiating position for the City Council, and also to ensure that there are no surprises for either side when it comes down to final approvals,” Murphy said. “Getting this right is key to the long-term success of the City.”

On the residential side, Murphy said the key is “to preserve the neighborhood character” through encouraging proportionality and harmony, and that new parameters are recommended pertaining to the tear-down and rebuilding of lots. He also noted that impervious surface restrictions on residential properties are more limiting on residential properties than commercial ones in the City, and that perhaps the City could allow exceptions for residential properties “at a cost.”

These matters of zoning are “personal,” Murphy said, “impacting property values and the kind of community we want.” Council member Robin Gardner agreed. “It is personal,” she said. “It effects infill, and the rights of the community versus the rights of individual homeowners.”