With the receipt of Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields’ official Fiscal Year 2012 City budget recommendations Monday night, both a public citizen and a member of the City Council reacted by asserting the moral and value-laden nature of things like budgets. This is especially important to remember during tough fiscal times, when shortfalls in tax revenues pressure government to downsize and either lay people off or compel them to accept salary cuts, or as in Shields’ recommendations, both.
The challenge to the City Council in the next six weeks, as the budget process is now flatly in its collective laps, will be to translate values into policy making. In these tight fiscal times, failing to do so effectively could be disastrous to the “Little City” that is already skating on fiscal thin ice.
Warning signs of this were heard already last Monday, in an unusual and spirited amount of citizen input on the budget coming even before Shields made his formal presentation of his recommendations. Usually, there is a fairly passive posture to the receipt of city manager recommendations until they begin to be fleshed out.
Not this time, however. Council chambers were packed to capacity on Monday, as clearly word had leaked out about the six layoffs, including major cuts and shortened hours for the library, steep across-the-board City employee salary cuts and the threat those cuts pose to the modest half-step salary increase sought by the School Board for its employees.
The City police, who pay into a different pension plan than other City or school employees, will take the biggest hit, if Shields’ budget is adopted as is. But there is pain for City employees across the board, if not facing the loss of their jobs, being asked to take steep salary cuts in the form of frozen salary levels accompanied by higher contributions to pension and retirement funds.
In light of this, we feel that Shields’ recommended budget is on the wrong track from a morals, values and even self-preservation standpoint.
The fundamental issue can be summed up simply as this: it is between the value a budget places on people versus “bricks and mortar.”
In his plan, Shields touts the set aside of $1.6 million to restore the “fund balance” to the minimal level spelled out in the City’s policy documents. In addition, he cites the prospect of boosting that to the top sum level spelled out in those documents next year. This will secure the City’s ability to issue bonds for major improvements at City school sites and at City Hall, he pointed out.
But the contrast between effective cuts against City employees and diversion of funds for new construction could not be greater nor more troubling.
The City needs to compensate its valued employees adequately so they won’t suffer or seek to relocate, resulting in a potentially catastrophic talent drain. This is a matter of values, and also smart governing.