We talk about how the City of Falls Church needs them and everyone has an opinion on what they should be. People traditionally look at why they moved here in the first place.
Many a conversation or letter to the City Council starts with “I moved to Falls Church because of the amazing schools” or “we have lived in Falls Church and stayed because of the services provided through City Hall”. Others really appreciate the historic nature of the City while others believe that our locale, being close to Washington DC, is the biggest draw. When it comes to the budget season, these priorities find themselves in conflict. How can we, as a community, afford to pay for everything that everyone wants? The answer: we can’t. Not unless we come up with the money to do so. Right now, unfortunately, that would require raising taxes. Until new revenue is generated, the City coffers cannot pay for everything that our citizens hold dear.
The current City Council has talked about prioritization since our retreat in September, but we still haven’t met to figure out what our priorities are. Some on Council feel that we shouldn’t be cutting around the edges and should be focusing on larger changes, perhaps outsourcing whole services. Others think that we should be careful about salary increases for anyone this year as we don’t know what next year’s budget will look like. Are we willing to not give our staff (both government and schools) some sort of monetary compensation based on what might happen next year? And the year after that? How long do we expect our staff to go without fair compensation for the services they provide our community? At last Monday’s meeting, a citizen pointed out, quite correctly in my opinion, that our staff are our most valuable resource. Service to the citizen is the key to the soul of this community – people move to Falls Church City not because of the buildings, not because of the roads, but because of what the City has to offer -both through our schools and through our general government. The streets don’t get swept, the children don’t get taught, and the Farmer’s Market doesn’t run without the staff.
The current City Council has talked about prioritization since our retreat in September, but we still haven’t met to figure out what our priorities are.
In 2005, City Council put in place a strategic plan along with a 20 year vision for the City. This document would assist the City Council in determining where we as a community needed to go and what we needed to achieve to meet our vision for the year 2025. It appears that, although the City staff use this as a guide to determine next steps and budget needs, little attention is paid to this document by City Council and I suspect many in our community do not know it exists.
In 2010, before the City Manager presented the budget, the City held a number of town hall meetings asking the citizens of our community to help us prioritize what services are the most important in this City. Again, little has been done with the data we received from those sessions.
So – let me get back to the question I raised in the beginning – what are this community’s priorities? The school board, when asked, knows exactly what their mission is. They can probably each state it verbatim. They have a singular goal – a singular priority – and they work towards it. We on City Council do not have this – we have a lack of vision, a lack of direction, and no sense of purpose.
It’s as if we’ve forgotten that our number one job is to serve our citizens. We are so interested in the bottom line that we are forgetting why we are trying to meet a bottom line – it feels like we are just doing it to make a point, because we can. not because it is the right thing to do. As William Arthur Ward, famed scholar, has said, “Wise are those who learn that the bottom line doesn’t always have to be their top priority.”
Let us not be so callous as to think that a City is made up of good financials alone. On Monday night, Jesse Thackery’s grandson read comments she wrote into the record. Mrs. Thackery is a wonderful woman who has lived in this community for over 60 years, was instrumental in helping Falls Church gain its independence, and has served this community on the school board – she is much beloved. Her comment was this – our City has been through many financial crises but we have always come through in the end. And she is exactly right. It is the City Council’s job to make sure that this community’s priorities are addressed and mission is defined. Leadership requires vision – and vision that focuses only on the bottom line gets blurred.
Robin Gardner is a member of the Falls Church City Council.