Can F.C. Afford Major Renovation Of City Hall in Such Tough Times?

When the Falls Church City Council took its first hard look at the Capital Improvement Plan for the Fiscal Years 2012-16 Monday night, it was presented with two big projects: a school facilities renovation and a government facilities renovation, each with about a $12 million price tag. But despite an economic climate of belt-tightening, only the government facilities plan was eyed for cuts during council discussion.

In a joint work session with the City’s Planning Commission and School Board, the Council began scrutiny of a plan calling for $45 million over the next five years laid out in presentations from Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester and Superintendent Lois Berlin.

“We have significant projects on both sides this year,” Mester said of the school and government projects. Those projects include repairs and new construction on City Hall and City schools.

Much of the funding – $8.5 million – of the government facilities plan costs come from a proposed expansion and renovation of City Hall that would add about 17,500 square feet of new and reused space to the building through additions between its east and west wings. Additional funds address repairs in the ailing City Hall, in particular those to make the facility ADA and OSHA compliant and to address security concerns.

Plans for the schools largely address the question “where will the children go,” said Berlin, as George Mason High School nears its 900-student capacity with a student body of 848 currently.¬†Through construction, and some grade-level shuffling, the school board hopes to accommodate the growing student population. By increasing capacity at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, and acquiring the Child Development Center to house preschool programs, the school board hopes to move fifth grade to the elementary schools and eighth grade to the middle schools, leaving only ninth through 12th grade at Mason. The plan would allow for the removal of all trailers which have been used as classrooms as the student body has expanded.

The plan allocates other funding for “keeping up our aging facilities,” Berlin said.

With the school having secured $3 million of an applied-for $5.9 million in Qualified School Construction Bonds, the school renovation projects are more likely to be given priority, which became clear during Council discussion of the various components of the CIP.

“It’s better than a zero-interest program because there are interest earnings,” said Joe Mason, of Davenport and Company, LLC, the City’s financial advisor.

While no Council members suggested cuts or modifications to the school facilities plan, Mayor Nader Baroukh eyed the City Hall project for revisions and cuts during the tail end of the meeting. He said he favored scaling back the project in order to meet salary and public library needs, and expressed concerns about the time frame of the project, suggesting that the course of action for the City Hall project be changed so that the City wouldn’t be dealing with a two large construction projects – the City Hall project and the schools project – at once.

Though there is still debate as to whether or not all of the proposed projects will be funded, Mester outlined five projects – IT server consolidation and phone system replacement, purchase of a fire pumper truck, storm water utility initiation, utility relocation and undergrounding, and roadbed reconstruction – that have already been deemed not financially feasible by those who put together the CIP.

Along with the CIP, the Council was also presented with a plan for financing it all. Mason outlined six different strategies for funding the projects in a chart, which ranged from what Baroukh considered a “more traditional” plan, to others that weighed greater rewards with greater risks such as economy-dependent market and interest rate dangers, using funding options like Bond Anticipation Notes which would provide short-term bonds with the expectation of security long-term bonds down the road.

“What we’re trying to do is balance your priorities,” Mason said, adding that “everything comes with a trade-off.”

Baroukh and council member Ira Kaylin said their preference was for the lowest-risk funding options, but City Manager Wyatt Shields said that might not be feasible.

But before the presentation began, Mayor Nader Baroukh made it very clear that nothing near a decision would be made during the Monday session.

It was to “begin the discussion,” allowing for those in attendance to “put various ideas on the table” that the council would need time to consider, he said.

With the budget deadline looming April 26, Baroukh repeatedly stated that the Council needed to make its decisions by April 14, in order to allow for public hearings. The issue of which projects to fund, and how to fund them, however, is still up in the air.