Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: City Needs to Sacrifice for the Long-Term

Thoughts from an Aging Boomer:

Despite my desire for a cohesive commentary this week, I can’t get past the random thoughts swirling in my head. I’m admittedly influenced by national and state dialogues as I hear them in reverberating microcosm in The Little City. The overarching theme at all levels of government is budget policy, immediate and long term.

Locally, Falls Church budget issues bleed into Master Planning, Zoning re-writes, Public Schools priorities, and the regional impact on economy, real estate, commerce, transportation, social and human services mandates. Understandably for unseasoned elected officials, these multiples can be the motivation to avoid the forest because the trees are right in front of them. Nevertheless, staying-in-the-weeds is not what we need now from those who are leading the plan for the foreseeable future of our independent City. Yes, in my 33 years, the City of Falls Church has had its sustainability ups and downs, but never doom and gloom to the extent it is touted now.

Council Member Gardner has been quoted in encouraging current Council leadership to begin working the principles identified on their retreat this past September. They have also been reminded of the 20 Year Vision Goals that appear to have been relegated to the book shelves of City Hall. I applaud the City Manager as he had initiated departmental work plans to move implementation strategies forward into budget guidelines for the incremental achievement of the Vision Goals hammered out by an earlier Council. BUT, in the present leadership climate such a positive, progressive Vision is no longer a popular framing term. It’s the economy, Stupid.

Now, we’re “into” concerns, worries, unnamed worst case, extended negative real estate projections, cash flow crunches, rising bond rates, overflowing schools, empty store fronts, pot-holed streets, increase in citizens, drain on City services, etc. etc. Where is FDR when we need him? “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

Years ago, the wise local leaders I followed knew our City needed a more robust revenue base than residential real estate can produce.

Yes, we have the realities of a real estate values drop. Years ago, the wise local leaders I followed, knew that our City needed a more robust revenue base than residential real estate can produce. Those leaders evaluated the commercial land available within our borders, @10% of the total 2 square mile land mass in the City. They initiated the planning, zoning and eventually Mixed Use Special Exception tools it has taken and will take to grow the density and resulting revenue-producing capacity of our City’s limited commercial districts. If the current fiscal outlook is dire, why aren’t our newly elected officials doing ALL they possibly can to re-energize commercial district growth, getting built and occupied the developments already approved and making the land swaps and infrastructure investments dynamic localities initiate in a lagging commercial season. Yes, we need an updated Master Plan, but what we have is currently workable if we are proactive to flex and change with the market forces upon which we rely to attract revenue.

Instead, in recent months, not to fault City staff, they have been charged with identifying tax increases to further squeeze the existing commercial land and business owners to add to the imbalance of taxes paid by that small 10% of underdeveloped commercial properties, already paying 30% of the City’s revenues. If this commercial land tax increase proposal was embedded with some concrete strategies by which to leverage large, visible and meaningful infrastructure improvements to the commercial transit districts it may have had some positive support from the Chamber of Commerce. As is, paying an additional $.05 for unidentified and potentially minor streetscape improvements is a speculative move the commercial property owners and their tenants do not support. Discouraging discussions such as the one entertained by the Council at their work session last night give rationale for landowners’ reluctance to pay for supposed capital investment on their nickel. Capital investments by Council are on shaky ground it seems.

Despite the best efforts of the City Manager, his experienced staff, the School Board Chair and Schools CFO, and their longstanding financial consultants to provide positive and well researched parameters for long term debt investments for schools and infrastructure, key Council members were making unspecific, but pointed references to the now familiar doom and gloom future revenue and “gaps” projections that hang over us like Damocles’ infamous sword.

Hopefully, most of our vocal and voting citizens will choose to take the more positive view that our region’s economy is and will keep pulling our City back to a healthier status.

Let’s get back to achieving the City’s 20 Year Vision Goals. Let’s learn from the previous 20 years when “visioning” was not so important as “being and doing” the right thing for the right reasons for our community’s future generations. We do need to sacrifice some comforts in response to short-term revenues shortfall, but we must not let go of our longstanding progressive goals to remain a community thriving in sync with our local region. That is a sacrifice too dear for the asking.