How to Deploy $3 Million Surplus Proves Vexing
Usually, spicy headlines are hard to come by in sleepy residential suburbs during August. But not so for the “Little City” of Falls Church.
Every bit as big as the giant “Taco Wars” headline in August 1993 when the issue of the location of a Taco Bell in Falls Church brought out the citizen pitch forks, so now Falls Church finds itself in the midst of two contentious issues even when you’d think most folks are away on vacation somewhere.
One is the Planning Commission’s impending ruling on an appeal of a Chesapeake Bay-related water runoff matter that has scores of residents in the area of the 1000 block of Lincoln Avenue concerned (see story, elsewhere this issue). The other is the City Council’s impending decision on how to apportion over $3 million of unexpected surplus dollars from the just-ended 2012 budget year.
The dispute on the surplus mostly centers around an informal agreement struck last month that the surplus would be divided equally between the schools and the general fund, and that the schools would use $500,000 for what board members insist are urgently needed technology upgrades. The needs had been sacrificed to help meet tight budget constraints in the last few years, and are a top priority for catching up now, school officials argue.
But just before the Council’s last business meeting on July 23, a substitute motion was entered by Councilman Ira Kaylin and passed, 3-2, which denied the schools’ request and instead proposed that almost all the surplus go toward mitigating the costs of future capital improvement projects on both the City and school sides.
A veritable firestorm erupted on-line as a result, with pages and pages of citizen commentaries posted on the News-Press web site and a flurry of e-mails and formally-drafted letters on various sides of the issues burning up local e-routes.
Meanwhile, in what may or may not be related matters, both the School Board and City Council hastily scheduled closed-door executive sessions this week. The School Board’s was slated for last night, and the Council’s for Friday morning.
The Council has one more vote before its preliminary 3-2 vote of July 23 becomes official, and will mull options at its work session this Monday, Aug. 6, before holding that final vote in its next public business meeting on Aug. 13.
(As the Planning Commission matter will also be dealt with this Monday night at City Hall, the joint is expected to be jumping on that night).
Concerns in the City Council’s July 23 action included the late submission of Kaylin’s alternative plan and the fact that two Council members who may have voted against it weren’t there, such that it passed 3-2.
That vote set up a potentially-contentious divide between the three veteran Council members present who voted for it – Kaylin, Mayor Nader Baroukh and Johannah Barry – and two new members who had just been sworn in weeks earlier and were attending their first official business meeting. Both Phil Duncan and David Tarter voted against it.
Tarter’s objection was to both the original plan to split the surplus evenly between the schools and City, and to Kaylin’s alternative, to salt the money away for future capital improvement uses. Tarter said that a surplus that large, equal to some 10 cents on the real estate tax rate, should be rebated back to taxpayers.
The Council is expected to consider that option, based on more information about what would be involved, procedurally, to do that, at Monday’s work session, along with more specifics about the school’s claims of urgent need for technology upgrades.
Critics of the school’s request have said there are not enough specifics about the need, and there have been conflicting reports about how many computers, including lap tops, are in fact available to students in the school system at the present time.
Kaylin defended his alternative plan by citing the still-uncertain global economic environment, and what a disruption could do to the City’s budget, including to its obligations to pension plans.
(The News-Press erroneously reported in its last issue that Kaylin and Barry shared the authorship of the alternative plan. Barry did not, but as a member of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, did meet in advance with City staff to consider the deployment of the revenue excess in what she called “a fair and equitable way.”)
A formal letter to the Council penned July 30 from former F.C. Councilman David Chavern, president of the Falls Church Education Foundation, expressed support for the $500,000 school board request. “After several years of delaying technology upgrades, and postponing classroom purchases, our city needs to take the lead and provide funds to update school technology so that we can prepare all of our students for 21st century challenges,” he wrote.
Donna Englander, executive director of the foundation, urged board members in emails sent last week to attend this Monday’s work session, and the Council business meeting when the final vote will be taken on Aug. 13.
She attached a letter from the head of the Elementary PTA who called the Council’s July 23 action “shenanigans,” and added, “Both the process invoked by the Council and the course of action proposed stink.”