F.C. Council Mulls Options to Sock Citizens With New $4.2 Million Tab

The Falls Church City Council wasted no time in its first public work session of the new year taking up the challenging task of figuring out the best way to sock its citizens and businesses with a new $4.2 million annual bill, which, if it was in terms of the real estate tax rate (which it isn’t) would amount to over 14 cents.

The matter involved the discussion of creating a Storm Water Management Enterprise Fund to cover the cost of upgrading the City’s capability to better handle the kind of crises that resulted from last summer’s Tropical Storm Lee that overwhelmed the City’s storm water and waste water infrastructure to cause major damage to dozens of homes. It is also to bring the City into compliance with the ever-stricter demands of the Chesapeake Bay watershed clean water requirements of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Tonight the Council mulled two approaches, one which would raise the $4.2 million annual with an “ad valorum” tax based on real estate values, and the other which would be utility fee model, based on an estimate of what share of a water runoff any particular property would be held responsible for (using as a “surrogate” percentages of impervious surfaces on any given property).

But while the fee approach would be more “equitable,” it was argued, it would also cost more, requiring a bureaucracy to handle the determination of impervious levels and incentives that property owners might seek to reduce their impervious covers. The “ad valorum” approach would be easier to administer, it was argued, but would also more resemble a tax, one which could not be deducted from federal taxes.

The bottom line, however, as it became clear over the course of a lengthy discussion, was that the exercise seemed more and more like trying to put lipstick on a pig. There was no getting around the unsavory reality that this was going to cost city residents and businesses a lot of new money.

For example, as Chief City Engineer Bill Hicks showed in a printout, the cost to the average household (assessed at $650,000 with an average 2,755 feet of impervious surface) would be $644.67 using the utility fee approach, and $925.41 using the “ad valorem” approach.

On the other hand, the bills go much higher for commercial lots, with an actual sample parcel in the City of 142,845 square feet and an assessed value of $18 million socked with a $21,949 a year bill using the utility fee approach, and $26,446 a year using the “ad valorem” approach.

The Council decided to hold another work session to establish its preferred approach before taking the matter to the public, probably in one of the two town hall meetings scheduled during the upcoming annual budget deliberation process. At that time, it would also include the factors involved in arriving at the approximate $4.2 million annual pricetag, which would include $1.6 million in existing maintenance costs and $2.5 million in new program cost.

The estimated cost, City Manager Wyatt Shields said, would be aimed at upgrading the quality of the City’s storm water management system from the level of “Cs and Ds” in performance to “Bs and As,” he said.