Local Commentary

Editorial: The Budget Conundrum

The numbers are in, at least preliminarily. The release of the big picture on City of Falls Church real estate assessment growth by City Hall this week, followed last week’s presentation by Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones’ assessment of what kind of added financial resources will be required to maintain the quality of the system.

The growth in real estate values was put overall at 2.9 percent. The growth in what the Schools will be requesting of the City, if Dr. Jones recommendation to her board holds, will be 14.1 percent.

Dealing with that enormous gap is what will keep the City Council and the School Board busy right up to the formal adoption of the new fiscal year budget the last week in April.

There are variables, of course, such as levels of federal or state aid that are not yet known, and third quarter (January-March) numbers on sales, food and other taxes not yet entered in with precision. But they count for little compared to the fact that Falls Church remains a predominantly residential community with excellent schools.

Therefore, the primary revenue source is the residential real estate tax and the primary expense is in education.

It’s a symbiotic relationship in which the high quality and reputation of the schools contributes a significant “value added” to the going price for residential real estate.

So, by the very nature of this arrangement, were the quality of the schools be perceived as eroding, then the value of the real estate would, as well.

The clinkers that are complicating this are (1) the sluggish recovery and growth of the City’s commercial contribution to the process and (2), most importantly, the explosive growth in enrollment at the City’s four public schools.

Families are piling into Falls Church as if they were looking to hitch a ride on Noah’s Arc. They want the quality education for their kids, while the general quality of life in the Little City is pretty nice, too.

Therefore, it is taking realtor no time to sell homes in Falls Church now. The market is so hot, we are told by everyone in the business, that it is downright baffling that the overall growth in assessed values is so low. (The national rate of growth in residential real estate values in 2012 was 5.5 percent, according to the Case Shiller Index. It is hard to fathom that the high demand in Falls Church would result in half the national real estate growth rate).

Families are snatching up the single family detached homes, as older empty nesters downsize to condos, their expansive homes are reoccupied with younger families with lots of children (condo and apartment growth has not accounted for a significant portion of the school enrollment growth).

Is the City Council, in particular, prepared to recognize this reality, that new residents will have to expect higher taxes to enjoy the benefits that brought them to Falls Church?