Fireworks Begin at City Hall Tonight Over Shields’ Budget

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields presents his recommended Fiscal Year 2014 budget to the F.C. City Council tonight, as behind him over his right should School Board Chair Susan Kearney listens. (Photo: News-Press)
Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields presents his recommended Fiscal Year 2014 budget to the F.C. City Council tonight, as behind him over his right should School Board Chair Susan Kearney listens. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields unveiled his proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget Monday that calls for an 8.2 percent increase over the current fiscal year budget, from $69,317,704 to $74,986,375.

The first of what are expected to be some grueling deliberations and probably some emotional clashes will occur tonight, March 14, when the Falls Church City Council, the School Board and Planning Commission all come together, squeezing into a tiny conference room at City Hall, for a work session to delineate the parameters of the overall budget.

But from now on, until a final vote is expected on April 22, the ball is solely in the court of the City Council, and the fate of the City’s public services, including its schools, will fall to a majority on that seven-member Council.

Shields’ proposed budget calls for an increase in the real estate tax rate from $1.27 to $1.33 per $100 of assessed valuation, but recommends an “advertised tax rate” of $1.41, an additional eight cents, to “provide the Council with flexibility in its budget deliberations,” Shields said in a letter accompanying the 238-page proposed budget.

Budget variables include the degree to which the Council will provide the full 12.9 percent increase in the School Board’s requested transfer and to fund storm water improvements. A mitigating impact in the proposed budget is a reduction in fund balance restoration by 81.8 percent from $1.1 million to $200,000.

Shields’ proposed six cent rate increase is predicated on the removal of all funding for storm water improvements from the general budget and their placement in a separate Storm Water Utility Enterprise Fund with a proposed budget of $1.706,000.

If that amount were to remain in the general fund, it would add up to another 5.5 cents on the tax rate, while another $2 million in “unmet needs” would double that amount, if included.

Still, a Storm Water Utility Enterprise Fund would cost the average household in Falls Church another $270 a year. That is over the $7,637 average annual real estate tax bill per residential property, up by $600 under Shields’ plan for the coming fiscal year ($262 due to assessment increases and $340 due to tax rate increases).

Shields’ proposed budget calls for a net increase of one City employee position. It involves the addition of one person as a police dispatcher and one program/data base administration, and the reduction of one position of court services probation officer. He calls for a 3 percent salary increase for all City employees, noting that the City’s total workforce of 183 is the peak levels of 200 or more between 2005 and 2010.

With 60 percent of the City’s revenue coming from real estate taxes (compared to just over 50 percent in 2007), the biggest revenue drag has been in the assessed value of commercial real estate, up only 1.6 percent for each of the last two years. Overall real estate assessed values are up only 2.9 percent.

Reactions to Shields’ recommended budget by City Council members were varied.

Vice Mayor David Snyder was first, saying, “In all my years in government in Falls Church, I have never seen a budget more out of line with fiscal realities.” He commented that, as the Council currently contemplates the addition of 500 more residential units in two large-scale mixed use projects that, referencing the City schools’ phenomenal rate of enrollment growth, “Maybe we’ve created an unmanageable spiral.”

Johannah Barry said, “These are shocking numbers. We’re looking at double digit tax increases over the next several years. If this is the case, then at least it’s best to get it out in the open.”

Ira Kaylin complained that the numbers in the budget “are not squaring,” adding, “How can we fund $100 million in next debt in the next five years?”

Kaylin lashed out at the School Board in a commentary published at this week, challenging its credibility, citing comments by the Schools’ chief financial officer Hunter Kimble reported in last week’s News-Press concerning the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). Kaylin wrote that Kimble’s characterization of the stability of the fund “is inaccurate as to the nature of the overall pension (cash) obligations to be point of being misleading.”

Kaylin continued, “A School Board employee having misrepresented information approved by the VRS’s Board of Trustees, the question becomes: What other data has been misrepresented by the School Division officials? Unlike the VRS data which can be independently verified, the School data is accepted largely on the basis of trust.” At Monday’s meeting, Councilman Ron Peppe was less exercised. He said in all his experience with school and municipal budgets, “It always starts this way. I am not that shocked. At the end of the day, it comes down to priorities, it comes down to what four people (a majority on the Council–ed.) agree on.”

David Tarter did not have much to say, other than that he was “in a listening mode at this point.”

Phil Duncan said, “This is a time of high expectations with modest resources.” Giving up so much through the Great Recession years, he noted, “We now want everything, right now.” Still, he said he’s “optimistic we’ll be OK because that’s what Falls Church does.” He said that $1 to $2 million in new revenues annually from new development projects would help.

Mayor Nader Baroukh asked for comparative regional budget information, including a “compensation review.” He joined a chorus of other Council members expressing concern that funding for maintaining the operations of the Falls Church Cable TV channel be maintained in the interests of “government transparency.”

The Council’s next step is to meet with their School Board and Planning Commission counterparts in a work session this Thursday night at City Hall. Town Hall meetings on the budget will be held at the Community Center this Saturday, March 16, at 10 a.m. and also on April 13. Public hearings before the Council will be held on March 27, April 8 and April 22, and the budget will be finally adopted on April 22, to go into effect July 1.