Lively F.C. Town Hall on Budget as Citizens Speak Out for Schools

One of the best-attended town hall meetings on the budget in recent years in the City of Falls Church saw citizens turn out to speak up in favor funding the School Board request for the coming fiscal year budget, and to question the City’s current fund balance and Storm Water Utility Fund plans.

The F.C. City Council, five of its seven members present for the meeting, is slated to cast its final votes on adoption of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget on April 22, and is currently mulling options for either holding the current tax rate of $1.27 or raising it to $1.33 as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, and adding a Storm Water Utility fee averaging $250 per household.

One option before the Council is reducing the School Board budget request, and when asked today what effect a $1.2 million cut in the School Board’s funding request of $33,682,700 would have on the schools, Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said, “One word: devastating.” She and School Board chair Susan Kearney detailed how the budget request is “bare bones” considering the phenomenal enrollment growth in recent years, including a 6.7% growth just during the course of the current school year.

Loud outbreaks of applause accompanied a number of comments that questioned maintaining a 17 percent fund balance “lock box” or “black box” ahead of meeting the schools’ current operating needs. Kearney said that a new plan presented by Shields Thursday night to utilize $900,000 of the projected current year surplus for a school capital fund is appreciated as an idea, but “our operating needs are more important than our capital reserve needs now. Our operating needs trump our capital needs.”

Questions also went to why the City is not capitalizing on record low interest now to fund its capital needs, noting that inevitable increases in interest rates could be catastrophic down the road. One citizen sharply questioned the City’s claim that Moody’s rating agency expects AA rated small jurisdictions to maintain fund balances in the range of 18 to 25 percent of annual expenditures. “Their guidance is much more flexible than that, and is not followed by our jurisdictional neighbors,” he said. He noted that the financially shaky state of Illinois recently auctioned off $450 million in 10-year bonds at 3.3 percent. Given inflation, he noted, that is “almost free money.”

School advocate former PTA President Susan Scholler said, “This is not the year to start a school capital reserve. The School Board budget is perfectly reasonable.”

Questions also went to the issue of the controversial Storm Water Utility, with citizens wanting to know why more of it could not be bonded and whether an adequate analysis has been done on having it be fee or ad valorum tax based. Shields acknowledged he’s proposing delaying the first fee charge for the plan until June 2014 in response to conversations with churches and businesses, but not because of their opposition to the plan, but because the delay would “give them more time to prepare.”

One citizen decried what he called the “bloat of government” represented by the plan. “Why do we need a separate fund,” he asked.

Concerns also were addressed about the impact of the federal sequestration on the region, and the notion of a tax rate increase when federal employees and federal contractors face furloughs, layoffs and wage freezes. Shields said that while the City does not depend a lot on federal dollars for its operations, the indirect effects could be serious.

Others spoke out about the dangers to the future of Falls Church of a decline in diversity and the risk of becoming a more “gated” community. Affordable housing advocate Ron Brousseau noted that about 20 percent of the City’s population are elderly and low income and others worried that the City is losing its diverse spirit, as well.