F.C. Council Explodes in Tiff Over Library Upgrade Options

Crunch time for some big financial decisions that will lock the City of Falls Church in for many years is encroaching on its political bodies, and the pressures they bring sparked some lively contention in this Monday’s City Council meeting.

Big “capital improvement” (CIP) plans costing taxpayers many millions loom, but for some on the Council, this is no time for innovative or creative thinking, but to plug ahead with the status quo.

Upon hearing the news that the City Schools’ plans for a pricey expansion of its Mt. Daniel Elementary School on its current site may fall short of enrollment growth pressures, three members of the City Council Monday were particularly unwilling to welcome consideration of some “out of the box” options that Councilman Phil Duncan was trying to introduce.

Mayor Nader Baroukh, Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry expressed strong opposition to Duncan’s suggestion that maybe there should be some further thought given to spending $25 million on projected improvements to the current City Hall or to the current Mary Riley Styles Library.

Calling his suggestion “disruptive,” “unhelpful” and an “unraveling” “hijacking,” the three vocal opponents insisted that “we’ve gone down one road” all this time, and it is no time to alter the course now.

But in fact all Duncan proposed was that consultants hired by the City to examine the future needs of the library, for example, include in their final report an assessment of relocating a portion, at least, of the library off its current site, either onto the campus of the current City Hall, or to a new “municipal center” location south of the historic Falls Church Episcopal, as envisioned in a “small area plan” study the Council, itself, reviewed and referred out for community responses in June.

Duncan’s proposal, which he was due to present to a meeting of the City’s library board last (Wednesday) night, suggested tasking the consultants with not just one (the on current site option), but two others, as well, and to try to put a price tag on the options as well.

Earlier this year, unofficial conversations around the City’s corridors of power raised the prospect of relocating Mt. Daniel off its current seven-acre site altogether and perhaps relocating it to the current City Hall. While no one on the School Board or in the school administration spoke in favor of such a plan, it was discussed informally as an cost efficient way of dealing with overcrowding at the elementary school.

(In fact, Fairfax County residents near the Mt. Daniel location are reportedly strongly concerned that the City might move the school and sell that land for residential development. They have asked their Fairfax Supervisor, John Foust, to meet with Falls Church officials on Aug. 22 to share such concerns).

But there is a lot of Falls Church taxpayer money on the line in the decisions that will be made in the coming period, the “do or die” votes that are approaching. Will the millions go into a renovation and expansion of Mt. Daniel when the completed project will already be undersized?

Will the $12 million go to the renovation of the 50-year-old City Hall building when it is already far too cramped? Will the $13 million go to a library expansion plan that restricts its footprint to its current site, or add some parking at an adjacent property when the owners of that property have never even been approached about the idea?

“We need to come through this speaking with a single voice,” Mayor Baroukh told the Council Monday night. “It is imprudent to propose a new set of objectives with a whole different set of options,” Council member Barry said.

The Council will brings these concerns back to its next meeting, a work session on Tuesday, Sept. 3, as it will have no meetings the last two weeks of August.