Local Commentary

Editorial: Rampant Confusion

The rampant confusion that arose from the Fiscal Year 2013 final report issued last week by the City of Falls Church finance office demonstrates the great need for communication skills at City Hall that has been a missing ingredient in the City’s sense of its mission for a long, long time.

It was only in the instance of the past week, when admittedly confusing so-called “accounting gimmicks” (Councilman Ira Kaylin’s phrase) were passed on as objective data concerning revenues, and surpluses and tax rates, did this become more painfully clear than usual. It shouldn’t take every citizen having to pass a Certified Public Accountants exam to understand what it being delivered for his or her tax dollar.

This confusion stems only in part from the fact that the City’s fiscal year system is out of whack with its tax collection system, and that it undoubtedly will remain so because it is simply too painful to fix it. It’s kind of like the Electoral College: everybody knows it’s archaic and unfair, but no one has the gumption to change it.

But the confusion in the case of Falls Church’s budget reporting has more to do with City Hall’s on-going failure to recognize the importance of marketing, and of hiring professionals to do that kind of work. No accountant should write, intelligibly, his or her own press release. Accountants have a special way of making everything that seems obvious very confusing. Maybe that’s a gimmick to keep the public feeling it needs to defer to them for expertise. But it’s more that they speak a different kind of language than the average citizen.

The City’s recent “Taste of Falls Church” was considered a slamming success earlier this month, because beautiful weather drove a high turnout. But there was no marketing of the event by the City, whatsoever, outside of its usual channels (a couple signs around town and Internet notifications). No one outside the City was encouraged by the City to show up and learn about the great restaurants here.

At least until 2010, the City under the leadership of its late City Manager Dan McKeever undertook direct communications with its citizenry through the publication of a two-page “Weekly Focus” in the News-Press. It was a go-to informational guide that also served as an official corrective to misinformation.

But it was cut during the fiscal squeeze of the Recession, and now that there’s more in the City’s kitty, there still has been no appetite at City Hall for its return. So, for example, the City is relying solely on its website to inform the public about the pros and cons of the November referendum to sell the City water system.

How crazy is that? What percentage of City residents will really go to the trouble to dial up that information on the Internet, compared to having it hand-delivered to them in printed form to every doorstep in town every week?