Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Get the Government You’ve Already Paid For

By Robert LaJeunesse

Falls Church is a great place to live. It got that way from pluck not luck. Many generations of residents have volunteered thousands of hours on boards, commissions, and organizations making it a livable city. We honor those who built this great community by keeping Falls Church unique while embracing future progress. We cannot sit idle while the private sector flourishes and hope for the best. The City has the resources to foster a better balance between the needs of private developers and the broader social needs of the community.

For years now the City has been preemptively collecting taxes. In addition to sequestering far more in its “fund balance” than our regional peers, the City has been bolstering its capital and pay-go accounts, running unexpected annual surpluses, and raising the mill levy on real estate valuations that are certain to increase significantly this year. Soon, more money will be flowing into the City coffers from new development and the potential sale of the water system. Voters have the opportunity to choose this November whether they want this hoard of money to remain idle in a “tin shed” behind City Hall with the potential to be squandered on future pet projects, or to be invested in tangible infrastructure projects. The major initiative of my campaign is to “leverage” surplus revenues to improve the infrastructure, equity, and overall livability of the City.

All municipal budgeting decisions should be governed by the long-term goal of fashioning a vibrant, attractive city with an expanding tax base. A diverse tax base is the best way to ensure that the City can meet any future financial obligation. Investing the City’s surplus funds into the community is a much better way to meet future liabilities than saving more than we need to (relative to our regional counterparts). Attempting to “pre-fund” future obligations by saving more will have the paradoxical result of diminishing our ability to pay those liabilities. When the city collects excess taxes without re-injecting them back into the local economy, it destroys economic activity. Sequestering $20 million in taxes means that the money will not be spent 4 to 5 times in the economy, ultimately destroying $80 to $100 million in economic activity and reducing the tax base. At the individual level, paying higher taxes today makes residents and businesses less willing and/or able to pay more in the future.

We need to stop being paralyzed by parsimony. Our overly-restrictive budget stance has led to a paralysis that threatens the civility, livability, vitality, and charity of the City. Prolonged parsimony threatens our civility by creating false battle lines in our community such as those between the school community and taxpayers, between developers and downstream homeowners worried about inadequate storm drains and traffic, between cycling lanes and street parking. Restrictive frugality reduces the livability of the City by denying adequate infrastructure investments for recreation, pedestrians, baby-strollers, cyclists, and many others. Being penny-wise and dollar dumb threatens our vitality by reducing our economic growth and tax base. Finally, excessive parsimony that results in the the premature collection of taxes crowds out private charity. Perhaps Edmund Burke summarized it best, “Mere parsimony is not economy…Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part of true economy.” Indeed, the most economical use of City resources may require new buildings rather than renovating old ones, or to build capacity and infrastructure now before further growth takes place.

Investing in infrastructure is not a call for profligate spending. Rather, it is a pragmatic plea to build the capacity that has been neglected by our preoccupation with private development. We need to repair our parks and trails. We need to create capacity on our streets and sidewalks. We need more capacity at the high school, library, and city hall. During this period of robust regional growth, we need balanced development, not hyper-development. Balance requires public investment in lock-step with private development to avoid public squalor in the face of private affluence. Considering the historically-low interest rates available today, this is a great time to invest in our future!

We need to stop viewing development and land use solely in terms of tax-revenue-per-square-foot. Such a valuation process ignores the social, health, environmental, and educational value of alternative land use. We need leaders who can balance these competing needs in the community. With a background in social economics and finance, I am confident I can bring more balance to Falls Church during this pivotal period of expansion. I hope you will learn more about my campaign (www.boblaj.org) and vote to “fix the mess with LaJeunesse” on November 5.


Robert LeJeunesse is running for election to the Falls Church City Council in November.