Local Commentary

Editorial: Options Still Open For the Budget

Though they won’t cast their official votes until next Tuesday, members of the Falls Church School Board appeared to draw a line in the sand at their work session Tuesday night, unwilling to send a budget request to the City Council with less than a nine percent funding increase over last year.

This is a far cry – about $1.5 million, in fact – from the five percent hike members of the Council say they are willing to support. The five percent hike could permit the Council to adopt an overall budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (beginning July 1) without imposing a tax rate increase on property owners above the current $1.305 per $100 of assessed valuation level.

The differential of $1.5 million is about five cents on the tax rate, or would raise the rate to about $1.355. The problem is that the schools have experienced the most rapid rate of growth of any jurisdiction in the surrounding region, something that itself is a major driver of higher real estate values in the City and arguably, thereby, the City’s premier “industry.” And, it is hard to look the School Board budget options in the eye and say they’re not pretty serious and essential.

Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones proposed a budget with a 10.6 percent hike last month. She presented the School Board with five scenarios ranging down from that level toward slightly below a nine percent increase. No one on the Board was willing to consider any number below that, noting among other things that there is a long list of unfunded needs of the school system, valued at $2.3 million, as it is.

So, upward pressures on the budget at play for the Council in the next couple months are the following: 1. a School Board request of a nine percent increase, 2. a robust increase in assessed real estate values in the City, jumping by almost eight percent for single family homes, 3. a new Stormwater Utility fee that will be added onto the real estate tax bills this spring.

With still very modest increases in revenue, the City Council’s only options to mitigate the effect of all these added costs on citizens are two: 1. to revisit the plan to impose a complicated Stormwater Utility fee on citizens, and instead to either pay for the costs through bonding or to include it in the general operation budget, or both, and 2. to use the timely windfall from the sale of the City’s water system. The cash amount of the January sale of the City’s water system to the Fairfax Water Authority is now edging up toward $16 million.

The prevailing wisdom is to never use one-time windfall cash for ongoing operating expenses, but the City is faced with three extraordinary developments, 1. the explosive growth of its school enrollment, 2. the sudden, partially federally-mandated costs of implementing stormwater infrastructure improvements, 3. the big leap in property assessments.