Local Commentary

Editorial: Avoid the Budget’s Solomonic Choices

The Falls Church City Council will commence its march to the adoption of new fiscal year budget at a town hall this Saturday morning, following an unofficial community meeting tonight. The volume of public discord regarding this budget has been growing steadily as unprecedented increases in the bills the City will be sending out to taxpayers this June is proving unsettling to almost everyone.

Homeowners have seen their real estate assessments grow, for single family homeowners almost nine percent, and although this is good sign of the rebound of the area housing market, it means that even with no tax increase, tax bills will be nine percent higher.

But on top of that, the budget currently being considered adds another 4.5 percent to that tax rate, which is now $1.305 per $100 of assessed valuation That goes on top of the assessment increase.

Still, there’s more. Citizens will be gouged for a new Stormwater Utility fee for the first time. It may be disguised as a “fee” rather than a tax, but it will appear on the same bill as the real estate tax bill when it arrives in mailboxes.

Policy makers at City Hall seem oblivious to the coming pain, insulated with noses buried in budget and policy documents.

The way it is cutting right now, the choices are between going ahead with the tax and fee increases as the City Manager has proposed, or some mitigation of the tax rate through sharp cuts in the School Board budget request.

What the Council has been unwilling to consider are alternatives to these Solomonic choices which threaten to kill the City proverbial “baby” whichever way its sliced.

If the School budget is cut, being already at the bone due to unprecedented enrollment growth, then the “value added” that the City’s nationally touted school system provides will diminish, as the best teachers are already moving to neighboring jurisdictions where they can earn more. Home values will then fall, and the tax burden on individuals will grow and a decline of services will result.

On the other hand, if taxpayers are hit with the full force of the current budget plan, then the ability of the school system to win public approval through required referendums for upcoming new construction projects will decline dramatically. One such school construction referendum may be on the ballot this November.

So alternatives, then, are the only out. They involve reducing the amount the City keeps in the bank (the fund balance) from the upper level of its policy-approved range to the lower level, to using a tiny portion of the profits from the sale of the water system for tax relief, to delaying the onset of the Stormwater fee for a year to, among other things, see how serious the federal EPA is about suing local jurisdictions for non-compliance with its new rules, and to postponing the funding of some construction projects a year or more.