F.C. Council Turns Focus to Cutting Tax Rate as Budget Deadline Nears

The Falls Church City Council is continuing their search Wednesday night for palpable solutions to the problems for taxpayers represented by exploding student enrollment growth in its public schools, steadily rising residential real estate values and the federal government demand for extensive spending on storm water management.

Put over from Monday out of respect for Passover, Wednesday’s meeting is expected to delve further into the two options presented last week by City Manager Wyatt Shields to modify his March budget recommendations with ones that lower the projected real estate tax rate below his original request for a four-cent increase.

Shields presented two options for lowering the projected tax rate increase in his recommended budget last Thursday, as he’d been requested to do by the Council on Monday. One option would drop the tax rate by 2.6 cents, and the other by the 4.5 cents such that the rate would remain the same as last year’s at $1.305.

In both cases, further reductions in the proposed City operating and school budgets would be included, $238,000 from the general government and $400,000 from public education.

The News-Press learned in the meantime that some on the Council are seriously considering dipping into the City’s unassigned fund balance for some added revenues.

Shields’ budget calls for keeping that unassigned fund balance at 17 percent of annual expenditures, or about $13.6 million out of a total budget of nearly $80 million.

Lowering that percentage from 17 to 15 percent would free up $1.6 million, equal to six and a half cents on the real estate tax rate, and the fund balance would still be solidly within the range of 12 to 17 percent. But the $1.6 million could provide for fully funding the schools and other vital programs that would otherwise be cut, and still leave enough over to actually cut the tax rate below its current level.

“Why should the city staff dictate to the Council what’s on or off limits among its options? It’s the Council that decides the budget, after all,” the News-Press overheard.

Last Thursday, with two key members of the Council not present for the work session – Vice Mayor David Snyder and former Mayor Nader Baroukh – Mayor David Tarter determined that after a lengthy discussion by those present that no move toward a final choice of options be made at that meeting. There is time before the Council must formally adopt its FY15 budget on April 28, but is expected to mark up its final version a week ahead of that, next Thursday, April 21.

Neither of Shields’ options presented last week made use of the unassigned fund balance for the combination of new revenues and cuts. The second option includes all the components of Option 1 but uses surpluses from the current fiscal year, assigned temporarily to the fund balance but which would be used for one time or capital projects otherwise, to come up with $680,300 of the $1,600,000 million needed to keep the tax rate the same as this year.

The rest of the $1.6 million comes from $282,000 in debt service savings found in a new scrub of the numbers and the $638,000 in cuts to the operating and school budgets.

Even if kept at $1.305 (per $100 of assessed valuation for real estate), most City residents will see their tax bills higher when they arrive in May, first because of a hefty boost in assessed values and second because of the first-time annual stormwater fee that will vary widely from property to property based on levels of impervious surfaces.

To that end, most property owners received by mail last week the breakdown of what they will be billed for in June, including dollar equivalent numbers for impervious surfaces and any credits received as the result of making application for them.

But some are complaining that those numbers came after the March 31 deadline to apply for credits, not allowing citizens an opportunity to challenge the numbers or to make last-minute environmental changes to their properties to allay their costs.

In fact, the News-Press learned that among owners of about 4,000 residential properties in the City, less than 100 applied for credits, and of all the commercial properties in the City, only one property owner applied.