Down to the Wire, F.C. Council in 4-Way Split on Its Annual Budget

Tuesday night's joint F.C. City Council and School Board meeting. Among those not shown are Council members Dan Sze and Nader Baroukh and City Manager Wyatt Shields.
Tuesday night’s joint F.C. City Council and School Board meeting. Among those not shown are Council members Dan Sze and Nader Baroukh and City Manager Wyatt Shields.

It’s down to crunch time, almost literally, for the Falls Church City Council to assemble a majority of four votes or more to pass its Fiscal Year 2015 budget by midnight this coming Monday.

At press time, there are four distinct proposals that the seven Council members have crafted for consideration at Monday’s deadline meeting. It feels a bit like four people and their baggage fitting into one compartment of a revolving door.

What makes it worse is that all four proposals are quite distinct from one another. At an early point in Monday’s Council work session when it looked like there would be only two options, the City’s Chief Financial Officer Richard LaCondre quipped that at least there weren’t four, like last year. He spoke too soon. When it turned out to be four again, he quietly shook his head.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields Tuesday night put numbers to the four options the F.C. City Council wound up with Monday, and presented them to a meeting of the Joint Council-School Board working group, to which five Council members showed up at the School Board offices.

Option 1 calls for holding the tax rate at its current level of $1.305, involving $920,000 in reduced spending and $680,000 in use of Fiscal Year 2014 surplus, with general budget reductions and School Board request reductions each at $319,000. This is the plan preferred by Councilman Phil Duncan.

Option 2 holds the tax rate at $1.305 by using funds from the sale of the water system, with $219,000 in general governments operations no significant School Board request reductions. This is the plan preferred by Vice Mayor David Snyder.

Option 3 increases the tax rate to $1.335 with general government reductions of $219,000 and no significant reductions in the School Board request. This is the option preferred by Nader Baroukh and Karen Oliver.

Option 4 keeps the tax rate at $1.305 with $720,000 in spending reductions, including a $219,000 reduction in both the general government and School Board funding requests, and use of $200,000 of unassigned fund balance. This is the plan preferred by Daniel Sze.

Sze originally proposed using a small portion of the unassigned fund balance to bridge the gap to keep the tax rate flat and fully fund the schools. But he offered an alternative of a $219,000 School cut in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a consensus right then and there last Monday.

Council member Marybeth Connelly also argued about using fund balance money to keep the tax rate flat and fully fund the schools. But she did not sign onto any of the four options. Nor did Mayor David Tarter, who tried to manage the swelling number of alternative approaches, except to say that he wanted to keep the tax rate flat.

But Shields and LaCondre remained adamant that “one time money” should not be used for operating budget expenses, and they identified both fund balance and water sale proceeds as in that category.

Snyder, on the other hand, argued that “one time” water sale proceeds could be used to pay for “one time” capital improvements if it was used to pay a year’s debt service on past capital improvements, which is about $5 million.

On dipping into the fund balance, which City staff insists be maintained at 17 percent of annual budget expenditures (or roughly $13.6 million) as a “rainy day fund,” Sze said that for many taxpayers, “It’s raining already.”

School Board chair Susan Kearney cautioned the Council members present Tuesday night that she did not believe anyone on the School Board would endorse any plan that calls for reducing their budget request even by a little.

This Tuesday’s meeting also focused on how plans for capital improvements in the schools would provide for the continued explosive growth in school enrollment that’s expected. She said her board worried that its budget request was based on a “mid-level enrollment growth forecast,” but that if it turns out to be higher than that, then that will pose even greater pressures on the schools’ budget.