By a narrow 4-3 margin, the Falls Church City Council Monday night adopted a budget for the coming Fiscal Year 2015 that keeps the real estate tax rate flat at its current rate of $1.305 per $100 of assessed values while cutting the School Board request by $216,000 and dipping into the City’s unassigned fund balance by $200,000. The compromise was proposed by Councilman Dan Sze.
The 4-3 vote included Mayor David Tarter and Council members Phil Duncan, Marybeth Connelly and Sze voting “yes” and Vice Mayor David Snyder, Nader Baroukh and Karen Oliver voting “no.”
While the Schools’ request was cut by $216,000, Mayor Tarter noted that amount is less than one percent of their total budget and still adds up to a 9.1 percent increase over the Schools’ budget total last year. The package also cuts the general government budget by $219,000 below City Manager Wyatt Shields’ request.
But the most controversial component of the vote was its inclusion of $200,000 to balance the budget to be taken from the so-called “unassigned fund balance.”
This was strongly opposed by Shields and F.C.’s Chief Financial Officer Richard LaCondre, who warned throughout the budget deliberations that began the middle of last month that using “one time money” for operating expenses was a ticket to fiscal doom.
Baroukh and Oliver were also adamant in opposition to any dipping into the fund balance. Even though the current fund balance is 17 percent of the City’s annual operating costs of $80 million, or $13.6 million, such that $200,000 is a tiny drop in the bucket, it is the “slippery slope” that such a move represents that is the danger, Baroukh argued.
“This is the first time a Falls Church City Council has ever proactively dipped into its fund balance,” Baroukh said. “It kicks difficult decisions down the road and sets a precedent.”
But the move was far from being a violation of City fund balance policy, which calls for the fund balance to be maintained in a range of 12 to 17 percent. Others argued that holding the balance at 17 percent is far too conservative.
It was announced this morning that the School Board will convene Thursday night to decide how to alter its budget with the $216,000 cut. Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and most members of the School Board were present in the audience for last night’s vote. Dr. Jones, teacher Amanda Blanchard, teacher Joel Black (vice president of the Falls Church Education Association) and Henderson Middle School PTA president Doreen Ruyak all spoke during the public hearing in favor of full funding for the schools.
But there were others who spoke against it, including one group of five citizens who came forth to argue that who argued that funding the schools is “not sustainable,” and urged the consolidation of the system with a large surrounding system. “We feel sometimes we are living in the School System of Falls Church, not the City of Falls Church,” one said.
In defending his winning budget option, Councilman Sze said “this maintains the tradition of great schools and a well designed city.” By holding the tax rate at last year’s level, five cents less than Shields recommended last month, Sze said the needs of the 10.4 percent of the City’s population living on fixed incomes and 28 percent who are federal workers who’ve lived with no pay raises in many years are also taken into account.
Almost everyone’s June tax bills will be higher, nonetheless, as appreciated assessed values and the add-on of a stormwater management fee included for the first time will drive them up even with a flat tax rate.