Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Funding & Fairness in the City of Falls Church

By Juergen Tooren & Johannah Barry

This is an open letter in response to the August 21, editorial in the Falls Church News-Press asking: “Where’s the Push for the Referendum?”

We were rather dismayed when we learned that the Falls Church City Council approved a bond referendum for November’s ballot without any explanation of how the interest on or repayment of the debt would be financed. As the editorial rightly points out this is but the first in a potential series of bond issues to finance new or renovated schools among other projects. The voters of Falls Church deserve to know and need to know how this and future bonds will be financed so they can make an informed choice. To date we have received no response to this question from the Council. The city manager mentions the potential for a 21 cent increase in real estate tax rate for capital projects in the 2015 budget documents. We fear that the actual rate may have to be much higher.

But those concerns led us to the larger issue of how the City decides which of the many projects should be funded. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) lists a number of opportunities to invest in Falls Church that would directly benefit the entire community. Only 33 percent of the City’s CIP for fiscal years 2015-2019 is designated for investment in all the following areas: Public Safety (0 percent), Public Works/Department Services-Transportation (20 percent), Recreation and Parks (2 percent), Information Technology (0 percent), and General Government Facilities (11 percent). The remaining 67% would be for school-related projects. Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, and Transportation are clearly areas that benefit all residents of the city.

The 2015 CIP submitted to the Planning Commission on February 3, 2014, lists the requirements for a new library as the possible subject of a bond referendum this year. What is the status of the library expansion? The library is a resource used by all residents and its value also includes engaging neighboring communities to visit our city, shop in our stores, and enjoy all that Falls Church has to offer.

We have city streets and sidewalks in urgent need of repair. Wouldn’t fixing them and establishing safer walking and cycling paths be a powerful magnet for visitors, customers, and potential new residents? The Council approved an implementation plan for moving our residents and visitors through this City, a plan which had the benefit of tremendous amounts of citizen input, staff time and engagement and best practices learned from our neighboring jurisdictions. It is a thoughtful, economically viable, and comprehensive look at our City’s walkability, accessibility, and sustainability and yet it receives scant attention in the current CIP.

We are not simply against government spending, or even more spending as long as it remains within the realm of reason. For example, we are proud of Falls Church for getting out in front of the storm water management issue, even though it resulted in a new fee. We agree emphatically that there is no question that funds must continue to be found to provide for services and facilities that benefit the general common good. Clearly, our schools deserve adequate funding as well.

A solid budgeting principle is to get the “biggest bang for the buck.” Shouldn’t that apply to our CIP also? We can’t afford everything in the plan but taking care of those items that benefit the greatest number of residents certainly makes sense to us. Focusing on one segment of the CIP is simply not fair to all our citizens.

A budget reflects a community’s priorities, character, and vision for the future. It is the Council’s responsibility to ensure that their decision-making enhances all members of the Falls Church community and is consistent with the principles embedded in our City’s founding documents. In addition to a commitment to “world class public schools” the City’s mission and vision include investments in neighborhoods, diversity, public safety, environmental harmony, and financial sustainability.

Given our small size and limited revenue streams, the burden of meeting the CIP requests and the annual school and City budgets falls disproportionately upon residents and specifically, our real estate taxes. This will likely always be the case, despite all good efforts to attract new commercial development. We do not believe that Falls Church residents have unlimited revenue nor do we believe that residents will continue to pay increasing taxes if they sense a fundamental lack of parity behind the tax hikes.

At the heart of this current CIP and the Council’s voting trajectory is an issue of fairness. Our increased taxes serve only a small portion of this City, and until there is a real effort to balance the needs of all City residents, we cannot support this proposed bond issue. All citizens should be served by the limited resources the city has.