The devastating effect in the wider region of the recent Great Recession, federal sequestration and the ongoing uncertainty about where the federal government is headed has not been lost on the City of Falls Church, attendees at an extraordinary joint work session of the City Council, School Board and Planning Commission held at George Mason High School Monday night learned.
Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis provided by Dr. Stephen Fuller of George Mason University shows that Virginia’s gross state product growth in 2012-2013 nosedived to 48th place in the U.S., City Manager Wyatt Shields said in opening remarks, adding that Maryland sank to 49th and the District of Columbia to 51st.
This is the backdrop, he said, for lower than projected numbers for tax collections in the first quarter and an overall revenue growth of only 1.1 to 2.4 percent for the coming fiscal year.
With an ambitious schedule of new capital projects on the horizon, projected at a cost of $138 million over five years, the City has the benefit of a solid fund balance, solid capital reserves and a lot of economic development in the pipeline that can afford a way forward, Shields said.
These factors have resulted in a strong bond rating for the City, which means it can borrow to meet its capital needs.
However, Shields said during his power-point presentation that “We need significant community discussion on a shared vision for capital projects and how to achieve that vision.”
The key policy decisions facing the City now include the adoption of a capital improvement program (CIP) that meets the City’s vision for the future, is prioritized according to needs and is achievable, he said. It involves determining how to use $11.3 million in proceeds from the sale of the City’s water system last January, addressing recurring “pay as you go” costs, and impending special projects to renovate and expand City Hall and the Mary Riley Styles Public Library and renovate its storm water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the growth in enrollment at the Falls Church City Schools has cooled, although the number remains up over last year, the meeting was told.
While many sought to promote the idea of a “unified vision” for the City Monday night to address the operating and infrastructure needs, City Schools officials suggested they would not go along until the School Board explores its own data and priorities at its meeting next Tuesday. At that, they will develop guidance for Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones’ budget development at its meeting next Tuesday.
Dr. Jones and School Board chair Susan Kearney added their comments when City Councilman Phil Duncan chimed in on the issue of a shared vision by asking, “Can the School Board hold the line” on its budget request for the coming year?
The projected overall operating budget growth of 1.1 to 2.4 percent (assuming no change in the real estate tax rate) will undoubtedly put the School Board in a tight box given its recent years’ annual revenue growth needs to keep up with staggering enrollment growth.
Dr. Jones reminded the room that enrollment numbers projected for next fall will remain indeterminate until the spring, when historically a lot of new students enroll.
“Infrastructure is really important for business” in Falls Church, Melissa Teates of the Planning Commission offered. Having gone so long without seriously addressing infrastructure needs means that “time has caught up with us,” she said.
Mayor David Tarter summed up a way forward for a “shared vision” by saying more effort needs to be put to the public, and in this process, greater effort needs to go into the determining exactly what it is that is being proposed with the capital plans.
This Monday’s meeting marked one of the earliest jump-starts for the combined coming Fiscal Year 2015 operating and CIP budget processes in City history. The CIP portion begins with the Planning Commission on January 20 next year followed by two work sessions, two public hearings and one “community input” session in February prior to the Planners’ adoption of a recommended CIP on February 17.
Then it goes to the City Council, which will receive the City Manager’s recommended budget (including the School Board’s request) on March 9, followed by a series of work sessions, town halls and public hearings before its adoption of the FY 2015 budget and CIP adoption on April 27.
In another first, the F.C. City Council will join the Arlington County Board at the County Board chambers for a joint meeting next week.