Sparse Turnouts So Far as Public Urged to Comment on F.C. Budget

FALLS CHURCH'S STORMWATER MANAGEMENT TEAM was on hand prepared to answer citizen inquiries at the Community Center Monday, but wound up with a low turnout mostly sharing childrearing anecdotes with fellow City staffers. (Photo: News-Press)
FALLS CHURCH’S STORMWATER MANAGEMENT TEAM was on hand prepared to answer citizen inquiries at the Community Center Monday, but wound up with a low turnout mostly sharing childrearing anecdotes with fellow City staffers. (Photo: News-Press)

The first weekend welcoming public input and comment on the proposed coming Fiscal Year 2016 budget for the City of Falls Church and its schools saw a paltry turnout of the public despite special efforts by the City’s staff to be prepared for extensive questioning and discussions.

Only a dozen citizens showed up for a town hall meeting last Saturday morning, and the turnout was not much better for an open house on Monday night. Both events were at the Community Center and no one could claim to be held back by bad weather.

The anemic turnout Monday was especially disappointing to City officials, given the time and effort that went into preparing. An array of tables was set up and manned by leading members of the City staff, including the police and sheriff departments, who were poised to engage in extensive discussions with their tax paying public.

Still, the News-Press has learned that the City Council, which will adopt a new budget and tax rate late next month, is being influenced by the handful of people who did bother to show up last weekend.

Despite the low town hall turnout, where a handful of citizens complained that Falls Church is providing fewer services at higher costs than its much larger Fairfax and Arlington county neighbors, the mayor, vice mayor and two other members of the Council were all ears. At the end, Vice Mayor David Snyder hailed the “productivity” of the session, even though he was among the City officials who challenged the oft-repeated notion that Falls Church “has a way higher tax rate and way fewer services.”

Snyder cautioned those who even suggested that the City re-align with either Arlington or Fairfax to “not get tied to wagons going the other way.”
He noted that tougher times are on the economic horizon for both the larger neighbors, with developable land drying up around Arlington’s Metro stations and federal subsidies, including federal dollars for regional defense-related efforts, beginning to “go south” for Fairfax.

On the upside for Falls Church, he noted, are its treatment of its roads during and following snow storms and its swift police and emergency response times, along with a lot of new tax-generating economic development projects in the works.

City Manager Wyatt Shields added that while the City’s overall population grew from 2000 to 2010 by 18 percent, the recession and other pressures have led to a smaller City staff, adding to the City’s “management challenges” that it continues to address. But more and more, he added, these are “regional issues” that confront all jurisdictions in Northern Virginia.

As for Falls Church, noted School Board chair Justin Castillo, “if we can get through the next five to seven years, we’ll be in a great place.” He cited the pressures for capital improvements at City Hall, the library and schools, on the one hand, and the significant new economic development in the pipeline, on the other, as the parameters defining the situation immediately ahead. The promise of the dense commercial development of 10 acres of the City’s newly-acquired George Mason High School and Henderson Middle School campus land adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station is “very valid,” he said.

In the context of this, Castillo said, it will be important for the school system to continue its effort to close the gap with Arlington on teacher compensation to avoid a brain drain of talent. He said there are “seen and unseen” factors creating pressures on maintaining the high quality of the City’s school system, noting that the growth of enrollment has been the single biggest challenge.

As a result, the cost to the school system per student is down 17 percent since 2007, as it is, from $14,300 to $11,900. So far, the quality of the system remains high, and the goal is to bring Falls Church teacher salaries not equal to, but within three or four percent of Arlington.

Shields met complaints that “streets and sidewalks are in horrible shape in the residential neighborhoods,” and related matters, by identifying City staff efforts to address just those and other needs that are ready in the works. He noted that the full presentation of the City’s proposed capital improvement projects (CIP) for the coming years will be presented to the next City Council meeting on this coming Monday night, March 23.

Then, the Council will vote on a “first reading” for the budget, and it was proposed by Councilman Nader Baroukh at last Monday night’s work session that the “advertised rate” for the real estate tax for the budget be set two cents higher than the rate recommended by Shields. That would put it at $1.365 per $100 of assessed valuation, but that would only be a formality, to give the Council “wiggle room” in deliberating on the budget before its final adoption on April 27.

This Monday will also mark the first budget public hearing at a City Council business meeting, to be followed by a second town hall meeting that has been pushed back from Saturday, April 3, to Saturday, April 11 to accommodate citizens who may be out of town during Spring Break week.

The latest iterations of the so-called “Mason Row” development proposed for the area surrounding N. West and W. Broad Streets will also be on the Council’s agenda for Monday.