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Serious F.C. Budget Crunch Time Begins, First Council Vote is 4-3

By a narrow 4-3 vote Monday night, the Falls Church City Council rejected an alternative for a higher tax limit, and gave a preliminary “first reading” OK to City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposed four-cent tax rate increase — from the current $1.305 to $1.345 — to kick off formal deliberations on the new fiscal year budget. The budget process this spring will culminate with the final adoption of the budget, which will go into effect July 1, coming in late April.

Only two of the seven Council members, however, tipped their hands on how they might vote on the final adoption of the budget, with Vice Mayor David Snyder suggesting he will go with the $1.345 rate because he’s been persuaded so far that it’s needed, and Council member Phil Duncan saying that he expects he’d go no further than a two-cent rate hike come late April.

Ironically, the vote to OK the $1.345 rate tonight won out over an alternative plan initiated by Council member Nader Baroukh, who said that the Council needed the flexibility to add programs to the current recommended budget, so he proposed a $1.365 maximum rate. He was joined by Council members Dan Sze and Karen Oliver to vote for that option.

Under the rules of a “first reading,” the Council can wind up lowering the rate that was advertised out of Monday’s meeting, but cannot raise it above the $1.345 level of Monday’s vote.

In the public hearing portion of Monday’s meeting, three older citizens spoke up against any tax increase, with one stating that all things taken into account — an increase in his property’s assessment on top of a proposed rate hike — his overall taxes will go up by 12.3 percent, to three younger women, all with children in the school system.

Erin Gill, MaryKate Hughes and Letty Hardi spoke urging the Council to adopt the school budget portion of the budget with its plan to retain high quality teachers by making them more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions such as Arlington.

A fourth pro-school budget advocate spoke up, being developer Bob Young, who said that while all his commercial properties (and his residence) in the City pay very high taxes, being as his late wife, son, daughter and daughter in law have all been teachers he therefore appreciates the value of quality teachers.

Since Monday, Duncan chose to use the comment section of the News-Press’ website to clarify his position, writing, “I believe it’s possible to craft a budget that promotes continued excellence in our public schools, provides quality municipal services, supports an ambitious program of infrastructure improvements for both City and schools, and maintains a level tax rate.”

He provided a four-step approach to achieving this, including “1. no cuts in core service lines, just prudent restraint in spending growth on them, 2. investing the City’s reserve funds in the VACO/VML investment pool, a secure, liquid vehicle that pays more than the near-zero interest we earn now, 3. proper accounting of savings in the required contribution to the City pension fund, thanks to the Council’s 2014 decision to allocate a portion of water sale proceeds to the fund, and, 4. a stepped up pace of collections of overdue accounts, as planned by the Treasurer.”

Duncan’s second point went to legislation that passed the Council Monday authorizing the City Treasurer to transfer money in the City’s bank account – roughly $27 million at any given point – to the investment pool of the Virginia Association of Counties and Virginia Municipal League, which yields a much higher interest on deposits than the City is now getting, something which could be worth a couple million to the City that it doesn’t now have.
Also, on Duncan’s third point, a careful monitoring of the $10 million from the water sale proceeds that the Council voted to use for an advance payment into the City’s pension fund could yield savings beyond the estimates currently being reported by the City’s financial office.

The Council’s next public stab at the budget will come at a work session on Monday, April 6, the day after the end of spring break week for the City schools.

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