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Down to the Wire: F.C. Council Will Raise Tax Rate 1¢ or Cut Schools

THE FALLS CHURCH CITY COUNCIL deliberated deep into the night again Monday. (Photo: News-Press)
THE FALLS CHURCH CITY COUNCIL deliberated deep into the night again Monday. (Photo: News-Press)

Another marathon work session of the Falls Church City Council Monday night ended with some verbal fireworks. Vice Mayor David Snyder clashed with Mayor David Tarter over the issue of fully funding the School Board budget request.

The Council concluded with two options for next Monday’s final vote on the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, one which comes in with no tax rate increase and $340,000 cut from the School Board request and the other with a one cent tax rate hike and a fully-funded School Board budget request.

The $341,000 cut could leave the schools with nine fewer teaching positions than at present.

In a rare outburst of emotion and departure from his anti-tax norm, Vice Mayor Snyder said that “if it came down to it, I’d vote the Schools’ request and a one cent rate increase.”

Snyder pleaded for more time to close the $340,000 gap through additional dialogue with the Schools before next Monday’s final vote. The $340,000 number is actually equal to less than a penny, 0.9 cents, on the tax rate.

However, the Schools’ request has been based on what it says is the need to remain competitive for the region’s best teachers and although not a big number compared to the overall size of the budget, it will be critical from the standpoint of meeting that objective.

At a work session Tuesday night, the School Board learned that, indeed, a $341,000 cut in its budget would have a dramatic impact on the functioning of the schools. Having already cut the budget to the bone, they were told, including the cutting of five full-time-equivalent positions, the added loss of $341,000 would require cutting an additional four teaching positions.

So, they were told, with the $341,000 cut, the system would face a total of nine fewer teachers.

Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones confirmed that in a telephone interview with the News-Press Wednesday.

After the Monday City Council work session, which pushed beyond 11:30 p.m., Snyder said he objected to making the School funding a political football, something that some Council members want to do just to be able to posture that they were for no tax rate increase “and by so doing,” Snyder said, “appease that small segment that doesn’t support the schools, anyway.”

“Worse than high taxes is a government that is unable to do what it needs to do” in terms of basic services and the schools, Snyder said.

Barring whatever might develop between now and next Monday night, the stage is set for up-or-down votes on the two options – one with a .9 cent tax rate increase that funds the school budget, and another with no tax rate increase and a $340,000 cut in the schools’ funding request.

Creative work on the budget lowered the projected tax rate increase from four cents to a gap that could be filled with a penny on the rate. Efforts by the Human Resources Department at City Hall found that the City and schools could save over $500,000 by switching health care plans. The removal of the cost of a new school bus from the schools’ budget request, and debt financing it instead, saved another $90,000 on the books.

On the City side, City Manager Wyatt Shields, who was treated to some special cupcakes at the meeting in celebration of his 46th birthday, found savings totaling another $602,100 (including a $305,000 drop in debt refunding) to lower the gap between the current tax rate and the City/schools expenditures to $340,948.

That is with the City’s fund balance at the top of its policy range (17 percent of annual operating costs) and only a small portion of the City’s available funds held in accounts that yield one tenth of one percent interest. An alternative, the Virginia Investment Pool, offers a much higher rate of return, but City Hall with its notoriously conservative fiscal practices has been reluctant to tap that resource.