A round of applause! Falls Church has a FY2016 budget. It took sweat, disagreement and compromise. Some say we failed because the tax rate did not remain flat. Others worry that we are not raising enough for future capital needs. I’m calling it a success, with room for improvement in the future. This budget provides a map of Falls Church priorities, and a vision for a sustainable and bright future.
Four Council members voted to raise the tax rate by $.01, for a rate of $131.5 per $1,000 of assessed value. ($70 per year on a $700,000 house) We began discussions with the potential to raise it four times that amount. Diligent and thoughtful work brought us to the approved budget.
Hundreds of people wrote, attended meetings and commented passionately on budget priorities and vision. Every commenter made me nod my head in agreement at some point. Unfortunately there’s no way to create a budget that pleases everyone. Even if you are disappointed, know that your ideas were heard and your concerns weighed carefully.
Employees of Falls Church City and F.C. Schools spent hours, round the clock, building this budget. Because we are a small city, this requires cooperation, nimbleness and flexibility. It is appropriate that City Council issued a proclamation declaring May 3-9, 2015 as Public Service Recognition Week.
City Council and School Board members also put their hearts into this budget. We haven’t always agreed. That tension, though sometimes uncomfortable, is also essential. Those who advocated for a flat tax rate provided a clarion call to keep the needs of all citizens front and center.
There are a number of factors in budget-building that are out of our local control.
• Falls Church tax rate is higher than our neighboring counties.
• Falls Church tax rate is on the low end when compared with nearby cities and towns.
• Cities and towns don’t benefit from economies of scale, so it costs us more to provide some services.
• We have to contract some services to neighboring jurisdictions. We can’t cut these –and are beholden when the bill increases. Just this month, we learned that ambulance fees due to Arlington will increase by $135,000.
• We don’t have Federal investment like our neighbors. Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax benefit financially from the Pentagon, airports, Federal District courts and military installations.
• We don’t benefit from Virginia funding. The Virginia Local Composite Index (LCI) determines how much money sent to Richmond comes back to support schools. Falls Church has among the highest LCI ratios in the state, which means we receive the least state support.
• Our ratio of residential to commercial tax revenue is imbalanced. Most of our tax revenue comes from homeowners. We’ve grown into this and need to alter this ratio.
These challenges may seem overwhelming but together, as a community, we can overcome them. Falls Church is headed in the right direction. Our property values continue to grow. Our location couldn’t be better. Our commercial economic development, with the expectation of increased revenue, is expanding. Our schools are excellent, and will continue to provide world-class education. A year from now, we will add Harris-Teeter and Fresh Market to our grocery shopping choices.
This budget funds the school and city operating requests. While there are unmet needs to think about in planning for next year, we are in good shape. It also funds:
• Mt. Daniel School construction
• City Hall and Public Safety renovations
• GMHS track and field replacement
• Arts funding for programs and operations
• Park improvements
• Downtown reinvestment
• Neighborhood Traffic Calming
• GMHS Campus Joint Planning Committee
See what I mean – a round of applause!
Call to Action for All Citizens
1. Shop local. Buy your groceries, gas, gifts and dinner in the City of Falls Church. A $700 purchase at Integrity Tire supports a small business, and puts $7 in the city’s coffers. The $200 a week you spend on groceries at Giant, BJ’s, The Local Market or Good Fortune is worth $2 in sales tax. The $80 meal at Pizzeria Orso brings $3.20 to the city. It all adds up. Spend right here in Falls Church!
2. Embrace, don’t fear, economic development. To keep our city sustainable, we need to engage with developers to get the development we want and need.
3. It’s time to change the budget process. Elected leaders need to work together, earlier in the year, considering other reasonable formulae for school funding. Arlington has a robust revenue sharing agreement that we can examine as a start.
4. Look after one another and be kind. That’s what a community is all about. If you are (or know) a person or family struggling with taxes, Falls Church offers tax relief and deferral programs. Contact Falls Church Treasurer Jody Acosta at email@example.com or 703-248-5049 to find out about those programs.
Marybeth Connelly is a member of the Falls Church City Council and newly appointed chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.