Nuances Arise at Town Hall On Shields’ Budget Proposal

AT THE FALLS CHURCH Community Center last Saturday, the gym floor was given over to a town hall meeting that included information tables set up by all the divisions of the Falls Church city government. There was also a presentation and questions.  (Photo: News-Press)
AT THE FALLS CHURCH Community Center last Saturday, the gym floor was given over to a town hall meeting that included information tables set up by all the divisions of the Falls Church city government. There was also a presentation and questions. (Photo: News-Press)

Nuances and clarifications of City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposed $87 million FY17 budget for the City of Falls Church arose at Saturday’s town hall meeting at the Community Center. The meeting was split between time for citizens to mill around speaking to heads of the various City and school departments and a public presentation by Shields and F.C. School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, along with a question-and-answer period. While citizen attendance was sparse (one count was 17) the interest was keen among those who showed up.

In terms of new information, the City Planning Department’s Paul Stoddard declared that the draft plan to divert the W&OD trail through Crossman Park has been scuttled, and planted into an appendix of the plan’s report along with a number of other alternative options that could be reconsidered at a later date. However, the Crossman Park diversion, which drew a large outcry of opposition from neighbors to the park that included some environmental concerns, is now out of the plans and the crossing of the trail at Route 29 will remain in the revised plan as is.

Also, Public Works director Mike Collins reported that while some work is already underway on some downtown improvements, more visible improvements to the sidewalks and crossings in the 100 and 200 blocks of N. Washington Street will commence in the late spring or early summer. The improvements, payment for which has already been approved by the City Council, are designed to “create a better look and a safer environment,” Shields added. Streetscape improvements on S. Washington St. are also getting underway.

Shields explained that $550,000 in his budget for a new downtown plaza on the north side of the 100 block of W. Broad is coming as a grant from the City’s Economic Development Authority from proceeds it obtained from the sale of the Podolnick property upon which the 300 W. Broad (Harris Teeter) project is being built. Shields also announced that the $16.9 million renovation of City Hall, that has already been authorized by the City Council, is expected to take a big step forward at the March 28 Council meeting when approval of an architectural and engineering contract will be considered.

Concerning the school budget, the request by the School Board for a 5.39 percent increase in its transfer request from the City, Dr. Jones explained that it is driven by continued robust enrollment growth, with an additional 729 students in the last decade expected to put the total enrollment above 2,600 next fall. She pointed out that 17 percent of the households in Falls Church have children in the school system, compared to neighboring Arlington with 9.96 percent, and that in terms of constant dollars (adjusted for inflation), the expenditure per student in Falls Church is still considerably below the level of 2007, and is now at $14,000 per student.

State funding per Falls Church student has been dropping for 10 years in a row, she pointed out. The state’s so-called “composite index” formula for allocating funds depending on the wealth of jurisdictions has been “rigged against Falls Church,” Council member David Snyder opined. If Falls Church had the same formula as Fairfax County, he noted, the City would be getting an additional $1.8 million from the state, and if it was the same as Loudoun County, it would be getting an additional $4.1 million, more than enough to offset any need for an increase in the school transfer this year.

Shields pointed out that 80 percent of the growth in revenue from real estate in the City in the current budget is coming from three new mixed use projects currently under construction — the 300 W. Broad, the Lincoln at Tinner Hill and the Kensington. That whopping amount, the year’s new revenues coming on just over six acres, has enabled Shields to propose his budget with only a 2.5 cent rate increase (an increase to $1.34 per $100 of assessed valuation). Without the three large scale projects, revenues from real estate would be flat, he noted, the same situation that exists throughout the region.

He also explained that his recommendation that the Council give “first reading” preliminary approval to a tax rate that is 4.5 cents higher to $1.36 is solely for purposes of advertising the budget according to law, something the Council will vote to do on March 28. It does not mean that the Council will approve a budget with that rate in late April, but is being done only to give the Council some flexibility, since by law the tax rate cannot go higher than the officially advertised rate once that is decided upon.

Shields struck an optimistic tone at the outset of the town hall, noting that the City is enjoying “strong growth and considerable vibrancy.” Challenges down the road, such as the need to expend over $100 million on a new high school, show out-year budget projections to “look like alligator jaws” as projected costs grow compared to revenues, but the continuing push for economic development is what is expected to mitigate that considerably, he said.