As the Falls Church City Council moves to adopt its Fiscal Year 2017 budget this coming Monday night, the News-Press has learned there are at least four (out of seven total) who are reinforcing each others’ resolve to defy the recommendation of City Manager Wyatt Shields and to force $912,600 in cuts to the School Board’s adopted budget in order to adopt a budget with no real estate tax rate increase.
A flummoxed School Board tried to come to grips with the inevitability of such cuts at a lengthy work session Tuesday night (see story, elsewhere this page), and School Board chair Justin Castillo penned a guest commentary in this edition to explain what the impact could be. He said that “the proposed cut would almost certainly increase average class size (a process that is difficult to reverse) and hurt staff pay.”
On the City Council, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly is also siding with the School Board request and submitted a letter to the editor in this edition.
But there appears to be a solid majority on the Council resolved to eliminate Shield’s recommendation for a 2.5-cent tax rate increase from $1.315 to $1.34 per $100 of assessed real estate valuation, and that would include some deep new cuts in the City’s operational budget, adding up to less than half the amount that would be cut from the Schools. The growth in both sides, the City and Schools, would be limited to three percent.
At Monday’s lengthy City Council work session a distinct air of acrimony toward the School Board erupted among some on the Council. In particular, Council member Dan Sze singled out modest pay increases that the School Board voted itself as evidence of a deeper problem on that board. Phil Duncan chimed in, “We don’t have confidence of the community that the Council and School Board are working carefully to manage costs.”
“The Council apparently feels that somehow we’ve lost our bearings,” Castillo told his School Board colleagues the next night. “It is really quite striking.”
At the Council work session Monday, Shields explained that the factors compelling him to recommend the 2.5-cent rate increase included the fact that real estate assessed values in Falls Church were flat in the last year, compared to a normally-expected 3-to-5 percent increase, the average over the last 25 years, and that comes in the context of uncontrollable added costs such as rising health care premiums for City and School employees, a hefty increased obligation to the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority due to declining revenues from gas sales, the result of lower prices for gas, and robust continuing school enrollment growth.
He reminded the Council that had it not been for strong new revenues from new economic development in the City, his request to maintain City and School services might have been for a 9.5-cent rate increase instead of a 2.5-cent one. He said the lack of growth in real estate values is due to a major slowdown in federal government contracts throughout the region, making the D.C., Maryland and Virginia combined economies “the slowest growing in the U.S.”
“This is a major headwind we face,” he said, adding, “Nobody sees a huge spring-back coming anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Fairfax County, the Board of Supervisors there voted 7-3 to mark up a budget with a 4-cent tax rate increase, from $1.09 to $1.13, that includes a 5.18-percent increase in funding for the schools. The final vote on that budget will come next Tuesday. That increase would average out to $340 for the average home in the county, more than the $200 per average home increase in Falls Church were a budget with a 2.5-cent increase adopted.
But despite these realities, four on the Council have made their intentions clear so far to make more budget cuts and keep the tax rate at zero growth. They include Mayor David Tarter and Council members Duncan, Letty Hardi and Sze. Connelly and Council member Karen Oliver have come out for funding the School Board budget in full, and Council member David Snyder was out of town on business this week.
While Duncan quipped that “no teacher gets paid enough to put up with the modern child,” he observed that the City’s tax rate is “out of whack” with neighboring Arlington County thus creating unfavorable “optics.”
Oliver said Monday night that a “flat (no increase) tax rate sounds like pandering to the public.” She argued that “fiscal discipline to me means the need to actually pay for what you want.” Connelly’s argument was similar, saying that a small rate increase delivers “what people want in Falls Church, including small class sizes.”
Shields proposed that added cuts in the City’s operational budget could include a half-time court services position, not hiring a replacement manager for the Falls Church City Cable TV, and with cuts also proposed for the City’s youth mentorship program, an administrative position in public works, and targeted reductions in overtime for City employees, environmental coordinator, transportation planner and treasurer slots. He said that offsetting new revenue could come from raising grading plan fees and adding a “super-penalty” for delinquent personal property tax payers.
The City’s chief financial officer Richard LaCondre chimed in that there are “risks” associated with all the proposed cuts.
No mention was made in all the discussions of the wisdom of the proposed commitment to hold out a full 17 percent of the total budget in reserve as a fund balance in excess of $14.8 million.