The Falls Church City Council, by a one-vote margin, made the wrong decision on Monday night. What has kept Falls Church strong over the years has been the way strident and impassioned debates on whether to limit taxes or pay for schools has almost always wound up reaffirming the importance of maintaining the superior quality of the school system. As a result of the heated debates, tax rates were held in relative check and appreciation for the importance of the schools was redoubled, year in, year out.
The result has been a continually growing and increasingly vibrant community with something to truly be proud of, schools that are routinely ranked among the highest in the region, the state and the nation even while general City services have also been exemplary. The tax rates in the City have throughout remained very competitive with other comparably-sized jurisdictions in the region even as the City Council has always been mindful of households that are always concerned for their tax bills.
Sadly, in our view, this week’s budget vote represented a marked departure from that years-long approach, and we can only hope that it doesn’t set off a new trend. The taste of victory for the anti-tax crowd over the quality schools crowd will only whet the appetites of the former to push even harder from now on.
There was some fallacies expressed in Monday night’s budget debate that helped steer the outcome in the wrong direction. First, respected Councilman Phil Duncan’s argument comparing Falls Church to Arlington was ill advised. He lamented the wide difference in the real estate tax rates between Falls Church and Arlington, as if the City’s holding the line on two cents would make any meaningful difference. If you want Arlington’s tax rate, then consider the skylines at Rosslyn and Pentagon City that keep it low. They appear like the downtowns of two major cities.
On the other hand, Falls Church’s competitive answer to the Arlington tax rate is the quality of its schools. So, if you damage that quality in a futile effort to mimic Arlington’s tax rate, you lose twice. You can’t match Arlington’s tax rate, and you’ve jeopardized the City’s edge on schools.
Second, the Council and the general public watching Monday night’s deliberations were badly misled and subjected to the fallacy of being told use of the fund balance constituted “one time money,” and therefore was not good for sustainable budget policy. But this would not be the case if the Council voted to lower the fund balance limit as a matter of policy. If it was lowered to 12 percent, instead of 17 percent, of annual operating budget costs, for example, $4.3 million would be freed up for use in the budget every year, not just once. Lowering the limit to even just 16 percent would free up a additional $870,000 every year, enough in this case to fund the schools without a tax rate increase.