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F.C. Council Votes 4-3 to Adopt FY17 Budget With No Tax Hike, School Cuts

FALLS CHURCH SCHOOLS Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones speaks to the City Council Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)
FALLS CHURCH SCHOOLS Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones speaks to the City Council Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

The die was cast in recent weeks and there were no changes in the arguments or discourse among the four Falls Church City Council members Monday night who constituted the majority in favor of slashing almost $1 million from the City Schools’ budget.

Despite passionate pleas from School officials, ranging from Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, School Board vice chair John Lawrence, leaders of the teachers’ Falls Church Education Association and teachers themselves Monday night, there was no change in the rhetoric presented by those four Council members, including from ones who had posted their remarks online earlier in the week.

The vote was 4-3 to hold the real estate tax rate at $1.315 by cutting $912,600 from the School budget, with Mayor David Tarter and Council members Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi and Dan Sze voting “yes,” and Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, and Council members Karen Oliver and David Snyder voting “no.”

The $86 million budget will go into effect on July 1, but Superintendent Jones met with the Schools’ chief financial officer Hunter Kimble Tuesday morning to begin to work out the details of where the cuts in the Schools’ programs will have to come. That work was brought forward to a work session of the whole School Board Tuesday night.

The number of the cut to the Schools’ budget was, Dr. Jones says, entirely arbitrary based on a desire to achieve the symbolic goal of no real estate rate hike. The Council did not stipulate or articulate any places in the Schools’ budget where they felt too much was being asked for.

There was simply the non-specific sentiment that reflected what some citizens said during the public hearing portion of the meeting that somehow the Schools will be able to maintain competitive teacher salaries and low classroom sizes despite the cuts.

During that petition period, Amanda Blanchard of the Falls Church Teachers Association argued that “any cuts to the School system impacts everything, they all impact the children. We’ve not asked for more than we need.” Dr. Jones added, “These are real cuts that will have an impact on the children.”

Another teacher chimed in that cutting $912,600 will have consequences, including larger class sizes, less take home pay for teachers, and with the elimination of the contingency fund, an inability to deal with the unexpected. “Pulling one thread impacts the whole tapestry,” he said.

The four-vote majority, whose arguments were all made on behalf of fiscal discipline and “belt tightening,” with large capital improvement costs looming in coming years, also ignored the comments of their dissenting colleagues on the Council, including the claim by Karen Oliver that cutting the School budget this year is not fiscally responsible, because all the items cut will come back next year.

Snyder went further, calling the proposed cut “an unprecedented mistake,” based on his more than 20 years of experience on the Council. “The people closest to the needs of the School are telling us they need the money,” by contrast with “an artificial target.”

Vice Mayor Connelly said, “This is a penny wise, pound foolish approach to kick the can down the road. This isn’t about the School Board, or the Superintendent, this is about the children of Falls Church.”

But Duncan, who voted with the majority, said the School Board ignored the guidance of the Council set in the late fall to hold budget requests to 3 percent. “But the School Board did not find it in their hearts to reflect our ask,” suggesting they took a posture of “nullification” that “creates a lack of confidence.”

Dr. Jones stressed that it wasn’t a matter of what’s in their hearts, but what’s on their list of costs, including many that are fixed and will have to be revisited next year if not sooner, depending on what enrollment growth looks like in the fall. She said that potential enrollment growth from the completion of two major development projects this year, the Rushmark and Lincoln projects, are not yet calculated into their projections.

In other aspects of the budget, increases in the cigarette tax and personal property tax were approved to help fund transportation projects, including the City contributions to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. The General Government operating budget will be $37.7 million (2.4 percent growth) and the transfer to Schools will be $39.6 million (3.6 percent growth).

In addition to approving the operating budget for FY2017, the City Council approved the FY2017-FY2021 Capital Improvements Program (CIP) largely as recommended by the Planning Commission. The initial CIP year, FY2017, will meet many critical needs, including general government and School facility reinvestment, downtown public plaza improvements, funded by the Economic Development Authority, Big Chimney Park and Howard E. Herman Stream Valley Park improvements, Cherry Hill Park improvements for Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility and playground equipment replacement, public safety firearms range project in partnership with the City of Fairfax, transportation improvements (using a number of grant and local funding sources) for bridges, roadbed reconstruction, bike share and Metro transit.

In addition, the “Campus Redevelopment Project” is scheduled in the CIP for FY2018 with the timetable for referendum moved from this November to next May, and library expansion and renovation is included in the CIP for FY19. The City Hall public safety project was approved in the CIP last year, and is the design phase is beginning now.

Sewer fees were increased by 1.4 percent to pay for treatment plant upgrades at the Arlington County Four Mile Run Treatment Plan and the Alexandria Treatment Plant to meet Chesapeake Bay goals for nitrogen and phosphate removal. The stormwater utility fund’s bill rate was increased by two percent to provide for capital improvements.