By a vote of 5-2, with Phil Duncan and David Snyder voting “no,” the Falls Church City Council Monday night gave a preliminary OK to City Manager Wyatt Shields’ recommended four cent tax rate increase for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
The four-cent hike above the current $1.315 per $100 of assessed real estate valuation includes a penny added for the school system at the request of the School Board and three cents, or $1.2 million, to set aside in the event voters approve a bond referendum in November to construct a new high school.
The final numbers, however, await a final adoption of the budget on April 24, and this Sunday afternoon will provide the public with its first opportunity to react at with a town hall scheduled for 3 p.m. in the Council chambers.
None of the Council members Monday were willing to commit to supporting the same tax rate when the final rate is adopted in less than a month.
Duncan said he wanted to register a “no” vote right off the bat to send a message to the community to pay attention to what is happening. He said adding three cents to the tax rate this spring for a set-aside to pay for the new school would be to preempt the the public’s right to invest in the process even before critical information about the cost of such a new school has been established.
Snyder offered a similar point of view, as much as he said the Council cannot afford to undercut the excellence of the schools for the impact it would have on the “financial underpinnings” of the City.
He noted that taking $1.2 million from taxpayers to hold in a bank will restrict its return to about one percent, while that money in the hands of citizens could contribute a lot more to the wealth and well-being of the community.
Council member Karen Oliver argued, on the other hand, that citizens are going to need to “get used to the idea” that a new school will be expensive. “We have to show that we are committed to this. We need to demonstrate the will power to take on this daunting task.”
Council member Letty Hardi said she recognizes the need to set aside something, but is not ready to commit to how much.
During the public comment period of the meeting, former F.C. City Council candidate Robert LaJeunesse assailed the plan to salt away taxpayer dollars prior to winning voter approval. He said the plan will “take money out of citizens’ pocketbooks without any intention of investing it, meaning you don’t need it.”
He also assailed the bloated fund balance, the money held in a bank account for a proverbial “rainy day.” The amount provided for in Shields’ proposed budget is at the upper end of the range of 12 to 17 percent of the annual operating budget. That too is money that just “sits there.”
“Why do you want to raise taxes preemptively like this? It only threatens the ability to raise more money in the future, creating a ‘borrowing constraint,’” he argued.
Duncan concurred, saying, “We need to invest the public in making these kind of choices. I am not ready to take their money yet.”
Duncan was also opposed to the one cent request from the School Board. It adds up to $400,000 and “let the schools find it,” he said.
Councilman Dan Sze said he aligned himself with Duncan’s viewpoint. “We need a dialogue with people first before taxing them like this,” he said.
Mayor David Tarter said, “We need to keep our budget balanced to keep our powder dry” for whatever may come. “I am unlikely to support the full budget the way it is.”
The Council also gave a preliminary OK to raising the room and lodging tax in the City from seven to eight percent of a bill.
The Council voted to postpone a decision on whether to invest another $2.3 million in the renovation and expansion of Mt. Daniel Elementary until April 11.