Taking its first formal step to place a school bond referendum on this November’s ballot, the Falls Church City Council was unanimous in giving preliminary approval to the developing language for the ballot Monday night, and to move ahead with the discussion on how much debt such the City should absorb at this stage.
The following night, Tuesday, the Falls Church School Board signed off on the same process, by a 6-1 vote, with John Lawrence being the only dissenting vote.
So, for the sake of getting the debate underway in the upcoming month before final approval of the language for a bond referendum needs to be adopted by late July, the Council OK’d the preliminary terms of a “capital improvements projects” (CIP) budget that includes $120 million for a new high school, $11.7 million for a renovation of the City Hall, and $8.7 million for the renovation and expansion of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. Along with some other CIP expenditures, the package totaled $167.5 million and, if approved in its form this way, would more than quadruple the City’s debt from $50.1 million to $218 million with daunting consequences for the real estate tax rate.
The School Board’s resolution touched only on “constructing, expanding, reconstructing, renovating, equipping, and/or re-equipping, in whole or part, a new or improved high school and part of a middle school.”
Cost offsetting factors touched on at the Council meeting Monday include the $43 million the City has been told by consultants it can get through sale or lease of 10 acres of the land on the 36 acre campus site for commercial development, and a revision in the CIP to postpone the library improvement plan to Fiscal Year 2022. The plan proposed last week called for delaying the library plan to 2025, but on Monday it was revealed that it may need a postponement only until 2022.
Still, the library delay brought out the most impassioned opposition among citizens Monday night, who pointed to the fact that voters overwhelmingly approved a bond referendum for the library work last November and that improvements, including basic ADA compliance needs, should not be delayed.
A modified CIP combined with the land sale or lease, if it goes through, could result in a new high school that would cost taxpayers nine cents on the tax rate above its current level (currently at $1.33 per $100 of assessed valuation) for the first three years, then drop to seven cents for two years and four centers through the end of the next decade.
Lawrence, as the only dissenting vote on the School Board, said his vote was motivated “because we have no financial plan to pay for the school and I think moving ahead without that is just irresponsible.”
On the other side, long-time Falls Church public servant Kieran Sharpe, who’s served on both the City Council and School Board since the early 1990s, came before the City Council Monday night to suggest that the $40 million estimate for the 10 acres of commercial land at the campus site could be low.
Sharpe noted that by his calculations, the sale of nine acres at the Wiehle Road Metro station to the west for what is now called the Reston Station involved nine acres that sold to Comstock Homes for $56 million. Instead of $4 million an acre, he proposed, it went there for closer to $6 million per acre.
F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields told the Council the coming month is “a very important time” in the history of Falls Church for settling on what should be built and when, with a mind to winning popular support on a November bond referendum that will be for the single largest dollar amount in the City’s history, and in an election year, to boot, with four seats on the City Council and four on the School Board up for grabs.
Citizens speaking up Monday said they were “flabbergasted,” in the words of one, about plans to delay the library improvements after voters approved a bond referendum to fund them by a wide margin last November. Another citizen said it amounted to a “bait and switch.”
But Shields assured everyone that the money approval for the library work by the voters last November would not be diverted into other projects, like the school or City Hall, because the library bonds have not yet been sold and will not be until the library project is set to begin. However, it was pointed out that delaying the library work until 2022 would necessarily inflate the cost from $8.6 million to about $10.7 million.
There is bound to be a lot of animated discussions of all the moving parts in this scenario over the next month. The Council is slated to settle on the final language for the November bond referendum at its July 24 meeting.