On Monday night, the Falls Church City Council made two split decisions that will ensure a torridity in the atmosphere of the Little City of Falls Church for at least the next three and a half months.
In the more decisive vote of the two, it went 5-2 in favor of defying the recommendation of both the City staff and the City’s Planning Commission to give final approval to its commitment to the so-called “full CIP,” which means full funding for all the programs in its current Capital Improvements Program for the coming year.
The funding includes the renovation and expansions of three big City projects — the Mary Riley Styles library, City Hall and Larry Graves Fields community soccer fields — and an array of other small projects, as well as the big elephant in the room, $120 million for an all-new George Mason High School that City voters will weigh in on with an advisory referendum in November.
The Council favored casting caution to the wind in its vote, with a nervous confidence that economic development yields from the high school project, in particular, will sufficiently offset the costs of the other programs to keep the impact of it all on the pocketbooks of City residents sufficiently within bounds to warrant their endorsement in the November referendum.
The “modified CIP” option that the City staff favored would have delayed the library, Graves fields and Thomas Jefferson Elementary expansion projects for up to seven years and was designed to assuage the impact of the new high school plan on City taxpayer pocketbooks, but the proponents of those programs made compelling arguments for their more urgent needs Monday, as they have in the past.
A longtime advocate of the library renovation, which was years in the making before gaining voter approval last November for an $8.7 million improvement, was Library Board member Chet DeLong, husband of four-term mayor of Falls Church in the 1980s, Carol DeLong. He reminded the Council members that the library needs to be made Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, the shaky elevator fixed, the restrooms enlarged and other pressing needs.
It was noted that millennials, in polls, are big fans of public libraries, partly because the cost of books, magazines and other learning tools are seen as becoming prohibitive. The popular City of F.C. library has enjoyed explosive growth in users and programs, being ranked among the top 261 libraries in the U.S. out of 7,663 others.
Another program slated for significant delay if the CIP was pared back involves the renovation of the soccer fields at Larry Graves Park on Hillwood Avenue. Longtime City Recreation and Parks Advisory Board member Charles O’Hara said all City youth and adult program fields are in great need of repair and that now is a unique time when a cooperative arrangement may come to pass with Fairfax County for the Graves fields.
He noted that 67 to 80 percent of George Mason High School’s state championship boys and girls soccer team members began their careers in the City’s Rec Department programs.
Ross Litkenhous, a citizen who has filed to run for the F.C. City Council this November, said he believes the annual tax revenue from the economic development on the 10 acres of the school site dedicated to that use could be double that projected currently, easing the burden on taxpayers to build the new school and maintain the other improvements called for in the full CIP.
Following the dramatic 5-2 vote for the full CIP, with Mayor David Tarter casting the final vote in favor after keeping his intentions secret to that point to join Vice Mayor Mary Beth Connelly and Council members Phil Duncan, David Snyder and Dan Sze in that majority, the vote to officially authorize the November bond referendum passed swiftly, with almost no further arguments, by another 5-2 vote, this one with Tarter, Connelly, Duncan, Snyder and Letty Hardi in favor, and Dan Sze and Karen Oliver against.