It didn’t take long at all, once the big decision about the size of the Capital Improvements Project budget was decided, for the Falls Church City Council to vote ahead of the deadlines last Monday night to seek approval from the Arlington Circuit Court to place a $120 million school bond referendum on this November’s ballot.
If passed, the referendum will authorize the financing of an all-new George Mason High School and renovations to the Henderson Middle School on the same site.
It will be an advisory referendum without the force of law, but will certainly dictate the direction of the City’s approach to the issue depending on whether it passes or fails. A lot has gone into evaluating and estimating the components that surround the specific question in the referendum, most especially the ultimate cost to the City’s taxpayers.
Vice Mayor Mary Beth Connelly, in advocating for the referendum vote, said, “Building projects are expensive, can be risky but they are necessary to maintain a community that we can be proud of, that reflects our shared values.” She added, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and just do it, but this is more than a blind leap of faith. We’ve got four years of work behind us, good data, solid strategy, strong advice, commitments to keep operating and capital costs as low as possible, and we have time in the next three months to educate everyone. It will not be easy, but I am certain that it will be worth it.”
Some argued for a delay, given the size of the ask and other things, notably Councilmen Dan Sze and Karen Oliver, the only two “no” votes among the seven cast by the Council.
Sze intoned that “many questions remain unanswered,” including, he said, “the most important one, being the consequences of either a passage or failure to pass the proposed referendum.”
“Does passage mean that the City is authorized to increase real estate taxes, some say by as much as 20 cents on the current rate. Does failure to pass mean that citizens do not want a new high school or does it mean that they are unhappy with the question being asked based on the progress so far,” he asked rhetorically. He then cited the lack of definitive answers so far on operational costs, the level of economic development, and the future trends of the economy.
Oliver said she didn’t want to take a $120 million plan to the voters “if it is a bad idea. We don’t need to spend $120 million.”
But Councilman Phil Duncan said, “We need to leave a city for future generations,” noting his son graduated from George Mason High. The last time any improvements were made to the school was in 1993. “We need to bring the community together so we can raise our children ready for success.”
“We have little room for error,” Mayor David Tarter said. “But we will make changes as needs arise. I am looking for a more creative approach to economic development” to mitigate the impact of the bond on citizens.
With the sale or long-term lease of the 10 acres of the 34-acre parcel of land set aside for economic development expected to bring $40-$45 million, and tax yields from the developments there expected to bring up to $3.18 million annually, according to the City’s consultants, the actual burden on city taxpayers for the new high school could range beginning from six cents on the real estate tax rate down to four cents after three years over the 30 year course of a loan.
The bond referendum that will appear on this November’s ballot along with elections to state senate and delegate posts, four spots on the City Council and School Board and three uncontested Constitutional officer posts.
Its language will be as follows, pending approval by the District Court next month:
“QUESTION: Shall the City of Falls Church, Virginia, contract a debt and issue its general obligation bonds in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed one hundred twenty million dollars ($120,000,000.00) for the purpose of paying the costs incident to constructing, expanding, reconstructing, renovating, equipping and/or reequipping, in whole or in part a new or improved High School and part of a middle school in the City of Falls Church, and shall Ordinance No. TO-1712 of the City authorizing the issuance of such bonds be effective?”