Two forums pitting the five active Falls Church City Council candidates against each other were held in the last week, and if trending factors are important indicators as they have become so famously on social media sites, then a consensus continues to grow for support of the City’s school bond referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot.
In particular, incumbent Councilman Dan Sze, seeking a third four-year term, who voted in late July against placing the $120 bond referendum on the ballot in the first place, manifested a major shift in his view on the subject between the Friday night debate in the Council chambers of City Hall, and this Tuesday’s noon debate a couple blocks away at the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce at Argia’s restaurant.
All his opponents in the race to fill four seats on the Council have already been on record in favor of the referendum’s passage. But at last Friday’s debate hosted by the F.C. League of Women Voters and Village Preservation Society, Sze reiterated his stand to that point, saying the lack of certainty about a viable economic development offset makes it too risky to proceed.
However, by Tuesday, his remarks had markedly shifted. He said in his opening remarks that he’s been in favor of “fair taxes, great schools and a good community, a city where all can live.” He said the City’s “industry” is “growing people” with the help of “great schools.” He said he expects the bond referendum to pass, and said he would get fully behind the effort to build a new high school when it does.
He also said the Council’s decision to also renovate and expand both City Hall and the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, combining for a projected six cent real estate tax rate increase, is “justified.”
He highlighted his role in helping convene the Technical Assistance Council of the Urban Land Institute that provided the initial vision for the dense economic development of the 10 acres on the George Mason High School campus site that has been designated for cost-offsetting economic development.
His new posture distanced him from a noisy but narrowly circumscribed anti-referendum citizen activist grouping that has been raising the volume using the Internet, fliers and anonymous robo-calls generated from a Washington County source to urge “no” votes on the referendum on grounds of costs versus risk factors.
Among other things, opposition voices have singled out two women members of the City Council – Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and first-term Councilman Letty Hardi – for attacks that others have denounced as wrong and “sexist.”
But while risk factors do exist, as City Manager Wyatt Shields reiterated in an interview with the News-Press Wednesday, the single greatest concern – related to whether or not the City can get the level of economic yield out of the 10 acres to offset up to two thirds of the cost of the new school – will not come into play until after the City has secured the kind of development it will be seeking there.
If the bond referendum passes, he said, the City is under no obligation to burden taxpayers with a bond issue.
Only after the economic development options have been fully vetted and evaluated will the City clear the bond issue.
It has been estimated by the City’s highly-acclaimed consulting firm of Alvarez and Marsal that a long-term ground lease on the land could yield $40-$45 million and that subsequent economic development there could generate $3.1 million in annual tax yields to the City.
The Council could have up to eight years to decide on an issue of the school bonds, Shields said.
Planning Commissioner Andy Rankin reiterated the same point at the Planners’ meeting Monday night, saying it was stressed at the meeting of the Economic Development subcommittee of the Campus Process Working Group last Friday morning.
In the two City Council debates of the last week, besides Sze other candidates have emphasized the benefits of passing the bond referendum.
In the case of the debate before the Chamber, moderator Andrew Painter emphasized that the Chamber’s board of directors had also voted unanimously in favor of its passage because of the collateral economic development benefits it expects to result.
Incumbent David Snyder, who has served on the Council since 1994, noted that if the referendum failed to pass, that $70 million in patchwork improvements would be required at the high school, anyway, and without the benefit of any economic development.
Incumbent Vice Mayor Connelly, running for a second term, added that with passage of the referendum, the real estate tax rate increase can be limited to four cents, but if the referendum fails, the tax rate would rise eight or nine cents.
First-time candidate Ross Litkenhous, a father of three, stressed that, were the referendum to fail, pouring $70 million into a patchwork renovation of the high school would be like “pouring good money after bad” and the net result would be unsatisfactory. He said the schools are “the fabric of Falls Church, the most important part of the Falls Church’s unique identity and its future.”
Candidate Dan Maller, who served on the Council from 2006 to 2010 and then did not seek re-election, stressed the importance of the economic development portion of the high school redevelopment plan, saying it could add a full 10 percent to the total commercial value (now at $4 billion) of the City, thus underscoring the importance of good decision making concerning it.
He said that the City “is blessed with nothing but opportunity at this point.”
A sixth candidate for the City Council who’s qualified for the ballot, Spencer Parsons, has not participated in any of the three debates to date or in other campaign-related activities.
Follow-on School Board debates will be held on Oct. 25 and Nov. 1.