F.C. Council, Schools Face 2 Percent Budget Growth Limit in Coming Year

SWORN IN MONDAY in advance to beginning their new terms on the Falls Church City Council in January were (left to right) Dan Sze, Ross Litkenhous, David Snyder and Marybeth Connelly. (Photo: News-Press)

Knowing the cost at the onset of the high school renovation project approved by voters last month will add six cents to the real estate tax rate, the Falls Church City Council Monday voted 5-2 to limit the rate increase on the rest of City operational and school costs to two percent above levels in the current year, or slightly below revenue growth projections.

The dispute was over whether the growth should be limited to two percent, as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, or three percent, even with estimated revenue growth over the year to date. Because of the pressures on taxpayers to meet the challenges of the high school renovation, on top of renovations of both City Hall and the voter-approved Mary Riley Styles Public Library, also getting underway, the target two percent will put extraordinary pressures on both the City’s operational budget and the School Board budget.

But Shields pointed out that in order to hold costs down, “tough things will be brought to you” in the spring, when the Council will adopt the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the period from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. He said that priorities for him will be to maintain competitive salaries, and while the same holds for the School system, Superintendent Peter Noonan told the Council Monday night that with 84 percent of the schools’ budget already going to teacher and other personnel costs, the cost of a single “step” increase and a cost of living adjustment will exceed three percent, right there.

And while the schools experienced virtually no enrollment growth this year, that “breather” is expected to be an anomaly as enrollment should surge again next September. Also, this year the inflation rate is at 1.7 percent, but Council member Letty Hardi expressed anxiety over the impact of the new federal tax law on local governments, in general, and Northern Virginia, in particular. Her concern was echoed by Councilman David Snyder, who called the new tax law being hammered out for final approval in Congress now, “an attack on local government,” burdening it with additional challenges, and Metro is also pushing for one or even two $500,000 increases in its bill in the City next year.

Even under the best circumstances, however, home owners in Falls Church will confront the burden of the six cent hike for capital projects to jump the real estate tax rate from $1.33 per $100 assessed valuation now to $1.39, while there is expected to be a 3.3 percent increase in real estate assessments.

Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Councilman Dan Sze were the no votes, favoring the three percent limit.

When Superintendent Noonan took the news to the School Board meeting in the same venue Tuesday night, it was not met favorably. Earlier in the day Tuesday, Noonan told the News-Press in an interview that the two percent limit challenges the School Board “with an uphill climb. We will sharpen our pencils and work diligently.”

He noted the limit also challenges the need to provide incentives to reverse the disturbing national trend, which also applies to Virginia, leading to severe teaching shortages. He cited the initiative taken by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe this week to address this problem with his Executive Directive 14, directing the State Board of Education to issue emergency regulations to provide Virginia’s colleges and universities the option to offer an undergraduate major in teaching for the first time. Such a four-year program would be in addition to the graduate programs that are the only pathway to a teaching certificate currently.

McAuliffe’s plan, Noonan pointed out, covers five other initiatives, as well, to automate the teacher licensure process, to support recruitment and retention efforts for principals in the state’s most challenged school divisions, to increase tuition assistance grants (TAG) for students to enter into teaching, new funding to help cover the cost of tests and testing preparation programs for provisionally licensed minority students, and to improve the state’s teaching scholarship loan program, such as making students eligible for $20,000 if they teach two years in a top five critical shortage area, in a division with a 50 percent free and reduced lunch student population.

“We have to think about addressing compensation in all its forms, including by providing professional development and learning opportunities,” he said, praising the work of the non-profit Falls Church Education Foundation for its fundraising efforts to provide grants in this area. “Teaching is a hard job,” Noonan said. “Teachers need to know, among other things, that they’re held in high esteem and respected.”

Other actions by the Council included a tabling of a vote on new City financial policies, including its unassigned fund balance policy, to Jan. 8, when the new Council — Ross Litkenhous coming on, and Karen Oliver leaving — will be seated.

The Council adopted a proclamation designating the Martin Luther King holiday on Jan. 15, 2018 as the “City of Falls Church Day of Service,” at the initiative of Council member Letty Hardi.

The Council tasked City Manager Wyatt Shields with exploring the feasibility of David Tax’s request for a median cut in the 100 block of N. Washington St. to allow a left turn for southbound vehicles into Park Place to enable access to the Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Argia’s restaurants there, needed especially in the context of expected development of the Insight project at the Broad-Washington intersection.

The Council approved 7-0 a provision to introduce a $100 fine for vehicles not carrying a current windshield tag indicating payment of personal property taxes, to go into effect on April 1, 2018.

The Council received a report from City Registrar David Bjerke and members of the Electoral Commission about the smoothly-conducted election last month, when the City, according to Bjerke, again led all jurisdictions in the Commonwealth with the highest voter turnout in the off-year election at 54.6 percent of active registered voters turning out to vote.