Tarter Elected to 3rd Term as F.C. Mayor; Council Mulls Fiscal Policy

Falls Church Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa addresses the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. (Photo: News-Press)

By unanimous votes with no discussion, the incumbent mayor David Tarter and vice mayor Mary Beth Connelly of the City of Falls Church were re-elected by their City Council colleagues in a pair of 7-0 roll calls to open the new Council term Tuesday night.

New elements of the latest Council term involved the location — the Senior Center room at the Community Center adjacent City Hall — and the addition of first-time Council member, Ross Litkenhous, who proved no fading violet in his first-ever meeting with plenty to say about a number of issues.
The Council will meet in the Community Center for both its regular business meetings and work sessions for the next year because of major renovations that have begun at City Hall. All offices at City Hall will be out by April 1 pending completion of the renovation, but the Council seemed comfortable it its new temporary digs at the adjacent Community Center, at least for now.

It is going to be a busy and contentious year for the Council, even though the civility factor will be a major advantage to all of them this year. With the process for the construction of a $120 million all-new high school underway following a substantial margin of victory for a school bond referendum in November, the Council is looking at the tough decisions associated with the impact the project will have on the residential real estate tax rate in the next few years.

A major bone of contention at Tuesday’s meeting was the proposal by the City’s Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa that, as the City manages the service on the debt it will incur for the new high school project, it will have to supplement the reserves it will hold in order to offset the potential for any hiccups in the economy or other factors that could destabilize the City’s fiscal situation.

So, the bottom line on this is that in addition to six cents on the real estate tax rate (over the current rate of $1.33 per $100 of valuation) being added to cover the new high school construction cost (and the costs of the City Hall and library renovations, as well), there could be another two cents added to balloon the City’s fund balance to 20 percent of its annual operating costs.

Bawa argued that this is what Wall Street will require to maintain the City’s credit rating in the face of about five years during the high school construction when the City will be exceeding its policy of limiting debt service payments to 12 percent of the operating budget.

The strongest challenger on the Council to this approach was Phil Duncan, who asked why other jurisdictions in the region, including Fairfax City, were able to fund major capital improvement projects with almost no impact on its tax rate. No one had answers to Duncan’s question.

However, the City Council will not actually vote to adopt a new fiscal policy which could require the 20 percent fund balance rate at its first general business meeting of the new year on this coming Monday night.

And, oh yes, that meeting will be in the Community Center.

In brief acceptance remarks at being re-elected mayor to a third consecutive two-year term, first elected to the Council in 2012 and as mayor in 2014 and 2016 before this week, Tarter struck the same “can do” optimistic tenor as in his earlier acceptance speeches.

“The City is not standing still, we intend to continue investing in ourselves, in the children and in the future of this City,” he said. The new high school that will begin construction this year will become the “cornerstone of the City,” and the 10 acres on the campus site set aside for economic development “will create a special sense of place.”

He praised all the other members of the Council for their expertise, experience and proven dedication to public service in the City, including its one new member, Litkenhous, for his background in complex real estate finance, and the “unprecedented cooperation” he expects from the School Board.