With surprising apparent concord, the Falls Church City Council approved, with a series of three unanimous 7-0 votes, a “first reading” preliminary approval of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the City, the schools and the ambitious schedule for construction of a new high school and renovated City Hall and public library.
The preliminary budget abides with the recommendation of City Manager Wyatt Shields with a 5.5 cent (per $100 of assessed valuation) real estate tax increase, but the so-called heavy lifting toward final budget figures awaits another month of deliberations before the decisive vote is taken April 23.
There was no debate at all, in fact, over the size of the School Board’s request for a 2.8 percent budget increase. School Superintendent Peter Noonan sat silently in the audience throughout, prepared to weigh in if necessary, but that occasion never arose. It doesn’t mean that the issue won’t be engaged again soon, however.
Almost the entirety of the Council’s deliberations Monday night centered on questions about other aspects of the budget, with the biggest indeterminate factor being what the City may have to chip in to the effort to bring WMATA’s ailing Metro Rail system back up to speed. What was included in the prospective new budget, amounting to $1.1 million in new City money worth 2.5 cents on the tax rate, was described by Shields as a “worst case scenario,” and the City will likely not know what its obligation will actually be until mid-April at the earliest.
But it was noted that funding for affordable housing, rent relief for seniors and traffic calming, plus mindfulness concerning the national inflation rate as Councilman Phil Duncan cautioned, and “looming recession,” as Council member Letty Hardi put it, may have in the coming month.
Still, the Council was buoyed in its spirits by the U.S. News and World Report announcement earlier in the day that the City of Falls Church is ranked No. 1 in the entire U.S. for being a healthy place to live. Councilman David Snyder attributed it to “a team effort” by the City over a number of years, grounded in “strong schools and strong services,” adding, “We should not change that formula now.”
The mood of the Council was more mellow than euphoric if only for the fact that Mayor David Tarter was suffering major jet lag from a quick trip to Lebanon with representatives of the Northern Virginia Relief Center to deliver clothing to refugee camps there where 1.5 million Syrian refugees are taxing the resources of the 4 million residents of Lebanon. Tarter returned to Falls Church just a couple hours before tonight’s meeting, and Snyder joined the meeting late, coming in himself from business travel, albeit from not as great a distance as Tarter.
Concerns for funding affordable housing, rental assistance and tax relief for the elderly were also considered at the meeting. Julio Idrobo, for five years the chair of the City’s Housing Commission, cautioned the Council that a subsidy for The Fields, which has 96 affordable units in the block behind the Taco Bell on West Broad, is due to expire soon, and at this point the City has a policy in words only, but with no money allocated to back it up.
Residents of the Park Towers Condominiums on N. Maple Street appealed to the Council to be included in the City’s trash pick up policy, calling it “blatantly unfair” that they have to pay for their own trash removal while all other City residents don’t. Resident Matt Adams said the current policy amounts to the Park Tower residents subsidizing trash pickup for all other residents in the City.
The matter was included in a Council adopted solid waste plan in 2004, but nothing was done because, as City Manager Wyatt Shields said Monday, the issue “hasn’t risen as a policy concern.”
Gina Caceci, chair of the non-profit Creative Cauldron board presented 93 petition signatures to the Council in support of its approval for the Broad and Washington mixed use plan that is scheduled to come before the Council for a final OK at its April 9 meeting. The plan includes 5,000 square feet for the Cauldron’s new theater arts center.
This Monday’s Council work session will begin at 7 p.m., a half hour early, at the new temporary meeting place for the Council, the Senior Center at the Community Center.