A Penny Lopped Off New Tax Rate, More Reductions Due

The Falls Church School Board convenes at its meeting Tuesday night. (Photo: News-Press)

A penny was shaved off the proposed real estate tax rate increase for the coming fiscal year by the Falls Church City Council this Monday, and more reductions may be in store before the final adoption of the City’s FY2019 budget on April 23.

The penny reduction — from a 5.5 cent increase to a 4.5 cent increase (per $100 assessed valuation) as in City Manager Wyatt Shields’ recommendation — was authorized by the Council’s vote to issue $24 million in bonds for sale next month, down from $31 million as originally proposed. The resulting added annual debt service will decline by about $400,000, and thus the City will need less money from taxpayers to balance its budget in the coming fiscal year beginning this July 1.

But there may be considerable more relief coming to City taxpayers than just that, as well. In Richmond this week and next, the state legislature will mull Governor Ralph Northam’s plan to fund increased obligations to WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, to fix long-overdue repairs and improvements to the Metro rail line.

On the prospect that local Northern Virginia jurisdictions would have to bear Virginia’s over $50 million share of that added money, Shields’ recommended budget last month included a “worst case scenario” of an added $1.1 million burden to be born by City taxpayers. If that turns out not to be the case, or less so, then as much as another 2.5 cents could be shaved from his recommended tax hike.

No one wants to predict yet what that amount may be, however, so as not to create expectations that may not be realized. However, it is almost certain that if not the entire 2.5 cents, at least a major chunk of that burden will be lifted, which could result in a tax hike more like 2 to 2.5 cents.

That would be a remarkable outcome given the amount of debt the City’s voters agreed to take on with the easy passage of the school bond referendum to build a brand new high school, renovate and expand City Hall and library, and do others things as well.

If the WMATA burden were lifted, even just a little, presumably that would increase the likelihood that the Council will agree to give the Falls Church City Public Schools the extra $300,000 over the 2 percent increase they were told to hold the line against last December. That would permit the Schools to offer a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment to all its employees just as Shields proposes to do for all City government employees.

Still, some hardliners on the Council may want to hold the School system to the 2 percent growth limit, which would cut into the size of the salary increases it could offer its teachers and staff. This remains to be seen.

Still, the School system’s supporters continue to press their case to the Council. Superintendent Peter Noonan offered a new way to look at the Schools’ request, which will go entirely for modest salary increases, by saying the request contributes to another big issue before the Council, housing affordability.

Noonan said at a town hall meeting on the budget last Sunday at the Community Center that the salary increase for the Schools translates directly into an increased affordability of City housing, as too few teachers’ salaries as it is now are capable of affording the high price of housing in the Little City.

Farrell Kelly, the head of the Falls Church Education Association and a teacher at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School for 10 years, told the City Council at its public hearing on the budget Monday night that going without usual “step” salary increases in two of the last five years had led to a net decrease in take-home pay.

It is frustrating, he said, “to have to fight to prove our value [as educators–ed.] every year,” especially after the City voters approved the school bond referendum by a wide margin last November.

A letter from a Mt. Daniel Elementary teacher, Dorothy Baden-Mayer, was also read at the hearing. In the letter, Baden-Mayer expressed how much she enjoys teaching in Falls Church, but that she is barely able to make ends meet even with the benefit of one of the rare subsidized teacher-workforce affordable housing units in the City.

“I barely get by at the end of each month and often end up having to add more expenses to my credit cards,” she wrote. “Folks have mused about the impact of giving a two percent increase, or a one percent COLA increase instead of three. For me, at three percent, I’ll be making $1,500 more for the entire year. At two percent, I only make $1,000 more and at one percent, I make a meager $500 more for the entire year. It saddens me already that I’m worth the $1,500 raise this year. Even the three percent is a hard pill to swallow.”

She added, “It’ll be the second year out of five without a step increase, so I am struggling at the bottom of the pay scale when I should have made much more progress by now. Contemplating a $500 raise after five years of service is deeply upsetting and simply unsustainable for me.”

Her letter continued, “It breaks my heart that for the first time I have to consider the economic viability of continuing to teach. I love my job. It’s my true passion. But I also feel the pain of an empty bank account and worry about ever feeling economically secure on my own. I don’t want to leave teaching, but if my salary continues to stagnate, I won’t have a choice. I have a masters degree, seven years of experience, and have excelled at my job. There’s no reason for me to live paycheck to paycheck if I can avoid it.”