With its final vote on the Fiscal Year 2019 budget set for this coming Monday night, the Falls Church City Council waited with bated breath Wednesday night to see if the Virginia State Legislature would come to closure on a plan to pay for badly needed repairs to the Metrorail system without localities having to bear the cost.
And, in a late breaking development, it was learned that a plan was agreed upon in the General Assembly that “would redirect about one-third of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s 2019 funding, leaving just $265 million for regional road projects.” According to the late report, the legislation “ties the funding to key reforms such as a three percent cap on annual budget increases, stronger oversight, and WMATA Board governance. Virginia’s funding is contingent on Maryland and D.C. meeting their regional obligations, and failure to implement the reforms will result in funding being withheld.”
A proposal by Gov. Ralph Northam to spread the cost for widely in the state was rejected earlier yesterday by the Republican majority in the General Assembly, and it was back in the governor’s court last night whether or not he would veto the latest formula.
At its work session this Monday, the Council learned that Richmond would settle on a plan to fund WMATA’s need for $500 million in extra money to repair its Metrorail system that lifts the funding burden on Northern Virginia localities. The implications for the City of Falls Church reduce its anticipated share of this from $1.1 million to just over $200,000, thus relieving City taxpayers from 2.5 cents (per $100 assessed valuation) of an increase in their real estate tax bill to only half a cent.
Although this outcome wasn’t known for sure as of press time yesterday, F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields told the Council that “the chance for a change in this outcome is very small.” F.C. Councilman David Snyder, who is the City’s point man on regional transportation funding issues, said bulk of the credit for the imminent action in Richmond goes to F.C.’s State Senator Richard Saslaw.
But Snyder added in a guest commentary published in this week’s edition of the News-Press, “The two options that were on the table at the General Assembly — the conference bill and the governor’s amendments — would remove most of the additional burden from our budget and provide the $154 million Virginia share. Due to the House passing over the governor’s amendments, the conference bill will likely be signed into law. Regrettably, almost all of the money comes from Northern Virginia, so again the state dodges its collective responsibility to us while enjoying the taxes we pay to support the rest of the state.”
But that news of tax relief for the City wasn’t the only hopeful news in Monday’s work session. The projected 5.5-cent increase in Shields’ original budget recommendation last month was first shaved by a penny with the determination that the City didn’t need to borrow quite so much to launch its three major capital improvement projects — the new high school and renovated and expanded City Hall and public library.
With that penny off, and the WMATA burden hopefully taking another two cents off, the projected 5.5 cent increase was shaved to 2.5 cents Monday, a far cry from the 6 cents citizens were warned of last fall when they voted to approve the school bond in a referendum last November. The big share of credit for this goes to frugal and careful City leadership, on the one hand, and the better-than-hoped-for projected 3.7 percent growth in organic revenues, one of the most robust numbers in the region, due to economic development.
Still, going into the final vote on the budget this coming Monday, the Council will mull the option for an even deeper bite into the tax rate hike, as Councilman Phil Duncan continued to insist that the growth in the School Board’s budget request be shaved to deny the teachers and staff the same three percent cost-of-living adjustment that is planned for all other City employees. If Duncan’s proposal prevails, by limiting the growth in the Schools’ budget from 2.8 to 2 percent, the wage hikes for the school employees will be no more than the annual inflation rate.
So, Mayor David Tarter, rather than working for a consensus on the issue Monday, tasked Shields with presenting two options for the budget for the Council to consider this coming Monday: one with a 3 percent COLA growth for School employees and a 2.5-cent tax rate increase, and another limiting the School budget to 2 percent and a 1.65-cent tax rate increase.
Duncan wrote to the News-Press this week, “In the days leading up to the Council’s April 23 final budget vote, I hope that the Council and School Board will be able to find a meeting of the minds that closes the fairly narrow budget gap between us. It is very important that we work together civilly, because on the immediate horizon is the all-important new high school project and attendant West Falls Church economic development. To get that one right, we will need to summon all our cooperative instincts.”