At its business meeting this coming Monday night, the Falls Church City Council is expected to vote a preliminary approval for the coming Fiscal Year 2020 budget with no substantial changes to what was recommended to it by City Manager Wyatt Shields last week. The big news is that budget includes no tax increases at any level, even as the City is expected to be issuing bonds for $120 million later this spring to construct a new high school.
The proposed general fund operating budget is $99,251,876, up from $92,547,237 in the current fiscal year, including a $43,396,814 transfer to the City schools, only a slight increase over the $42,351,898 sum in the current year.
With the preliminary OK on the budget will also come a preliminary OK on the tax rates, including the real estate tax rate that will remain at its present level of $1.355 per $100 of assessed valuation.
The public will have two opportunities to comment on the whole thing prior to this Monday’s vote, first at the latest in the monthly series of Sunday town halls at 2 p.m. in the Community Center on Sunday, and then before the Council votes at its Monday night meeting which will convene at 7:30 p.m., also at the Community Center.
After Monday’s “first reading” vote, the Council will be unable to increase, but could decrease, the tax rate before voting its final approval of the FY20 budget, which is expected to occur on April 22.
The Council began its department-by-department review of the proposed budget at a work session this Monday night where some of the benefits of a greater-than-expected growth of revenues were discussed. Compared to projections from last December, actual real estate assessments rose by 3.35 percent, as calculated by the City assessor last month, more than the 2.5 percent originally estimated.
The result was an added revenue infusion of about $400,000, and in an agreement with the schools that any added revenue would be split 50-50, the City was $200,000 to the upside, and Shields said he used the added revenue to hire some new, sorely-needed personnel to handle expected real estate development and public safety.
City Planning Chief Jim Snyder spelled out the need for Shields’ proposed addition of two new, full time building inspectors and an increase from a half to a three-fourths full time equivalent for the fire safety inspector. He noted that the funds for that would eventually be covered by the licensing fees for the 4.3-acre Founders Row mixed-use project that has now begun on West Broad.
Snyder noted that the new high school, which will begin being constructed this summer, will involve 300,000 square feet needing OKs, and that beyond the Founders Row, there is the 10.3 acre West End Gateway project on the high school campus that will be three times bigger than Founders Row. There will also be an expansion of the Columbia Baptist Church, the renovation and expansion of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library and more.
On public safety, F.C. Police Chief Mary Gavin spoke to her department’s need for an added full time officer, as Shields has proposed. The addition would increase the size of the department up to 33 uniformed personnel, catching up to the level of 10 years ago before the recession hit and cut into the size of the City government.
“We’re experiencing a 15 percent increase per year in calls for service,” Gavin told the Council Monday. “Crime is up.”
The explosive population growth in the Little City to almost 15,000 now has defined the need for supplementing the police numbers, even as Gavin said that the policy will remain of having three officers on the street at any time. When she was asked by Councilman David Snyder if she considered her “ask” to be sufficient for her department’s needs, she said yes.
She noted the importance of interjurisdictional collaboration, including the fact that the City’s department works with 17 other regional jurisdictions in a gang task force, even though the City doesn’t have a specific officer assigned to that work.
She said that in the effort to provide adequate traffic and parking enforcement, that the introduction of new tolls on I-66 has been “bringing new people into Falls Church” looking for cut-through ways to avoid the tolls.
Danny Schlitt, the City’s director of Parks and Recreation, briefed the Council on projects underway to improve the parkland here, including the fact that upgrades to the Big Chimneys Park are only about three weeks away from being initiated, work that should be completed by the end of July.
He added that planning on the development of the recently-acquired Fellows Tract on S. Oak will begin soon, that the Larry Graves Fields are due for major improvements provided by Fairfax County and that the Herman Stream Valley Park in the City is going to be improved with street frontage and benches. Council member Letty Hardi asked what his department’s role will be in the preparation of the new downtown pocket park in the 100 block of W. Broad that has been viewed as an Economic Development Authority project so far.
Councilman Ross Litkenhous asked what the Council can do to “activate” the community to make the parks work, since amenities like them have a lot to do with people making decisions to move in.
Litkenhous had a lot to say, as well, about whether the City is moving fast enough, in the face of the new economic developments in the pipeline, to “brand” itself sufficiently to augment the attraction of the new office and retail tenants that the City will need to make it all work in the coming years.
“I am concerned that we are not ahead enough,” he said, adding that Falls Church is now constantly being talked about in the wider region for its development initiatives and the role that it will undoubtedly play as Amazon begins to move its HQ2 to the region.
“We are going to play a big role, including with considerable spinoff industries that the Amazon move will generate. We need constant visibility in the wider region, or we may not be able to fully capitalize on our opportunities.”