By a unanimous 7-0 vote Monday, the Falls Church City Council adopted a $99,291,876 Fiscal Year 2020 budget that will fund the City government and schools from this July 1 through June 2020 with no change in any of the City’s tax rates. Council members hailed the level of cooperation between the City government and the school system to meet the budget’s targets while absorbing the City’s largest ever increase in debt service to fund a new high school and major renovations of City Hall and public library.
Nonetheless, there were fireworks at the meeting over an amendment to the draft budget ordinance proposed by Council member Ross Litkenhous and seconded by Councilman David Snyder to remove $63,000 from the budget targeted to provide a small increase in resources for elderly and disabled citizens and veterans who qualify for tax relief. Litkenhous and Snyder opposed adding money to the existing fund, opposing full tax relief instead of a tax deferral option that would eventually hold all seniors and others liable for the full amount of real estate taxes.
Snyder, in a letter to the News-Press following the meeting, said, “The question was: is relief best in the form of deferral or in the form of a complete exemption…There may be liquidity problems and so a deferral is provided but the past due taxes are eventually paid back.”
Council member Phil Duncan pointed out that the City’s existing tax relief program is already “the stingiest” in the region, adding that even with the modest increase as recommended by a special City Task Force that examined the issue in the last year, the City’s policy will run behind all other jurisdictions in the region. “Every other locality in the region is more generous than we are,” he said.
City Manager Wyatt Shields noted that Litkenhous’ amendment would save what would translate into a $10 difference in average real estate bills
Council member Letty Hardi added that the small increase in tax relief are “important to affirm generational diversity.” The words of Councilman Dan Sze were stronger, saying “I am mildly disappointed” by the argument in favor of cutting the relief, saying “It is remarkable that those who have gotten so much from this community can’t see what will help some seniors. They call themselves progressive, but I don’t know where that applies.”
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly said she backed the added tax relief support as one who served on the task force to study the issue in the last year. She said she recalled her notes from last December’s budget guidance meeting when she wrote, “We spend first on people.” She added, “Having studied this, I learned that each story is different and we have to make sure we are looking out for everyone.”
Mayor David Tarter said he supported the recommendation of the task force.
The Fiscal Year 2020 budget adopted Monday includes an organic growth projection of 3.4 percent. The operating expenditures for the schools and general government are proposed to increase by 2.5 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively. For the schools, the increase is the smallest in decades, and was the result of slower than expected enrollment growth in the last year, and the School Board’s determination to hold the line on operating costs while the City undertakes a $120 million bond issuance for the construction of a new George Mason High School.
The budget, on the City side, includes a merit increase of 3.25 percent for City employees, a 3 percent step increase and 0.5 percent cost of living (COLA) increase for sworn police officers and the restoration of a full-time Human Resources director position.
It adds two full-time building inspectors, the upgrade of a fire safety inspector position from temporary to permanent status, the buyout of three vehicle leases and an added police officer to increase the force to 33 uniformed personnel.
It has $300,000 for pay-as-you-go capital funds for City facilities and infrastructure, $100,000 for transportation project development and $100,000 for spot improvements for paving and sidewalks and the aforementioned $390,000 for property tax relief for the elderly, disabled and veterans, an increase of $63,000 over the last year in accordance with the recommendations of the Senior Tax Relief Task Force.
It covers debt service, added by 14 percent to $4.3 million annually, for a total of $152.2 million in major capital projects over the next five years, including $120 million for the new high school, $11.275 million for the City Hall renovation and expansion, $8.7 million for the Mary Riley Styles Public Library expansion and renovation, $4.7 million for the acquisition of the Fellows tract adjacent Thomas Jefferson Elementary and $7.5 million for miscellaneous projects.
The budget adds $511,000 to its mandated contribution to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), increasing the total contribution from $1.1 to $1.6 million. Of this increase, $400,000 is coming from local funds and the rest from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
For the schools’ operating budget, with a $43,383,277 transfer from the City, it includes a 2.95 percent salary “step” increase for all employees, augmented by a 1 percent COLA increase. There will be no change in the average class sizes.
With all these changes and additions, the real estate tax rate and all other tax rates remain unchanged. The current real estate rate is $1.355 per $100 of assessed valuation (it compares favorably to the $1.47 number for Fairfax County property owners when overlay tax district and service fees are added into its basic rate).
Falls Church real estate taxpayers will see their bills go up, nonetheless, but entirely due to an average 2.7 percent increase in assessed values. With the average home in the City valued at $695,500, the average tax bill will rise by an average of $252 to $9,424.