Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The City of Falls Church is Small But Mighty

By Ross Litkenhous

In 1987 I had the opportunity to play basketball with my church league team on the floor of the Atlanta Hawks arena. I was only seven years old at the time, but it was one of the most exhilarating feelings of my young life. I remember everything you should remember as a kid in that situation. Sitting anxiously in my seat between my dad and brother waiting for the halftime buzzer. Walking onto the court with my team. Getting my first pass. Hearing the crowd cheer.

But the thing I remember most is having the opportunity to play on the same court as one of my favorite players at the time, Spud Webb. If you don’t know anything about Spud Webb, what you should know is that he won the 1986 NBA slam dunk contest. And he is only 5 feet 7 inches! Impossibly short by NBA standards even then, but an absolute giant in terms of skill, and someone that inspired all of us young kids dreaming of being basketball greats one day. Whether it was a slam dunk contest or a regular season game, Spud had the ability to make something special happen any time he touched the ball. Surrounded by towering teammates and opponents on all sides, he flew around the court making assists and shots with ease.

Recently as I was waxing nostalgic about that moment in my life, I began to think about Falls Church and our own stature. Spud Webb, in my mind, was a metaphor for “Small but Mighty,” which is Falls Church in a nutshell.

We may be considered tiny by jurisdiction standards, but we have the agility and dexterity to make big things happen for ourselves, and for those around us, if only we set our minds to it. Last month, it was reported that through smart fiscal policy, cost management, strategic economic development and prosperous market conditions, our city now has a $2.6 million budget surplus for fiscal year 2019. Not big by typical government standards but big for Falls Church.

As a community, we should all have a say in how that money is spent, invested or saved. We have many pressing needs with varying priorities, all of which differ depending on who you ask. We are fortunate to be in this position, but such good fortune can be fleeting, and we should remain vigilant accordingly.

In a few short weeks we will begin deliberations on the fate of our surplus, and I personally urge those interested to stand up and be heard. We have many competing projects and initiatives that have already been offered as recipients of those dollars. For example, we have cost overruns for the city hall construction, a ballooning budget on the yet to begin Mary Riley Styles Library renovation project, along with other areas of need such as neighborhood traffic calming, stormwater management and housing affordability.

Each of these topics merit consideration and each of these topics carries with it certain challenges in terms of both execution and prioritization.

My initial reaction upon receiving the surplus news was to put money into the budget for a property tax rate cut. However, the calculus associated with what seems a straightforward decision is unfortunately not so simple, as it has ancillary impacts not immediately seen. Our long term modeling to manage debt service for the various capital improvement projects, be it the new high school or more routine ongoing investments, has been modeled based on our best efforts to project revenue related to market conditions, the net fiscal impact of current economic development activity and our own historical trend analysis. More importantly, these analyses and models assume our current tax rate remains flat, before eventually dropping a few years after our large commercial development projects begin to deliver their intended fiscal boost.

No matter how we slice and dice this surplus, spent or saved, I personally feel that some of this money should be reinvested in areas that each of our citizens, regardless of age and demographic will benefit from, and in a way that is immediately felt or seen.

In addition to a rate cut consideration, because of recent near misses reported by city residents and experienced personally, that neighborhood traffic calming and general pedestrian safety and walkability improvements should be made priorities.

Ultimately, we have many options, and like Spud Webb, we are small and agile enough to make something special happen for the citizens of Falls Church, right now. Reach out to your elected representatives and make your voices heard so we can hopefully look back at this time of good fortune with similar nostalgia, knowing we did not waste this opportunity. Let’s seize this chance to set an example for what it means to marry good government with smart spending, benefiting all.

Ross Litkenhous is a member of the Falls Church City Council.