Council Gives Preliminary OK to More $ for Library Renovation

By a split 4-3 vote, the Falls Church City Council Monday gave a “first reading” preliminary approval to a $10.9 million project to renovate and expand the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, needed to bring it into compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) and to provide significant system modernization and community space increases. The vote on final approval for the plan is scheduled for Feb. 10.

The price tag is based on a “guaranteed maximum price” negotiated by the City with the selected construction contractor last week of $7.8 million and additional “soft” costs, including the temporary relocation of the library to vacant trailer classrooms at the Thomas Jefferson Elementary.

The City having bonded for the $8.6 million for the project approved by City voters in 2016, the difference of $2.3 million will come from the City’s substantial budget surplus of $4.2 million.

The issue, one of the most contentious this City Council has faced to date, comes in the context of the larger matter of how to spend the large (for a City of Falls Church’s size) $4.2 million budget surplus resulting from a combination of factors. They are underspending the last year’s budget, lower than expected interest rate costs associated with the City’s $126 million school bond sale last fall (at 2.71 percent rather than a projected 4.5 percent), and a postponement of the City’s first payment on that debt.

The overall plan proposed by the City staff and presented by City Manager Wyatt Shields and Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa, and approved by the 4-3 Council vote, includes $2.6 million for the library above the $8.3 billion that voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin in 2016. That amount is composed of $2.3 million from the surplus and $296,717 from a proffer by the Founders Row project.

A render showing the new main level of the Mary Riley Styles Library renovation project. (Image: City of Falls Church)

Other components include $400,000 for neighborhood traffic calming (a boost over the $200,000 per year that has been budgeted recently), $389,211 to the City schools based on an informal revenue sharing understanding, $600,000 to a building permits reserve and $150,000 to closing costs and to seed a Community Development Authority for the West End Gateway development project.

Despite these proposed expenditures, the City will remain above its target number for a fund balance reserve, Bawa said, based on a series of $7 million payments coming in the next years from the West End project developers.

In a vote which finally came close to midnight Monday, Mayor David Tarter, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, Phil Duncan and David Snyder voted “yes” to give a preliminary approval to the package, while Letty Hardi, Ross Litkenhous and Dan Sze voted “no.”

A large contingent of library supporters who spoke during the petition period and stayed until the midnight hour gathered outside the Council chambers once the votes had been cast and expressed cautious optimism that the vote would hold through the second and final round on Feb. 10.

“We are in a very fortunate situation” with the surplus Duncan told his Council colleagues before the vote. “We have a deep capacity to do this well.”

The impact is significant, Bawa said, because of the size of the school bond issuance last fall, by far the largest in the City’s history, such that the low 2.71 percent interest rate they went for, below the 4.5 percent budgeted estimate, has made a big difference to the City’s overall fiscal situation.