By Letty Hardi & Ross Litkenhous
As you may have read from this week’s news, your City Council had a difficult deliberation and ensuing 4-3 vote on the latest of several budget amendments. This amendment focused on how to allocate $4.6 million, generated primarily from a revenue surplus, underspending and debt service savings. A request to fund a $2.6 million budget shortfall for the library renovation project was part of the debate. As the dissenting votes, we’d like to share considerations beyond the headline.
To preface — it’s important to plainly state that no one doubts the value of our library, the need for work, or the merits of a renovation. Personally, both of our families are avid users: maxing out book checkout limits, visiting story time with young kids and participating in after school and summer programming. And both families credit our children’s love of reading to the weekly visits and impressive selection of books — truly a community gem. We know the library has been patiently waiting in a long queue of overdue city-wide capital projects that we’ve been working hard to address over the past few years.
Despite that, as with every funding decision, your expectation of us is to prioritize and deliver public services effectively, while responsibly allocating taxpayer dollars. Our challenge is to carefully consider all needs across the city, anticipate future challenges, and do our best to balance those competing priorities with limited funds.
Unfortunately, the library project is coming on the heels of a City Hall renovation that has not gone smoothly. While re-opened to the public and staff since last summer, the project is not yet complete. On Monday, for the first time, it was made publicly known that in order to close out the project, it will come in over budget and we should expect a “major fiscal obligation.” Due to sensitive negotiations, a number can’t be shared publicly yet, but the bottom line is, it will cost us more money.
With that as the backdrop, you can understand why we have more trepidation than usual before starting another project.
Why should we all give pause?
1) Is this a “do it right the first time” project?
With all capital projects, we believe they should be done right the first time, so future City Councils and taxpayers don’t inherit a project reboot in 10 years. Spend what is needed on the right project, do it well, and do it once, rather than value engineer a project to death.
Unfortunately, the current project already has a bad track record with costs. Despite good explanations as to why costs have ballooned since the referendum in 2016, our frustration has grown as the numbers continue to escalate at every update. Are we confident that the new $11 million price tag will be the final number and are we getting the best project we can? For a project that hasn’t started and is already 30 percent over budget, these are reasonable questions.
2) What’s not going to get done?
What also hasn’t been discussed publicly until Monday is that funding the library shortfall requires tradeoffs with looming costs, some known and unknown: traffic calming, bike paths, sidewalks, housing affordability, parks, history murals, as well as other bigger ticket items: stormwater and City Hall. With stormwater remediation projects that will likely cost $10 – 15 million, and a final bill for City Hall still unknown, our first impulse can’t be to raise stormwater fees or taxes. We have already obligated our community to shoulder the largest debt issuance in the city’s history to build a needed new high school. With an economic downturn likely around the corner, we cannot afford to raid reserves.
While the library project has been in discussion for more than 20 years, many of these issues have been looming as long, if not longer. Shame on us that one of the community’s top priorities, housing affordability, was omitted from Monday’s funding consideration altogether.
3) Does this meet the bar for public transparency?
Most importantly, assuming we can get past the facts that voters only approved $8.7 million, not $11 million (some would call for a new referendum); and given that capital projects should be debt-financed so the costs can be spread out over time, one night of discussion doesn’t meet the bar for openness and transparency.
Monday was the first time a full list of projects proposed for the $4.6 million and the suggested tradeoffs have been reviewed in open session. By comparison, each year in the budget process we spend over a month wringing our hands over what comes down to a few hundred thousand dollars. An amount tenfold, merits greater visibility and discussion.
More than ever, we should have our eyes wide open. While we agree the library needs an investment, it should be funded responsibly, with public discussion on the additional costs and tradeoffs, and in a manner that mitigates future fiscal strain. Citizens expect that of us, and more. Between now and our final vote on Feb. 10, you can make your voice heard.
Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous are members of the Falls Church City Council.