F.C. Council Votes Steep Budget Cuts as Covid-19 Pandemic Lingers

COUNCIL MEMBER Phil Duncan lends his voice to the budget cuts conversation Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields, in presenting a sharply-contracted Fiscal Year 2021 budget for the F.C. City Council’s preliminary approval, said he chose not to mitigate the impact by dipping into the City’s sizeable undesignated fund balance reserves because, among other things, “We simply don’t know how bad this will be” as the year unfolds, implying that depending on how bad it gets, it may be needed in a few months.

Meeting remotely online Monday night, Shields was also straightforward in cautioning the Council not to expect Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on economic activity to be lifted too soon. He said that Northam and his regional counterparts, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, are “aligned,” overall, in terms of how to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that all place “data over dates” in making decisions about beginning to reopen the economy. Northam’s initial Executive Order 53 “expires on May 8,” he noted, but by the criteria all three leaders agreed to, that would undoubtedly be extended.

They are all going by the “Gateway Criteria” laid out in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, he said, that include a 14-day downward trend in the percentage of overall infections, and a 14-day downward trend in hospitalizations, along with means in place for significantly expanded testing and contact tracing. Shields said that last weekend was not a good one for Virginia in terms of new infections, so the 14-day criteria has not even begun to kick in, and while testing levels in the state are now at 2-3,000 a day, Northam wants them up to 10,000 a day. Shields said it’s been estimated the number of contact tracers needed in Fairfax County is 300.

Other criteria include having adequate levels of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity, including staff, in the event a new surge arises from an attempt to open the economy up more.

But the budget preliminarily OK’d for the City of Falls Church for the coming fiscal year is based on what Shields said was a “moderate” versus “extreme” downturn in the economy for the City and the region, and an assessment of how accurate that approach is will be determined by October, since so little data on the economy is now available.

Under the current plan, which will be finally OK’d by the Council on May 25, the decline in revenues is set at a minus 2.3 percent of projections for the FY2021 budget before the pandemic hit in mid-March, with proposed reductions of 5 percent, or $2 million, on the City side, and 1.2 percent, or $500,000 on the transfer to the City schools. Under the plan given the preliminary OK Monday, there would be no tax rate increase and no use of the City’s undesignated fund balance (or, reserves). There would be no layoffs on the City or school sides, either, but merit and step increases would be delayed, and 18 unfilled positions on the City side would remain vacant until December,

While the City-side cut of $2 million is higher than the schools’ $500,000, Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa noted that over $1 million of the City’s expenses are mandated increases in obligations to WMATA and other regional associations over which it has no control, and minus that, the City’s revenue cut is closer to that for the schools.

In response to an inquiry from Council member Letty Hardi, Shields said that demands on the City’s scant relief resources, including rent relief, have been huge and continuing to grow. “We need to know how big that gap is (between requests for help and the City’s ability),” Hardi said.

Other than that, however, the focus of the Council discussion was restricted to laments over cuts in neighborhood traffic calming, stormwater and “spot improvement” resources.

The City’s director of public works, Mike Whitfield, provided an update on extensive capital improvement projects either recently completed or continuing to be underway in the City, not including private sector improvements.

Whitfield said the City Hall and Mary Riley Styles Public Library projects are progressing, with modifications in the City Hall Council chambers and Office of the Clerk of the Court ongoing, and the demolition effort at the library is now 80 percent completed.

The project at N. West and Oak Street is “99 percent done,” he said, as is the signal timing project on W. Broad.

The project at the intersection of Annandale Road and Gundry Dr. is 95 percent done, and work continues at the intersections of Great Falls and N. West, N. Washington at Columbia, S. Washington at Annandale, Jackson at Timber, S. Spring at Poplar, E. Columbia at Van Buren.

That includes repaving on Villa Ridge, Greenwich and Great Falls, and work on “primary extensions” on Hillwood Avenue (90 percent done), Railroad and Ellison, signal upgrades at Lincoln and Great Falls, signal cabinet replacements at W. Broad and Little Falls and W. Broad and Virginia, the West End sanitary sewer, the Mustang Alley connection sewer to Haycock Road, and a generator-powered signal light at Annandale and Maple, and the preparations for the demolition on the Fellows property.

The signal malfunction at the Annandale at Maple intersection resulted from an inadvertent severing of an underground power line in the middle of Big Chimneys Park that happened as part of the ongoing improvements to the park.

Whitfield said that searches showed there was no line beneath the park, leading to the accident which knocked out the Annandale/Maple signal lights, and now Dominion Power is seeking an easement from the City to run an underground line at the edge of the park property.

The Council provided a preliminary OK for the easement at its meeting Monday by a 7-0 vote.