As the City of Falls Church prepares to enter into Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s cautious Phase 1 reopening this Friday in the face of the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, the Falls Church City Council approved a scaled-back operating budget for the coming fiscal year Tuesday, applauded the success of the City’s innovative micro grant program benefiting 83 local businesses who got their $2,000 checks right away and mulled new ways of augmenting services to the ailing local economy with the help of its share of federal stimulus funds.
Friday’s Phase 1 opening will permit restaurants that have or can create outdoor dining space to serve customers, restricted retail sales and for salons and barber shops to open to carefully limited numbers, with facial masks mandated for all, while vulnerable populations will continue to be urged to stay home.
As F.C.’s State Senator Dick Saslaw said in a memo this week, the move to Phase 1 is with a “yellow and not a green light.” Extreme caution is the watchword, he said.
The delay in Northern Virginia’s entry into Phase 1 by two weeks following openings in most other parts of the state was due to relatively high instances of infections of the virus in this area (the City of Falls Church’s 14,300 residents suffered 49 total cases, with 10 hospitalizations and eight deaths through midday Tuesday). But while reports are that cases rose the last two days in the region, the trend was downward over the two weeks and regional officials, including Falls Church Mayor David Tarter, petitioned Northam last weekend to begin to open. Northam signalled his agreement with the request at his Richmond press briefing Tuesday.
Currently, the infection and death rates in Northern Virginia are 862 and 26.5 per 100,000 people, compared to the rest of Virginia where they are 460 and 14.5 respectively.
Some restaurants in the City of F.C. have existing outdoor dining spaces, such as the popular Ireland’s Four Provinces, Clare and Don’s Beach Shack, Dogwood Tavern, Thompson’s Italian, Sfizi Cafe, Liberty Tavern, Northside Social, Cafe Kindred and Lazy Mike’s among others, and it is interpreted that restaurants can also expand into their parking areas to create new spaces.
Still, the establishments will be limited to permitting 50 percent of their normal capacities and no gatherings of 10, in the context of continued six-foot “social distancing” shall be allowed. All salon and barber shop services will be by appointment only.
While preparations for all this have been underway, the Falls Church City Council, by a unanimous 6-0 vote Tuesday night in its virtual online meeting, adopted a radically-modified budget for the Fiscal Year 2021, with projected revenues and expenditures down by five percent, or over $5 million from the budget it originally advanced before the Covid-19 pandemic locked down the global economy in mid-March. It is also $2.1 million below the current FY20 budget.
The approved budget includes a reduction of $500,000 in the City’s transfer to the public schools, and the F.C. School Board adjusted its budget accordingly to press ahead with wage and salary freezes for the coming year but no layoffs.
The FY21 budget has been touted as the first in the history of the City of Falls Church to exceed $100 million, but since the effects of the pandemic and the public health response began hitting, projections have been reduced dramatically.
The budget adopted Tuesday, just like the schools, avoided laying off any staff at City Hall, froze wage and salary increases, spending on anything but the basics, including a hiring freeze, and does not change any tax rates, leaving, for example, the real estate tax rate at $1.355 per $100 of assessed valuation.
More recent changes introduced by the City’s Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa Tuesday night, based on the trillion dollar federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act that has dedicated $1.2 million, much indirectly, to the City, reduced the City’s obligation to WMATA by $350,000 and thereby enabled $100,000 to be put back into the City’s Neighborhood Traffic Calming plans, $180,000 into sidewalk and street light improvements, funds for the hiring of an assistant registrar to help with the critical November 2020 election and $45,000 for low income rent relief.
Council member Ross Litkenhous demanded that his vote for the budget be predicated on more money for Neighborhood Traffic Calming and spot street improvements from the current budget (the new budget not going into effect until July 1).
Over $400,000 that had been allocated to the effort was frozen by City Manager Wyatt Shields last month as part of an effort to prepare for the worst with the impact of the pandemic.
But Litkenhous contended that those funds, arising from a robust budget surplus due to major economic development progress in the last year, should not be frozen because they represented efforts at public safety.
At the suggestion of Mayor David Tarter, Litkenhous agreed to scale back his demand by half to $200,000 and his insistence to free up that money immediately passed the Council by a 6-1 vote (Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly voting no and Councilman Dan Sze absent). The FY21 budget was then approved on second reading by a 6-0 vote.
But all these developments were based on relatively optimistic assumptions about the impact of the pandemic on revenues to the City in the coming year.
With very little to go on assuring this scenario, the City Council will revisit the issue after Labor Day to see if the current estimates can hold.
The City is mandated to use its federal CARES funds to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, but that could include for purposes of offering some additional relief to local small businesses, 83 of which were recipients of $2,000 grants from the City’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) in the last week.
The City’s swift and energetic effort to help so many small businesses last week included the role of Commissioner of the Revenue Tom Clinton hand-delivering many of the checks last weekend, according to the City’s Office of Economic Development chief Becky Witsman and EDA chair Bob Young, reporting at the Council meeting Tuesday.
It is likely, they noted, that the City’s swift aid to its small businesses put cash into the hands of local businesses faster than any other jurisdiction in the state.
The spirit of the initiative was so pervasive in the Falls Church community that the George Mason High School senior class, facing a limited “virtual” graduation next week, voted to make its class gift a donation to the EDA’s small business micro grant initiative, Council member Letty Hardi reported Tuesday.
“One of the greatest things about our City,” Litkenhous said Tuesday, is that it is “agile enough” to get help to its small business owners in short order. “It’s because we are nimble and quick,” added Mayor Tarter.
The EDA, Young said, will now consider a second round of aid at its June 2 meeting next week, this time widening the eligibility to include businesses making $750,000 instead of $500,000 in annual gross receipts, for example, and including non-profits. It’s a move that Hardi said she strongly supports.
Witsman reported that business recipients were “surprised and delighted” by the micro grants, which were used to pay rent and utilities. “They are tickled to death,” she quipped Tuesday.
It was a team effort in the best sense, reports at Tuesday’s meeting revealed, with Young and Eric Pelton of the EDA, Witsman and her staff, and Clinton seeing the checks were cut in a timely fashion and delivered. The F.C. Chamber of Commerce also played a big role, Young reported.