Negating Net Tax Increase Now Up For Discussion Among F.C. Council

COUNCILMEMBER Ross Litkenhous (middle row, left) lays out his case for dropping the net tax rate. (Screenshot: News-Press)

The American Rescue Plan $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law last week will provide an estimated $13.28 million to the City of Falls Church, U.S. Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. reported in a press release breaking down the money coming our way Wednesday.

Virginia overall will get $4.4 billion, including $2.9 billion for fiscal relief to local governments, Beyer said.

“On the day we passed it, I said my vote for the American Rescue Plan was the most consequential vote I had ever cast. Now people are beginning to see why we pushed so hard to get a big, ambitious relief bill through Congress. The pain and suffering of this pandemic have not been evenly distributed, and the American Rescue Plan will get aid to those who need it most as quickly as possible,” Beyer said. “The assistance in this bill is going to be huge for communities in Northern Virginia.”

For Falls Church, as an example, the aid will amount to about $1,000 for every man, woman and child living here. This is not counting the $1,400 per person stimulus checks that are due all eligible citizens (5,118,900 in Virginia) and aid coming through still other forms, such as child tax credits, and earned income tax credits.

Falls Church City Councilman Ross Litkenhous was quick to jump on the news Wednesday in comments to the News-Press, redoubling the call for a larger tax rate cut than recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields for the coming fiscal year budget. Shields has recommended a one-cent cut in the rate, but with real estate assessments going up 4.2 percent overall, most City taxpayers would be facing a significant net dollar increase, nonetheless, an average $291 increase.

Litkenhous made the call for no net dollar increase at Monday’s City Council work session, getting in an immediate spat with Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, who called Litkenhous’ preference “irresponsible” as it would “cut away at key city programs.”

Litkenhous retorted that “it is not irresponsible to revisit the tax rate and offer more relief to taxpayers.” He added, “We have a moral obligation to be mindful of our taxpayers.”

Connelly replied, “We’re going to disagree, because we also have a responsibility to provide key services.”

What raised eyebrows about the brief tiff was not only how rare it was for the current City Council, but also because Connelly and Litkenhous are more likely to both be on the November ballot seeking re-election to another four-year term.

But while this may represent a philosophical difference between the two, it may not be as impactful as it might otherwise have been now that the City is going to be getting the $13.28 million stimulus from the federal government.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen how that stimulus can be used to support programs in need of help in the City.

City Manager Shields told the News-Press Wednesday that a lot of questions still need to be answered about matters like that, such as how the money may be used for tax relief.

But he did say he thought it would have an impact on the City’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget now being debated by the Council that will be voted on at the end of April.

“There’s a lot we need to figure out yet,” he said. “We will put together a team to think strategically about how to put the money to the best use. We definitely need it.”

He said it is his understanding that the City will have to spend the federal stimulus money by 2024, and that once some options on its use are developed, the Council will probably bring the discussion of options to its work session on April 5 and more such sessions as needed following its April 12 and 19 regular business meetings.

It will impact the $106 million annual operating budget now under consideration, Shields confirmed, but it remains to be seen by how much and where as the Council deliberates over the next period.

This includes impacts on the City’s proposed Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) over the next fiscal year and the next six years.

For the next year, the CIP anticipates expenditures of $3.3 million for transportation involving a combination of earlier-allocated local, state and federal grants, including the West Falls Transportation Project, the Park Avenue Great Streets Project, and North Washington and Columbia intersection improvements. The budget also includes City tax dollars for neighborhood traffic calming ($100,000), and the Sidewalks and Streetlights Program ($150,000).

The CIP also funds $8.5 million for six major flood mitigation projects prioritized by the Stormwater Task Force, and $986,000 in sanitary sewer funding for wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

As of now, it includes $200,000 to replace or rehabilitate deteriorating components and systems of City buildings, with a total allocation over six years of $1,750.000. They include improvements at the Aurora House, Cherry Hill Farmhouse, Property Yard and Community Center.

It currently includes $125,000 using capital reserves for the waterproofing of the Thackrey Preschool and flooring replacement at the Henderson Middle School, and $150,000 for ongoing park masterplan projects, such as trails and playground equipment. Some $250,000 is allocated for the coming year and $900,000 over the coming six years for infrastructure replacement and cybersecurity upgrades for core firewall, intrusion and detection systems, library digital file storage and police body-worn camera video storage.

These programs will be utilizing a qualitative “Equity Lens Diagnostic Assessment” tool starting this year. “The goal is to use this diagnostic tool to consciously address explicit and implicit biases when prioritizing and funding capital infrastructure investment,” according to a City staff document. The tool is modeled off the City of Roanoke framework.

At the current time, the City staff is actively managing 28 general government CIP projects with 21 active grants.