In the context of some proposals of Falls Church City Council members that news of a $3 million budget surplus may justify a tax rebate, the reality has come to light that the City is currently down 15 percent or more in its current staffing, putting enormous burdens on existing employees. On top of the surplus gained in large part by underspending during the Covid-19 pandemic has come $18 million in federal Covid-19 relief funds that the City Council also has to decide how to spend.
City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press this week that while the current labor shortage has resulted in some “heroic” efforts by existing City staff to meet needs ranging from public safety to public works to operations, considerable pushback from the City’s Employee Advisory Committee and others has met the notion of a tax rebate, the News-Press has learned.
Last Monday’s weekly virtual meeting of key City department heads was met with firm resistance to the idea of giving surplus money back to taxpayers when it could be argued that the surplus was obtained at the expense of the extra labor of existing employees.
Shields noted that two more members of the F.C.Police Department have announced they are leaving for more lucrative options in adjacent jurisdictions. That has raised the question of what Falls Church needs to do not only to be fair to its employees, but to remain competitive in salaries and benefits with other jurisdictions in the region in order to retain employees.
“When Fairfax and Arlington have a shortage, they know to come looking to Falls Church,” said one City employee, because they know they can be enticed away with better compensation.
What remains unspecified is how the current labor shortage is impacting the Falls Church quality of life for its residents. Shortages at the Police Department, and how that may be placing citizens in jeopardy, are more than matched by shortages in Public Works, for example, which are responsible for everything from leaf removal to unclogging sewers and fixing broken roads and sidewalks.
“This shortage is part of a national pattern,” Shields said. In Falls Church, it began with a hiring freeze instigated at the onset of the pandemic, and has continued. Now, he says, “We are working hard to fill the 25-30 positions (out of some 200 full time City positions–ed.) we are down. We are clawing back but are finding it difficult to hire. But our situation is not unique.”
Key employees at City Hall, however, insist that Falls Church is unique, indeed. It is from the standpoint of the services demanded in a locality like Northern Virginia as compared to more rural areas. Even in the case of the nearby Town of Vienna, it was noted, it has the same number of full time employees to engage in some kinds of work that require half the effort because the burden is on Fairfax County to offer the service.
People earning $50,000 are being offered $70,000 by Fairfax for the same or even less work, one source noted.
When a compensation study was finally done for one category of work, it was learned that the City, indeed, was paying considerably less than the going rate regionally, and that led to across the board salary hikes in that department.
Some are now saying that a compensation study for the entire City workforce needs to be done.
Not all, or even many, on the City Council, have expressed support for a tax rebate, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly wrote the News-Press following Monday’s meeting:
“Just in case I wasn’t clear enough from the dais, I want to use to the FY2021 surplus, which consists of underspending and revenue surplus, to meet the needs that the City has in serving its taxpayers. We’ve constrained budgets for several years due to the pandemic, and while things are looking up, we aren’t out of the woods yet.”
She added, “Many departments need staff and resources to serve citizens, and I think that’s the best use of surplus, not a tax rebate or refund. It gives me hope that we may be able to lower the (real estate tax–ed.) rate further next year, but due to the unstable nature of the economy right now, I am not in favor of the plan (for a tax rebate that Councilman Phil–ed.) Duncan set forth.”
Duncan’s proposal was to use $1.37 million of the budget surplus for a tax rebate of 3 cents (per $100 assessed valuation), arguing “that would still leave enough to do a lot of catch-up work on things the City and the schools scrimped on when we were in the deepest pandemic gloom.”
As for the $18 million in federal ARPA dollars, Shields said that terms for its use are restrictive, that the funds can’t be used to increase salaries and that only “premium pay” can be allotted, which he says is a fancy term for bonuses. But bonuses, per se, are not allowed, either.
Instead, what the funds can be used for include, apparently, things like sprucing up the performance stage at Cherry Hill Park.