Local Commentary

The Budget Surplus: ‘Let Them Eat Cake’

Monday’s Falls Church City Council meeting was a frustrating exercise for viewers familiar with some of the underlying structural problems facing the Little City. The Council discussion of how to deploy not only the $3 million budget surplus but the $18 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money smacked of a scene from a French court revolution era drama where Queen Marie Antoinette is asked what to do about the starved but angry masses. The people having no bread to eat, the queen quipped, “Then let them eat cake.”

In the Falls Church case, the Council mulled options such as major renovations to some City parks and even a tax rebate to City taxpayers (even though the last time that was tried it actually became a net loss to City taxpayers because the administrative cost of implementation was greater than the alleged benefit). It all seems so surreal, clearly ignoring all the evidence of the hardships facing basic City government operations and local businesses in the wake of the pandemic and, in some cases, problems that began piling up prior to it.

For one, the Council cannot be unaware that City Hall is down about 20 employees from earlier levels that themselves were bare bones. This has put great pressure on existing employees as well as on the City’s ability to provide essential services, including public safety functions and its ability to handle permit applications for vital income-generating economic development and other projects.

For another, City businesses, especially the small ones, are facing severe shortages in employees, as well, due to multiple reasons that are impacting the national economy and essentially because a lot of people are simply not willing to come back to the kind of radically unfair wages and working conditions they were forced to endure before they were laid off by the pandemic.

This is not a local problem, but the funds coming to the City now can play an important role mitigating it. It is not just the struggles of the employees, but of the businesses they must work for that are the issue here. All have in some way contributed to the obscene and still growing disparity between the wealth of the super-rich and all the rest of us. As a culture, we’ve grown accustomed to average households needing two jobs to make ends meet and low-end jobs not providing basics such as health care or retirement benefits, much less educational resources, child care and retirement security.

The idea that waiters at restaurants can be paid $2 an hour on the notion that tips make up for that is an example. No wonder that even many of our cherished local restaurants can’t stay open normal hours for lack of service help!
It’s not the individual restaurants who are responsible as it is a structural industry wide issue, and while bigger chains can offer incentives for hiring, local ones can’t afford to.