It was a City of Falls Church budget smoothly crafted, improved and adopted this Monday with little or no discord this time, a product of good and caring government with an emphasis on the role of promoting economic development.
Despite the enormous amount of special new costs, including $120 million for a new high school, renovations of the library and City Hall, and pressing storm water infrastructure needs, the $112 million Fiscal Year 2023 budget, set to go into effect this July 1, was adopted after a relatively short Council meeting this week with a series of five unanimous (7-0) votes.
Parameters of the budget, slightly modified from what City Manager Wyatt Shields recommended in March, ran the gauntlet through a generous series of formal presentations, public forums and community input sessions.
The budget, the largest in the Little City’s history, was built on top of a huge 11.5 percent boost to the assessed real estate value, much but not all of which were offset by the region’s biggest tax rate cut, a whopping nine cent cut from $1.32 to $1.23 per $100 of real estate assessed values.
Surprisingly, all this happened amid what Shields more than once exclaimed was a uncommonly “dynamic” environment for budget making. For example, the Council still does not know big chunks of its bottom line, such as whether or not Richmond will implement the governor’s grocery tax abatement plan and whether or not some mitigations will be forthcoming for localities.
Rising costs, supply chain disruption issues and the economic impact of the war overseas are factors impacting budget decisions, as well as nervousness about whether or not some major lease payments are actually going to come through, such as the $4.2 million due to come from the consortium of West End Gateway Partners for development of the 10 acres at the City’s west end.
Aside from mild jitters caused by these factors, if anything was contentious about the Falls Church budget this year, it had to do with the size of the funds held in reserve to deal with contingencies that could potentially be generated by the factors listed above. With a $112 million annual budget, City reserves, including unassigned fund balance numbers, run as high as $40 million.
But the money was there for robust salary and wage increases for both City and School employees, for bringing the police department up to full capacity, giving the Falls Church City Schools all they asked for, adding to senior and other relief programs, setting aside more for affordable housing, providing for improvements in sidewalks and traffic calming, and ensuring that no one who works for the City earns less than $15 an hour.
“This year’s budget continues support for community priorities like school excellence, pedestrian safety, affordable housing, the environment, and stormwater infrastructure while being mindful of the impact of rising residential assessments,” said Mayor David Tarter. “Smart growth and economic development have produced results that support these efforts while allowing us to reduce our tax rate by nine cents.”
To mitigate the 11 percent overall increase in real estate assessments, the adopted budget includes a decrease in the real estate tax to $1.23 per $100 of assessed value, and a car tax rate reduction from the current $5.00 rate to $4.30, a 70 cent reduction to address what is thought to be a temporary sharp increase in vehicle valuation due to worldwide supply issues.
The sanitary sewer rate was increased to $10.17 per 1,000 gallons, an increase of 3 percent from $9.87. The increase is the first since 2016, and will accommodate increases in personnel and contract costs. The median homeowner will see an increase of about $3.60 per quarter with this sewer rate change.
The stormwater fee rate was increased to $19.28 per 200 square feet of impervious coverage, an increase of 3 percent from $18.72. This will be an annual increase of about $7 for the median homeowner, which also will meet rising personnel and contract costs for maintenance. The six major flood mitigation projects identified by the Stormwater Task Force will be paid for with federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, and therefore the significant rate increases planned two years ago will not be necessary to cover those projects.
The senior tax relief program was expanded with an additional $188,000 (a 44 percent increase). The Council approved $50,000 to boost the Government Energy Plan for carbon emission reduction for government and school operations.
Importantly for enhancing the public perception of the City’s pro-business commitment, the Council chose not to enact the proposed new Commercial and Industrial Tax as Shields had proposed.
To help pay for transportation improvements in the City, the Council chose to use regular tax revenues, and three programs will receive funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA): $50,000 for refugee assistance, $30,000 to fully fund all the applications received through the Community Services Fund, and $130,000 to winterize the senior citizen units in the Winter Hill community.
The approved Capital Improvements Program (CIP) includes $27.7 million dedicated to projects that are currently under design or construction. Once complete, the projects will enhance the City’s sense of place as a safe, health, engaging, and beautiful community. Those projects include Park Avenue Great Streets, Shreve Road Great Routes to School, South Oak Street bridge replacement, neighborhood traffic calming, N. Washington Street and Columbia Street intersection improvements, Broad Street HAWK signals, Washington and Old Dominion Trail crossings, and more.
The budget provides additional building permit inspectors and plan reviewers, to handle the increased development activity that is occurring in the City. These six additional positions are to be funded exclusively by building permit fees paid by developers and builders in the City.