Lively F.C. Town Hall on Budget as Citizens Speak Out for Schools

April 13, 2013 6:21 PM11 comments

One of the best-attended town hall meetings on the budget in recent years in the City of Falls Church saw citizens turn out to speak up in favor funding the School Board request for the coming fiscal year budget, and to question the City’s current fund balance and Storm Water Utility Fund plans.

The F.C. City Council, five of its seven members present for the meeting, is slated to cast its final votes on adoption of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget on April 22, and is currently mulling options for either holding the current tax rate of $1.27 or raising it to $1.33 as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, and adding a Storm Water Utility fee averaging $250 per household.

One option before the Council is reducing the School Board budget request, and when asked today what effect a $1.2 million cut in the School Board’s funding request of $33,682,700 would have on the schools, Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said, “One word: devastating.” She and School Board chair Susan Kearney detailed how the budget request is “bare bones” considering the phenomenal enrollment growth in recent years, including a 6.7% growth just during the course of the current school year.

Loud outbreaks of applause accompanied a number of comments that questioned maintaining a 17 percent fund balance “lock box” or “black box” ahead of meeting the schools’ current operating needs. Kearney said that a new plan presented by Shields Thursday night to utilize $900,000 of the projected current year surplus for a school capital fund is appreciated as an idea, but “our operating needs are more important than our capital reserve needs now. Our operating needs trump our capital needs.”

Questions also went to why the City is not capitalizing on record low interest now to fund its capital needs, noting that inevitable increases in interest rates could be catastrophic down the road. One citizen sharply questioned the City’s claim that Moody’s rating agency expects AA rated small jurisdictions to maintain fund balances in the range of 18 to 25 percent of annual expenditures. “Their guidance is much more flexible than that, and is not followed by our jurisdictional neighbors,” he said. He noted that the financially shaky state of Illinois recently auctioned off $450 million in 10-year bonds at 3.3 percent. Given inflation, he noted, that is “almost free money.”

School advocate former PTA President Susan Scholler said, “This is not the year to start a school capital reserve. The School Board budget is perfectly reasonable.”

Questions also went to the issue of the controversial Storm Water Utility, with citizens wanting to know why more of it could not be bonded and whether an adequate analysis has been done on having it be fee or ad valorum tax based. Shields acknowledged he’s proposing delaying the first fee charge for the plan until June 2014 in response to conversations with churches and businesses, but not because of their opposition to the plan, but because the delay would “give them more time to prepare.”

One citizen decried what he called the “bloat of government” represented by the plan. “Why do we need a separate fund,” he asked.

Concerns also were addressed about the impact of the federal sequestration on the region, and the notion of a tax rate increase when federal employees and federal contractors face furloughs, layoffs and wage freezes. Shields said that while the City does not depend a lot on federal dollars for its operations, the indirect effects could be serious.

Others spoke out about the dangers to the future of Falls Church of a decline in diversity and the risk of becoming a more “gated” community. Affordable housing advocate Ron Brousseau noted that about 20 percent of the City’s population are elderly and low income and others worried that the City is losing its diverse spirit, as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=521565888 Erik Pelton

    This was democracy in action and it was a great forum for those that attended. Thank you to all the officials who took the time to discuss. For those who have opinions but have been unable to attend a public forum, you can email your comments to the city officials. See http://www.fallschurchva.gov/content/government/departments/finance/finance/fy14budget/default.aspx?cnlid=4269

  • Mark

    If the proposed homeowner tax increases are implemented (from $1.27 per $100 to $1.41 per $100) we will definitely become a financially gated community. One for upper class people only. Is this the type of diversity that FCC wants? Especially with the liberal bent of FCC.
    The schools need to learn to work within a budget (as prescribed earlier in the year per the City Manager). Uncontrolled school budgets will drive residents out of the city (thus we become a city of rich folk who can afford the taxes) .. and eventually cause FCC to re-merge with Fairfax County.

  • PaulFlusche

    I attended this meeting and the school representatives talked about how excellent Falls Church schools are academically, athletically, and in extracurricular activities — all with a student-teacher ratio of 24. Now the schools want to reduce this ratio to 22 while it bragged about how good a job they are doing at 24. Many just can’t afford to make our excellent schools even more stellar.

    • http://twitter.com/poseidonguy1 PoseidonGuy

      Interestingly, GMHS was ranked #9 in the *DC area* among high schools (based on this year’s Wash Post Challenge Index). So you know the drill…if the schools do well, we need to increase the budget. If the school falls behind some of its peers, we need to increase the budget. Win-win for the District!

  • http://twitter.com/poseidonguy1 PoseidonGuy

    The school district claims it submitted a “bare bones” budget request, yet last fiscal year it (successfully) lobbied to get a portion of the tax surplus to buy every student an iPad. If things are so tight for the district in light of alleged explosive growth, why spend precious dollars (which belong to citizens) on mobile tablets?

    • sueFC

      May be a valid argument, but best to keep it truthful otherwise just seems whiny. Schools did not buy every student an iPad.

      And seriously – “alleged explosive growth”? Are you accusing the schools of making up students, putting dummies in the chairs? The enrollment numbers speak for themselves (unless there is a conspiracy you’d like to espouse). Whether you agree that the budget should increase is anther issue.

      • http://twitter.com/poseidonguy1 PoseidonGuy

        The school district purchased 700 Macbook Air computers and 500 iPads, for a total of 1,200 devices. The district has 2,300 students in K-12; a little over 1,400 of whom are in grades 5-12. So they bought iPads and Macbook Air laptops for almost every student who is old enough to use one. My apologies for the error!

        You’re right, the enrollment numbers do speak for themselves. My use of “alleged” referred to the term “explosive.” I don’t deny that there is growth in the school district. I question whether the 3-4% annual growth per year we’ve seen recently is actually worthy of the term “explosive.”

        • sueFC

          The iPads are used at Mount Daniel and TJ as well…

          • JFallsChurch

            Kindergarten and 1st grade get to use iPads…..I know what will be on their xmas list now.

          • http://twitter.com/poseidonguy1 PoseidonGuy

            So about one out of every two students across the FC schools got an iPad or Macbook Air, including young children in elementary school. I know you’re looking to nail me on the nitty-gritty details, but the more you tell more, the more you undermine the argument of the Throw Money At It! crowd.

            Whether the District bought “every student” or “every other student” an Apple device doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the money used was from a surplus, collected from people like me who work for a living (leaving me precious little time to study the exact numbers associated with the District’s computer procurement policies).

          • sueFC

            Not trying to nail you at all. Just pointing out that when you make hysterical claims that are way off base (sorry, it is not even in the ball park), it makes me ignore what I’m sure are valid points. I know it’s a common tactic with some folks (I remember how frustrated I would get when reading Michael Gardner’s diatribes back in the day). It doesn’t take hours of research to avoid it. Anyhow, I understand your point!

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