5-2 Vote for 14.3% Increase, Raises Tax Rate to $1.305
The Falls Church City Council voted Monday to adopt a budget for the coming fiscal year granting the full 14.3% increase in the School Board request with a tax rate of $1.305, up from the current rate of $1.27 per $100 of assessed real estate valuation. The vote was 5-2.
A standing room only crowd that jammed the Council chambers was overwhelmingly in support of full funding for the schools, and there was a lot of hugging and handshaking once the vote was taken.
Falls Church Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones told the News-Press, “I am grateful for the children and the staff, for the kids and the teachers,” she said, filled with emotion. “I believe that people will do what’s right. We have real needs and were able to share that with the community and the Council saw the effect of that this year.”
During the petition period of the Council meeting prior to the vote, Dr. Jones told the Council, “This is not about politics, but about our children and our future.” The comment drew loud applause from the audience.
The budget was adopted from among five options that confronted the Council at the beginning of the meeting. While a plan by Councilman Phil Duncan was withdrawn, the main contention developed over an option supported by Council members Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry that proposed cutting the School Board request by $1.3 million, from the 14.3 percent requested increase to 10 percent.
While Kaylin and Barry spoke passionately in support of their plan, in the name of fiscal balance, the vote failed 5-2, with only their votes in favor.
There was subsequently no support for a plan to cut the Schools request by $344,700; then, a modification to an original plan for full School funding was introduced by Vice Mayor David Snyder, cutting a half cent on the tax rate, and it won the majority vote, 5-2, with Kaylin and Barry voting no.
The Council subsequently voted into being a Storm Water Utility Fund, but the budget vote included use of surplus money to delay the imposition of storm water fees until June 2014.
The winning budget plan also included a minor reduction in the City’s fund balance goal of 17 percent to 16.1 percent percent, and funded the continuation of Falls Church Cable TV, while foregoing the hiring of an additional police officer or a “sustainability coordinator.”
Among those in the SRO audience Monday was Jessie Thackrey, a founding member of the Falls Church School System who will be turning 100 this summer. She was accompanied by her son, Keith, who spoke in favor of full School funding on her behalf and behalf of sister.
While City Clerk Kathleen Buschow said that over 150 emails and letters had been sent to the Council supporting full school funding, citizen Mary Beth MacKinnon said she’d presented petitions for full funding with 275 signatures obtained just over the previous weekend.
Former City Economic Development Authority head Edward Saltzberg said, “People don’t come to live in Falls Church because of trash collection, but because of the schools. … The schools are the glue of the community, and they can’t ride on fumes.”
Denise O’Neil said that record enrollment growth of 25 percent in the last five years “is not about fear mongering, but facts.” To those who called for deep cuts, she said, “Where have you been? Not at TJ! (Thomas Jefferson Elementary).”
Stephanie Oppenheimer said the City has maintained its excellent schools despite the past that neighboring Arlington spends more per student and more for its teachers. “You cannot degrade the engine that drives Falls Church,” she said. “It is like taking Disney out of Orlando.”
Elementary PTA president Shawna Russell said, “The School Board request is far from outlandish, but a bare minimum.”
Robert LaJeunesse said it is a false battle to put the schools versus taxpayers, saying rather it is “the bond-holding class versus the rest of us.” A lot of the fund balance could be used for the schools and to lower the tax rate if the definition of “capital improvements” was extended to cover “human capital,” he said.
In an e-mail to the News-Press following the vote, Vice Mayor Snyder said, “This budget forcefully addresses both short term and long term issues by providing for school needs, maintaining a healthy fund balance as recommended by financial experts and assuring top flight City services. And it did so with sensitivity to taxpayers by cutting the tax rate increase nearly in half when compared to the original proposal. In addition, the Council addressed school facility and public safety needs and moved forward on critical storm water infrastructure. And we took steps to assist in economic development by approving a draft land agreement with Fairfax County.”
He added, “No one likes taxes, including me. Beyond paying the same taxes everyone else does, I refuse to take most of the City Council salary increase that was approved several years ago. But there are far worse things than higher taxes – schools that don’t teach, police that don’t respond and fire trucks that break down. I will do whatever I must to assure those things don’t happen here.”