Editorial: Keep Taxes Flat & Fund the Schools

April 23, 2014 5:18 PM9 comments

We applaud most of all on the Falls Church City Council Vice Mayor David Snyder and Council members Daniel Sze and Marybeth Connelly for their willingness to “think outside the box” in budget proposals they offered variously in the last week to defy the official wisdom at City Hall and use either a small portion of the much higher than expected proceeds from the sale of the water system or the City’s humongous unassigned fund balance, or a combination, to keep the real estate tax rate flat while fully funding the School Board’s request.

First and foremost, the School Board’s request is air tight, absolutely solid and can’t be cut a thin dime without the quality of classroom education being compromised. What a crying shame it would be if, days after the City’s George Mason High School is ranked Number One in Virginia (see story, Page One) that it should be sacrificed one iota to the sharp pencils of bureaucrats and public officials at City Hall. School Board Vice Chair Justin Castillo presents a succinct summary of the School Board’s case, its issues and needs, in the Guest Commentary of this edition.

The problem that develops every year as the wind down to final decisions on the budget occurs is that everything gets reduced to numbers on paper. No longer is any consideration given, really, to the actual impacts on flesh and blood people. It becomes a game of barter between numbers on a sheet. For example, there is always the suggestion that cuts to the City side of the budget and the Schools’ side be equal, as if the needs are actually the same. Then there is the fiction of the budget, itself. In reality, there is a single sum of money, mostly coming from citizen taxpayers, and there are priorities.

As for the fund balance – the amount that the City simply harbors in a bank account as a “rainy day fund” or “Godzilla recovery fund” – the obsession with maintaining a 17 percent level is tantamount to monetarist idol worshiping, especially when set against the known realities of record enrollment growth, on the one hand, and escalating real estate values on the other. These pressures are very real, for students and for taxpayers both, but to ignore them in favor of a questionable monetarist ideology’s unyielding demand is, well, it’s not cool.

Vice Mayor Snyder makes a compelling case for using a small portion of proceeds from the sale of the water system (now estimated closer to $20 million than $14 million originally thought) to pay the $5 million portion of the $80 million budget that is the City’s service on capital improvement debt. He argues that this uses sale proceeds for one-time capital improvements, just paying for past instead of future such improvements.

It makes perfect sense to us, especially if some portion of it went to paying down some principle, as well.

  • philduncan

    In the last sentence, I believe the word means to be “principal.”

    • Jim Jones

      Thank you Phil. That was going to be my next comment.

    • Gary LaPorta

      The principle concept is to pay down the principal.

  • Jim Jones

    “First and foremost, the School Board’s request is air tight, absolutely solid and can’t be cut a thin dime without the quality of classroom education being compromised.”

    Can you explain how you arrived at this conclusion? This sounds like an opinion.

    I have not reviewed the school board’s budget line by line, but I suspect that is the only way that somebody could make such a statement. Have you?

    • Bill Royce

      Mr Jones: Cut to a thin dime means that the superintendent slashed proposed expenditures on “gifts” from $333,500 in 2014 to a meager $250,000 in 2015!

      Please take a look at my disassembly of the standard school board budget ploys — http://fcnp.com/2014/04/24/guest-commentary-dispelling-myths-about-the-f-c-school-budget/to — elsewhere in this paper

      And follow this link http://tinyurl.com/lpq9utm to a machine readable version of the FCCPS proposed budget for 2015. I finally got fed up trying to the understand the School Board’s budgets in the ,pdf format in which its published, so I scanned their file and loaded it into MicroSoft Excel 2007 and provide it as a public service to all.

      The first tab in the file is a roll-up of all expenditures by type, the second tab has expenditures by location, the third tab contains the school system account code numbers.

      Going forward this will be a powerful tool for FCCF citizens to help our school board.

  • philduncan

    When Mr. Sze first brought forward his budget proposal at Council’s work session Monday, I listened carefully and was intrigued by it, but I felt I needed to know more about its details before I could definitively rule it in our out of consideration. Since then, I’ve had a thorough discussion with Dan about his plan, and gotten input on it from City staff. I am persuaded that the Sze Plan is worthy of support. It handles the City’s reserve account, FY14 surplus and water-sale revenues in a fiscally responsible manner; it provides a modest increase in funds to improve delivery of City services; it gives a generous increase in funds to sustain excellence in our growing school system; and it holds the tax rate level.

    • jimbledsoe

      You are an oak Phil. Please explain the FY 14 surplus to me. We had a surplus in FY 14? I guess as long as you ‘councilers’ can pass the buck to the tax payer it really doesn’t matter. Congratulating yourself for keeping the tax rate level while inflating assessments is hardly a victory. The fact that there is no real leadership in Falls Church is sad. I don’t get it. I am not seeing where anyone made a hard decision throughout this process. Maybe I’m just one of the few ignorant, over educated taxpayers who needs more information about what a great job everyone is doing. Please enlighten me.

      • philduncan

        The projected surplus for FY13-14 (which ends June 30) comes mostly from the City taking in more revenue than was anticipated this time a year ago. A lot of that additional revenue stems from property assessments increasing at a rate higher than was projected a year ago.

        You will never hear me say that the Sze Plan would “cut taxes.” But at least it holds the tax rate level at 1.305, so your actual property tax bill will align with however much your home assessment increased. A few months ago, I suggested that Council try to budget on a $1.29 tax rate, but I could not drum up majority support for that proposal. In my view, a budget that at least holds the tax rate level is preferred over other proposals that would raise the tax rate above $1.305. My study of the budget persuades me that we can maintain excellent schools and quality City services in FY14-15 at the $1.305 rate. To hold the rate steady in future years, one thing we must do is continue the economic revitalization that is broadening the City’s tax base and generating new net revenues — e.g., projects such as the newly opened Northgate, the soon-to-open Hilton Garden Inn and the Good Fortune supermarket, and the now-under construction 301 W. Broad (Harris-Teeter) and Reserve at Tinner Hill (Fresh Market).

  • Taxpayer

    Why is it that we tout the reports that show the FCC high school as number one but don’t publish the ones showing the high school as number 7, or number 9, or whatever? And really, by reading the report that has the high school as number one, one of the measures was student to teacher ratio. 14:1? That’ pretty amazing…and pretty low? Why not make it 16:1 and save money on number of teachers? (playing devil’s advocate on this one)

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