By Phil Duncan
After a thorough process of patient analysis, community dialogue, robust debate, and negotiated compromise, City Council approved a budget and capital improvements program that taxes citizens and businesses responsibly, spends carefully on today’s needs, and invests wisely in long-term infrastructure to ensure that our City and schools enjoy a bright future.
The budget followed the lines of a proposal from Council member Dan Sze, and was supported by Mayor David Tarter, Council member Marybeth Connelly, and me. The budget, for the fiscal year 2014-15 beginning July 1:
• provides a modest increase in funds — 3.2 percent — for the City government, to maintain and improve delivery of municipal services;
• provides a robust 9.1 percent increase in funds to sustain excellence in our superb school system, whose enrollment grew by more than 6 percent last year;
• holds the tax rate level, at 1.305.
The budget continues the prudent financial management that has earned Falls Church a strong credit rating and thus favorable borrowing terms. Excess revenues from the current fiscal year and resources from the new stormwater levy are strategically deployed to productive use in the FY14-15 budget; as a result, citizens will see tangible improvements in transportation, parks and open space, stormwater management and other infrastructure broadly benefiting the community.
In the budget, the City’s emergency reserve (“unassigned fund balance”) remains in complete compliance with Council policy, which stipulates that “The goal for unassigned fund balance shall be 17 percent, but not less than 12 percent, of the actual General Fund expenditures for the then current Fiscal Year.” When this fiscal year ends June 30, the emergency fund should be well above 16 percent.
Our vision for the City’s great future is expressed most boldly in the capital improvements program. The CIP authorizes a comprehensive campaign for new and improved facilities that is unequaled in the City’s history. We will put finishing touches on the expansion at Thomas Jefferson Elementary; we will build and open the Jessie Thackrey Preschool; we will seek voter permission in November to bond $16 million for a substantially expanded Mt. Daniel; and we will chart a course for 21st Century school facilities and transit-oriented economic development adjacent to West Falls Church Metro, on the land annexed into the City in the water-sale deal with Fairfax County.
The CIP also lays out options for renovation and/or replacement of City Hall and the library, which in their current configuration are reaching the end of their useful lives.
Another very important part of the budget — an initiative all seven members of Council supported — is expansion of the City’s existing program providing property tax relief and deferral for senior citizens. The budget increases the benefit for taxpayers who currently qualify, and lowers the income qualifications to make more taxpayers eligible for this program.
Heading into our debate on this year’s budget, the City’s property tax rate had increased in six of the last seven fiscal years, from $1.01 in 2007 to $1.305 today, and the City Manager initially proposed another increase, to $1.35. But Council held the tax rate level. With assessed values of property up significantly, and the new stormwater levy, and headwinds in the economy still pressuring many household budgets (especially for those on fixed incomes), a 5-2 Council majority deemed a level tax rate the sensible course.
Despite Herculean efforts by staff to nip here and tuck there to find cost-saving efficiencies, the in-come and out-go was still a bit off: We needed to increase spending by $435,000 less than hoped, a sum that’s .5 percent of the $80.55 million budget. Council agreed to slice the City’s budget increase by $219,000, and asked the School Board to trim its increase by $216,000. In larger jurisdictions, sums so small would be lost in the rounding. But in Falls Church, every dollar is real money in our quest to reach the highest standards. I thank the School Board for making the final adjustments necessary to reach balance on a budget that I believe is good for our whole community.
Every year, putting together the budget and CIP is a big challenge. There are legitimate calls to do more, to do better, creating pressure to raise the property tax rate. Before yielding to that pressure, I hope we explore other options. Our City has tremendous untapped potential to generate new revenues through economic revitalization — smart development that will enhance our quality of life. And soon we will come into significant revenues from the water-sale deal, which will help us afford our ambitious CIP.
Yes, budgeting is hard work. But it’s invigorating to see how many citizens have strong feelings about what’s right for our City. Finding the proper blend of taxing, spending, investing, and saving — it is a great civic exercise, and Council’s most important function.
Phil Duncan is a member of the Falls Church City Council and chairs its Budget & Finance Committee.