We caution the Falls Church City Council as it approaches its hour of decision Monday to determine the tax rate for the new $70 million fiscal year budget that will go into effect July 1. Going into its stretch run of deliberations that began months ago, a majority on the Council now seems intent on dismissing the recommendation of City Manager Wyatt Shields for a one cent increase, and adopting a budget that keeps the tax rate at its current level of $1.01 per $100 assessed valuation. The latest thinking is that this can be achieved by cutting into contingency funds on both the City and school sides of the budget. But this sets a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt the City in the immediate years ahead. While Council member Hal Lippman conceded this Monday that the tax rate has to do with “symbolism,” we would modify that to say it has to do more with “expectations.”
If the Council defies both the recommendation of the City Manager and the best efforts of the School Board to appease mental phantoms of those who might otherwise make a political issue out of a single penny increase, then it is, in fact, only whetting the appetites and the gumption of those who will hold it to the same standard in subsequent budgets.
So the Council uses the proverbial “smoke and mirrors” to find a way to shave a silly little penny off the tax rate next week. What happens when they can’t do that without serious program cuts, especially cuts in the School budgets, next year, or the year after? The “no tax hike” bogeymen will still be demanding their tribute, growling that “if you did it in April 2007, you can do it again now! You didn’t have any problem defying the manager and School Board then, why should you now!” See, when you give a bully your lunch money, it doesn’t make him go away. It encourages him to come back for more.
There are tough fiscal conditions down the road for Falls Church. If this City Council wants to stand for something important, something besides appeasement, then it needs to step up to the challenge right now. It needs to send a message that it plans to honor the City staff and schools’ commitment to excellence, even in tough times. It needs to set the precedent that says if a modest tax increase is what it takes to do that, then that’s what it will legislate. It will not play “reindeer games” with contingency funds and other sleights of hand that really add up to nickels and dimes.
After all, the Council agonized for almost two hours at its work session Monday night over tiny sums of money, $20,000 here and $40,000 there, out of a budget of over $70 million. That’s ridiculous.
Councilman Dan Maller correctly pointed out Monday that even with a one-cent rate increase, town house owners, because of steep declines in their assessed values, will pay less next year than now. Only those in single family homes more apt to have children in the schools will pay slightly more. That’s fair, as it should be.