There was an unsettling air of unreality that pervaded the Falls Church City Council meeting Monday night, the first that the Council held in an open business meeting to wrestle with the budget for the coming fiscal year.
With Falls Church not immune to the global economic meltdown, sharply declining residential real estate values and retail sales present the Council with the challenge of the City’s first-ever actual reduction in the size of its annual budget. City Manager Wyatt Shields has called for eliminating seven City employee positions, freezing the salaries of all City employees, shutting down the City’s underperforming boutique bus system and shaving other programs while raising the tax rate by four cents to $1.07 per $100 of assessed valuation. Despite declining real estate values, the average homeowner will experience a net tax increase in this plan.
But virtually everyone who spoke at the public hearing Monday, and most members of the City Council, spent their energies talking about why one area or program in the budget should not be cut, with one Council member even suggesting he might support a further tax rate hike to preserve the bus system. It was “business as usual” for citizens and the Council, lobbying for more money for their favorite programs. Except for one lone citizen, there was no talk about the pressures being felt by average citizens in Falls Church, many to one degree or another living in quiet desperation due to the same economic crisis, facing job loss, evaporated retirement accounts, the inability to pay mortgage resets and so forth. There are privileged and pampered citizens in this wealthy community, but there are many more on fixed incomes and at the lower end of the economic scale that are in very serious trouble.
Indifference to this, while squabbling over how to preserve the GEORGE bus system, even with more taxes, smacked of a “let them eat cake!” approach to governing. In tough times, governments can balance their budgets by simply voting themselves more money; average citizens or small businesses are forced to balance theirs by declaring bankruptcy, being foreclosed on, and joining soup lines.
In this context, let’s be plain about GEORGE. Providing 70,000 rides a year, it is subsidized by City taxpayers to the tune of $8 a ride. If most of the rides are commutes to and from the Metro, as one advocate said was his case Monday, then that is 10 rides a week, and 500 a year. The number of people using GEORGE in this way, totaling 70,000 rides, is only 140, out of 11,400 citizens. And, 500 rides at $8 a ride adds up to $4,000 per person. So, 140 people are being subsidized with $4,000 a year each from City taxpayers, no matter how rich or poor.
Subsidizing public transit is generally a noble undertaking for government, but not to such an obscene degree as this, and not in the face of the very palpable struggles of average citizens in these times.