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Schools Spared F.C. Council Budget Knife in Countdown to Final Vote

councilfrontpaegDecisions Still Loom on Tax Rate & More Deep Cuts in Vital City Services

Now less than two weeks from the deadline for final adoption of its Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the Falls Church City Council has narrowed its options over the course of three meetings in the last seven days, but is still far from decided on some tough decisions that will lead either to higher taxes or deeper service cuts.

councilfrontpaeg

SHOWN STANDING, Falls Church City employees turned out ‘en masse’ at the F.C. City Council meeting Monday night to demonstrate the importance of the services they provide to the citizens of the city. They are fearful that further cuts in the FY2011 budget will eliminate some of the vital functions they perform. (Photo: News-Press)

 

Decisions Still Loom on Tax Rate & More Deep Cuts in Vital City Services

Now less than two weeks from the deadline for final adoption of its Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the Falls Church City Council has narrowed its options over the course of three meetings in the last seven days, but is still far from decided on some tough decisions that will lead either to higher taxes or deeper service cuts.

Resolving unanimously at its work session last Thursday not to seek more cuts from the budget forwarded to it by the City’s School Board, taking one giant step with that, the Council is wrestling with either adopting City Manager Wyatt Shields’ recommended 20 cent tax rate increase, or reducing that increase by as much as five cents with severe new cuts to core City services.

Veteran observers are predicting that the Council may find incremental ways to shave a penny or two off of Shields’ 20-cent solution, but not more.

The final vote on the budget is slated for Monday night, April 26, and that night is also slated for the final public hearing. Anyone standing up to speak at that meeting, however, had better be very persuasive, because the Council has a history of reaching a consensus on the budget prior to that night.

So, a work session slated for a week from tonight, on Thursday, April 22, will probably be when the Council will make its final push for a consensus to be reached.

There are extraordinary circumstances that have hit the City’s budgetary process this spring. It has been a veritable “perfect storm” combining deep drops in real estate, sales tax and other revenues due to the recession, the sudden loss of $2.3 million in revenue from a court decision on the Water Fund, an audit of the City’s sales tax receipts resulting in a major net loss of revenue, greater demands for health and retirement fund contributions and significant declines in state and federal resources.

But despite these multiple hits, the Council appears to be headed for a surprisingly civil and orderly consensus, notwithstanding the vote on the final version of the budget may have at most two “no” votes.

Voices of greater discontent in the City of 11,400 have simply not gained traction, even in the context of an upcoming, May 4 City Council election with eight candidates vying for four of the seven seats on the Council.

For example, at last Saturday morning’s widely advertised town hall meeting hosted by Shields at the Community Center, only nine citizens – not elected officials, City staff persons, or veteran activists and volunteers – appeared to chime in on the budget.

Of the nine, five spoke in favor of Shields’ recommended budget, with its 20 cent real estate tax increase, and only four spoke in favor of lowering the tax rate below the rate Shields has proposed.

Although Council members report getting a large volume of e-mails and other forms of correspondence, and those seeking re-election are hearing from citizens as they campaign from door to door, there is virtually no sign of a groundswell of opposition to what will be the largest hike in real estate taxes in a single year in the City’s 60 year history. If Shields’ proposal is adopted, the 20 cent hike will raise the tax to $1.27 per $100 of assessed valuation.

In fact, the most robust outpourings of public sentiment have come against program cuts, not tax hikes. They came in opposition to more cuts in the School Board’s proposed budget, and at this Monday’s meeting, opposition to more cuts in vital City services and, in a particular line item, against cutting the part-time position of the curator at the City’s historic Cherry Hill Farm.

A large contingent of City employees packed the pews at the Council chambers this Monday, with representatives from various divisions speaking to the Council during the public hearing about the importance of the work they do.

They were led by Tennille Parker, chair of the F.C. Employees Advisory Council. Employees of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, such as Emily Leu spoke of the important role the library plays providing Internet assistance to many who have no other access, and in helping citizens obtain vital information from the IRS or DMV.

Debbie Gee of the planning division said that her division provided services to 7,147 people in the past fiscal year, and Sue Richter said over 2,000 contacts were made in the human services division. Mary Gonda of the human resources office said that her efforts are vital to all 200 City employees.

In its surprise, unanimous decision to take any further school cuts off the table in last Thursday’s work session, the action was taken with most members of the School Board in the room, along with Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin.

“We realized how thorough the School Board’s job had been in making cuts of its own while protecting the quality of the classroom,” Mayor Robin Gardner said Monday during an interview on the “Falls Church News-Press Live” TV show carried on Falls Church Cable TV.

In responding to a statement of appreciation from School Board Vice Chair Joan Wodiska at the Council meeting Monday, Councilman David Snyder underscored the unanimous support for the current School Board budget, by noting he’d sat in on some School Board work sessions and realized how thorough and dedicated their effort had been.

A case was made by Councilman Dan Maller that, due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this budget and the hardships the recession is also bringing to many citizens, that the Council consider postponing a re-charge of its fund balance, the setting aside of $600,000 (or, two cents on the tax rate) to bring a sustained balance to eight percent of the total size of the annual budget.

However, the City’s Chief Financial Officer John Tuohy advised strongly against Maller’s proposal, noting that the fund balance was critical to cover shortfalls in this past  year’s budget and needs to be restored to guard against other problems in the future.

Tuohy forecast that real estate values would continue on a downward trend in the City next year, especially commercial real estate, which he said could drop by double-digit amounts once again.

Also, while the City is appealing to the State Supreme Court the Fairfax Circuit Court ruling against taking a “return on investment” from its Water Fund, the outcome could go either way: it could restore the option for the City, or it could penalize the City for its past practices and demand another $2.3 million be paid back out of the City’s operating budget to the fund.

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