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Mayor Baroukh Says Good Planning Key to Ensuring F.C.’s Sustainability

naderladderIn an exclusive interview with the News-Press, City of Falls Church’s new mayor, Nader Baroukh, said he’s cautiously optimistic about the coming year, but that it’s going to be a bumpy road ahead at least for the next several years. He recently sat down with this writer for what’s become the paper’s long-standing annual “State of the City” interview with F.C.’s mayor.

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CITY OF FALLS CHURCH Mayor Nader Baroukh climbed a ladder to the rooftop of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack Monday night to catch a first glimpse of the restaurant’s newly unveiled solar panels. The new mayor, elected July 1, recently sat down with the News-Press for the paper’s annual “State of the City” interview. (Photo: Gary Mester)

In an exclusive interview with the News-Press, City of Falls Church’s new mayor, Nader Baroukh, said he’s cautiously optimistic about the coming year, but that it’s going to be a bumpy road ahead at least for the next several years. He recently sat down with this writer for what’s become the paper’s long-standing annual “State of the City” interview with F.C.’s mayor.

From 10- and 50-year projections for the Little City’s big future to revealing what issues he thinks residents should be paying more attention to in the coming year, Baroukh discussed his top priorities two months into his mayoral duties. He was elected by the City Council July 1.

He moved to the City in 2005 with his longtime college sweetheart, Bernadette Fancuberta, being attracted to Falls Church’s schools, accessible location and small-town community feel.

Baroukh, who grew up in Southern California, emigrated to the U.S. from Iran with his family when he was seven years old. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Law, and works as a senior attorney at the Department of Homeland Security.

Watching what he called a “haphazard” City Council govern as a member of the community, Baroukh ran for and was elected to City Council in 2008.
Now presiding over a City which he gave a letter grade of B+ at best, Baroukh criticized the Council’s mistakes of not doing enough preparation in the past, but hopes to work towards correcting its pitfalls by exercising enough fortitude to stick to a plan residents have input on, he said.

 

News-Press: How would you like to see Falls Church develop over the next 10 years?

Mayor Nader Baroukh: We need to have a clear financial road ahead, and we really need to work on stabilizing our financials. That’s a key aspect of it. The development part goes along with that. I don’t think we can rely on simply residential taxes to get us through in the long run. That’s where we’re going to be headed. We really need to start looking at expanding our tax base pretty significantly. What that means for the City is that I hope we’re going to end up seeing more commercial and office development. I’m hoping that’s path we take in the next 10 years.

N-P: That being said, if that does go into effect, how do you think Falls Church could be 50 years from now?

Baroukh: I think one of the best things we’ve got going for Falls Church is simply our location. We’ve got this great accessibility to the Metro, I-66 and large airports, which is key. If we really do some planning once the market rebounds, we could see significant commercial development happening in the City. That’s not to say we won’t see some residential along with that. They’re going to go hand in hand, but I’m hoping our key focus is to attract business, commercial and office.

 

N-P: What are your top five priorities going into your first year as Mayor?

Baroukh: This is something that I’ve done some talking about already, and it’s really sorted out with a concept that myself and couple Council members-elect and one current Council member had. That was coming up with a draft before the new Council even got seated, so we termed it as a working draft. It lists out 10 things that we’re hoping to start and accomplish during the course of the year. Some of those items which I think are key are working on our financial situation. One of the things that Council has already started doing is getting those reports monthly rather than annually or even quarterly. What that will do is something very basic, but it’s something we hadn’t done before on a monthly basis. This will allow Council and staff to know exactly month by month where we are at as far as projections, revenues and expenditures so that if we need to make any adjustments, we can make them very quickly so we don’t – hopefully – end up having large shortfalls like the one that we saw this past fiscal year.

It’s a simple tool that’s already been utilized and what will happen is month to month, we will get those reports and also month-over-month reports so we can compare where we were that month last year to see any dips. Not every month is going to be the same as far as receipts and expenditures, but we’ll be able to track that much better and make adjustments more quickly than we have in the past.

We’ve gotten two reports so far, but we’ve just closed out the last fiscal year so we’re not exactly sure where we’re headed in FY2011, but it’s something we’re keeping a very close eye on and something the Council will continue to be doing.

Along those same lines, we’re also going to be looking at developing a five-year projection of the City’s financial, which will include developing our three-year rolling budget. Even though the charter allows us to adopt only one year at a time, we’ll essentially have two years additional for that so we can work on planning and projection and hopefully rolling in the CIP.

On the development side, we’re hoping to expand and further refine our area plans and that’s going to be a real key aspect for the City. It’s going to allow developers to get a sense of where we’re at community-wise and about what we want to see develop in our various commercial corridors. That’s sort of a model that’s worked well for other localities that we’re hoping to adopt and I think that’s going to be key. And that’s going to take a lot of community work, probably some outside consulting work too.

All of these priorities are going to get sketched out at our Council retreat that’s coming up on the end of September. It will begin with a full briefing of our current financial situation, where we’re headed. Hopefully when walk out of that retreat, we’ll flush it out with the items we want to take on during the year and when we’re going to take certain actions, ordinances and resolutions.

“I don’t think there was a clear sense before of where we were with economic development and what type of development we wanted. It struck me as sort of being haphazard.”

Again, we’ll be doing a lot of the planning and policy work. We may not, depending on where the economy is, we may not see all of the projects come to fruition three years from today. But it’s building that solid base now that’s key as far as how we’re going to move ahead. At least, my hope is that we’ll put those tools in place so when the market does rebound, we won’t be trailing it. We’ll be right there.

N-P: What’s one mistake you feel City Council has made within the last five years that you hope to work towards fixing?

Baroukh: I don’t think there was a clear sense before of where we were with economic development and what type of development we wanted. It struck me, as just a community member, as sort of being haphazard, where we saw developers come in with plans or that we may have had a plan but didn’t really stick to it and say, “This is the plan.” There was division at times, but there was not any follow through with division. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible but the level of flexibility was probably a little bit flawed. I would say one of the key things is making sure we do the planning and to have a plan on how we’ll be implementing it all, all having the fortitude to stick with the plan. Again, that’s not to say you become entrenched and inflexible but still at least have a vision of where you’d like to go and then make sure that it makes sense economically and in the long run. I think there’s been a lack of that and I certainly see a desire for that from my fellow Council members that the City wants to do more planning and wants to do not just the planning aspect but ways of figuring out how to implement those plans. That also means working with developers to see how the market will fair so it’s not just high-end sky.

 

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F.C. MAYOR NADER BAROUKH sat down with the News-Press for its annual “State of the City” interview last week. (Photo: News-Press)

 

N-P: Moving forward, what’s the biggest concern budget-wise for the City of Falls Church in the coming year?

Baroukh: In coming year, the biggest unknown is what the court’s going to rule on the water litigation. There’s only one aspect of it left but it’s fairly significant. It’s a little over $2 million, potentially, coming out from previous years and then moving forward, depending on how the court rules,  we may not be able to see the rate of return. At least, that’s how the court’s ruled, and we’re waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on that. That could have a huge budget effect, so we’re definitely looking to see where the court’s going to go with that so it will be a significant piece.

And then there’s also a lot of questions about what the state’s going to do with funding, which is hard to predict. That could definitely be another budget driver.

Pension funds are going to be another unknown. It’s been so the last several years even with the market improving. The way that pension funds work is that it takes a lot to catch up and there’s going to be  doubts  whether you’re going to feel the full blow in one given year, and that’s going to be a liability as far as our budgeting goes for the next few years at least.

Overall, there’s definitely still some remaining budget pressures and still some unknowns, so it’s tough to say. I’m cautiously optimistic that things are going to get better but I think we’re going to have a bumpy road ahead at least for the next several years. So it’s not that we’re out of the woods, if you will, either nationally or locally with the economy.

N-P: What words of encouragement would you offer Falls Church residents and businesses that are struggling right now due to the economy?

Baroukh: I would say that you’ve got a community that’s extremely loyal to businesses. The City Council is very much sensitive to the business needs and is working with, for example, the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce to figure out things we can do that are “low-cost and high-impact,” as it’s been coined by one of the Council members. We are trying to do everything that we can to help improve the business situation and we know everybody is kind of struggling right now, given not only the local but national economic situation.

“We’ve got all the ingredients to be a great City – and I think we are a great City – but I there’s been a little bit of a disconnect about how we’ve taken all those great ingredients and made a great dish out of it.”

N-P: So then, what recent business developments in Falls Church do you feel have the potential to bring in the most revenue to the City?

Baroukh: I think BJ’s is going to probably one of our largest generators of revenue. I was heavily involved in bringing that project into fruition. I think it’s probably located in just the right place for the City. It’s in an area that’s not heavily residential so some of the impact is going to be minimized. I’m looking forward to BJ’s opening. It’s going to be a huge asset to the community, both as far as services go and also the economical effect.

The other which could potentially have significant benefits for the City, and it’s a project that’s still very much in the early stages but has been around for a few years now and is coming up again with the City Council and the Economic Development Committee of the Council, is the Gateway Project. Again, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make that more economically viable for the City, so we’re working with the developer to see where that goes. The next step for that could be something very exciting, and it does have an office component to it.

 

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BAROUKH JOINED FORMER City of Falls Church mayor, Robin Gardner (right), to flip on the switch Monday night for the newly installed solar panels on the rooftop of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack. (Photo: Gary Mester)

 

N-P: What’s one key issue being discussed by Council right now or on the verge of being discussed that you think residents should be paying more attention to?

Baroukh: I think the biggest thing that I’m hoping will get a lot of citizen participation is the area plans. How we go about that in the future is going to be a key aspect. My hope is that once the area plans are fully developed and we gather community input, that’s what we’ll stick with so there won’t be a lot of surprises for the parties about what the development is going to feel like, what’s generally going to be there.

Hopefully, that will offer more predictability, not just for the developers but also for our residents and citizens. Again, we haven’t really had those discussions, just the seed has been planted and, again, through our retreat, we’re going to be working on the timeline.

There are also the general economic policies that we’re going to be talking about that will be very important for citizens, so that they can have an understanding about what we’re going to be doing. They’re not necessarily the sexiest but they are going to be, in my view, some of the most important topics we’ll discuss.

I think we’re going to begin the budget process overall much earlier this year than we have in the past, so I’d encourage our citizens to really have input on what they view as services they’d like to maintain, as well as what levels of services they think we could use less of. Those are going to be large issues on the table.

N-P: What letter grade would you give the state of the City of Falls Church right now and why?

Baroukh: That’s an excellent question. I’d give it a B to a B+, and the reason why I’d give it that grade and why I wouldn’t give it an A is I think we’ve got all the ingredients to be a great City – and I think we are a great City – but I there’s been a little bit of a disconnect about how we’ve taken all those great ingredients and made a great dish out of it, how do you pull all that together.

I feel that once we’re able to accomplish that is when we’ll have the A or the A+. The ingredients are there, but I think one of the one of the things Council needs to focus on is how we draw all those aspects together and  really make this even a better City than it is.

“I’m a pretty low-key person, so I don’t want there to be a legacy, per se.”

N-P: Finally, what do you hope your legacy will be as mayor?

Baroukh: I’m a pretty low-key person, so I don’t want there to be a legacy, per se. What I hope is that the Council as a whole implements tools, policies and various initiatives that are going to set the stage and begin the City’s transition into an even better place to live, work and have a business. I think we can do that. That’s the legacy I hope City Council as a whole would put into place. I don’t think we’re going to see it all come together in a one-year short period, especially given where the market is, but as long as we paved the way and done the work to set that stage, I’ll consider it as a success.

 

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