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F.C. Budget Squeeze Vexes Council, School Board Vote Set Next Tuesday

Superintendent Offers More Cut Options to Allow 1% Teacher & Staff Pay Hikes

Facing what one among them called a “budget Armageddon” of projected revenue shortfalls for the City of Falls Church in the coming five years, the F.C. City Council mulled giant leaps in its sewer rate and setbacks in take home pay for City and school employees at its work session Monday.

Superintendent Offers More Cut Options to Allow 1% Teacher & Staff Pay Hikes

Facing what one among them called a “budget Armageddon” of projected revenue shortfalls for the City of Falls Church in the coming five years, the F.C. City Council mulled giant leaps in its sewer rate and setbacks in take home pay for City and school employees at its work session Monday.

A recommended 26.9 percent immediate rise in sewer rates, followed by three follow-on years of nine to 10 percent annual hikes, is required to cover the City’s obligations for federal Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce nitrogen levels in Chesapeake Bay water.

On top of that. a recommended increase in employee participation in City pension programs calls for a leap from 1.6 percent to five percent among existing employees, including some school employees, and from 2.2 percent to seven percent for police.

Meanwhile, the Falls Church School Board continued to wrestle with pressure from its teachers and other employees to provide some form of a pay increase, as another public hearing was held Tuesday night and news that the school boards of neighboring jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Fairfax counties, either had or were about to approve two percent salary increases, plus a “step.”

Falls Church Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin presented a laundry list of “potential budget adjustments and reductions” that could be made to cover the projected $260,000 cost of a one percent “staff salary improvement.” The options included reducing one staff work day, one full time-equivalent kindergarten teacher and two full time-equivalent custodial positions.

The School Board is aiming to complete crafting, to approve and to forward its formal budget request to the City Manager by next Tuesday, Feb. 15.
At Monday’s work session, the Council went along with both recommendations from consultants and advisory groups as a starting point for providing City Manager Wyatt Shields with guidance for the budget he will recommend to the Council in mid-March.

While the sewer issue is a matter of “passing through costs” to the City from its larger Fairfax and Arlington County neighbors and their obligations to comply with federal EPA standards, the increase in employee participation in the City’s pension fund comes on top of a projected third straight year of an across-the-board salary freeze, which has already amounted to a seven percent cut in take home pay when measured against inflation and other factors.

Shields cautioned that increasing effective pay cuts to employees could lead to a talent drain if surrounding jurisdictions do not follow up. He said that not only will the City lose talented employees, but the benefit of whatever time they’ve put in working in F.C. gaining experience and on-the-job training.

In another F.C. budgetary development, Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester received a guarded reaction from the board of directors of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning when she laid out the City’s plans to impose a five-cent surcharge on its real estate tax rate for commercial properties. The plan would pay for transportation-related improvements, including sidewalk and “walkability” upgrades. No Council position on the matter was taken at the meeting.

In telephone comments to the News-Press Wednesday, Mayor Nader Baroukh stressed that even though real estate assessments were up by two percent, overall, as announced last week, there have been new costs that have arisen that more than offset that modest gain. They include the City’s obligation to cover its share of costs for the Arlington Detention Center and other inter-jurisdictional obligations.

He also expressed concern that a persisting freeze of federal salaries could eventually negatively impact any nascent signs of recovery in the Falls Church real estate market.

At Monday’s work session, Vice Mayor David Snyder noted that there has been “a dramatic reduction in retirement programs in the private sector” already, and a lot of taxpaying households in the City “are earning far less now.”

Council member Ira Kaylin said that “gigantic shortfalls projected in the next four years are staggering,” and Council member Johannah Barry went one step further, calling them the equivalent to “Apocalyptic numbers,” adding, “This is a very serious matter.”

Only Council member Robin Gardner said she’d hope there could be “some form of plan that includes some kind of pay-out to staff” in exchange for boosting the required employee contribution to the pension fund.

Council member Ron Peppe noted, “We need information on what surrounding jurisdictions plan to do. We are dealing with a moving target here right now.” Mayor Baroukh added that moving on the policies as recommended at tonight’s meeting would work as “a starting point for discussion,” and “not where we might land later.”

Shields said that rather than being confronted with iron-clad Council guidance at this stage, “I prefer to work through a set of recommendations to shape a budget as a coherent whole.”

On the sewer rate increase, the recommendation of consultants Edward Donahue and Tracey Moher was for a flat quarterly charge to City users of $5, with a rate of $7.25 per 1,000 gallons above that in the coming fiscal year. In terms of new pension policy, Connie Wyberg of the City’s Retirement Board laid out her board’s recommendations with City human resources director Richard Parker seated beside her.

 

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