In the final analysis, what contributed most to the civil resolution of the Fiscal Year 2012 City of Falls Church budget Monday night was not hardline political or ideological principle, but a sensibility that shone through the seven members of the City Council to the very real, very human impacts of the current, on-going financial squeeze on the vast majority of us.
One of the major consequences of having constituencies “in your face” the way that happens in smaller jurisdictions – or as U.S. congressmen are finding in town meetings around the country this spring – is that it is very hard to spout ideological truisms and stick to them no matter what.
So, there was flexibility expressed in all sorts of ways in the crafting of the budget that made it work, much to the surprise of many hyper-local pundits who were sure that hostility and acrimony would rule the dais.
To us, the turning point came in the Council’s response to the pleas from representatives of the City’s police and other employees about the hardships that would result from taking, effectively, a significant cut in take-home pay under City Manager Wyatt Shields’ original plan.
The Council’s response was escalated by the testimony of the City’s Human Resouces Chief Richard Parker confirming corroding morale among the City’s employees resulting from both the cut in take-home pay and the 13 percent overall drop in staffing levels in the last three years.
Despite cuts and sacrifice being the order of the day, everyone on the Council was willing to address the pressures on the City employees, and although they couldn’t offer as much as many might have liked, they did strike a compromise that showed they cared. As a result, no City employee earning less than $50,000 a year will be taking home anything less than they earned in the current year.
Other flexibilities involved a restoration of the modest amount needed to keep the City’s valued public library operating at current levels, to increase the real estate tax rate beyond what was originally recommended but not as far as the City Manager recommended, to drop the commercial real estate tax overlay in response to a strong opposition from the local Chamber of Commerce, to provide some limited funds for “critical maintenance” of City parks, to limit any renovation of City Hall to “critical maintenance” matters, to not howl over the transfer sought by the City schools (apart from a mild “protest vote” of two members) and a $5.4 million bond for improvements and expansion at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, and to escalate further the plan for the restoration of the City’s depleted fund balance to an optimum level.
That’s a lot of flexibility, especially given the extraordinarily-tight parameters it had to operate within, including inflexible pension and health care premium hikes and flat economic and real estate values. It was the human element that made it work.