The dust kicked up by the nation’s massive economic downturn is settling, and a slowly stabilizing economy is making way for progress in the City of Falls Church. Such were the sentiments of Mayor Nader Baroukh in his annual ‘State of the City’ interview with the News-Press, delivered with a similarly “cautiously optimistic” tone of last year’s discussion. A brighter economic situation has reinvigorated interest in commercial development which – along with big ongoing and upcoming projects like the Hilton Garden Inn and planning to pave the way for further development – promises exciting things for the City, Baroukh says.
The City’s financial picture is much different from when Baroukh, who was recently elected to his second term as mayor, first took office in 2008 as the nation was careening toward economic decline. He attributes some of the Council’s ability to weather that tough climate to long-term financial planning, and says that the City is now starting to deal with the long-neglected Capital Improvement needs.
In his annual interview with the News-Press, Baroukh discussed long-term goals for the City (and also addressed recent controversial issues like the allocation of a $3 million budget surplus and the end of water utility sale talks with Fairfax County and Fairfax water) to offer his assessment of the state of the City.
N-P: How would you introduce yourself, both as Nader and as Mayor Baroukh, to City residents who don’t know you?
NB: First and foremost I’m a resident of the City, so that is really how I identify myself when I’m in the City. Mayor is something that I do as well, but it’s really all about being a resident of the City. A little bit about my background: I emigrated to the U.S. from Iran as a child with my family, and I grew up in the Los Angeles, California, area. My now wife, Bernadette, and I moved to the City in 2005. We were recently married in Hawaii just a short few months ago so we’re still very excited about that. I was first elected to the City Council in 2008 and have served as the City’s mayor since 2010. A little bit about my educational background: I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, and I’m also an alumnus of Chapman University in California where I received my BA degree. As far as what I do during the day, I’m a senior attorney at the Department of Homeland Security, and I handle a variety of issues from immigration to national security. What brought us to the City is the small-town feel of the City of Falls Church and its excellent schools. We absolutely love living in the City and feel part of the community. As a citizen, I feel we’re really lucky to live in a community where we can have an active role in our community and local government.
N-P: What happened between 2005 and 2008 that made you decide to run for City Council?
NB: For me, it was thinking through various issues that the City was facing. A lot of it had to do with economic development and planning. There had been previous planning efforts, but they were sort of scrapped for a variety of reasons and we moved in different directions. It seemed very ad-hoc, it didn’t seem very deliberative, and I thought I could help improve the process and improve the situation, so I chose to run for City Council. I never thought that I would enter elected life, or public life in that way.
N-P: This is your second two-year term as mayor and four-year term as City Council member. How is the City different now from when you first sat on Council, and from when you were first named mayor?
NB: I think what’s changed is our economic situation. When I was first elected, we were hitting the downturn in the economy. We were running shortfalls year in and year out. We were doing significant cutting of our budgets. When I first was seated on Council, we really didn’t have a good strategic plan to manage our finances. We didn’t have some of the tools we do now, like looking at long-term modeling, which we put into effect. We had also drawn down our reserves due to revenue shortfalls as a result of the recession and compliance with court order with respect to return on equity on the water fund. But I saw Council get its hands around the problems and really began to take some actions to address the financial situation. I commend my colleagues for working with me and working with each other to make that happen. I’m happy to say we aren’t facing shortfalls as we were before. Now we’re working on meeting our Capital Improvements challenges and talking more about how to handle economic development.
N-P: Is this a place you imagined you’d be now, having started on Council in the midst of a recession?
NB: I knew that we would get to a place where our finances were more stable; it has happened more quickly than I thought. I’m cautiously optimistic; there are some external pressures still on the area’s economy dealing with what’s happening with the federal budget and where that’s going to go, and also some other economic pressure that we’re seeing the City is going to face, specifically dealing with the Capital Improvement needs that we have. Because of the recession and budget situation, our Capital Improvement Program was essentially wiped out. So now we’re beginning to manage that, but that is starting to create financial pressures on the City as well, outside of just what is happening regionally. We’re also seeing more development interest coming to the City. During the recession many developers were not ready to enter the marketplace or begin to make investments, and we’re seeing that begin to change. Since my first being seated on Council, that is beginning to change, and I think there’s going to be exciting things happening for the City on the economic development front, which is very important in the upcoming months.
N-P: To what would you attribute these changes?
NB: I wouldn’t say that we’re completely out of the woods, because of the pressures we’re facing that I’ve described earlier, but I think some of them have to do with first providing clear guidance to the City Manager in a way that is based on consensus, or at least a majority of Council members in the last few years, providing that guidance very early as the manager was developing the budget. That’s a very public process; the manager knows what the expectations for the budget are, within certain parameters, so that gives him a target to manage. So I think that’s been really important. We’ve worked on multi-year financial forecasts and models, thus we haven’t had situations where we’ve had significant surprises at the end of the year that weren’t manageable. In the past we’ve had to make last-minute cuts, and I think with the improved process we’ve managed to avoid that.
N-P: Have there, even with this forecasting, been surprises?
NB: I wouldn’t say there were surprises, but there were additional needs that we had to meet. One example of that was compensation for our City employees. We knew that they had been trailing; looking at the data, looking at where they were, we did make last-minute adjustments to their salaries to bring them more in line with what we were seeing. That is a very different issue than having to cut staff because you’re running shortfalls that you haven’t previous managed. I think we’ve come a long way. We did have to do reductions in staff; we did have to freeze compensation for a number of years to get us at least a little bit more financially stable in the position that we’re in now, which also includes maintaining our bond ratings. We’ve been very privileged to maintain those bond ratings, and worked hard in ensuring those bond ratings have been maintained. The reason why that is important is because it does reduce the cost of borrowing, knowing that we need to start dealing with our Capital Improvement needs.
N-P: Last year, you commented on the pressures that City employees faced with these cuts. How are things now in City Hall? What is the pressure like on City employees?
NB: The staffing pressures are still there. I think the staff has done a tremendous job managing those, and they deserve a world of credit for their dedication and perseverance. They’ve always managed to deliver. A perfect example of that is how the City crews and the City staff came together in the recent storms we had. That was really impressive to be able to do that when the City was short staffed and managed it and really did an outstanding job. I think that’s just one example where our staff has absolutely shined.
N-P: How did City staff manage the derecho?
NB: Our City staff did a fantastic job addressing and managing issues related to the storm. I cannot say the same for Dominion Power and Verizon. I’ve spoken a lot about this. I think Dominion is beginning to manage some of the difficulties they’ve had. We’ve had very good dialogue with them. Verizon, with the E911 being down, and also with the effects that their service had on our water system was very challenging. Frankly I think more work needs to be done on ways of improving the type of service we’re getting from Verizon. That’s a work in progress and I think more work needs to be done there. We’re working with our regional partners in addressing those issues.
N-P: What City issues are of the greatest concern to citizens, from your experience both as mayor and as a resident?
NB: I think meeting the City’s commitment to excellent schools and maintaining City services in a manner that is financially stable over the long term will continue to be an important issue that the City faces. A lot of that has to do with our scale. We are small; that results in certain budgetary pressures that we’re going to have to manage. Some of that will be managed through economic development. Others will be improving how we do budgets, really living within certain means as we move forward. So I think those are going to be very important. A lot of this does center around building good processes so that we can have good decision-making.
N-P: What issues do you wish citizens were paying more attention to?
NB: Economic development has been a focus of attention for our residents. It certainly was a major component of the campaign in the last election and several elections before that, so attracting high-quality businesses, offices, that reduces the tax burden on our homeowners is going to be very important. Addressing our capital needs such as stormwater management and school facility needs is also critical. And I think zoning is another issue that has been raised by our citizens that we need to begin to address as well. One area I wish that citizens would pay additional attention to, is looking at the City’s long-term economic situation. It is really important, and multi-year financial forecasts and models – and they are models, they’re going to be off, as all forecast models are, but it’s important that we go through the process and really begin to have clear financial plans as we move forward in order to meet our financial needs both on the City side and on the schools as well. I would also encourage people to keep engaged with the area planning process that is underway, and that is the Small Area Plans. The City Council previously had identified certain areas where we were going to focus our efforts. At this point, the process is underway. We had the North Washington Street Area Plan that has been completed, and has been adopted by Council. The South Washington Street Area Plan, which had very strong community input at a kickoff session several months ago, staff are now analyzing that input and will be preparing a first draft over the summer so that early in the Fall we can begin to have the next series of community input sessions on that plan. This is very exciting, and I hope that our citizens continue to engage in that process. The goal of the plans are to establish plans that are somewhat flexible, but also provide guidance to the development community and also to the residents of the City of what we expect an area to look like – what types of businesses we want to see, how are the buildings going to be positioned, what’s their massing going to be like, all those very important issues that provide predictability not only for the development community but also for our citizens as well.
N-P: When it’s time once again for the State of the City interview, where do you anticipate that planning process will be?
NB: I think the planning process will probably have several other plans done at that point, but I think what’s also exciting is that we’re starting to see projects come forward. My hope is that we will have the area plans as another measure by which to look at projects and proposals we are seeing. That’s my hope, and with the new Metro line coming in, I think that area of North Washington Street could see redevelopment happening, but now we have a plan to look at as we look at various approvals for projects that we may see in that area. The same holds true for the South Washington Street area as well.
N-P: At Monday night’s City Council meeting, a six-person Council (with Vice Mayor David Snyder absent) cast an evenly split vote on using the $3 million budget surplus. What does that mean for the decisions?
NB: It’s very challenging to have all Council members present at all votes,quite honestly, this happens more often than I would like. Council members do have other jobs and other commitments. My hope was that we would reach a resolution on the budget surplus that was equitable and didn’t have the unnecessary administrative costs associated with it, such as a refund for example would. In addition to the cost administering a refund, it would not begin to touch the issues we already know are coming down the pike for us, such as meeting our FY14 budget challenges, and meeting the needs of our Capital Improvements Program. That’s why I pushed for tools such as multi-year planning, so we don’t jump from one crisis to the next. So rather than the refund option, I supported a plan that would have used our limited resources to meet the most urgent needs of the City in a manner that was fair and equitable to all of its citizens. The plan would have allocated a majority of the surplus to the Capital Improvements Program, which would have had the benefit of,first, reducing borrowing costs and thereby taking pressure off of taxes. Two, it would have accelerated the Capital Improvements Program, including school facility needs. And we know there will be more children entering our school system, and we must be ready for them. We must meet our school facility needs first and foremost. We must do this in the same way as families do when planning for college costs. We must take a long-term view when it comes to our school facility needs. Unfortunately, the Council didn’t pass such a plan and was deadlocked. I think this was a real missed opportunity. What I find most troubling, however, is that some members of the Council were unwilling to address other needed budget amendments that didn’t have a financial impact. By their actions, we now may have put into jeopardy transportation funding, a grant for the arts, monies for affordable housing, and various items for the library as well.
N-P: What does this split vote say about this issue and Council’s view for the City?
NB: It doesn’t say anything other than we couldn’t reach agreement on this particular issue. I think ultimately all Council members have the best interests of the City at heart. The surplus is a nice problem to have. We’re not talking about which positions are going to be eliminated, and which functions of the City aren’t we going to do any more, and which services aren’t we going to provide. I think it’s a challenging issue, one that we couldn’t all agree to, and that happens on occasion.
N-P: We essentially have a new Council, because there are two new members on the Council. Do you feel that this Council has a cohesive vision for the City?
NB: I think it’s still very early in the process. We have agreed that we are going to have a Council retreat, as we have done in the past, and my practice has been to encourage the Council to get together on a yearly basis, rather than every other year when new Council members come in. As far as what the vision of the Council is, I think it’s a bit too early to talk about that. I think it’s going to be very important for the Council to establish its vision, what goals it wants to set out, and what are the timeframes for meeting those goals in our fall retreat.
N-P: What are the greatest budget concerns facing the City?
NB: The challenges that we are going to face, based on our forecast models, we’re looking at very modest growth for the next fiscal year, which is consistent with the regional economy. I think that is going to be a huge issue. I don’t think we’re going to see revenue growths anywhere near as high as they have been. Still, we are going to have other expenditure pressures. We’re going to have the natural, organic growth of wages and pensions in human capital, which is important. We’re also going to have school needs that need to be met, and we have interjurisdictional agreements, pensions, etc, which are going to be providing pressures on the expenditures side. If they are not managed carefully, we could see a situation where the expenditures outgrow our normal revenue stream, and that’s just not a healthy place to be. My goal and vision is to provide affordable government services while also funding the needed Capital Improvements Program and beginning to tackle big issues that we must address such as stormwater management and City and school facility needs at a time where the economy is still a bit uncertain and tax revenues aren’t growing as they have been in the past. There are some exciting things that are going on right now on the expenditures side, such as the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School expansion project, and working on improving the public safety needs at City Hall. We have put approximately $1.4 million in this year for stormwater system improvements and repairs. There is a possibility the Council will be taking up creating a stormwater utility in the future, but that’s something that needs to be taken up further with the Council. That will provide a dedicated source of revenue to allow for further progress and long-term solutions to the flooding that we’ve had throughout the City.
N-P: Earlier this month the City announced that talks were off with Fairfax County and Fairfax Water for the sale of the City water utility. How will this affect citizens moving forward, and what recommendations will Council make for the handling of this matter?
NB: We took a very business-like approach to the discussions with Fairfax County and Fairfax Water. We had an evaluation study that was conducted by utility experts in the field that determined a range value for the City’s water assets using standard industry methods. Ultimately we were not able to reach an agreement that reflected the objective value of the system. What that means in the long-term for our customers is that we’ll continue to provide excellent water services at an affordable price as we’ve done for the past 80 years. We’ve been able to keep rates below average for the region and provide critical water infrastructure that has allowed the City of Falls Church and parts of the county we serve to grow and prosper.
N-P: Is there the possibility to sell the water utility in the future?
NB: I don’t take anything off the table. I think those are issues that the Council is going to be taking up. Right now we’re staying in the water business. We’ll continue to provide excellent water services both in the City and in the parts of the county we serve.
N-P: What are the City’s current interests and projects in commercial and residential development?
NB: As far as current projects that have been approved: The long-awaited Hilton Garden Inn, the City has approved the land use and permits. The developer has finalized the contract and I anticipate that the groundbreaking will occur soon.. The Gateway project, the land use and entitlements have been approved, but the owner has the property on the market, so I think ultimately we will see the Gateway project come to fruition. North Gate is well under construction, and the target date for completion is spring 2013. There has been significant interest on all these projects, so I think those three projects alone will begin to move us toward expanding our commercial tax base. It won’t get us there fully, but it’s a very good place for us to start. As far as what projects we’ll be seeing coming down the road, I anticipate there will be several mixed-use projects. The applications haven’t come forward, but the Economic Development Committee of the Council has met with certain developers that are interested in developing certain parcels in the City, some in the South Washington Street area and elsewhere in the City, so I think we’ll start to see applications coming forward and I’m looking forward to that process.
N-P: What is the anticipated timeline for some of these expected projects?
NB: At least one of the developers is very eager to submit the application, so I would say we are likely to see those in the next several months. It’s a little bit hard to predict, but I know they’re eager to get started. We’re also seeing some new businesses coming into the City. The 24 Hour Fitness will be opening soon. We’ve also had the renovation of the Annandale Road Shopping Center, the first-floor commercial space at Pearson Square with Body Dynamics is going to be another great addition. New businesses will be coming into the Spectrum, such as Moby Dick’s, Sweet Frog, and Beadazzled, which will be opening soon. We also had the expansion of Falls Church’s own Dominion Jewelers on Broad Street, which is a great local business success story, so it’s great to see them remain in the City and want to expand in the City, and that’s another positive for the City and a testament to our local businesses here in the City of Falls Church. We’re also taking other proactive measures. The Council did fund two new positions to help with economic development. We are in the process and there has been funding provided for two planners to help with assessing comprehensive planning, which sets the foundation for economic development. One position has been filled, that person has a master’s degree in planning and is a GIS specialist and brings expertise of graphics and maps and analysis. The second position will provide very useful resources for future planning and also handling surges of applications and transportation resources that we’ll be seeing as the economy improves. So we are building that in, so that once we do get the applications we can process them more quickly and more efficiently.
N-P: What kind of development won’t the City see?
NB: It’s not that we will not see office but the office market in the region is somewhat slow. We’d like to see more office here in the City of Falls Church. We’ve put in some economic tools to help with that. I think that Falls Church is poised to have an active office market, but I think that’s not going to happen right away, but slowly and in increments. That said, we have had a developer express interest in a 100 percent commercial office building.
N-P: How does the City plan to maintain and advance its school system?
NB: The Falls Church City Schools have a national reputation for being among the best ranking schools in the region. They’ve had tremendous success with on-time graduation rates in the state as well. I think the schools have done a great job with their management. The City Council is going to continue to work closely with the School Board to continue that quality in the future. We have worked with the School Board to begin to meet our school capital needs. We worked together on applying for on approving for zero-interest Qualified School Construction Bonds to expand TJ, which is underway now. We were awarded $3 million which will help significantly lower the cost to taxpayers with the overall expansion project. Right now, we are expecting that construction, which started about mid June, to be completed in May 2013. Right now all is on schedule, so I’m looking forward to seeing that project come to fruition. We’ll also continue to begin our joint budget deliberations early in the Budget process with the School Board.
N-P: What would you say to those who were disappointed that the School Board request for $500,000 in technology upgrades was rejected in Council’s budget surplus allocation talks?
NB: What I would say is that I certainly was looking for ways of ensuring that all of our residents’ needs were met, and I thought the best way to accomplish that was putting money toward CIP projects, which would advance some of the schools’ critical needs and also take some of the debt burden down. That was the most equitable way of managing all of the various needs in the community and keep within a spend plan that already exists. It is very difficult to talk about new initiatives outside of the normal budget cycle and maintain a process that is fair to all of our citizens. That’s what the budget process is all about, and trying to do that outside of the normal budget cycle is difficult.
N-P: What factors most affect or enhance the quality of life in the City?
NB: I think the location and the proximity the City has to Washington, D.C. is very important, and we can’t lose sight of that. I think that’s a key aspect of the quality of life. Two is quality public services. Three, is something that is hard to quantify, but it’s that small town feel that we often talk about as residents, and it’s really feeling like you belong and are part of a community here. I think that’s very unique, especially since we’re surrounded by larger jurisdictions. People and the residents of the City are committed toward their local businesses. They shop, they dine here as much as they can, and it’s very frequent that you’ll see friends and neighbors at local restaurants. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity to participate in local government by volunteering. We heavily rely on our boards and commissions, and we have great citizens that are willing to step forward to support what the City does by their volunteer efforts, whatever they may be – be that planting trees, or sitting on our boards and commissions, or mentoring our students. It’s just a great community to be a part of and live in.
N-P: What are you most proud of in your first term as mayor? What, if anything, would you do differently? Is there anything you learned in the first term you hope to apply to the second?
NB: Stabilizing the City’s financial situation by beginning to look at things more holistically and in multi-years has been something that has been very important to me and my fellow Council members as we weathered the recession, and I think we did a fairly good job of weathering that, and are beginning to see some improvements. Two is developing and sticking to a financial plan, so there are no significant surprises that can’t be managed. Three, we are beginning to address our capital needs, such as stormwater management. I wish we could do more on that front, but we are beginning to make inroads. We are beginning to address our school and general government facility needs, as well, which I think is critical and we haven’t been able to do that in the past. So I think that’s very important. As far as lessons learned, I think it’s very important for the Council to work on developing its work plan for the next two years, and we’ll be taking time to do that during our Fall retreat, and I hope that through that process the council can come together and set the timeframe for its goals. I think that worked out well in the past and I want to continue to utilize that tool of brining the Council members together.
N-P: This year’s Council sees some new faces. How has the Council changed since the election and how do you think that will impact decision making?
NB: I think all of our Council members bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table, and at the same time I think it’s very important for the Council to have differing and diverse sets of views and experiences, and I think we have that, and I think that is very important and a healthy thing. And while we might not always agree on a particular issue, we always come to the table with the best interests for the City in mind, and we should never lose sight of that. I look forward to working with my fellow Council members and our committed and dedicated staff as we move forward in the upcoming term.
N-P: Last year you gave the City a B++, up from B+ the year before. How would you grade the City now?
NB: I’m going to get out of the grading business [laughs]. I’ve been thinking about that since you asked me that question last year. I think it’s a little presumptuous at this point to continue to grade oneself. I leave that up to the City residents to grade how the City government is doing. As I mentioned before, I am pleased with the progress we’ve made on beginning to stabilize our financial situation. We have work yet to do on economic development and meeting our capital needs. Certainly I am committed to addressing those situations as we move forward.
N-P: What can citizens do to make Falls Church a better place?
NB: We have tremendously talented residents in the City, and I am continually humbled by their willingness to provide their time and expertise to the City. The City has established a weblink on its homepage that lists the various volunteer opportunities that are in the City, they include things such as serving as a mentor, serving on our various boards and commissions, habitat restoration and invasive weed removal, neighborhood tree planting, and the list goes on. I think that is a great tool that the City has put up. Volunteerism is key for the City’s cohesiveness, and it’s a huge strength that we have that people are willing to step forward. Two, what citizens can do to make the City an even better place is continue to Eat and Shop in our Little City of Falls Church.