Falls Church City Council members, six of the seven there, sounded off on their budget preferences Monday night, although still short of any final decisions before they have to actually cast their votes on April 22. The range of options they preferred added up to some hefty increases in tax burdens to Falls Church citizens and undoubtedly some cuts in the Falls Church school board’s funding request.
Tonight the City Council will get an updated report on revenues for the third quarter of the current fiscal year, running January through March, and that, plus any new developments from a second town hall meeting on the budget this Saturday morning, April 13, may help shape their final conclusions.
In fact, it is on the agenda for tonight’s work session that there be a “preliminary mark up” of the budget. But there is hardly likely to be a consensus either tonight or in the final vote.
But weighing in on the process, former Vice Mayor of Falls Church, Dr. Steve Rogers, lashed out in a letter this week at tax-bloating components of the proposed budget, which could grow from its current $1.27 per $100 of assessed real estate valuation, to as high as $1.41 depending on how the current Council votes.
Rogers assailed the bloated 17 percent (of annual expenditures) fund balance policy, saying he was on the Council when it originally adopted its fund balance policy, insisting, “We never envisioned it going over six percent.”
He suggested now a six percent reserve account and three percent “property stabilization fund” that would allow eight percent of the current reserve, amounting to $6 million, or 18 cents on the real estate tax rate, to be used to offset operating budget needs.
He also called for storm water management costs, equaling 5.5 cents on the tax rate as currently proposed, to be “bonded and paid for over the next 20-30 years by the folks who will benefit rather than placed upon current property tax users,” while acknowledging that “School needs are real and driven by enrollment.”
In a surprising declaration Monday, freshman Council member Phil Duncan called for holding the tax rate at its current $1.27 level by calling for reductions on all main pillars of the budget, including the schools. Among the components of his plan, he called for eliminating the item to complete the fund balance restoration (at 17 percent of annual expenditures) and collections deferral for the proposed Storm Water Management Fund fees until next year.
Other Council members repeatedly used the word “prudent,” however, to defend maintaining the 17 percent fund balance goal (far above the five and six percent of annual expenditures practiced by neighboring jurisdictions Arlington and Fairfax) in defense of, as Councilman Ira Kaylin put it, “knowing what investors are looking for” in future bond issuances.
The best that Vice Mayor David Snyder could project was “some number below” the advertised tax rate of $1.41, saying that the Schools’ needs are “irrefutable” while the “adequate capitalization of the fund balance” also seemed necessary.
Council member Johannah Barry said it is still premature to project a desired tax rate, since new numbers from the third quarter of the current fiscal year will not be available until this Thursday’s Council work session.
Mayor Nader Baroukh said that holding the tax rate at $1.27 would require “draconian cuts,” including “imprudent” cuts in the fund balance, and Kaylin settled for generalities, such as, “It is not a rosy outlook even with economic development” and citing a “mismatch between expected new revenues and expenses.”
School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was present to witness Council discussion, and was not encouraged. Two members of the school community, a teacher at Mt. Daniel and the head of the Schools’ Business in Education (BIE) alliance, Mary Beth Connelly, both with children in the local school system that is experiencing unprecedented enrollment growth, spoke in favor of the schools’ budget request.
Connelly offered a plan that involved a slight reduction in the City’s fund balance goal that could permit the Council to meet the full School Board budget request with no tax rate increase.
But a majority on the Council used the term “imprudent” to dash the idea of lowering the fund balance rate, with deference to the desires of the “investment community.”
Saturday’s budget town hall will be held at the Community Center, 223 Little Falls, at 10 a.m.