By Dan Maller
City of Falls Church voters this month adopted, by a margin of 88-12%, a new Declaration of Independence. While perhaps lacking the rhetorical pizzaz and historical substance of Mr. Jefferson’s earlier effort, nevertheless this new declaration frees us from the shackles that bound us to our neighbors in Fairfax County, and allows us to extricate ourselves from a nearly ruinous litigation campaign that threatened substantially to undermine the fiscal viability of the City.
Readers will recall that the City lost several battles of the so-called “Water War” that cost a prime source of revenue that had been explicitly granted by the 1948 Act of the Virginia General Assembly that chartered our City, formerly a town in Fairfax County. When the Federal District Court appointed a mediator to make an effort to reach a compromise among the warring parties, we were able to find some common ground, and the City was able to advance in another direction even while surrendering. By surrendering I mean that the City has agreed to transfer assets and liabilities that aggregate in excess of $90 million in the most recent CAFR, for net consideration of approximately $10 million. However, the agreement cedes jurisdiction over approximately 40 acres of City-owned real estate in Fairfax County, including the authorization to use approximately 12 acres for commercial development, while retaining the restriction to use the remaining property for education purposes for 50 years.
This seemingly small concession by the County is a classic “win-win” scenario because the County was able to add a very robust source of water supply and well-maintained distribution assets for a small fraction of their cost or value, while simply giving up jurisdiction over land that was unlikely ever to have yielded the County any significant revenue. In the hands of the City, though, these same assets represent on the order of 10% of the City’s usable commercial property, which with prudent planning and development, promises to yield more in tax revenue that we were ever able to extract from the water system. This without the overhead and risk that comes with operating a major public utility, which it bears noting will be in the hands of a truly world class organization that is devoted entirely to the purification and distribution of water to the region.
Taking a step back, it well bears mentioning that November 6 was also the first November local election for the City. There was a large measure of fear of holding local elections in November alongside of the state or federal elections. Many of us, particularly the four members of the City Council who voted in 2009 to move the elections to November of the odd [state] election years rather than May of the even [federal] election years, did not feel the merits of the issue justified a referendum. However, the process in fact served to exercise our civic muscles and to bring together the CBC, Democrats and Republicans to co-sponsor discussions, as well as the League of Women Voters, VPIS, and the City itself. These channels served us well during this recent election cycle, when many of these same groups, notably including the Democrats and Republicans working together, to sponsor a series of discussions which in turn spawned a citizen’s campaign to advocate for the ratification of the agreement reached with Fairfax County.
Marybeth Connolly now holds the distinction of receiving the most votes ever cast for a City Council candidate here, by a wide margin. The previous record dates from May 1974, when Harold Silverstein received 2,005 votes, and three others (Enright, DeLong & Strait) over 1,900. While the data available does not necessarily allow precise analysis, nevertheless there are larger trends which are apparent. 1974 turnout was 55%. The all-time peak was 1959’s 57%, participation peaked again from ’88-’92 over 50%, but then has trended steadily down through the 40s, 30s, and then 20s. Much of this can be attributed to demographics: as our population has increased, studies have shown it has become more transient. Participation in federal and state elections has remained well above this level and relatively stable, so the 55% participation in 2013, up from 51% in 2009, is a hopeful sign for increased citizen engagement.
Somehow against the dismal background of government shutdowns and general gridlock and noise and the state and federal level, many of us maintain an expectation that local government can be held to a decent standard of efficiency, integrity and transparency in the basic functioning of government and the delivery of services like public safety, parks and recreation, water and sewer, refuse collection and education. Having secured our independence, now we have the opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about how we can meet our challenges and expectations over the longer term.
Dan Maller is a former member of the Falls Church City Council.