The recommended budget presented by Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields to the City Council Monday night calls for an increase in the real estate tax rate from $1.305 to $1.35 per $100 of assessed valuation to balance an $80,986,664 Fiscal Year 2015 sum of expenditures.
Shields introductory statement noted that without the transfer sought by the School Board, the tax rate would drop by a penny. But it acknowledged an increase in assessed home values by almost nine percent for single family homes and – entirely separate from this budget – the introduction of robust new annual stormwater fees that vary widely depending on impervious surface measurements on individual properties.
Right out of the gate, however, a stumble ensued with the postponement for a week of a joint budget work session that would have put the Council and the School in a face-to-face meeting tonight. It was announced yesterday that it will be put off until March 20, and suggests that the School Board’s needs may be at odds with the City Council’s goals more than usual this year..
A clarifying statement about the postponement from the City’s Public Information Office, sought by the News-Press yesterday, said, “In working with the Schools, we found it’s more convenient for them to present next Thursday, March 20, instead of coming to two work sessions. It’s possible that the Schools will be invited to another session for a follow-up meeting, if needed. Everyone is on board.”
School Board chair Susan Kearney told the News-Press that her board is now calling on the City Council for the formation of an on-going “joint work group on matters of budget and finance.”
This may be due to the fact that, breaking from tradition, a number of Council members weighed in at their Monday meeting in direct response to Shields’ proposed budget, and seemed to have little difficulty embracing the notion of big cuts in the School Board’s request.
The Council is definitely concerned about a citizens’ uprising if on top of an average nine percent increase in single family home assessments, a 4.5 cent increase in the tax rate and a stiff first-time stormwater fee, the cost of living in Falls Church becomes untenable for any significant percentage of the population.
For the School Board, on the other hand, the view is held uniformly and passionately that faced with explosive enrollment growth, at the highest rate in the state, already too much may have been trimmed from their budget ask in ways that will hurt their system’s ability to maintain its high level of performance.
They drew down the Superintendent’s recommendation of a 10.6 percent increase over last year to 9.8 percent, and that still omits about $3 million in costs that were not even asked for.
In facing what may devolve into one of the more adversarial confrontations between the Council and the School Board, the Council will anticipate pressure to reconsider some of its current plans, such as its present desired level of a fund balance, a one-time use of $16 million in net cash proceeds from the sale of the City’s water system, an adjustment of the new plan to tax property owners to pay for stormwater system upgrades, and a selective downshifting of its current aggressive capital improvements calendar.
Rather than pressuring an over-taxed school system, citizens may decide that the Council should provide relief through these means instead.
Shields’ proposed budget, up 7.2 percent over the previous year, will be modified by the Council over the next month and a half to be ready for final approval on April 28. It will fund City and school operations from July 1 to June 30, 2015.
The first public hearing on the budget will come at a town hall meeting this Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Community Center, 223 Little Falls. There will be a public hearing on March 24, a second town hall meeting on April 5, a second public hearing on April 14 and a third public hearing on the night they will vote on the budget, April 22.
Work sessions will include the one with the School Board now set for March 20, and others as needed and not already scheduled.
Shields’ proposed budget includes big increases in the qualifying incomes for persons over 65 and/or totally disabled to receive tax relief or deferrals. However, no such relief is in the works to be provided for the stormwater fees.