By Juergen Tooren
I applaud Susan Kearney, Chair of the Falls Church City School Board, for her guest commentary in the March 20, 2014, edition of the Falls Church News-Press. She lays out the proposed school budget in easily understood numbers and makes a case for the quality education pupils in Falls Church City public schools receive. The requested amount would represent 48.1 percent of the city’s proposed budget. The percentage is within a few points of what Arlington and Fairfax allocate to their schools.
However, great schools are not the only reason people move to Falls Church. “Location, location, location,” as is often said in real estate are the three most important factors when deciding where to live. I moved to the Little City due to its proximity to various transportation modes; Metro, I-66, and Dulles and National airports. I suspect many people moved here for reasons other than the schools too.
Schools influence property values but so do a host of other factors like location and city services. I believe the real question for the city is an existential one. Absent the commercial tax base of Arlington County (double our commercial property) or the size of Fairfax County (87 times our population) can and will the citizens of Falls Church continue to accept large tax increases for both the growing school population and diminished city services? Higher property values coupled with significantly higher tax rates would I think, give pause to retaining existing and attracting new residents especially those without school-age children.
At the higher tax rate my neighborhood will send enough taxes to the city to support 14 pupils; we currently send five. Notwithstanding this tax surplus, there is little or nothing to showcase city services for those of us who do not have children in school. Our streets need to be repaved and traffic lines repainted. Sidewalk repairs have been deferred year after year. Little has been invested in maintaining Crossman Park: The vandalized interpretive markers along the walking trail have never been repaired, no work is even contemplated to make the Four Mile Run stream bank along the WestLee more attractive, and finally, the guard rail along Gresham Place at Four Mile Run is desperately in need of repair. The city could also be more helpful in working with Dominion Virginia Power to determine where the weak links in the electrical grid are. While power lines in my community are underground, feeder lines are above ground and seem to fail at the drop of a hat. City staff have always been exceptionally helpful when called upon, but they clearly are stretched too thin.
When I moved to Falls Church over 20 years ago our city had a lower real estate tax rate than its neighbors. Even without the proposed $0.045 increase for fiscal 2015 our tax rates are $0.31 and $0.22 higher than Arlington and Fairfax, respectively. The new stormwater fee is equivalent to a $0.025 property tax increase for me. This is a cost our neighboring jurisdictions have been able to cover in their lower tax rates. The increased taxes and new fee do not represent a hardship for me, but I fail to see the added value Falls Church citizens are getting for their money beyond the school system compared to our neighbors. Besides the schools, what are we getting for our higher taxes beyond what our neighbors get?
We spend $9.1 million more on a per student basis than Fairfax to educate our children. Given the pupil growth rate projected by FCCPS, is a continuing increase in our real estate taxes or a diminishing of other city services sustainable? According to the Virginia Department of Education’s school report card Langley, Marshall, McLean, and Yorktown high schools are on a par with George Mason. At a $3,500 per pupil savings, wouldn’t it make sense to follow the lead of the water system sale and ask the Fairfax County system to take on our public schools? We already have a number of shared services with neighboring jurisdictions (fire department), or services that it makes sense to get from them instead of providing for ourselves (jail) so adding the school system at a substantial unit cost savings while maintaining the same educational standard seems a prudent course of action. But by that logic we might as well reincorporate Falls Church into either Fairfax or Arlington; not necessarily a bad idea either.
All the city’s fiscal challenges will not be solved in this budget cycle, but we do need to start looking for a sustainable, long-term, economic model. Using some of the city’s “rainy day fund” to defer part of the tax increase would buy time to develop this model. Such a model should include an appropriate commercial/residential development plan that can be quickly implemented that will provide substantial additional net revenues to the city.