By Tom Clinton
The City’s budget season has just ended, and for that, I think we’re all grateful! My thanks to the City Council, the School Board, the City Manager, the CFO, the Superintendent and her staff, and many others for spending so much time and energy on the budget which allows us as a community to help those on City Council make those tough decisions. My thanks to the citizens who were significantly engaged in this year’s budget process. A vigorous debate about our community’s values is a good thing. It’s never easy because resources are finite, the various demands are worthy, and we’d all do it differently if we were the only one in charge!
The pressure of finding out what department gets what and if can they live with it, is now over. But is it really over and how soon does the next budget season really start? As an elected official, a long-term City resident, a parent, a department head, a George Mason HS graduate, a taxpayer, a supporter of our business community, a member of many City organizations, and as someone who gets front line questions asked of me every day, I try to pay attention to these details and hear the deliberations first hand. I learn by trying to understand all points of view, and yet still be humble enough to empathize and sympathize with our residents and business owners’ circumstances. Every year, I think I learn a little more and I’m usually confused about a few topics.
The final budget compromise of about $650,000 came down to a three way split, meaning a $215,000 decrease in the amount of the proposed budget increase for the City, and the School System, and a reduction in the City’s fund balance, while holding the tax rate at $1.305. We had an increase in real estate assessments, which can be a curse or a blessing, depending on who you talk to, and the start of the new Stormwater Fee.
How does this relate to me as the Commissioner of the Revenue? Could I have helped narrow this revenue gap? This is what keeps me up some nights and has me for example watching as vehicles go by at my children’s schools without City decals on them, or seeing expired red ones from 2013. I see vehicles without decals in other places, but I know the decal related revenue all adds up. While some may go to a Byrd Feeder fundraiser, or attend the Falls Church Education Foundation’s Gala, or the Chamber’s Annual Dinner, one of the most important things that supports both the schools and the City government is to pay our fair share of taxes, and to shop in Falls Church City when possible so your tax dollars stay in our community and get recycled many times over.
Is that person dropping off a child paying their fair share of car taxes or not? Or, did they in their hectic life of work and child rearing innocently forget to pay their tax bill? Or, did they pay their tax bill as a good citizen should, and simply forgot to put the decal on their vehicle? The fine for not having a City decal or having an expired one is $50. Every vehicle needs a City decal. I dislike people finding out the hard way but it’s very difficult to reach out to every taxpayer to remind them of their responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to tell your new neighbor what they need to do, as we, and they, could use the help! We have an anonymous decal tip line at: email@example.com or leave a message at: (703) 248-5314. How do you bring these issues up and not offend someone, but still do your job and be fair to those who pay their fair share and pay on time? I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be perfect; we’re all human. My staff and I try to work with people every day to get them into compliance, and we try to walk in their shoes.
With the transitory nature of our community, we spend a lot of time explaining what we do in our office to people both coming and going. I wish it were easier, and that all states and localities taxed people and businesses the same way, and that every state’s DMV office shared information amongst each other, local governments and car dealers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
It’s no secret that much of the City’s revenue comes from real estate taxes, but about 20 percent comes directly through my office. We all need to be mindful of every dollar collected and spent. I know it’s impossible to receive 100 percent of what is properly owed to the City, but I always strive to reach that goal because after months of watching budgets being scrutinized, I know every dollar counts here in the Little City.
Tom Clinton is Commissioner of the Revenue of the City of Falls Church.