In an unexpected move, the tax-conscience Falls Church City Council split a pair of critical votes Monday night by 5-2 margins to constrain its options for raising revenues for the coming fiscal year budget. The routine pattern is for the city manager to propose his budget — which Wyatt Shields did two weeks ago at $87 million with a 2.5-cent increase in the real estate tax rate (from $1.315 to $1.34 per $100 of assessed valuations) — but then to tack on a symbolic extra two cents to the tax rate as a formality by the Council to give itself proverbial “wiggle room” in crafting the new budget. That’s done because state law prohibits a governing body from raising the tax rate above its advertised rate.
But this City Council was in no mood to signal anything about even a symbolic gesture to allow for unexpected developments, and abruptly voted down the suggestion from Shields that the two-cent added cushion go in to what the Council will now advertise as the budget proposal that it will deliberate on between now and April 25.
Following a vigorous debate, the vote was 5-2 against Shields’ suggestion, with only Karen Oliver and Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly voting yes, and Mayor David Tarter, Phil Duncan, Dan Sze and Letty Hardi voting no. A subsequent motion was made to max out the advertised tax rate at $1.34, and it passed, 5-2, with Duncan and Oliver voting no and the rest of them yes.
Oliver voted no on the second motion because she was the strongest advocate for the Council allowing itself some flexibility, saying it “is only a starting point before any hearings or deliberations to learn more about the City’s needs” and “we have to ensure the long-term health of the City,” while Duncan voted no because he was adamant that not only Shields’ proposed 2.5-cent increase should be entertained.
Tarter, Sze and Hardi expressed hard line positions with Duncan that no tax rate increase should be included this year, while Snyder said he’d agree to a little flexibility but not to $1.36.
With four of the seven Council members talking of no rate increase, period, before even starting their deliberations this spring, Falls Church Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was sitting wide-eyed in the back of the chamber. The component of the schools’ proposed budget this spring is driven by continued record rates of enrollment growth.
Sze was among those adamant that the tax rate be kept at zero growth this year. “We need to give the citizens a break for a year,” he said. He cautioned that “there are breathtaking increases in front of us,” including $4 million for the acquisition of new school property, while the City is saddled with $485,000 in annual debt service payments on a bond for the renovation and expansion of the Mt. Daniel Elementary School that has already been sold even as the Mt. Daniel project is stalled in the hands of Fairfax County officials.
The Council gave unanimous preliminary first reading approval to other tax increase components of Shields’ recommended budget, including for the personal property tax, the cigarette tax, the sewer rate, and the stormwater utility rate. It gave a preliminary OK to Shields; proposed budget for capital improvement projects by a 6-1 vote, with Hardi voting no.