Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Falls Church & the Great Richmond Rip-Off

During budget and tax season when we are most focused on those issues, it is appropriate to take stock not only of local factors that affect our City’s budget and tax rate, but also of the larger financial and governmental context in which we live. Several influences beyond our borders exert significant upward pressure on our local budget. One set of factors – what I call the “Richmond Rip-off” – results in the return of no more than about 20 cents for every tax dollar we send to the Commonwealth. This outflow of money from Falls Church and other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, combined with Richmond-dictated policies that restrict our ability to govern ourselves, make our annual budget and tax discussions all the more challenging.

One aspect of Virginia’s financial demand on us is the Local Composite Index (LCI), which over time has created huge winners and huge losers in terms of state support for education. The LCI purports to determine a local school division’s ability to pay for education, with a low index indicating greater need for assistance from the Commonwealth, and a high index indicating a lesser need for help.

Along with Arlington, Falls Church has a high index at 0.80 and so is a huge loser, even when compared to neighboring jurisdictions. For example, if we had the same LCI as Fairfax County (0.67), we would be able to shave $1.8 million from our budget and reduce the tax rate by 5 cents. If we had Loudoun County’s LCI (0.57), we would save $4.1 million annually and reduce our tax rate by 10 cents. As one of our most engaged citizens recently wrote, “The LCI is a sham. The LCI should be thrown out.” Further, in the face of such a major capital project as the rebuilding of George Mason High School, the state apparently has nothing to contribute to assist one of its finest, award-winning schools.

Until recently, transportation funding was one major area where the state had traditionally come close to providing the support to Northern Virginia that it should, although the General Assembly did so by “allowing” us to tax ourselves. However, recent developments indicate that funding our transportation requirements is already changing for the worse – much worse.

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In the last legislative session, the Republican “leadership” in the House of Delegates refused to provide a floor for the percentage of the gas tax on which Northern Virginia relies to fund transit. Because of lower gas prices, this source of funding has been reduced 40 percent, forcing us to make up the difference through increased local taxes. In fact, nearly the entire proposed tax rate increase in the City’s proposed budget for next year is necessary due to this failure by Richmond to act. Add to this the fact that the capital funding mechanism is drying up and by 2018 will result in a 60 percent reduction in funds available to support transit capital investments.

Opponents of providing a gas tax floor claimed that doing so would amount to the imposition of a tax, something they pledged not to do. Of course, the opposite is true. By refusing to ensure this source of income for transportation some of which would come from nonresidents passing through, these legislators really voted to require our localities to tax more to preserve service or tax the poor and commuters through reduced service.
Added to this funding unfairness is the other component of the Richmond Rip-off: the control the Commonwealth exerts over basic policies that in other states are formed by citizens and the local government that is closest to and most accountable to them. One of the clearest examples of the state’s despotic rule is the Richmond-passed law that we cannot restrict guns from our library or City Council Chambers. Another instance of this overreach is the increasingly intrusive control by the legislature in Richmond over what the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority does in terms of its priorities for funding and how it operates – eroding the name and notion that it is a “regional” body.

I believe that these outside factors – economics rigged against us and abusive control over local decision-making – demand that we reevaluate our circumstances and act to change them. First, it is critical that citizens understand these and related circumstances and the negative financial, governance and safety impacts on our City. It is unacceptable that significant additional revenues are needed from local taxpayers to fund basic services while the state shirks its obligations to us even as it collects record taxes from us and increasingly intrudes on our governing. Second, we should intensify efforts to address these issues – and address them now – through existing mechanisms. Third, if these efforts fail, as I anticipate they will, we should intensively engage with people who are similarly situated in this and other jurisdictions in the metropolitan region and move to alter this dysfunctional governing structure through constitutional change or even more drastic lawful action.

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David Snyder is a member of the Falls Church City Council.

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