The icy weather conditions outside were matched by the icy response that the Falls Church City Council gave to City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget that he unveiled Monday night.
In this latest step toward adopting a budget by late next month, Shields called for a four-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, from $1.315 to $1.355 per $100 of assessed valuation. Three cents of the increase is based on a projected need for stash-away money in the event of a bond referendum for a new high school this fall that could have a price tag over $100 million.
One cent of the proposed rate increase was presented by Shields as a direct pass through of a 3.7-percent increase in the request by the School Board for operating expenses to meet a 6.4 percent increase in enrollment. The Council had told the School Board that unless it held its request to a 2.7 percent increase, a tax rate increase would be required.
But the biggest portion of Shields’ proposed budget came in the form of three cents, or $1.2 million, extracted from taxpayers to be put into a capital reserve fund to soften the blow of what may come as a huge new debt burden to pay for a new high school.
This, however, comes prior to any decisions yet being made by the teams of City Council and School Board members concerning the cost of a new school, contingent upon decisions about the configuration of the new school and the economic offsets that commercial development on the school site may bring. Decisions on those matters are not expected before June.
Normally, the City Council merely receives without comment the City Manager’s recommended budget and his explanations on the night he first presents it.
But Monday was much different, led by Council member Phil Duncan’s pronouncement that he “can’t support it as presented” because, he argued, “the key to the sustainability of the City is a competitive tax rate,” noting Fairfax County’s commitment to a level tax rate this year and the fact that Arlington’s remains below one dollar.
Duncan pleaded with Shields to go back to the drawing board and provide a zero-growth budget, particularly criticizing the notion of having citizens begin to pay for the new school before having ratified it with a bond referendum this fall.
Councilman David Snyder said he shared Duncan’s point of view, although he said that while he would not like the tax rate to rise, “I won’t allow the schools and the quality of city services to deteriorate or suffer.”
On the other hand, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly thanked Shields for “putting the reserve funds in there,” which Shields said was important to the bond market.
Connelly wrote the News-Press Tuesday with a clarification, saying, “I was not unhappy with the budget. I approved of putting the capital reserve funding in the budget because it is key to the most important project we have facing us, a new high school. It is this project that everyone mentioned in the January issue of the News-Press as the biggest thing we are facing this year. How are we going to pay for it without saving money for it? Economic development will help eventually but we’ve got a big gap to fill to get it started.”
The grumpy mood of the Council toward spending money carried over into its discussion of a motion to appropriate $1.5 million in new money for the Mt. Daniel Elementary expansion and renovation due to the unexpected 21 percent increase in the cost of the work that the opening of bids recently had revealed.
Interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller expressed exasperation before the Council. “This threw us all for a loop,’ he said. “Now bad options are our only options.”
Delaying the provision for the added funds could force another full year delay in the project, already delayed two years by hangups with the Fairfax County Planning Commission.
So while Schiller said he’d press his board to look for alternatives as its scheduled meeting Tuesday night, the Council reluctantly gave a preliminary OK to the funds by a 5-2 vote Monday night, with Council members Letty Hardi and Dan Sze voting no.
But while Schiller said the School Board would address the problem at its meeting set for this Tuesday night, the bad weather forced the cancellation of that meeting, with no make-up date set as yet.
The schedule for the budget season continues with a town hall and open house at the Community Center this Monday night, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. Table displays representing the different departments of the City government will be set up with staff from those departments to answer questions from the public, to be followed by a City Council work session at 8:30 p.m. for an initial budget review.
On Monday, March 27, the Council will give a first reading to the budget and hold a public hearing.
On Sunday, April 2, a town hall on the budget will be held at 3 p.m. at the Council chambers of City Hall, and on Monday, April 3, the City Council will have a work session to review the budget, followed by meetings on the three following Mondays with public comment periods on April 10 and April 24 prior to the adoption of the budget by the Council on April 24.