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New Estimates Reduce Burden on F.C. Taxpayers of New High School

FALLS CHURCH SCHOOL BOARD chair Lawrence Webb (left) and Superintendent Peter Noonan (center) talk with F.C. Council member Letty Hardi during last night’s work Council session

Despite a daunting $120 million price tag estimated for an all-new George Mason High School in the City of Falls Church, if 10 acres of the 34-acre Mason High and Henderson Middle School property is given over to dense economic development, the cost to taxpayers of the new campus could be far lower than previously projected.

Inclusive of a $40 million land purchase and tax yields to the City from the development that will go on there, the cost of the school and other major capital projects — a new library and new City Hall — all combined will burden taxpayers with only six cents on their real estate for three years, and then down to four cents for the next 14 years and one cent by 2038, according to a new analysis by the City’s Finance Office presented to the F.C. City Council at its work session Monday night. If the Council votes Monday to go with scaled-back versions of the library and City Hall plans, the cost will be projected to be even less.

In earlier fiscal projections, the City staff chose not to add the annual tax yield from the commercial development, a decision designed to reduce risk factors, that made the burden on taxpayers of a new high school appear overwhelming, even with the sale of the 10 acres, from nine cents in the first three years and dropping to seven cents for the next 13.

So, last week, led by Mayor David Tarter, the City Council insisted that the projections include a likely annual tax yield, and the difference for taxpayers was dramatic. Excluding such estimates was simply unrealistic, Tarter and Council member Phil Duncan argued.

Caveats attached to the new estimates include the fact that the numbers remain estimates, including for what a developer may be willing to pay for the land and for the effectiveness of what gets built there to produce the tax yields projected. But the D.C.-based Alvarez and Marsal consulting firm spearheading the effort for the City comes with very strong credentials and a broad portfolio of work that suggest it knows what it’s talking about.

In terms of the tax yield factor for this project, with the annual yields from the commercial development not expected to kick in until 2025 and in full force until 2029, the anticipated yields will serve to permit a more aggressive use of the City’s $10 million in reserves in the early stages of the development, and augmented by land sale proceeds the City projects will come in at $15 million in 2022, $15 million in 2024 and $10 million in 2026.

Those moves will soften the burden on taxpayers in the early phases of the high school construction, which must be completed before the commercial 10 acres can be developed.

Given that Falls Church citizens will be asked to support a $120 million school bond referendum in November, the news presented to the Council Monday of a much more modest impact on their wallets could boost the chances of its passage.

The other central issue yet to be resolved as the Council presses toward hitting the deadline next Monday for taking a vote on going ahead with the November referendum has to do with whether or not to revise its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for renovating and expanding the Mary Riley Styles Public Library and City Hall.

A modified CIP proposal delays work in the library (even though a bond referendum to pay for it passed easily last November) and to scale back the original plan for the City Hall work. These changes are designed to soften the burden on taxpayers asked to approve the school bond referendum, and have the support of the City staff.

However, the Council was clearly divided on the issue at its work session, so it will have to consider alternative draft legislation this Monday.
At its meeting Monday, the City’s Planning Commission voted to favor the revised, scaled-back CIP alternative.

The latest data on the school cost and commercial yield projections were due to be included in a public presentation Wednesday night at City Hall. Another meeting of the economic development committee of the Campus Process Working Group will be held at 7:30 a.m. Friday, followed by a meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development subcommittee at 9 a.m.

But the day of reckoning will come with the Council meeting Monday night, and the major votes that will come then.