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F.C. Council Signs Off on Limiting Growth to 2% in Operating & School Costs in Next Budget

SWORN IN MONDAY in advance to beginning their new terms on the Falls Church City Council in January were (left to right) Dan Sze, Ross Litkenhous, David Snyder and Marybeth Connelly. (Photo: News-Press)

Knowing the cost of the onset of the high school renovation project approved by voters last month will add six cents to the real estate tax rate, the Falls Church City Council Monday voted 5-2 to limit the rate increase on the rest of City operational and school costs to two percent above levels in the current year, or slightly below revenue growth projections.

The dispute was over whether the growth should be limited to two percent, as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, or three percent, even with estimated revenue growth over the year to date. Because of the pressures on taxpayers to meet the challenges of the high school renovation, on top of renovations of both City Hall and the voter-approved Mary Riley Styles Public Library, also getting underway, the target two percent will put extraordinary pressures on both the City’s operational budget and the School Board budget.

But Shields pointed out that in order to hold costs down, “tough things will be brought to you” in the spring, when the Council will adopt the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the period from Jul. 1, 2018 to Jun. 30, 2019. He said that priorities for him will be to maintain competitive salaries, and while the same holds for the School system, Superintendent Peter Noonan told the Council Monday night that with 84 percent of the schools’ budget already going to teacher and other personnel costs, the cost of a single “step” increase and a cost of living adjustment will exceed three percent, right there.

And while the schools experienced virtually no enrollment growth this year, that “breather” is expected to be an anomaly as enrollment should surge again next September. Also, this year the inflation rate is at 1.7 percent, but Council member Letty Hardi expressed anxiety over the impact of the new federal tax law on local governments, in general, and Northern Virginia, in particular. Her concern was echoed by Councilman David Snyder, who called the new tax law being hammered out for final approval in Congress now, “an attack on local government,” burdening it with additional challenges, and Metro is also pushing for one or even two $500,000 increases in its bill in the City next year.

Even under the best circumstances, however, home owners in Falls Church will confront the burden of the six cent hike for capital projects to jump the real estate tax rate from $1.33 per $100 assessed valuation now to $1.39, while there is expected to be a 3.3 percent increase in real estate assessments.

Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Councilman Dan Sze were the no votes.

Other actions by the Council included a tabling of a vote on new City financial policies, including its unassigned fund balance policy, to Jan. 8, when the new Council — Ross Litkenhous coming on, and Karen Oliver leaving — will be seated..All four of the new Council members , three incumbents (Marybeth Connelly, Dan Sze and Snyder), and newcomer Litkenhous — were formally sworn in by City Clerk Celeste Heath Monday to four-year terms that will commence Jan. 1, 2018. That Council will have an organizational meeting on Jan. 2 for the purpose of elected its mayor and vice mayor for the coming two years.