Guest Commentary: Making Budgets are About Striking a Balance

April 5, 2018 12:46 PM0 comments

By Letty Hardi

Budding cherries, blossoming daffodils, and sniffly noses. It can only mean one thing. Spring. And budgets. As we start a new season, I’d like to share my thoughts on the budget, observations on your role, and how I approach this big responsibility on City Council.

We’re just over the halfway point of the annual budget process. You may have seen that we’re advertising a 5.5 cents real estate tax increase, largely to fund the hefty capital plan and our uncertain share of Metro expenses. Five and a half cents, coupled with the increased property assessment you already received, translates to $634 more for the median homeowner. We all understand that will be significant impact. In any other year, we would have a good news story. There are actually three pennies of savings from leaner operating budgets and stronger revenue growth. In other words, we would be looking at a 8.5 cents increase. The City and neighboring localities are working hard to bring down the Metro impact, pending final Richmond action. With flat student enrollment, healthy revenues, and a desire to tighten budgets to pay for a new high school – that should be the perfect storm for favorable operating budgets. (I caution against optimism for future years. Flat enrollment is unusual, the impact of the federal tax law change is unknown, we’ll still have Metro costs, we’ll be paying for our largest debt services ever, and a potential recession mean future budgets will be even tougher.) So in an “easy” year, my hope is that we’ll find a way to bridge the gap between what the School Board requested and Council’s guidance, invest in broader needs across the City like affordable housing and senior tax relief, and come in well below 5.5 cents by our final vote.

What can you do? Two years into Council, I hope you’ll consider my recommendations on how you can play a meaningful role in budgets and beyond:

1) If you care about the finances and future of the City, pay attention to more than budgets. There are many other important decisions, ones that are probably even more consequential than one annual budget, that happen the rest of the year. I hope we can rely on the collective expertise and experiences of our citizenry to pay attention, not just when it’s budget time or in your backyard.

2) Ask questions and show up. Show up at the polls, show up at PTA meetings, show up at civic gatherings (town hall this Sunday at 2 p.m.!) If you can’t attend, read offline and make your voices heard via email. Our community is what partly insulates us day-to-day from the dysfunction at the national level, but we have to invest ourselves. Without fail, we hear from the perennial budget watchers: the “fund the schools at all costs” supporters and the “taxes are way too high” hawks. I know there are more diverse thoughts out there. Falls Church simply isn’t so black and white.

I believe I approach budget season with an open mind and a genuine desire to learn, ask tough questions, and take care of the entire City’s needs, rooted in our community values, for this fiscal year and beyond. It’s the Superintendent’s and School Board’s job to advocate for their needs, and despite the headlines and soundbites that pit us against each other, I believe they are simply trying to do the best for the schools. It is my job to do the best for the entire City — which means it is my responsibility to ask questions to understand the policy behind budget choices and not rubber-stamp spending.

As we cast our votes and make the usual declarations of conflict of interest, I have no legal conflicts. My biggest conflict of interest is my own children. Combined, they have nearly 30 school years ahead in FCCPS, so budget decisions directly impact my family. As any parent does, I want the best for my children. I want them be healthy and grow up to be kind and responsible humans. I want their teachers to be well-paid and their class sizes to be small. I also want a safe neighborhood, where they cross the street without fear of speeding cars. I want them to play in clean parks and green spaces. I want them to learn in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms and to grow up in neighborhoods with all sizes and types of homes. I want them to experience new foods at restaurants, make lifelong memories celebrating Memorial Day and be able to visit their grandparents who can still afford to live in town.

Striking a balance across these hopes in one lifetime and in one budget — as a parent and certainly as a Councilmember — is not easy. I realize much of our community is fortunate enough to even have these choices, and we are better off than many, many others. With that in mind, I hope we all engage with sincerity and positive intent — knowing that we are all trying to do our best for this generation and for our obligation to the next.

 


Letty Hardi is a member of the Falls Church City Council.

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