Who among all those who squeezed into Monday night’s Falls Church City Council meeting expected the Council to vote unanimously, 7-0, for a Fiscal Year 2019 budget of $93 million that would include the full School Board transfer request of a 2.8 increase, permitting a 3 percent cost-of-living salary increase for all school and City employees?
Given the rhetoric and impassioned arguments of recent weeks on the Council, it seemed as likely a majority would have voted to chop that School request down to a 2 percent growth number.
But after hearing more compelling arguments by teachers, school and PTA leaders, and the general public, at the opening of Monday’s meeting — and not one person arguing the other way — members of the Council, one by one, made generally lengthy comments about the budget, focusing both on the good and the not so good, and began aligning their allegiances with the School Board request.
The strongest protests to the School Board component came, predictably, from those most vocal in their concerns all along, Council members Phil Duncan and Letty Hardi. But while Duncan’s comments held ground on the need to cut the School request, Hardi’s lengthy commentary followed and abruptly concluded with her announcement that she would vote for the School request.
So, when the roll call was taken, it appeared that Duncan might be the only dissenting vote, but he voted “yea” to make it 7-0.
A large contingent of School teachers and staff, including Superintendent Peter Noonan and most of the School Board, remained in the room following the standing-room-only crunch at the start of the meeting and a lot of petitioning during the comment period, to hear the vote.
Outside the Senior Center room at the Community Center, where the Council is now holding its meetings while the year-long renovation of City Hall is underway, Noonan expressed his pleasure with the vote, saying to the News-Press, “I am very excited to be able to move forward now. I am grateful to everyone that we can move forward together, and begin recruiting the best and the brightest.”
Decisive for how the vote turned out was the evolved perception during the six-week budget deliberation about what the School Board request was all about. Rather than being a debate just over the numbers — one option (the one the Council chose) was for a 2.8 percent change and the other for a 2.0 percent change, with the difference between the two of about $350,000 — the argument was refined into one about fair compensation for the school teachers and staff, since the overwhelming majority of the Schools’ budget goes to that purpose.
When it became a matter of providing the teachers a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment to match the same increase for City employees, the weight of the moral suasion shifted in favor of the Schools’ request.
So, the adopted budget is for $92,547,237, a 5.9 percent increase that is offset by a 3.7 percent increase in revenues, substantial portions coming from economic development and increases in real estate assessments. The other part is the 2.5 cent (per $100 in assessed valuations) increase in the real estate tax from its current $1.33 rate to $1.355 that will add up to an increase in the average homeowner’s tax by $431.
The real estate tax increase is the only increase in taxes and fees in the City’s budget for the coming year.
One major area of relief in the budget came from Richmond, with the decision by the governor and state legislature to absorb the cost of the added financial burden to fix Metro’s big problems. Falls Church’s share of that fix would have added 2.5 cents to the tax rate this year, but with the state’s action, that total was reduced to a half cent.
The reduction of the overall tax rate increase to 2.5 cents involved a major reduction from projections earlier last fall when some saw it rising by 9 cents, and in the period leading up to the voters’ approval of the school bond referendum last November, when it was projected to rise by 6 cents. City Manager Wyatt Shields’ projected budget recommendation issued in March had it at 5.5 cents.
While the Metro funding relief was a big factor in lowering the rate, there was a lot said before Monday’s final vote about all the contention that wound up being over the $350,000 that was needed to get the Schools’ the money they insisted they needed. Wrestling over the size of the School transfer seems to be something that comes up almost every year, however, including this one when the Schools’ 2.8 transfer request was the lowest in many years.
Farrell Kelly, the Henderson Middle School teacher who is head of the Falls Church Education Association, speaking during the petition period, decried the fact that teachers work about 60 hours a week, and “it is exhausting to have to fight every year for a fair compensation.”
Heidi Lange, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, said that in her 31 years, this was the first time she felt compelled to speak to the Council over the long history of struggling to achieve needed school salary increases, and Lindy Hockenberry, a teacher for three dozen years in the F.C. school system who’s been the City vice mayor and currently serves on its Planning Commission, also stepped up to speak in favor of the Schools’ request, as did Pam Mahoney, Stephanie Oppenheimer and Gary LaPorta.
Newly-elected Council member Ross Litkenhous, participating in his first budget deliberation, used the strongest words on the subject, saying, “It is shameful that our teachers are having to grovel to have their needs met in the context of a $92 million budget.”
He added, “People are the most important part of this budget.”
Hardi also spoke to the fact that “teachers can’t be begging for money all the time,” and Councilman Dan Sze said this year’s School request was for the smallest increase in seven years, being as high as 12.4 percent in the past, saying, “We can‘t be teacher and staff poor.”
Duncan said his concern about the Schools’ request “is all about reserving our taxing capacity,” the “need to leave room to adapt to the unexpected,” and the “woeful underfunding of affordable housing.”
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, favoring the Schools’ request, said that a redoubled effort to agree to some form of revenue sharing policy agreement between the City and the Schools is needed.
Hardi said that she values “equity across the entire community,” along with social values and economic sustainability. She worried that this budget involves some “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” adding that economic conditions “won’t be this good every year” going forward. She decried a “divisive tone” in the deliberations, and urged people to “stop taking artificial sides.”
Mayor Tarter said that “we need unity” to make the coming challenges work, worrying that cost overruns and change orders could drive up the City’s obligations even more. “Let us not squeeze out those with modest means,” he cautioned.
It was Councilman David Snyder who made the original motion for the option that included the Schools’ request, and Sze who seconded it.