At its first meeting since the onset of mandatory stay-at-home and other strong measures to mitigate the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Falls Church City Council met virtually, online, Monday night to deliberate on how to exercise its commitment to the safety and wellbeing of the Falls Church public, and how to move forward in this terrible and uncertain time.
Although it is only a very preliminary assessment, the City’s chief financial officer Kiran Bawa presented to the Council two possible scenarios for the fiscal conditions facing the City, moderate and severe estimates, with one having the City losing $1.3 – $3.9 million in revenues below earlier projections in the last four months of the current fiscal year, and $5.5 – $8.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2021 that begins July 1. But these are only preliminary projections and based on an expected ability of revenues from residential real estate assessments to hold. The Council determined to meet again next Monday to assess further data, including from things like how much the impact of loss of state revenue will have and how much, if any, impact federal economic stimulus funds may have.
There are expected to be new ordinances for consideration to loosen some zoning requirements for struggling local businesses. Revenues even for restaurants, for example, staying open for take-out business may be down 90 percent. One zoning suggestion under consideration would be to close westbound traffic on Broad Street between Applebee’s and Paisano’s Pizza to allow for curbside service from the string of small restaurants there in an effort to boost their bottom lines. In addition, an allowance for more temporary signage, like the big red “Grab and Go” that Federal Realty provided restaurants in its West End center, and sandwich boards is also being considered.
When the Council was briefed on some of the 30 day extension of deadlines on some tax payments being instituted in neighboring jurisdictions, Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, intoned that the cash flow crises facing local businesses will extend far beyond 30 days, at which time things are likely to be even worse. In addition, she said, these businesses don’t need more loans, not wanting to incur even more debt, but need cash.
Councilman Dan Sze said rather than deferrals, the City may have to be looking at forgiveness of payments due. “This will be needed for more than weeks and even months,” he said. “This is an existential problem for the City. We will have no dry powder left.”
Bawa noted that the City’s large unassigned fund balance, now at 18 percent of annual expenditures and over 30 percent when other resources are included, could go a long way to mitigating the impact of this sudden steep revenue downturn for the City.
The first action of the Council Monday was to adopt an updated Declaration of a Local Emergency, following on the initial declaration passed at its March 12 meeting.
It stipulated that “the City Manager of the City of Falls Church, as the City’s Director of Emergency Management, declare and proclaim the existence of a local emergency and disaster in Falls Church, and it is further proclaimed and ordered that during the existence of said emergency and disaster the powers, functions and duties the Director of Emergency Services and the Emergency Services organization of the City shall be those prescribed by State law and the ordinances, resolutions and approved plans of the City in order to mitigate the effects of said emergency and disaster.”
Mayor David Tarter opened the meeting with a statement to the citizens of Falls Church saying, “It is our sincere hope that you, and your family, are safe and healthy.” He said, “We are living in extraordinary times that are testing each and every one of us every single day.”
In this context, he said, “We see small acts of generosity, neighbor helping neighbor, friend assisting friend, and stranger coming to the rescue of the stranger….Everywhere around the City we look, we find inspiration.”
He cited City Manager Wyatt Shields “working tirelessly on behalf of our community, done despite the fact that his own mother, Dorothy, contracted the coronavirus early on and passed away last week. It takes a special type of person to fight through his own grief for the benefit of his fellow citizens.”
Recognizing and “sending heartfelt thanks” to doctors, nurses, police, EMS and other first responders as well as “our residents who are helping to end this scourge in their own right simply by complying with the directives and advice of our health experts,” Mayor Tarter said, “This pandemic can only be defeated by citizens who care enough to voluntarily do the right thing and lay low at home.”
Tarter also put his signature with those of his regional counterparts to two letters, one to the City’s federal congressional delegation and the other to Virginia Governor Northam.
The 13 mayors and county board chairs wrote to U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and regional U.S. Reps. Gerald Connolly, Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton expressing “our collective concern and support for a new stimulus package that helps local governments in the region that have had our collective budgets negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”
The letter to Gov. Northam cited the “vital importance of our efforts to ensure the continuity of government and provision of essential services” and calling for ongoing state funding for local health departments, community services boards and schools.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Cole cited two local cases of help by landlords, with the Lincoln complex relaxing payment deadlines and Bob Young of the Young Group hiring an expert to help his business tenants apply for Payroll Protection Act relief.
Councilman David Snyder said the two most critical priorities for the City are to “maintain financial solvency and core services.”
Shields said that a Long-Term Planning Team has been assembled to address the problems that will most certainly arise and “to make the process more predictable for citizens.”