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Shields on Revised F.C Budget: ‘Don’t Know Yet How Bad It Will Be’

F.C. COUNCILMAN Phil Duncan at Monday’s online Council meeting. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields, in presenting a sharply-contracted Fiscal Year 2021 budget for the F.C. City Council’s preliminary approval, meeting remotely via the Internet on Monday, said he chose not to mitigate the impact by dipping into the City’s sizeable undesignated fund balance reserves because, among other things, “We simply don’t know how bad this will be” as the year unfolds, implying that depending on how bad it gets, it may be needed in a few months.   

Shields was also straightforward in cautioning the Council not to expect Gov. Northam’s ban on economic activity to be lifted too soon. He said that Northam and his regional counterparts, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, are “aligned,” overall, in terms of how to respond to the Coved-19 pandemic, and that all place “data over dates” in making decisions about beginning to reopen the economy. Northam’s initiation Executive Order 53 “expires on May 8,” he noted, but by the criteria all three leaders agreed to, that would undoubtedly be extended.   

They are all going by the “Gateway Criteria” laid out in the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, he said, that include a 14-day downward trend in the percentage of overall infections, and a 14 day downward trend in hospitalizations, along with means in place for significantly expanded testing and contact tracing. Shields said that last weekend was not a good one for Virginia in terms of new infections, so the 14-day criteria has not even begun to kick in, and while testing levels in the state are now at 2-3,000 a day, Northam wants them up to 10,000 a day. Shields said it’s been estimated the number of contact tracers needed in Fairfax County is 300.    Other criteria include having adequate levels of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity, including staff, in the event a new surge arises from an attempt to open the economy up more.   

But the budget preliminarily OK’d for the City of Falls Church for the coming fiscal year is based on what Shields said was a “moderate” versus “extreme” downturn in the economy for the City and the region, and an assessment of how accurate that approach is will be determined by October, since so little data on the economy is now available.   

Under the current plan, which will be finally OK’d by the Council on May 25, the decline in revenues is set at a minus 2.3 percent of projections for the FY2021 budget before the pandemic hit in mid-March, with proposed reductions of 5 percent, or $2 million, on the City side, and 1.2 percent, or $500,000 on the transfer to the City schools. Under the plan given the preliminary OK Monday, there would be no tax rate increase and no use of the City’s undesignated fund balance (or, reserves). There would be no layoffs on the City or school sides, either, but merit and step increases would be delayed, and 18 unfilled positions on the City side would remain vacant until December.     

While the City-side cut of $2 million is higher than the schools’ $500,000, Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa noted that over $1 million of the City’s expenses are mandated increases in obligations to WMATA and other regional associations over which it has no control, and that minus that, the City’s revenue cut is closer to that for the schools.     

In response to an inquiry from Council member Letty Hardi, Shields said that demands on the City’s scant relief resources, including rent relief, have been huge and continuing to grow. “We need to know how big that gap is (between requests for help and the City’s ability),” Hardi said.     

Other than that, however, the focus of the Council discussion was restricted to laments over cuts in neighborhood traffic calming, stormwater and “spot improvement” resources.