Letty’s Comments about the GMHS Referendum and CIP Vote – July 24, 2017

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

It shouldn’t be a surprise to many that I remain concerned about the City taking on the full CIP and the new high school and will vote to support the modified CIP instead, which is what the Planning Commission and Staff have both recommend to us.

Without getting into the merits of specific projects and pitting one ahead of another – the crux of my concern with the full CIP is the risk that we’re simply trying to do too much at once. We would be quadrupling our debt from $50M to $218M, which is a huge lift for a little city of our size. Nearly every public building in the City would be under construction within a 5 year period. The modified CIP also has a more modest tax rate increase that citizens may be more likely to support. In a modified CIP, all of the projects still happen, but sequenced to the years when we receive land transaction payments and/or old debt comes off our books – that just seems common sense and what responsible financial management looks like. I sincerely believe it’s prudent to sequence projects to increase our chances of executing projects well and so we don’t jeopardize the city financially.

(1) There is no room for error and no room for opportunity if we execute the full CIP. It is an ambitious plan that takes care of many long deferred capital needs, but without more sequencing, it leaves little room for unexpected costs or opportunities that may come up. One of those needs could be TJ, and I’ll get to my comments about TJ later.

We also assume that projects come in at the price expected – which given our recent experience at Mt. Daniel and City Hall costs, that has not come true. Finally, with the prospect of selling or long term leasing the 10 acres at the GMHS site, land acquisition elsewhere in the City will be an important, strategic move and we’ll need debt capacity to jump on those opportunities.

(2) We are also using several new to us, creative financing levers in order to afford the full CIP (levers like 30 vs 20 year bonds, level debt vs level principal payment structure, using reserves to pay for debt service, etc – akin to using your savings account to pay for your monthly mortgage bill) and there are many underlying assumptions that have to come true in order for the plan to be executed as laid out. We are heavily reliant on the land transaction – a 3rd party, subject to factors like the macroeconomy, political climate, that we cannot control – to make the numbers work.

(3) Operationally, I am concerned about our ability to juggle expansions/renovations/new builds at nearly every public building in the City at nearly the same time. I’d rather we prioritize projects and focus on executing a handful at a time well instead of everything at once.

While I am optimistic about the future of economic development in the City and the picture looks rosier with the addition of the long term tax yields we looked at last week – as stewards of the City’s finances – I think we should look beyond the best case scenario so we take on these costs with our eyes wide open.

With that, I want to outline several of my concerns/caveats even in the modified CIP scenario:

(1) I encourage the School Board to find additional savings with the $120M school construction cost. Perkins Eastman did offer some potential cost savings measures that are based on benchmarking our school vs neighboring school systems, and as I understand it – we’re only taking 30% of the the cost savings to be conservative. In my opinion, using benchmarking data to decrease costs seems wiser than trying to value engineer and cut costs later in the project, without shortchanging a school that should last us 50+ years. We have a shared responsibility to ensure we’re being prudent in cost of the new school and I would love to see more work to bring down the $120M.

(2) Thomas Jefferson Elementary – I remain concerned that we could need more capacity in the elementary grades earlier than what’s planned in either CIP scenario, which is another reason why I believe we should give ourselves some breathing room with a more prudent, modified CIP for unexpected needs that may come up. I have heard the concerns from the elementary PTA and families who are unclear what is going on about the status of MD and confused about how we’re addressing TJ and where that money is coming from. Even in the full CIP scenario, unless TJ construction happens concurrently with GMHS and starts ASAP, it doesn’t solve the crowding at TJ already.

What is missing to give people confidence in our ability to pull this off – is a proactive capacity plan across the facilities – how will the timing of MD construction, 2nd grade moving or not (and if it does move to MD – pros and cons of moving and then moving back, splitting 2nd grade across TJ and MD, or other scenarios I’ve heard in the community), and a broad look at all of our school facilities and construction plans so we’re not fire fighting from one project to another. This is wholly in the School Board’s domain, but I will remain a broken record on this as it does impact the City as a whole. Without such a plan, it requires us to pull money other projects or find extra money in order to fight those fires and puts off capital needs elsewhere in the City.

(3) Finally, a message to everyone in the audience and at home – regardless of whether we end up in the full or modified CIP tonight, let’s not make this be divisive in the community.

The decision is not whether we support the Larry Graves project or not, or GMHS vs Larry Graves, or GMHS vs library. As a community, we need to be cognizant not to pit projects against each other. Let’s not take sides. Standalone, every project in the CIP has merit and benefits everyone in the community. In an ideal world, we could do it all, and all at once. The decision, to me, is a very rational one – it’s a matter of timing and prioritization now that we have a cost estimate for a new GMHS added to an already very ambitious set of capital projects. If the commercial development is on track, we get land payments or tax benefits earlier or greater than forecasted, I will be the first to advocate to getting more capital projects done earlier.

Ultimately, we all share the goal of building the best facilities as affordably as possible that the public will support. And I believe sequencing is the financially responsible step, minimizes risk, and ensures we can do each project successfully.