My remarks from last night’s budget vote

Exactly a year ago, some of you may remember that I was on the other side of the dais, as a mom speaking and writing to City Council – like many of you tonight – to fully fund the school budget in order to pay for teacher raises and lobbied friends and neighbors to do the same.

I am an ardent supporter of our schools and believe in the value of public education in our community. My 3 sons are at Jessie Thackrey, MD, and TJ, my mother in law was a former Mt. Daniel teacher, my husband is a “lifer” in Falls Church and attended Mt. Daniel through George Mason- so I absolutely value our school system and especially, our great teachers – and recognize how special we are. I believe we don’t reward teaching enough as a profession, and we could never pay them enough! Our wonderful teachers and small class sizes are two things that really set us apart.

This year, I support tightening up our operating budgets that keep our tax rates steady. So what’s changed between last year and now? Why am I choosing to do, what’s viewed as the unpopular thing when I have kids in schools?

I don’t support a flat tax for the sake of a flat tax. Those who know me, know that I don’t blindly support anything. I have so much more data in front of me than a year ago. Over the past 2 months, I have delved in the budget, capital projects, and all of the needs that lie ahead – I’ve read budget books cover to cover, listened to the community about what their priorities are, and reflected on what I heard when I knocked on thousands of doors last fall. And I’ve asked questions and challenged the budgets and the CIP – as the City Manager and the rest of Council knows, I’ve picked on everybody.

I’ve done all that because I believe my responsibility is to the entire City with the long term, bigger picture in mind.

We have put off so much infrastructure in the past that they’re all coming to a head now. I feel like a broken record, but I still believe it hasn’t been talked about enough. Those projects on the horizon all come with a very large tax bill we will be asking citizens to start paying as early as next year. The majority of those costs will be for schools. Our kids, teachers, and community deserve those investments and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road before they get even more costly.

The GMHS project is projected to cost 5-15 cents on the tax rate; we have spent over $1MM in servicing the $11MM worth of Mt. Daniel bonds while it’s on hold; and just last week, added a new $4MM to the CIP for land acquisition as a contingency plan for Mt. Daniel that translates to another 1.2 cents, starting next year. So we’ll already start next year a penny in the hole. Then there are other projects that the community says are also important, such as renovations for Library (2 cents) and City Hall (2.5 cents). All of that adds up very quickly and I question whether that total list is even affordable.

Putting that aside, if we believe we need all of those projects and want a sustainable future for the city, I believe we need to live within our means now – that means making tough choices and exercising more spending restraint. The analogy I’ve been using is that if you’re looking to build or renovate your house, you look at how much you need to save and cut back elsewhere – you might stop eating out as frequently or might get a second job. Just like my second grader is learning about needs and wants at school. At some point, we have to recognize that there is a tipping point – the tax rate is not an infinite set of resources. We do have to make choices in a constrained environment so we can afford the big stuff. I believe it’s the responsible thing to do and that’s how I teach my kids about financial responsibility.

As it stands already, we are proposing increases in the personal property tax, cigarette tax, stormwater, and sewage utility fees so I am sensitive to what this year’s total tax bill and future ones will be for all residents and the business community, the same one we’re trying to cultivate to grow our tax base so that we have more diverse sources of revenue in future.

I attended last week’s School Board work session because I care about the implications are to our schools, and I want that to be a part of my decision-making. I know there are not going to be easy reductions the School Board has to make and I realize what a tough position we are putting them in. Selfishly, the initial list of reductions on the table impact each of my kids’ education, so of course I don’t want to see them happen – they’re very real to me personally. But I was encouraged by the direction my School Board colleagues were going last week, so I hope that they’ll continue to stay focused on what our community values: small class sizes and supporting and retaining our teachers.

To be clear, there aren’t any “cuts” to anyone’s budgets. Both general government and schools budgets are growing from last year. The school budget transfer amount would increase about $1.4MM compared to last year (3.6% increase) for a total school budget of $47.7MM, which is slightly ahead of the projected enrollment growth of 3.4%. Last year’s enrollment growth was a very modest 2.2%. General government budget is growing by $850K or 2.4% increase.

I know there is a large part of our community who is very generous and willing to pay anything to support the schools – and as a parent, I am grateful for that. To the folks who have said to me, “Tax me- I’m willing to pay an extra $300 this year.” – I say, only somewhat facetiously – “Save it, because next year, we may be asking for $600.” Or another suggestion for those who are fortunate and have the means to pay more: consider supporting teachers directly – contribute extra classroom supplies so teachers don’t use out of pocket money, donate books and puzzles to the preschool, or you can support the wonderful Falls Church Education Foundation – they’ve awarded over $260K to the schools and you can even specifically direct where you want your contribution to go.

At the end of the day, what guides my votes – whether it’s Mason Row, City Hall, or the bedget – is that I vote my conscience and I vote my constituents. And when those two align, I think my job up here is pretty easy, but that’s not always the case. I appreciate everyone who has written to us, talked to me during field trips and Danny the Hippo’s birthday party, at the bus stop, the teachers, and to everyone who has come out tonight. And thank you for all of the ideas from the community on how to make this balance work. This is tough stuff and I sincerely appreciate the input in forming my decision. I bring in no baggage from previous budget cycles, I have no agenda of maintaining flat taxes, and certainly have a vested interest in the quality of our schools. I hope you know this is not a vote that I take lightly and one in which I’ve really weighed all of the data in front of me. Every one of us up here works hard to do what he or she feels is best for the community based on the current circumstances.

To end – I’ll quote a citizen letter we received over the weekend, “As elected officials, the easy move is to capitulate to the most passionate voices. The hard (but the responsible) choice is to look down the road and make the choices we can afford.”