Tough choices – recap from last budget work session

Last night’s budget recap: City Council wrapped up our last budget work session, ahead of the final vote next Monday. There was a majority of us who had stated that we wanted to see more fiscal prudence in both general government and school budgets (myself included) in the face of staggering tax increases that will be coming to fund long neglected infrastructure – eg, the GMHS project (5-15 cents on the tax rate), Library (2 cents), City Hall (2.5 cents), and $4MM for land acquisition as a contingency plan for Mt. Daniel given current uncertainty. All of that will add up very quickly.

The City Manager presented the budget gap as $960K, not including the rise in health care premiums. We debated different methods on how to allocate the $960K between general government and schools, without raising the real estate tax rate 2.5 cents this year. Various options were presented – one based on the original 3% budget growth guidance everyone was given in last year, one based on projected enrollment x cost per pupil, one based on the prorating based on the share of the increase. After much debate, we netted out that schools would have to decrease their request by ~ $660K (out of a $40.3MM requested transfer) and the general government would decrease by $300K, and everyone still needs cover their own health care premium increases ($100K for general government and $240K for school). If this plan moves forward – the school budget would increase about $1MM compared to last year’s transfer and the general government budget would increase about $130K.

This was a tough work session to have to discuss reductions that will be painful to both the general government and schools. The City Manager proposed a myriad of options on how he could achieve the reduction on his side that we questioned and prodded for more. The Superintendent and School Board chair have already signaled that this would impact class ratios and the salary plan that we started 2 years ago to target 3-5% of Arlington salaries.

Exactly a year ago, I stood on the other side of the dais asking City Council to fully fund that very same teacher salary plan and lobbied friends and neighbors to do the same. As a parent of 3 kids in FCCPS and family roots in the school system, I absolutely believe that we don’t reward teaching enough as a profession and wish Falls Church could be a beacon for great pay. We have made great progress on that front and are consistently ranked #2 behind Arlington. However, after diving into both budgets, the CIP, and future budget years wearing my new hat, my responsibility is to the entire City – not just schools – and for the long term. That means living within our means now, remembering that we are a little city, and challenging what we we can and cannot afford. That type of financial discipline is critical so we can be prepared for the backlog of capital needs and to stem an affordability crisis, so that Falls Church truly is a welcoming place for all people, and not just the super-wealthy who can afford year after year of tax rate increases. (Remember, we are also proposing increases in the car tax and cigarette tax to fund required Metro costs and increases in stormwater and sewage utility fees to fund continued infrastructure work.)

I don’t envy my SB colleagues in their deliberations tomorrow night to achieve the transfer reduction we’re asking them to make. I hope as part of those discussions, they will also take the opportunity to think holistically about drivers of teacher satisfaction – beyond compensation and class ratios – and really challenge the entire budget and dive into line item spending decisions like we did tonight for the general government budget. We are asking everyone to tighten their belts and that requires tough choices, so that together, we can be responsible stewards of our future.