Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
It was indeed a full City Council meeting and week, as we had GMHS/MEH, budget, City Hall, and the long-discussed West Broad Area Plan and W&OD Plan on the agenda. We are heading into the home stretch of the budget season, with our final work sessions next week ahead of the vote on Monday, April 25.
This week’s update is long but covers many important topics, so I hope you’ll set aside time to read and consider my views. For all of these topics, you’ll hear a common theme on how I’m thinking about spending decisions: I found myself reiterating the need to think about the long-term, bigger picture. I believe my responsibility is to balance current operating needs with being a responsible steward of our financial future. To me, that means living within our means now, ensuring government is efficient as possible, and challenging what we can really afford – including past decisions that may have seemed otherwise reasonable at the time. That type of financial discipline is critical so we can be prepared for the backlog of capital needs and likely tax increases needed to fund them.
I appreciate all of the comments and questions I get each week – keep them coming!
What Happened This Week:
City Council Meeting
- Various proclamations, recognitions, and the Housing Commission biannnual report – the recognitions included the City Employee of the Year, Arbor Day, Fair Housing Month, Community Development Block Grant Week. We also celebrated with latter with the “grand opening” of a backup generator at Winter Hill on Tuesday night which will serve as the City’s 2nd emergency heating and cooling center (Community Center is the other), that was partially funded by CDBG grants.
- Budget Discussion
- One of the FAQs I often receive is, “How is development helping the City’s finances? Why is the City Manager proposing a tax rate increase if new development is contributing to the tax base?” The City Manager reported that 80% of the increase in assessed values (in an otherwise flat real estate market this year), is driven from new development. If you own your home, you can see the flat assessed values reflected in your recent real estate assessment bill – assessments for single family homes, for example, are largely the same as last year. Real estate taxes make up 60% of our revenue. Without new development in the City, instead of a 2.5 cent increase the City Manager is proposing, we would have needed a 5.5 cent increase to meet the requested school budget, surprise WMATA costs, the increase in health care premiums, and other fixed costs we have little control over.
- That said, there are several of us on City Council who have signaled that we would like to keep the tax rate flat this year. My personal belief is that with potentially staggering increases in taxes due to long awaited capital needs that will start next year and the uncertainty with Mt. Daniel, we need to exercise much more prudence on both general government and school budgets, which will require difficult choices and tradeoffs in the next week. To that end, I requested that we look at multi year operating budgets in our work session next week. While forecasts are never perfect – it would help us assess the long term picture and not make decisions in isolation for only one fiscal year at a time.
- The W&OD Park Master Plan and the West Broad Area Plan were both adopted without much fanfare, 7-0. I credit the hard work of City Staff in responding to community feedback and productive work sessions to get the final plans in a good place before our votes. Both plans are important foundation to guide future development in the City and shows a commitment in our parks, green space, and multi-modal transportation.
- City Hall Renovations
- We heard many impassioned comments from City Staff supporting the the $17MM City Hall renovation plans. Up for approval on Monday night was to award the architecture/design contract for up to $1.2MM of the total budget, which ultimately passed 6-1 with my “no” vote.
- To be clear, I do support the need for public safety at City Hall and understand the concerns from the task force, police chief, and City staff. I’ve taken multiple tours of it myself, I’m in City Hall most of the week, and see the concerns firsthand. And I don’t believe we should just put another short term band-aid to patch up the deficiencies. So my “no” vote doesn’t stem from doubting the need, but from my concern that community awareness is not high enough for a project of this magnitude, in terms of understanding why their tax money is going to a City Hall project. Much of our infrastructure is on its last legs now, and I believe it’s important to seek greater community awareness and buy in for the full set of projects and their tax implications. I respect the decision that Council made to move the project forward and hope to see the next phase of the project improve community engagement.
- GMHS/MEH Campus Proposal
- For those of you who follow my City Council Facebook page, I posted the comments below after I made them public at our Monday night meeting. Phil Reitinger and Erin Gill on School Board also expressed similar views on Tuesday night at School Board. It’s worth noting that out of the 14 decision-makers across the two bodies, the 3 of us are the ones with school aged children who will ultimately attend MEH/GMHS at a new campus and we’re the ones who expressed serious reservations. Ultimately, both bodies have moved to defer the decision to issue the Phase 2 RFP, and I expect we’ll pick this back up after the budget is done in May.
- The City Manager recommended a change in the schedule. November 2016 referendum is a very aggressive timeline, so it’s now proposed to be a May 2017 referendum.
- With the new timeline, I supported a deferral as I think it will give more time for the community to weigh in. For the most expensive project and most strategic piece of land in City history, we shouldn’t rush especially when we could have domino capacity issues due to uncertainty with Mt. Daniel. We raised the bar last summer and had a ton of input on what the campus could be, and I’d like to see the same level of public engagement to move forward, especially in potential tradeoffs the community would be willing to make (eg, pool for higher taxes, more density for lower taxes, etc). We are just starting to see comments ramp up; I encourage you to look at the documents online and the information from the Town Halls and keep sending us your thoughts at email@example.com
- My concerns with moving forward to Phase 2:
- (1) There is not enough competitive pressure with 2 bids. The market has shown us there is limited appetite and skillset for doing both types of development together, so I fear we are not getting the most creative bids. We need more competition and more leverage for something this important.
- (2) There is a cost to entering the 2nd phase, about $300K – which is about a 1 penny on the tax rate. If the proposals received to date are not what I ultimately believe the community will support in referendum nor what I think could be the best plans possible, I am concerned $300K is a waste of time and money.
- (3) Ultimately, we may have an affordability problem. We’ve long neglected a lot of infrastructure that is now coming to a head in the CIP. All of them are important, however, can we afford to do everything at once? We’re projecting 2-3 cents tax increase to finance City Hall, 2 cents for the Library, and 5-15 cents for the campus, and that’s not including basic general government needs or operating budgets that will also grow. It simply feels like we’re proposing a CIP that we can’t afford and it seems financially irresponsible to move forward with a 1500 capacity school when we may not reach that capacity for 15+ years. One way to minimize the financial risk to the City is with a phased and modular approach, with a clear plan for expansion. Yes, it may ultimately cost a little more and more have to live through construction, but may be a less risky approach. Again, this is an option where I would love to hear more community discussion!
- I sincerely believe we need to move forward with a new GMHS and understand the scary cost scenarios for interim repairs if we don’t act soon. I also have 3 kids in FCCPS that would likely be one of the first classes to attend school at the new campus, so I’m very much personally invested in the decision. However, I also have a responsibility to the entire City to ensure this is not a missed opportunity for something great that is also financially responsible for future generations.
What’s Coming Up
- The next few meetings are mostly focused on budget, so the rest of the agenda is light. There is a work session on April 18 and a tentative one for April 19. Remember, no public comments at work sessions but you can send in your thoughts via email to city firstname.lastname@example.org that will be distributed to us and entered in the public record and also give comment before the final budget adoption scheduled for April 25.
- Next week’s work session also includes a charter to create a committee on updating our Streetscape Standards. Last year’s City Council had authorized a downtown reinvestment initiative to spruce up our downtown to attract visitors and businesses and show commitment to investing in our City. (You’ll start seeing work this spring – new LED street lights, benches, sidewalk and crosswalk work already underway at Broad and Washington). Updated Streetscape Standards will be another important step in ensuring that we have a consistent look and feel in our City’s commercial corridors.
- Several environment-related events:
- Mulch loading day is tomorrow, Saturday April 16 from 7 am to 2 pm – the City’s heavy equipment vehicles will load the double-ground leaf mulch at the Recycling Center (217 Gordon Rd.) into your open bed truck. You can always load it yourself 7 am to dusk, seven days a week, but you’ll need to bring your own pitchforks.
- The Spring Community Clean Up is also tomorrow, Saturday April 16 at 10 am. Meet at the Community Center (223 Little Falls St.). Work with your neighbors and friends to help clean up the City.
- Solarize NOVA, a program that offers bulk purchasing discounts and free solar site assessments to homeowners, is in its last month. We’re in a regional competition with Vienna and Fairfax, and we’re currently in the lead with signups!