Updates from Letty – April 24, 2020

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

Dear Friends,

This year we’re paying attention to Richmond more than ever. In pre-pandemic times, I was looking forward to progressive legislation on many Falls Church priorities, such as gun legislation, LGBTQ equality, clean energy, and affordable housing. While the world is very different now, all eyes were still on the General Assembly’s special session this week as our state reps grappled with the fallout of the pandemic. (This is a good article that summarizes yesterday’s legislation.) Many of those pieces of legislation have passed – such as the last of the gun control bills that grants localities the authority to ban guns in public places. However as a result of the pandemic, nearly all new spending in the state budget is suspended, including $2M in dedicated affordable housing funding we had worked hard to secure for the city – perhaps the first ever for Falls Church and would have been an incredible announcement to jumpstart our local efforts.

For local governments, one of the more impactful new pieces of legislation is permission to conduct regular business in our “new normal” virtual meetings. So far, we’ve had to limit our City Council agenda to emergency-related business and the budget. The new permission also enables our boards and commissions, which have been on hold, to also meet. And it can’t come soon enough! Accordingly, the Economic Development Authority (EDA) will be our first board to resume meeting. The EDA will convene next Tuesday to create a small business relief grant program. More on that below.

In these strange, dystopian times – to pull off fully virtual meetings requires new muscles and flexibility in local government, which is typically built around in-person public hearings and open meeting laws. Virtual meetings may be need to be norm for awhile so we can continue practicing social distancing. As citizens, you can still participate by offering public comment via email to all of us, tuning into the virtual meetings, subscribing to the City newsletters, and following my blog.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) City Council Work Session

Our work session included updates on early re-opening planning, budget, and the small business grant program. You can watch here: https://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings

Re-opening Plans?

  • Northern Virginia, in concert with state and federal planning, has affirmed the importance of regional coordination in a re-opening plan. Decisions to re-open would occur at the state level, and is likely a ways off, although advance planning is now underway.
  • Many think tanks have weighed in and provided detailed re-opening strategies. I’ve personally read the American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress plans, and there are many more – this is a good cliff notes article on the various plans. 
  • All the plans share similar criteria that have to be met before slowly re-opening: 14 days of consecutive decrease in cases, widespread testing, contact tracing, and adequate hospital capacity. While endless social distancing is not sustainable for our economy, there is no doubt we’re not close to achieving most of those criteria. Opening too soon and all at once would be irresponsible for public health. The one bright spot is that Virginia hospitals have largely stayed ahead with bed capacity and ventilator usage.
  • Bottom line: even when we’re at the threshold of re-opening, we may be tiptoeing our way back in rather than opening the floodgates.

Budget Impacts

  • Federal Relief – while the CARES Act includes $3.5B to Virginia, the rules from the Treasury state that the money can only be applied to specific incurred costs related to the pandemic and not for revenue shortfalls. Even as Congress debates the next package of relief legislation, local and state governments are excluded. And with Virginia also pausing new funding and also impacted by lower tax revenues, local governments like Falls Church are likely on our own for now.
  • Falls Church’s FY21 budget – the starting point for the budget we see next week will be based on a “moderate scenario” of impact with $2.4M less revenue than the current year’s budget. The “worse case” is $5.5M shortfall. The City Manager shared that we should expect that a hiring freeze and a pause of various initiatives, including traffic calming and new stormwater work, will be necessary to balance the budget. After the budget is passed in May, we revisit again in the fall.
  • Letty’s thoughts: I don’t support an increase in stormwater fees (that were contemplated in the original version of the FY21 budget) under current conditions, but I am concerned about stopping various infrastructure projects altogether. For example, given the amount of citizen feedback we’ve heard about flooding and traffic calming, those are long term issues that don’t go away. We need to get creative about how to keep as much work going, by getting designs far enough along and shovel-ready when the economy improves. At the same time, because of the large debt we’ve taken out for the capital program, we should be conservative in budgeting. We have accrued a healthy reserve – and just like we did stress testing for the capital program to understand we can sustain a 2 year delay in the WFC project by using reserves, we likewise need to understand how long and how deep of a recession we can withstand to determine a prudent mix of reserves, pulling back on capital projects, and reducing operating spending.

Small Business Grant Program

We saw a preview of a draft small business grant program from the Economic Development Authority.  The intent of the program is to fund up to $2K in grants per independent, small business who have been impacted by the mandated closures. The EDA plans to discuss in their meeting next Tuesday and if approved, launch the program and a simple, no hassle application up and running within weeks.

Letty’s thoughts: I support this program and as the Council liaison to the EDA, I’ve worked closely with staff on its development. While the initial proposed budget is $100K in EDA funds, that will only go so far and I would support further efforts for our small businesses – especially ones who are unable to get the federal PPP funds or otherwise falling through the cracks.

Remember, buying local helps!

(2) More Metro Closures

As Metro usage should be limited for essential trips only – this latest change likely doesn’t impact many people for now. Metro announced yesterday that to take advantage of historically low ridership, the platform work planned to start in May will now include the closure of the West Falls Metro station altogether and be combined with the Silver Line project. Bottom line: all Orange and Silver Line stations west of Ballston will be closed from May 23 through the fall. More info here, including free shuttle service: https://www.wmata.com/about/news/Orange-Silver-Summer-2020.cfm

What’s Coming Up: