Updates from Letty – Budget Edition #2 – March 25, 2016

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,

Hope everyone is enjoying the start of spring. This week’s update is heavy on policy and budget items, so I hope you’ll set aside some time to read my thoughts on the latest development proposal that came to us, the City Hall renovation project, and the rest of the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) – a $152MM set of projects! Also, take note of several new events for your calendar, including two new Town Halls for an update on the GMHS/MEH campus project (which I know many in the community have been awaiting) and a pinwheel garden dedication in Cherry Hill park to recognize Child Abuse Awareness month in April.

Thank you for all the engagement in response to these weekly updates – keep the questions and comments coming. It’s important for me to hear from you!



What Happened This Week:

  • At our City Council work session this week, we covered Tradition Place, regional transportation, City Hall, and the CIP and budget. Here’s a quick synopsis on the first three topics and the budget/CIP discussion in the Budget Highlights section.


  • Tradition Place – the developers presented our first look at Tradition Place – this was an informal meeting with no action or votes. Tradition Place is proposed to be a mixed use office, condo, retail project proposed at the corner of S. Spring and Broad St.  Some key points:
    • 33% commercial space (one of the highest commercial ratios yet)
    • Condos (a positive for housing diversity given that we haven’t had a condo project since pre-recession)
    • The developers re-locating their business Tradition Home’s office to occupy some of the office space.
    • While there were many positives, several of us expressed serious concerns about the mass and ingress/egress on S. Spring; we shared feedback that that we’d prefer to locate more of the mass and density on Broad St. and a better transition to the adjacent neighborhood. I expect that the developers will be following up on our questions and concerns in the next month


  • NVTA TransAction – The NVTA – Northern Virginia Transportation Authority – is a regional planning body charged with prioritizing and funding transportation plans for our region; “TransAction” is their long range plan of projects. The NVTA gets $300 million in funds each year, and 70% of that is spent regionally; 30% is passed on to local jurisdictions. The staff memo includes our usage of NVTA funds to date and draft project list for the future.


  • City Hall Renovation – the City Hall project has been long awaited and is a big component of the CIP, dating back over 10 years now – recognizing that City Hall is a 50+ year old building with long deferred maintenance issues like many of our public facilities.
    • The primary goals of the project are to address security issues for the courts and police areas of City Hall, with some improvements such as add public parking, a central unifying entrance between the east and west wings, and addressing ADA, safety codes, and energy efficiency.
    • As it stands, it’s a multi-phase, multi-year project – estimated to cost about $16.9MM (already appropriated in previous years), with $1.1MM or so already spent on the most critical needs. The decision we had on Monday was whether to approve a $1.2MM contract to proceed with the recommended architect firm; we did not move forward with that given concerns several Council members expressed.
    • Some of you may recall that I shared concerns about this project a year ago during last year’s budget process as a private citizen and during the campaign. I since have a better understanding of the issues after spending time touring City Hall and meeting with city staff, yet many of the concerns I shared a year ago remain. Because of the public safety components, the project is exempt from city policy that requires projects of this size (greater than 10% of annual operating budget) to go to referendum. I believe we should hold this project to the same bar we hold for schools, library, or any significant capital project and ensure the public has an opportunity to weigh in – especially when we have such ambitious capital needs coming up and a CIP that will have big implications for future tax rates. I spoke about breaking apart the public safety components from the rest and be able more clearly define the costs to taxpayers. Even if we don’t take this to referendum, I would like to see significantly more public outreach, ahead of spending $1.2MM or awarding any contracts. As we scrutinize the budget this time of year, I am cognizant that is nearly 4 cents on the real estate tax rate! The work on City Hall is an important component of the CIP and we do need to start reinvesting in our public facilities – however, more of the public needs to be engaged. I would love to hear from you about this – send me an email with your thoughts/questions and whether you would support this project or come share your thoughts at next Monday’s City Council meeting..


  • Additional budget shortfall – before we started the CIP discussion, I asked the City Manager for an update on the increased health insurance premiums issue he flagged last week, which indeed is now an issue that adds another $400K to the budget shortfall beyond the $1.1MM in the budget presentation last week.


Budget Highlights – CIP:


  • Our budget deep dive this week was focused on the CIP. We started the topic with a review of the infrastructure projects completed or underway, many of which were in the public works and parks areas – transportation, stormwater, stream restoration, etc. The presentation is picture-heavy, but I recommend skimming it to get a good sense of the types of projects that we have invested in. Look for these new projects in the coming months (some may take several years to complete):
    • Downtown revitalization – street furniture along Broad St, N. Washington and Broad improvements
    • S. Washington Intermodal Plaza (funded with NVTA funds as mentioned above)
    • Bus Shelters
    • Intersection and ped improvements at N. Cherry and Broad, Great Falls and West, S. Maple and Washington.IMG_20160325_012556200 (Pictured: new bus shelters coming to a bus stop near you!)


  • FY17-FY21 CIP – we then talked about the current CIP proposal, approved by the Planning Commission, which is a $120MM program for FY17 and $152MM over the coming 5 years. The bulk of that cost is in public facilities for $109MM allocated for this year – GMHS/MEH campus project, library, City Hall. We ran out of time before we could get through all of the substantive policy issues that needed resolution in the CIP, so I expect we’ll need to tackle again in another work session.


  • One issue that several of us already flagged was the lack of funding for Neighborhood Traffic Calming in future years. Since its inception, it’s been a popular program with several projects completed each year and many more citizen petitions in the queue. As our city grows and urbanizes over time, this will be an area we should keep funding, so I hope that we’ll be able to make some tough tradeoffs in other areas to prioritize this back in.


What’s Coming Up:

  • NEW Town Halls –  The School Board and City Council have been reviewing the two proposals received for the GMHS/MEH project the past few months in closed sessions. There will be 2 Town Halls to give the community an update and opportunity for questions (same materials at both meetings) – next Wednesday 3/30 and the following Wednesday 4/6 at 7 pm. Whether your kids are years away from attending these schools or you won’t have any kids in the schools at all, this project has important implications for education, our tax rates, and the future of the City.


  • Next week’s Council meeting, March 28 – next week’s agenda is mostly focused on the budget, as it’s the first reading of the budget and we have to pass the ordinances to advertise the various tax rates for the next month until budget adoption end of April. It is a regular meeting, so it will be open to public comment.
    • A question that I’ve heard come up  – why is the City Manager recommending the real estate tax rate to be advertised as $1.36 (4.5 cents increase) vs the budget uses $1.34 (2.5 cents increase). Between 1st and 2nd reading, the tax rate cannot go up but it can go down. The City Manager is recommending 2 additional cents for flexibility to meet unmet needs and to start building a capital reserve for the GMHS project




  • April is Child Abuse Awareness Month – we will be recognizing Child Abuse Awareness month in the City. The blue pinwheel is a symbol of the national campaign to make a visual statement of the community’s commitment to protecting children. To that end, we’ll be dedicating a Pinwheel Garden in Cherry Hill Park next Monday at 7 pm– I hope you’ll join me and community members at the dedication event.