Updates from Letty – December 10, 2021

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,

It’s been a busy few weeks since Thanksgiving, so there’s a lot of ground to cover – the budget, your tax bill next year, big votes coming up, and tacos. I’ll jump right in. This week’s post will cover:

  • Annual joint session with the School Board – next year’s revenue forecast
  • Top FAQ update: school enrollment and where students live
  • La Tingeria – you’ve likely heard about this new business and the parking controversy. I can’t speak officially on behalf of the city, but I’ll share my candid thoughts below.

Next Monday night is our final meeting of 2021: we’ll be taking a final vote on the 5 cents plastic bag tax, the $14M budget amendment I wrote about in November, issue budget guidance for next year, and take up One City Center again and decide if we refer out the project to boards and commissions. Whew! I expect it will be a late night. For any and all topics, we welcome public comments on Monday – either live in person at City Hall or virtually or you can email us in advance.

Finally – my outdoor office hours have been on hiatus due colder weather, so I’m going to experiment with virtual office hours this month. Join me next Monday, December 13 from 12 – 1 pm via Google Meet – come with questions, input on our Monday agenda, or just say hello.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Joint Meeting with School Board

Our annual joint meeting with the School Board is the unofficial kickoff of the next budget season. Besides a good opportunity to discuss areas of collaboration, the main event is to hear the preliminary revenue forecast from the CFO. Here are the headlines:

  • Revenue picture is good: buoyed by real estate appreciation and a strong local economy (#livelocal), next year’s revenue growth will be around 8.4%, or about $7M new revenue to the annual operating budget that is just over $100M. That’s probably the largest growth I’ve seen in recent years.
  • BUT: the Governor-elect is expected to push the elimination of the grocery tax (and potentially other mandates like a school resource officer in every school), which will have a sizeable impact of $1.5M to Falls Church’s budget unless the revenue is replaced in some other way. So actual new revenue may be closer to $5.5M. The tricky thing is the timing of the next General Assembly session when these are decided at the state level and our budget cycle, so we’ll be operating with a big unknown. Also – the obvious unknown is we’re still recovering from COVID and uncertainty with variants.
  • Your bottom line: with 8% growth in real estate assessments, the median homeowner bill will increase by $640. I recognize that this is a significant increase for some households, assuming the tax rate stays flat.
  • What’s next: We’ll be issuing “budget guidance” on Monday – which is meant to guide the City Manager and Schools on the FY23 budget development, key priorities, and “guidance” on the tax rate. For city staff, between the high vacancies and the fact that the last market compensation study was done in 2014, competitive compensation will be an important need to address. The schools and city budget development will happen over the winter months and will come in front of City Council at the end of March for work sessions, town halls, and adoption in early May.
  • PS – economic development is working: the city has been working on diversifying the tax base for years and we’re seeing results. Comparing the current year’s “revenue pie” vs 3 years ago – residential real estate taxes used to make up 48% of the total revenue, now it’s 41%; commercial real estate taxes used to make up 12% of our total revenue, now it’s 17%. (Mixed use projects with apartments are assessed as commercial property.)

(2) School Enrollment & Where Students Live

One of the top FAQs I field is the misconception about the enrollment in our schools and student growth. Per the report from the schools, the official enrollment numbers for the current school year is 2502 students, about 100 less than projections and a flat or slight drop from last year’s actual enrollment. FCCPS is not unique – districts across the region and the US experienced a drop in enrollment during COVID and we haven’t seen a bounce back. Furthermore, due to declining birth rates and other factors, future projections for FCCPS enrollment stay below 2500 students for the next 15 years. Put simply, based on the capital investments we’ve made, we don’t have capacity issues and in fact, should have some room to grow.

Every year, we also collaborate on the “where students live” analysis so we stay on top of trends and update our fiscal models used for every mixed use project. Out of 2502 students in the school district, 63% live in single family homes, 15% from townhomes, 14% from low and mid rise condos or apartments, and 7% from one of the 8 mixed use buildings. With almost 10 years worth of data now, this has helped us predict and plan for student enrollment in new developments with a strong level of confidence. Note that the 7% of students living in mixed use development is the lowest we’ve seen since 2015. Students from new mixed use buildings (the only housing type we control as all other housing growth in the city is done mostly by right) have come in at or below the estimates from when the projects were originally considered.

(3) La Tingeria

Parking is one of the perennial hot button local issues and was on center stage again this week. La Tingeria soft opened several weeks ago at Westmoreland and Rt 29 (a popular food truck making a new brick and mortar home in Falls Church). The city’s zoning administrator issued a notice last week to revoke La Tingeria’s certificate of occupancy due to parking overflow.

The good news, first: city staff has been in touch with La Tingeria directly and identified some new signs and other solutions to improve the street. Onsite parking spaces have also been marked since the original opening. And a lot more attention is on the adjacent businesses that have exacerbated street parking issues. I’m hopeful that the original letter will be rescinded and La Tingeria’s certificate of occupancy won’t be revoked in January.

Letty’s thoughts: I share all of the concerns we’ve heard and have been very frustrated with the way this has been handled. Any parking issues should have been managed in a more collaborative manner with the business – as we typically do with other businesses – instead of escalating to such an egregious and heavy handed response. For what it’s worth, I visited La Tingeria last Saturday at their peak hours, walked Westmoreland, and didn’t observe any parking issues. I’ve also personally reached out and apologized for the city’s actions, which I believe were unfounded. I hope we can rebuild confidence that Falls Church is a welcoming place for all businesses.

This is a good opportunity to also highlight a broader policy topic especially as we continue to revitalize the city: I believe it’s important that public streets remain public, especially in areas like S. Washington/29 where lots are shallow and street parking is necessary if we want to incubate cool, new small businesses like La Tingeria. As long as a business has satisfied the onsite parking requirements per code, we shouldn’t be punishing a business for their success. Single family residents aren’t entitled to the street parking in front of their homes. (That said, patrons also need to be respectful of the surrounding neighborhood – follow the 2 hour parking limit if there is one, not block driveways, etc.) This cultural shift may be easy to support if you live where street parking is plentiful or somewhere without a lot of commercial activity right now. Based on the volume of comments I’ve received in support of La Tingeria – hopefully we’ll all remember this sentiment if the situation happened on our street one day.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, Dec 13 @ 12 – 1 pm – Letty’s Office Hours (virtual – Google Meet)

Monday, Dec 13 – City Council Meeting*

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm at City Hall and livestreamed
You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings