Updates from Letty – December 14, 2018

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,

Before you break for the holidays, read on about our votes on gun control, budget guidance, capital projects, and the Fellows property from our last City Council meeting of 2018 (#notaboringmeeting).

As I reflect on the type of work we’re undertaking – a new high school paired with the largest development project in the city, the annual budget, public safety, parks, land use…these are truly exciting and impactful times for our community. We also care just as much about your day to day priorities. As I said to a Boy Scout troop and a GMHS class recently, local government touches our lives far more than any other levels of government. Working on everyday issues like traffic calming, sidewalks, and noise keeps Falls Church a great place to live. For new and long time readers alike, I hope you find these posts a helpful digest of your local government and my thoughts behind the votes and headlines. Your feedback is welcome!

Wishing you a joyous and healthy holiday season and see you in 2019.


PS And a reminder for your busy December calendars – the final Sunday Series Town Hall for 2018 is this Sunday, 12/16 at 2 pm – come hear the latest on the new high school and the 10 acre development.


What Happened This Week:

(1) Gun Ordinance Update

I am proud of our unanimous 6-0 vote to ban the transport of loaded shotguns and rifles, which further strengthens gun controls to the maximum extent as allowed by Virginia law. The update also cleans up city code to align with state code, given that a preemption statute passed by the General Assembly passed years ago made many parts of our gun ordinance unenforceable. We all acknowledge that we are not going far enough. There are many more reasonable, commonsense gun controls we should enact to increase the safety of our children, schools, and community. But this week, I believe we took a worthy, pragmatic step by taking advantage of every power (very little) given to us by Richmond. As evident by the huge turnout of Moms Demand Action in support of our vote on Monday, this was a good reminder of how much more progress our citizens are demanding and expecting from every level of government.

We will have a final, second reading vote in January.

On the topic of gun control, it’s a good time to remind everyone about our pneumatic gun laws, especially in light of hearing of recent incidents about BB guns and inadvertent injury that can be caused by them in a dense, semi-urban community like ours. A few years ago, we enacted the strictest laws possible on the use of pneumatic guns (eg, BB guns, paintball guns, etc). It is illegal to use pneumatic guns on any public property in the city. If they are to be used on private property, there has to be reasonable care to prevent projectiles from crossing property boundaries. And if a minor is using one, they must be supervised by a parent or another adult.

(2) FY20 Budget Guidance

We also had a unanimous 6-0 vote on limiting the growth of operating budgets to expected revenue growth, about 2%, as our budget guidance for the coming fiscal year. That revenue growth primarily comes from increased property assessments. A 2% increase means we will have about $1.7M more to spend across the general government and schools budgets. Having raised taxes the past two years to prepare for the capital projects, regular tax rate increases are not sustainable. Here are a few reasons why I would have a hard time justifying a tax rate increase and we ought to try our hardest to live within our means this year:

  • We are anticipating higher than expected expenses like an additional $400K new funding requested by WMATA, plugging a potential gap for the Community Services Board created by Medicaid expansion in Virginia, and other cost increases like employee insurance.
  • We have extraordinary debt service beginning for the new GMHS – we will be quadrupling our new debt service this year when we take out the majority of the bonds for a new school next May before construction begins. We will also have to keep an eye on capital costs as construction costs are expected to rise due to federal tariffs and recent project costs have come in over budget.
  • Student enrollment decreased this year. With enrollment figures being a big driver of school costs, this should alleviate the pressure on school operating budgets.
  • Early economic indicators that tough times may be ahead, and in future years we may not even have positive revenue growth.

That said, I did reiterate my belief that traffic calming and pedestrian improvements need to see continued funding, and preferably increased funding. As we tout walkability as a priority, I believe we have an obligation to our citizens to more quickly respond to concerns about pedestrian facilities and increase the number of solutions we deliver each year. Just like we fund road paving for cars to drive on smooth, pothole-free roads, we should prioritize safe speeds, crosswalks, and sidewalks so pedestrians and bicyclists can safely navigate streets.

Looking ahead – expect the FY20 budget discussions to ramp up in February and March, with the School Board budget recommendation due 2/19, which is then folded into the City Manager’s budget presented to City Council on 3/11. From there, we’ll have work sessions and hearings until we adopt the budget on 4/22.

(3) Re-zoning of GMHS campus

Without much fanfare, we also cast a final 6-0 vote to rezone the nearly 35 acres of land at the GMHS campus from its default residential zoning to B-2 zoning (central business), which will help accommodate the plans for the economic development project and permit the additional height for the new high school. Much of the staff report is technical planning information, but I did note that staff has diligently engaged VDOT and our neighboring counties to keep them informed and solicit their input along the way, which will be important to ensure the success of both projects.

(4) CIP / Capital Project Updates

As we do every quarter, we reviewed the status of City Council priorities/work plan and CIP projects. A few highlights based on questions I’ve fielded recently:

  • Downtown Park/Plaza – the EDA voted to proceed with a smaller scale renovation of the existing park area. The goals of the reduced scope project are to restore the existing area and make it more accessible and functional. Project is now scheduled for completion in spring 2019.
  • Big Chimneys Park – construction start is scheduled for spring 2019 pending budget amendment approval by City Council.
  • Larry Graves Turf – turf field construction scheduled to start early 2019; completion scheduled for summer 2019.
  • City Hall Renovation & Expansion –  80% overall completion; move in re-scheduled to late February to March 2019.
  • Library Renovation & Expansion – site pan submission is scheduled for February 2019; construction is scheduled to begin late summer 2019.
  • Bikeshare – contracts executed and equipment ordered; first installation estimated for spring 2019

(5) Fellows Property

Without disclosing the confidential discussion in closed session at the end of our meeting, I can report that in open session, we did authorize the City Manager and City Attorney to pursue the acquisition of the Fellows Property (across from TJ Elementary) at a price both parties agree to/outside of court.


What’s Coming Up:

  • Sunday, December 16 – Sunday Series Town Hall (2 pm, Community Center)
  • Monday, January 7 – City Council Work Session
  • Monday, January 14 – City Council Meeting
  • Sunday, January 20 – Sunday Series Town Hall (2 pm, Community Center)