Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
As expected, our last City Council meeting of 2021 was packed, our first 1 am+ meeting in recent memory. We took a number of 7-0 votes, but this is another instance where the thorough discussion and differing opinions in the 6 hours may not be apparent behind unanimous votes. So I’ll pull out the nuances and share the most important takeaways. And as we approach 2022, continue the recovery from the pandemic, and seat a new City Council, I remain hopeful about the future of Falls Church.
Our next City Council meeting will be January 10, so my blog will take a break until then. I wish you a healthy and joyful holiday season. And if you haven’t gotten your booster yet (only 30% of the Falls Church population has been boosted), winter break is a great time to get your booster shot (now authorized for everyone 16+) in light of the latest omicron variant.
PS – the top FAQ I fielded this week is about the Stratford Motor Lodge – I’ll share the scoop below.
What Happened This Week:
(1) Budget Amendment & City Employee Salaries
Following the first vote on the budget amendment to deploy $14M (a combination of federal ARPA funds for COVID recovery and surplus from the last budget) – we voted 7-0 this week to finalize the appropriations. The budget amendment includes $11M in ARPA funds + $3M from last year’s surplus. No major changes to the proposed uses since the first vote (top uses: stormwater infrastructure, affordable housing, business assistance, HVAC upgrades at the schools, revenue sharing the surplus with the schools), except we increased the funds for sidewalks to $300K total this coming year and increased employee compensation with a mid year 3% salary increase, a $1500 one time bonus for all staff, and an additional $1500 for front line employees who did not receive hazard pay last year.
Why the focus on compensation? We heard loud and clear from our employees that with hiring and salaries frozen in the past year, high attrition, and the last comprehensive salary study in 2014 resulting in salaries dropping in competitiveness (especially departments like Police and Public Works) – focusing on compensation should be the biggest priority.
Using one time funds like ARPA or surpluses for ongoing expenses like salary is unusual, so this move reflects the recognition of the challenge and City Council’s commitment to address it. Pending results from a compensation study to be completed next year, I expect pay will be a big theme in next year’s budget. I’ve been reassured that next year’s revenues will cover the new operating costs so we are keeping in mind the long term.
(2) Next Year’s Budget
Speaking of next year’s budget, we also voted 7-0 to issue “budget guidance” for the coming FY23 budget year. This guidance sets our priorities for the areas of focus that should be funded by the budget and sets parameters on how much the budget is to grow. In light of last week’s preliminary revenue forecast with strong residential real estate appreciation and local taxes and the median homeowner’s bill rising by over $600 – there was general agreement to consider options to lower the tax rate to offset the increase. Of course the debate is how much can be while still funding core government functions, salaries, staffing levels, and other needs that have been put on hold the past several years due to big CIP needs + COVID.
We are early in the budget process paired with the uncertainty with revenues due to elimination of the grocery tax in Richmond – hence we settled on a range of a 0-4 cents reduction in the real estate tax rate in budget guidance. (As you may recall, we already lowered the real estate tax rate from $1.355 to $1.32 last year.)
I also advocated adding to budget guidance a request to revisit and expand the tax relief program to offer more targeted tax relief to low income seniors and disabled veterans, our neighbors who may need assistance the most.
(3) One City Center
We voted 6-1 to advance the One City Center project, a mixed use project at the southwestern corner of Broad and Washington, that was last deferred in October. While not perfect, I believe the developers substantively responded and improved on a majority of the areas we cited, including commitments on the ground floor commercial uses, improvements in architecture of the existing office buildings, 10% affordable housing (hopefully a new baseline going forward), and outreach to neighbors and tenants.
This means the next step will be a referral out to city boards and commissions in early 2022 for their review and feedback. We are far from a final vote, so there will continue to be more community engagement and opportunities for input and improvement. Stay tuned.
(4) City Potpourri
Plastic Bag Tax – we unanimously adopted the 5 cents plastic bag tax which will go into effect in the ~20 grocery and convenience stores in Falls Church on April 1, 2022. (Some plastic bags – like those used for meat, seafood, and vegetables – are exempt.) Neighboring counties adopted the same plastic bag tax earlier in the year, and the new tax will go into effect Jan 1, 2022 there. I’ve fielded FAQs that paper bags are more water and energy intensive to produce, but are more biodegradable and offer a lower risk to waterways and marine life. The best choice is a reusable shopping bag. I found this article to be helpful and this site has a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of plastic bag taxes discouraging their use.
Public Utilities Commission – we also unanimously voted to resurrect the Public Utilities Commission – a new 5 member volunteer board focused on advising City Council on our two utilities – stormwater and sewer – especially in areas related to capital planning, rates, and policies. With the focus on stormwater the past few years and the terrific work from the Stormwater Task Force, this is an important board to take on the next phase of work.
Stay tuned if you’re interested in applying to join the PUC or one of our other boards and commissions.
Stratford Motor Lodge – I’ve received many questions about the now fenced and boarded up Stratford Motor Lodge. Their closing is a private business decision, not in response to any city action. Awhile back, we had fielded a potential redevelopment idea for the site, but currently – city staff does not have any land development applications or proposals for alternative uses.
(5) La Tingeria
Thank you for all the emails last week re: La Tingeria. With the parking lot better striped and other improvements staff identified for Westmoreland – late last week, City staff did inform the restaurant that their certificate of occupancy won’t be revoked. So while this is good news for this particular business, we should take the opportunity to ensure the policy for street parking is clear and clean up the hodge-podge of parking regulations around the city.
What’s Coming Up:
Monday, Jan 10 2022 – 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