Updates from Letty – December 6, 2019

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,

I hope your holiday season is off to a great start. We are wrapping up 2019 with packed City Council dockets. Between this week’s work session, next Monday’s meeting (last one for 2019), and next Thursday’s town hall, we will be covering nearly every big topic. You should read on if any of these pique your interest or if you share any of the sentiments I’ve received at the bus stop/coffeeshop/grocery store/inbox recently:

(1) Budget surplus? “I heard there’s extra money! Great, when are you going to fund traffic calming/stormwater/schools/sidewalks/library/public art/start Big Chimneys*/lower my taxes?”
(2) Next year’s budget “Already??”
(3) Development “A Whole Foods is coming!” “What’s the latest on the 10 acre project next to GMHS? There is so much construction already!”
(4) General Assembly 2020 Session “FINALLY. What are we going to get done in Richmond this year?”
(5) Latest financial audit “What’s the health of our accounting and process controls?” (Ok, no one really asks me that, but it’s still important)
(6) Scooters are coming “Woohoo!” “Oh no.”

*groundbreaking tomorrow morning!

Thank you to those who have written or testified with thoughtful comments, and I hope to continue to hear diverse perspectives on these topics and more. Falls Churchers pride ourselves on being a very engaged community, which sometimes cuts both ways when we’ve received the 87th form letter at budget season! Still, I maintain a strong belief that good government is open, responsive, invites participation, and in turn is also held responsible. The many community meetings and town halls, citizen task forces, experiments in citizen engagement like pop up events, my emails, office hours, and push to join boards and commissions – are all parts of that system. If you are the type to do new year’s resolutions, I encourage you to consider ways to get involved beyond writing us an email. The 38 citizens (yes, 38!) who applied to the volunteer stormwater task force and interviewed with us the past few weeks are leading by example – kudos!


PS – Speaking of office hours, my next office hours will be Monday, January 13 at 9 am, The Happy Tart.

2019 holiday lights as seen post-meeting this week. The trees are lit an extra block this year, with special thanks to our always hardworking public works crew. Great to see a large crowd join us on Monday night to kickoff the holiday season!

What Happened This Week:

(1) Budget surplus

While we didn’t cover the budget surplus as an official topic in work session this week and don’t cast votes on the disposition of the surplus via a budget amendment until January – there’s enough chatter and questions I’ve received that it merits top billing in this week’s post. Some important call outs:

  • Do we have a surplus? Yes, while we’re nearly halfway through FY20 and about to start the budget for FY21, we are looking at a surplus for FY19 (which ended in June) and one time money that is not being spent in FY20.
  • How much, and why?  The total surplus is being characterized as $4.2M, but when you see the breakdown, you’ll see that it’s not all “free money”. FY19: $2.5M, which is a combination of better than expected revenues ($780K) and the rest from underspending by departments. FY20: $1.7M which is due to paying less debt service than planned due to a better interest rate and the delay of the $125M bond issuance from the original forecast (ie, we’re paying debt service 6 months later than planned).
  • How much can be spent? And what are we spending it on?
    • Some of the money is earmarked to replenish items like the permit fee reserve, which we had previously accessed when Founders Row was delayed. The money set aside to hire inspectors for projects underway. As you can expect, the demand for inspectors is spiky and the permit fee reserve buffers the budget from those spiky times.
    • Some of the money is proposed to be shared with the schools, under the informal revenue sharing agreement proposed last year.
    • Some of the money is also proposed to pay for City Hall and Library cost overages.
    • A natural suggestion has been that some of the money should be rolled into next year’s budget. However, the city has a long-standing policy to not spend surpluses on ongoing operating expenses, as we may not be able to count on that money again next year. Traditionally, surpluses are spent on one-time items only.
    • Personally, I’ve expressed my desire that surplus dollars be prioritized and responsive to top citizen requests, which have been traffic calming and stormwater. All of this spending would need a budget amendment and formal City Council votes, planned for January.
  • Why now? Typically, any surpluses would be discussed and decided earlier in the fall, soon after the fiscal year closes out. However, because we have been awaiting final cost overage figures for the City Hall and Library projects, the surplus discussion has been delayed so all of those funding needs can be discussed collectively.

(2) Next year’s budget

Yes, before we know it – FY21 budget season will begin. As is done every year, we kickoff the budget development cycle with finance’s best forecast of revenue projections for next year. City Council then issues “budget guidance” which is meant to guide the development of the general government and schools budgets, which we’re set to do next Monday.

If you’re interested in the financial forecasts. I encourage you to click through to see the presentation, which includes some national indicators and benchmarks with other jurisdictions’ forecasts. The bottom line is that we expect to see 3.1% organic revenue growth – ie, mostly due to combination of natural property appreciation, new construction, strong sales and meals taxes growth, but dragged down a bit by decreases in personal property and some other taxes. Still, 3.1% is still quite healthy, as it means we should have an additional $2.5M in revenue for operating budgets, without raising the real estate property tax rate.

Likewise, the Superintendent’s presentation on school budget considerations, including the student enrollment projections, is also helpful context. A good piece of spoiler news, especially for those concerned about school capacity: student enrollment has largely been in line with projections and recent growth has been slow. Total enrollment in past 4 years: 2670 –> 2678 –> 2645 –> 2658 students, with a forecast for next year’s student enrollment to be 2698.

The key question is what will we fund, among all the competing needs in the annual operating budgets – from increased compensation for city and school employees, to new staffing, to bills that are largely out of our control like health care and WMATA, to long unfunded but stated high priorities like affordable housing?

(3) Development Projects

Broad & Washington – it was reported before Thanksgiving that Whole Foods has signed a lease for the revised development proposal at the corner of Broad and Washington. Staff has been doing an initial technical review. The materials from the latest submission is now posted online.

At a high level – compared to the 2018 approved version, the newly submitted 2019 version has these key changes:

-Whole Foods lease
-Ground level corner plaza (instead of the 2nd level green space/plaza, of which I expressed concerns about its usability)
-Creative Cauldron’s new home remains
-No office building, dropping the commercial ratio from 25% to 17%
-Increased from 295 to 350 rental apartments
-Expanded land area to include the proposed purchase of the city parking lot on Park Place, which will have impacts on neighboring businesses

As staff does deeper reviews, public meetings will be scheduled in 2020 to tackle the development application, including the typical fiscal analysis we perform for projects.

West Falls Church – two opportunities for you to stay informed, ask questions, and offer feedback:

-We have a joint work session with the Planning Commission and EDA on Monday night to preview and discuss the next iteration of the site plan before the submission in January.

-We also have a Town Hall on next Thursday night with the same information

(4) General Assembly 2020 Session

From commonsense gun legislation to environmental issues to LGBTQ rights – we’ve got high expectations for the 2020 General Assembly. Some additional priorities we discussed for Falls Church in work session: modifying the state formula used to allocate school funding, increased authority for tree preservation, the use of speed cameras for traffic calming, solar energy bills that pave the way for GMHS to be net-zero, no smoking in parks, local authority to regulate plastic bags and single use plastics, helmet requirements (currently only required for ages 14 and below). Check out the entire proposed legislative priorities, to be adopted next week, and then shared with our Richmond delegation.

Also mark your calendars for a town hall with Senator Saslaw and Delegate Simon on Saturday, January 18 at 10 am, GMHS.

(5) Latest financial audit

With the wrap up of each financial year, we also undergo an independent financial audit of our books, processes, and controls, known as the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report). Warning: this is a long document at 150+ pages, but I would encourage you to skim a few sections that I found super valuable and interesting:

-Intro letter, which is a good year in review for Falls Church (pages iii – viii)
-“Falls Church by the numbers” – which includes annual indicators of various metrics: from population growth to number of DWIs to total number of visits to the library and everything in between (pages 156 – 161)

(6) Scooters

Not surprisingly, scooters have been one of the top commented issues of 2019. While we’ve already adopted a scooter pilot program and a ban of scooters on sidewalks was considered a few weeks ago, at our Monday meeting, staff recommendation is that we don’t take action an ordinance until 2020 after staff has time for further view and update . So it’s not too late to share your thoughts with us.

It’s worth noting that the City’s Bicycle Master Plan, adopted in 2015, outlines how bicycles should interact with pedestrians, since bicycles are allowed on sidewalks:

“Riding on the Sidewalk: On some streets in the City, particularly the busier streets, people may not feel safe biking in the street. In those cases, people may bike on the sidewalk. However, pedestrians have priority use of the sidewalk. People who choose to bike on the sidewalk should travel at a slow/walking speed and exercise caution near pedestrians.”

What’s Coming Up: