Updates from Letty – February 21, 2020

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,

Thank you for all the kind, supportive notes after last week’s post. Two important call outs for you this week:

1) If you haven’t heard already – Metro announced that parking will be eliminated at East Falls Church Metro and reduced by half at West Falls Church Metro beginning on March 15 in preparation for the Orange Line platform work. I’m disappointed we weren’t notified when WMATA met with us a few weeks ago. Know that the city is escalating and working with WMATA on potential options. 

Stay tuned. For now, consider using other options to get to Metro – bus, carpool, bike, or bikeshare.

2) The majority of our work session was spent on a budget amendment (#3 now if you’re counting) to close out the City Hall project. Staff is requesting an additional $1.2M to finish the project, bringing the most recent contract cost to $14.5M and total project cost to $20.4M. Read on to understand where the budget overruns are, where the money will come from, and lessons learned. While an uncomfortable topic, it’s important there is clear accountability and to understand root causes to prevent future issues, especially now that library construction will soon be underway.

We also talked trees and senior tax relief, so there are brief snippets about those topics. Finally as we head towards the end of February, the next budget season will be here before we know it. Note dates for the budget calendar are added.


What Happened This Week:

(1) Preserving Mature Trees 

With recent attention on stormwater, climate change concerns, and our identify of tree-lined streets – trees are clearly an important part of our community. In fact, we were the first Tree City USA in Virginia! There has been growing public concern about the loss of mature trees, especially in residential redevelopment. (Remember – the current powers the city has with tree preservation is to prohibit the removal of a Specimen Tree, require a grading plan if significant amount of land is disturbed, and the plan must achieve 20% canopy coverage in 10 years.)  The Urban Forestry Commission followed up with us on facts about trees and redevelopment and potential ways to preserve more mature trees.

First the facts

  • About 1% of the City’s single-family zoned area is redeveloped each year.
  • Residential redevelopments, on average, leave 19% of the lot undisturbed.
  • After redevelopment, preserved canopy covers an average of 11% of each lot.
  • Surprisingly, there was no correlation found between the size of the new house and number of trees removed – likely because of small sample sizes and that it just depends on where the mature trees are located on the lot. Any tree near the middle of the lot is likely to be removed and/or impacted by a redevelopment. New homes are usually built to the biggest footprint allowed, due to the high cost of land and underlying economics of real estate, and only trees on the perimeter are usually saved.

Proposed ideas varied from flexible setbacks or other zoning options for sites where moving a new house’s footprint could preserve healthy mature trees, incentives to developers for preserving more trees, allowing trees to be credited as part of stormwater requirements, requiring city approval for tree removal, recognition programs and awards for mature trees, and planting more street trees in the city right of way. We’ve supported legislation in Richmond to enable localities to count trees towards stormwater best management practices. There won’t be one solution that solves this – I’d welcome your ideas!

(2) Senior Tax Relief Check In

As you recall, we expanded the senior tax relief program last year to make tax deferrals more attractive and open eligibility requirements so we can help more low income seniors afford to stay in their homes. We budgeted $390K total for the senior tax relief program + state-mandated disabled veterans program, and increase of $100K from the previous year. The end result is the program is over budget by $27K, the overage is mostly due to an increase in deferred taxes, which is money that will eventually be returned to the City. Also the Disabled Veterans tax relief took a large jump; we are not able to predict costs from this section of the program from year to year because it is a state-mandated program.

(3) City Hall Budget Overage & Budget Amendment #3

Next week, we’ll be asked to vote on Budget Amendment #3 to appropriate $1.2M for budget overages and close out the contract with Hitt Contracting.

What is the overage?
The $1.2M will pay for costs associated with changes orders initiated by the City during renovation and expansion of City Hall, as the result of unexpected conditions and for IT, security, and data systems throughout the building, which were not adequately designed in the original plans that served as the basis for the construction contract price. To date we had also been asked to approve $1M in other overage costs – rent extensions at the temporary locations as the project got delayed, extra moving costs, staff time, low voltage and building security that were not in the construction contract – in total bringing the project $2.3M over budget (12.5%), with total expenditures of $20.4M.

How will this be funded?
As you recall, the recent bond issuance was later than originally planned (and combined into a single issuance) so $4.5M in debt service was budgeted but not needed. (In simpler terms – it’s like starting a 30 year mortgage six months later than you expected – you’ll still make 30 years’ worth of payments, but the first payment is now six months later.) Budget Amendment #2 used $1.4M of the $4.5M and staff proposes that we also pay for the City Hall overage of $1.2M with the unused debt service.
So instead of sending all $4.5M in reserves, $2.6M ($1.4M + $1.2M) will be spent and $1.9M will go back to reserves.

How can this be prevented from happening again?
Staff has assured us that the Library project will go more smoothly. For example, IT, low voltage, and security requirements – things that were missed in City Hall’s plans – are fully incorporated in the the Library plans. Changes in project team members contributed to issues with the City Hall project and this time, the contract has been written to ensure more continuity in the construction contractors. Also – the library contingency amounts have been boosted vs what was set aside in City Hall’s – which is especially important in renovations when there is a higher likelihood of unforeseen issues. In addition, a oversight committee – composed of City Council members, library board members, and others – is proposed to provide regular communication and oversight of the library construction.

Letty’s thoughts: while I appreciate staff taking accountability for the issues at City Hall and the diligence in making sure the exact same issues won’t be repeated, I remain apprehensive that we won’t have different, new issues. Lessons learned are most helpful when they tackle the root causes and not the symptoms. I’ve encouraged us to dig several layers deeper so that the root causes can be addressed.

What’s Coming Up:

Note dates for the FY21 Budget Cycle

  • Monday, February 24 – City Council Meeting
  • Monday, March 9 – City Council Meeting – City Manager FY21 Budget & CIP Presentation
  • Monday, March 16 – City Council Work Session – Budget Work Session #1
  • Sunday, March 22 – Budget Town Hall
  • Monday March 23 – City Council Meeting – Budget First Reading
  • Monday, April 6 – City Council Work Session – Budget Work Session #2
  • Monday, April 13 – City Council Meeting 
  • Monday, April 20 – City Council Work Session – Budget Work Session #3 & Final Mark Up
  • Monday, April 27 – Budget Second Reading / Adoption