Updates from Letty – January 31, 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,

This week’s initial 4-3 vote on the latest budget amendment to allocate $4.6M, of which $2.6M would fund the library cost overage, has been one of the more difficult votes we’ve wrestled with recently – as evident by the split vote, the 4+ hour meeting, and the fact that most of the discussion centered on broader issues, future risks, our fiscal health, and not only about the library project. I co-authored this week’s guest commentary in the FCNP (if you watched us Monday night, it will sound familiar) – I encourage you to check it out in the link below. As always, I try to be thoughtful about my positions, so I hope this helps you understand the nuances beyond the headlines. No vote is as simple as it appears!

We also received two updates on two regional transportation initiatives and will continue next week when we hear from WMATA about the impending platform work and closures at many Orange Line Metro stations. Also, in light of the terrible news about a pedestrian-car accident in town this week, walkability improvements are more important than ever. Consistent with this Council’s agenda the past few years – pedestrian improvements were ranked as one of our highest priorities coming out of our retreat.

And finally – the much-asked about topic of glass recycling! Falls Church is getting our own purple bin and you should expect to see a lot of communication soon. Stop curbside recycling of glass by February 19 and bring it to a purple bin.


What Happened This Week

(1) Bus Updates

Transportation is one of our top regional issues. With the projected population and job growth in the region, more innovative solutions and alternative modes of transportation are important to reduce congestion – building more roads just doesn’t cut it. If you haven’t heard about “induced demand”, you should read up.

Buses, in particular, get less attention than rail, but ridership is actually pretty comparable with 600K rides per day on bus vs 700K rides on rail. It’s also an important mode of transportation for lower income households. In general, having many affordable, safe, and accessible modes of transportation is an important societal equalizer.

  • BRT – We received updates on the regional Envision Route 7 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. BRT would be an express bus line, running on dedicated lanes, from Tysons to Alexandria. In Falls Church, where Rt 7 is more narrow, a dedicated lane wouldn’t be feasible and other options are being considered. For now, the next phase of the study requires $50K funding from Falls Church – with a final bill of $500M (in 2030 dollars) for the region, with no funding identified yet.
  • Bus Transformation – We also heard updates on a large portfolio of projects in a “bus transformation” plan. The most immediate change for Falls Church is the proposed elimination of the Metro 3T bus line at the end of 2020 (you may recall we worked hard to restore this line after it was first eliminated in 2016). We’ve applied for $3M in grant funding from I-66 toll revenues to create a replacement bus line that would simulate a pilot BRT. More info to come.

(2) Budget Amendment #1

This was a non-controversial final vote for the first of several budget amendments. I wrote about what BA #1 funds earlier in January – check out that old post here.

(3) Budget Amendment #2 (and why we’ll have a Budget Amendment #3)

As the library costs were not yet final, several items that needed funding were split from Budget Amendment #1 and into a second amendment. BA #2 includes uses for $4.6M in spending and was up for a first reading vote this week. A final, second reading vote is scheduled for February 10.

First, where is the $4.6M coming from?

The presentation explains the sources of money: operating underspending (ie, departments spent less than anticipated last year, didn’t fill open vacancies, etc), lower interest rate on the big $130M bond issuance, debt service deferral (ie, the bond repayment schedule is pushed out since we issued the debt later than originally planned), and a small portion from higher local tax revenues. $300K is derived from developer contributions, which was long earmarked for the library project.

What are the proposed uses of $4.6M?

Out of the $4.6M, $2.6M is proposed to plug the cost overage for the library ($2.3M + $300K in developer contributions), $600K to replenish the permit fee reserve which is a revolving fund used to hire inspectors as needed for projects, $390K to be shared with the schools in the spirit of our informal revenue sharing agreement, $400K for traffic calming, $150K for West Falls Church project legal fees.

Why will a Budget Amendment #3 be needed?

What was shared publicly for the first time on Monday is that the City Hall project will require a “major fiscal obligation” but that number is still under negotiation, and therefore couldn’t be included in BA #2. When the negotiations are final, a third budget amendment will be proposed, with funding sources TBD.

Letty’s thoughts

While there are many important priorities in Budget Amendment #2, I was part of the 4-3 dissenting vote that could not support it. To be clear, I don’t doubt the need for work at the library and would actually be willing to spend more than $11M because it’s worth the long-term investment – but it should be done responsibly, with a lot more public discussion on the tradeoffs, and all the lessons learned from City Hall fully incorporated so the same mistakes don’t repeat.

The FCNP guest commentary is not yet online, so I’m including it here:

As you may have read from this week’s news, your City Council had a difficult deliberation and ensuing 4-3 vote on the latest of several budget amendments. This amendment focused on how to allocate $4.6 million, generated primarily from a revenue surplus, underspending, and debt service savings. A request to fund a $2.6 million budget shortfall for the library renovation project was part of the debate. As the dissenting votes, we’d like to share considerations beyond the headline.

To preface – it’s important to plainly state that no one doubts the value of our library, the need for work, or the merits of a renovation. Personally, both of our families are avid users: maxing out book checkout limits, visiting story time with young kids, and participating in after school and summer programming. And both families credit our children’s love of reading to the weekly visits and impressive selection of books – truly a community gem. We know the library has been patiently waiting in a long queue of overdue city-wide capital projects that we’ve been working hard to address over the past few years. 

Despite that, as with every funding decision, your expectation of us is to prioritize and deliver public services effectively, while responsibly allocating taxpayer dollars. Our challenge is to carefully consider all needs across the city, anticipate future challenges, and do our best to balance those competing priorities with limited funds.

Unfortunately, the library project is coming on the heels of a City Hall renovation that has not gone smoothly. While re-opened to the public and staff since last summer, the project is not yet complete. On Monday, for the first time, it was made publicly known that in order to close out the project, it will come in over budget and we should expect a “major fiscal obligation.” Due to sensitive negotiations, a number can’t be shared publicly yet, but the bottom line is, it will cost us more money.

With that as the backdrop, you can understand why we have more trepidation than usual before starting another project.

Why should we all give pause?

(1) Is this a “do it right the first time” project? 

With all capital projects, we believe they should be done right the first time, so future City Councils and taxpayers don’t inherit a project reboot in 10 years. Spend what is needed on the right project, do it well, and do it once, rather than value engineer a project to death. 

Unfortunately, the current project already has a bad track record with costs. Despite good explanations as to why costs have ballooned since the referendum in 2016, our frustration has grown as the numbers continue to escalate at every update. Are we confident that the new $11 million price tag will be the final number and are we getting the best project we can? For a project that hasn’t started and is already 30% over budget, these are reasonable questions. 

(2) What’s not going to get done?

What also hasn’t been discussed publicly until Monday is that funding the library shortfall requires tradeoffs with looming costs, some known and unknown: traffic calming, bike paths, sidewalks, housing affordability, parks, history murals, as well as other bigger ticket items: stormwater and City Hall. With stormwater remediation projects that will likely cost $10 to 15 million, and a final bill for City Hall still unknown, our first impulse can’t be to raise stormwater fees or taxes. We have already obligated our community to shoulder the largest debt issuance in the city’s history to build a needed new high school. With an economic downturn likely around the corner, we cannot afford to raid reserves.

While the library project has been in discussion for more than 20 years, many of these issues have been looming as long, if not longer. Shame on us that one of the community’s top priorities, housing affordability, was omitted from Monday’s funding consideration altogether.

(3) Does this meet the bar for public transparency?

Most importantly, assuming we can get past the facts that voters only approved $8.7 million, not $11 million (some would call for a new referendum); and given that capital projects should be debt-financed so the costs can be spread out over time, one night of discussion doesn’t meet the bar for openness and transparency.

Monday was the first time a full list of projects proposed for the $4.6 million and the suggested tradeoffs have been reviewed in open session. By comparison, each year in the budget process we spend over a month wringing our hands over what comes down to a few hundred thousand dollars. An amount tenfold, merits greater visibility and discussion.

More than ever, we should have our eyes wide open. While we agree the library needs an investment, it should be funded responsibly, with public discussion on the additional costs and tradeoffs, and in a manner that mitigates future fiscal strain. Citizens expect that of us, and more. Between now and our final vote on February 10, you can make your voice heard


What’s Coming Up

  • Monday, February 3 – City Council Work Session (730 pm)
  • Thursday, February 6 – General Assembly Lobbying Day
  • Monday, February 10 – City Council Meeting (730 pm)
  • Tuesday, February 18 – City Council Work Session (730 pm)
  • Monday, February 24 – City Council Meeting (730 pm)