Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
It’s been an important week for economic development in Falls Church, with the announcement of both Target and Aldi opening stores in the City of Falls Church next year. Not only will these be important anchor businesses that diversify our tax base and add to the growing list of walkable destinations – I also hope that these additions will spur future development and bring even more businesses to town. Kudos to City staff for many months of behind the scenes work with outreach and cultivation of relationships that resulted in these big wins.
We also had a momentous City Council meeting this week. At first reading, we unanimously voted for the first draft of the bond referendum for the GMHS project and an amendment to the CIP to add $120M for the construction of a new school. We hope to hear from more citizens before our final votes on July 24th. Mark your calendars – we will be holding a town hall meeting on Wed, July 19th at 730 pm to provide citizens an opportunity for Q&A and comments. Read on for my thoughts on why I voted for both at first reading and what my concerns are about the full CIP as it stands. In addition to public comment opportunities at our next meeting and the town hall, I would welcome any feedback as you read on. I’ll also be holding my next office hours on Saturday, July 22nd from 12-1 pm at Cafe Kindred.
City Council is taking next week off for the holiday, so my blog posts will take a break too. Our next meeting will be on July 10th, with tentative agenda to include updates from the Founders Row and Broad and Washington developers.
Have a safe and fun 4th,
PS – Two quick “green” plugs – check out the new curbside composting service with a huge discount offered to City residents + today is the last day to sign up for free solar assessments for your home through the regional Solarize program.
What Happened This Week:
(1) Target and Aldi announcements – here is the official City press release. Note: the press release references a multimodal plaza and walkability improvements on S. Washington that you may not have heard much about yet. Those investments and opening of Target will play a big role in the rejuvenation of the S. Washington corridor in the next few years.
(2) Highlights from City Council Meeting:
CIP Amendment – Full vs Modified CIP
Recall that in last week’s work session, we had our first look at a modified CIP. Due to the extraordinary expense of $120M for a new high school, staff recommended deferring all major capital projects except GMHS and City Hall until we receive proceeds from a commercial development land transaction and/or debt capacity was freed up in 2025. Based on our feedback in last week’s work session, staff produced a modified CIP (version 2) that brings forward the Library expansion and renovation to 2022 instead of 2025. Expansion at TJ Elementary would still have to wait until 2025, Larry Graves turf conversion and park land acquisition projects would have to wait until 2026+.
Before sharing my thoughts on the CIP – an important point:
Like the budget votes on tax rates – between first and second reading votes, the CIP can be revised down but not up. If we add projects into the CIP after it passed at first reading, it would require another first reading vote. The full CIP (without any deferrals or changes to any project timelines or scope) was on the table for a vote, and that was passed by a unanimous 6-0 vote.
- It shouldn’t be a surprise to many that I remain concerned about the City taking on the full CIP + the new high school and would support the modified CIP instead, which has a more modest tax rate increase that citizens may be more likely to support. Without getting into the merits of specific projects and jockeying one ahead of another – the crux of my concern with the full CIP is that we’re simply trying to do too much at once. With the above point in mind, I did vote to support the full CIP as it stands, so the discussion can be advanced between now and July 24th. My concerns:
- There is no room for error in executing the full CIP. It is an ambitious plan that takes care of many long deferred capital needs, but without more sequencing, it leaves little room for unexpected costs or opportunities that may come up. For example, with TJ Elementary expansion pushed out until 2025, we could be a pinch if we actually need the addition sooner. We also assume that projects come in at the price expected – which given our recent experience at Mt. Daniel and City Hall costs, that has not come true. Finally, with the prospect of selling or long term leasing the 10 acres at the GMHS site, land acquisition elsewhere in the City will be an important, strategic move and we’ll need debt capacity to jump on those opportunities.
- We are also using several new to us, creative financing levers in order to afford the full CIP (see my December blog post for more info on levers like 30 vs 20 year bonds, level debt vs level principal payment structure, using reserves to pay for debt service, etc) and there are many underlying assumptions that have to come true in order for the plan to be executed as laid out.
- Operationally, I am concerned about our ability to juggle expansions/renovations/new builds at nearly every public building in the City at nearly the same time. I’d rather we prioritize projects and focus on executing a handful at a time well instead of everything at once.
- While I am optimistic about the future of economic development in the City, as stewards of the City’s finances – I think we should look beyond the best case scenario and have an understanding of the stress test scenarios so we take on these costs with our eyes wide open.
- With all of these concerns in mind, as I spoke on Monday – I hope there will be more work on two fronts:
- 1) Further consideration of the modified CIP as recommended by staff. While I hear and understand the concerns about deferring the library expansion, 2022 appears to be a compromise that merits more discussion. As clarified by the City Manager – there is no money being diverted from the library to other projects, as there is no library money – no bonds have been issued. I’d like to understand the risk of additional maintenance costs we may need to plan for, but 2022 is still well within the 8 year window mandated to issue bonds after a voter referendum.
- 2) Find additional savings with the $120M school construction cost. Using the benchmarking that Perkins Eastman had done comparing our school requirements vs our neighbors, we should ensure we’re right sizing the school for future needs instead of trying to value engineer to bring down costs when the project is further along. Ultimately, we all share the goal of building the best school as affordably as possible that the public will support.
- A separate, but related point is my interest in moving to a 10 year CIP instead of our current 5 year CIP. With GMHS, we are already financially modeling well past the 5 year point, and having a longer planning horizon that can show capital projects in the out years more explicitly would aid in our efforts to anticipate needs and sequence projects. This is not an innovative concept – Arlington County uses a 10 year CIP. The CIP is a key responsibility of the Planning Commission, so more discussions will need to happen on pros and cons before any changes are made here in Falls Church.
GMHS Bond Referendum – we also voted 6-0 on the ordinance with the proposed November bond referendum language. Current draft:
QUESTION: Shall the City of Falls Church, Virginia, contract a debt and issue its general obligation bonds in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed one hundred twenty million dollars ($120,000,000.00) for the purpose of paying the costs incident to constructing, expanding, reconstructing, renovating, equipping and/or reequipping, in whole or in part, a new or improved High School and part of a middle school in the City of Falls Church, and shall Ordinance No. XXX of the City authorizing the issuance of such bonds be effective?
What’s Coming Up:
- Today June 30 – Campus Economic Working Group Meeting (730 am, Dogwood)
- Monday, July 10 – City Council Regular Meeting
- Tuesday, July 11 – Economic Development Authority Meeting (7 pm, Dogwood) – City staff and the EDA will be discussing the proposed design of the renovated Downtown Plaza in the 100 block of West Broad Street. This project is part of an EDA effort to energize the City’s downtown area. The goals of the plaza are to engage the community, increase pedestrian traffic in the area, provide economic benefits for local businesses, and create a centrally located, versatile space for everyone to enjoy. Funding for design and construction for the project is being provided by the EDA.
- Monday, July 17 – City Council Work Session
- Wednesday, July 19 – Town Hall (730 pm, City Hall)
- Saturday, July 22 – Letty’s Office Hours (12-1 pm, Cafe Kindred)
- Monday, July 24 – City Council Regular Meeting – **final City Council vote for referendum language & CIP Amendment**