Updates from Letty – March 13, 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,

With the disruption and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s as good a time as any to remember to extend grace and look out for one another. As we all know from our constantly breaking news alerts, it’s a rapidly evolving situation that changes by the hour. There are many, many people at every level of government and organizations trying to make the best decisions for the safety and health of the community, with the best information available at the time and with no precedence. I appreciate the very difficult decisions facing our superintendent, administrators, and school board.

As we contract with Fairfax County Health Department, the City is in constant contact with a large county and the state’s public health experts. As of writing late Thursday night – according to the health department, we have no known cases of COVID-19 in the City of Falls Church, there is no evidence of community spread in Virginia, and they still assure us that risk to residents remains low. If the situation escalates as many believe it will, expect response and guidance to also change.

Here’s what we have been doing so far:

  • The City has been increasing cleaning at public buildings and pushing out information to the general public from the health department. I’ll include links about COVID-19 to various websites from trusted sources below, including FCCPS’ very comprehensive plan if you have kids in school.
  • There has also been a lot of behind the scenes planning – including continuity of operations (City Council just approved a timely update of our Emergency Operations Plan), updates to leave policies and telecommuting plans, and outreach to vulnerable populations in our community. 
  • Later this morning, expect to see the City issue guidance to determine cancellation or postponement of non-essential meetings and gatherings. I strongly encourage other organizations to pre-emptively use these guidelines across the community. You’ll find the guidelines here when they’re published.

We did have regular business on our City Council agenda, including the presentation of the FY21 budget – so I’ll offer my quick highlights especially in light of COVID-19.

And as a reminder, if you are a Metrorail rider – the closures of the East Falls Church Metro station parking and half of the West Falls Church Metro station parking begin this Sunday, March 15. The website has been updated with parking info and travel alternatives so you can prepare.

Stay well,

PS – Besides the personal hygiene and social distancing reminders to #flattenthecurve, I’m including below a few other suggestions on how we can support each other – such as blood donation, food bank contributions, and support of our local businesses. If you have other ideas, send them on.

Proactive measures slow the spread of disease and reduce burden on hospitals

What Happened This Week:

(1) Coronavirus COVID-19 Info

  • Other ways to help:
    • The American Red Cross encourages healthy, eligible individuals to schedule a blood or platelet donation to prevent a potential shortage. Cold and flu season has already impacted the blood supply. And as the number of COVID-19 cases grows in the US and company blood drives are cancelled, you can donate to prevent a shortage.
    • Local food banks and pantries also could use support. Many of us have the luxury of being able to stock up while neighbors, who may be out of work without pay and whose children’s schools have closed leaving them without a free or reduced lunch, will need more help. Capital Area Food Bank and Northern Virginia Family Service are both great non profits that supply food pantries in this area.
    • Order carryout or buy gift cards at your local restaurants and retailers.
    • AG Mark Herring warns of potential scams, so watch out for your elderly or vulnerable neighbors 

(2) FY21 Budget

For the first time, the city’s budget tops $100M. In the City Manager’s proposed budget, there is no recommended increase to the real estate tax rate but there likely will be increases in stormwater and sanity sewer fees, pending the results of a rate study and stormwater task force recommendations. Highlights:

  • The proposed FY21 budget of $103.5M, represents a growth of 4.3% over FY20. 
  • Debt service – at $14.7M total, is now about 14% of the total city budget (historically, debt service is usually between 6-8% of our total expenses). The debt service was expected to grow as a result of the issuance of bonds last year to pay for the new high school, library renovations, and the Fellows Property acquisition. 
  • The 4.3% budget growth is funded by healthy increases in real estate taxes (4%) and projected increases of sales, meal, and BPOL taxes (10.5%, 9%, 5% respectively). 
  • Even with no tax rate increase, for the median homeowner (median home value of $725K) – expect the your annual tax bill to increase about $322 due to the real estate appreciation.
  • The budget also includes an additional 6 FTEs, including 1 police officer, 1 police dispatcher, 2 building safety inspectors for construction underway, 1 field engineer for additional public works projects, and 1 deputy registrar of voters – returning city staff to pre-2008 recession levels.
  • The FCCPS budget of $54.6M came within the budget guidance we issued back in December and is buoyed by an increase in state funds, so altogether the school budget will grow 4.4% over FY20. 

Letty’s thoughts:

With the coronavirus tanking the stock market and second order effects elsewhere in the economy, we need to ensure our operating and capital budgets are resilient against a downturn. Besides having adequate reserves to weather a recession, I want to make sure the budget, as the result of revenue increases we’re enjoying now, is sustainable and the increases are judicious so we don’t have to reverse them when times are not so good. Is it still reasonable to expect 9-10% growth in sales and meals taxes if everyone is now hunkered down? We are monitoring sales, meals, and hotel taxes closely – as those are usually the leading indicators of a contraction.

Also, while we are now well underway with the construction of the high school that should have a lifespan of many years, I asked that we better understand our school capacity of each of our other buildings so we can plan for any needed improvements within the next 10 years. School enrollment is not skyrocketing (see January post with the annual “where students live” analysis), but I’m a big believer in planning for future needs as early as possible so we’re not surprised.

This initial budget presentation was the first of many opportunities for the public to engage. The full budget documents, CIP, and schedule of public meetings and town halls are here: http://www.fallschurchva.gov/1501/Budget-Capital-Projects

(3) Something uplifting

Seventh grade civics students are invited to write “If I were mayor” essays for a state-wide contest every year. We recognized some of this year’s finalists this week, who shared bright and articulate ideas for sidewalks, street lights, bike lanes, pollution, and housing. We were all struck by the commonality in each essay with the often-discussed priorities by City Council. Seeing the next generation embrace a shared vision for a welcoming, progressive, and vibrant community has been a light in an otherwise dark and uncertain week. Hope you enjoy the essays as much as I did.

What’s Coming Up:

*for now, all of these are still on but City website will have the most up-to-date info if meetings are cancelled*

  • 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