Updates from Letty – March 17, 2017 – Budget Edition #1

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,

As expected, we had a big Monday night with a spring snowstorm and our first look at the City Manager’s proposed FY18 budget and a robust discussion on Mt. Daniel. For those of you who have been readers the past year, you’ll recall that I focused my updates during budget season on money matters, and this week’s will be the first of several for the FY18 budget. I’ve got one budget cycle under my belt, but I am still learning; I hope you’ll tune into these deep dives and join me! And while I hope that you’re following your local government throughout the year, the annual budget process is an important reflection of our community’s priorities and values. Hearing from you is important to my decision-making.

A few call outs for your calendars as we head into a busy spring (you’ll see the “What’s Coming Up” section is getting quite packed):

-On Monday, we’ll have a Budget Open House, 730 pm in the Community Center, followed by City Council work session back in City Hall. A great opportunity for you to learn about the budgets and priorities of individual departments within City government and interact directly with staff and your electeds.

-Next weekend will be a big one! For those following the GMHS campus work, the Planning Commission and City staff are hosting a kickoff meeting on Saturday 3/25 to get input on the High School “Small Area Plan” for the parcel of land that encompasses the campus site. On Sunday 3/26, join us for the first Falls Church Women’s History Walk!

-Bicyclists/W&OD runners, walkers & neighbors  – I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about a proposed pedestrian bridge for the W&OD over Lee Hwy. VDOT will be hosting a planning meeting on the W&OD Bridge design on 4/5. See below. While the bridge would be located just outside our borders, it is a gateway into Falls Church and our citizens’ input is important.

Look forward to hearing from you about the budget, Mt. Daniel, or other topics.



What Happened this Week:

City Council Meeting – TL;DR version (FY18 budget & Mt. Daniel broken out below):

FY18 Budget

The City Manager presented the proposed FY18 budget and CIP this week. If you haven’t already read, the proposal includes an increase of 4 cents on the real estate property tax rate (1 cent to fund operating budget increases and 3 cents to pre-fund the capital reserve – like the piggy bank for the GMHS campus project). A few highlights:


Based on the 2.7% revenue growth expected – the 2.7% represents about $2.2M, divided between the general government and schools budgets. With the school board requested budget coming in higher at 3.7% (to fund unmet needs and new staff and additional teachers at MEH/GM and MD to keep class sizes below policy limits) – an extra $400K for operating budgets is requested, or a 1 cent real estate tax increase. Both the general government and school operating budgets include raises for staff to recruit and retain a high performing workforce (3% increases for police and general government with a cap, step increases for teachers, salary adjustments for education support staff and administrators). WMATA/Metro costs are going up $400K so that has put significant strain on this year’s operating budget.

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The most challenging part of the budget is the ambitious CIP (Capital Improvements Program). The big three projects – GMHS, City Hall (2019), and Library (2020) each have significant tax rate impacts. The City Manager proposes that 3 cents on the real estate tax rate be saved to pre-fund the capital reserve, so that money is set aside early and can make future tax rate increases more gradual. The crux of debate is whether we believe we should be saving now or saving later when we have a more defined plan for the high school.


While those big projects are on the horizon, there are smaller projects on the CIP that are requesting funds this year – including $1M for early planning for the library renovation/expansion and $1M for converting Larry Graves from sod to turf using open space funds.


As traffic calming is a popular citizen request – note that traffic calming is not funded in the proposed FY18 budget. However, the $200K Council appropriated a few months ago from a surplus from the unassigned fund balance will actually get used in FY18 when the weather warms up. See slide above for the projects expected to get underway this spring/summer. Going forward, in FY19 – the plan is to secure grand funding for a bundle of traffic calming projects.

How to learn more or chime in: We are trying out a new schedule for budget meetings to accommodate more citizens. This coming Monday night, we’ll have an Open House in the Community Center. See below for the dates of other town halls, budget work sessions, and public comment opportunities. Here’s your one stop shop for budget materials – including the full presentation materials from above, the School Board budget request, and the full 300 page budget book are available here: http://www.fallschurchva.gov/1501/Budget-Capital-Projects

Mt. Daniel Update

As I wrote the past two weeks about the disappointing news that the bids for Mt. Daniel have come in $2.6M higher than the original guaranteed maximum price ($15.6M), City Council was asked to appropriate additional funds this week. In order to keep the project on track to begin demolition and construction this summer, we couldn’t have a work session prior to consideration of the budget amendment. We ultimately voted 5-2 to grant first reading for the budget amendment, with a final vote on 3/27.

Letty’s thoughts: I was one of the dissenting votes this week. While I supported the Mt. Daniel expansion as a parent of elementary aged students and certainly don’t want it to be any further delayed, I spoke on Monday with my concerns on multiple fronts:

-Besides the 21% increase in costs for a project that was already reduced in scope (far exceeding expected inflation), annual debt service to fund the increased cost would cost $130K/year that puts further pressure on tight operating budgets.

-Extra debt also eats into our debt capacity that is one of the main challenges with the GMHS campus project.

-Part of the $2.6MM is proposed to be funded from the “school modernization fund” that is meant to be saved for GM roof repairs. I was assured by the Superintendent that it leaves enough money, but I am wary that we’ll still need to find future additional funds for interim GM repairs.

-Finally, there are concerns whether a move of 2nd grade to Mt. Daniel would actually happen. With the commitment to cap enrollment at 660, we may hit the cap within a year or two of Mt. Daniel re-opening and therefore may be impractical to move 2nd grade at all. The Mt. Daniel project was billed as a $15M project to update the school and alleviate elementary capacity issues by moving 2nd grade out of TJ. If the project ends up costing $18M for a smaller school and we cannot actually move 2nd grade out of TJ, we need to have a frank community discussion about those implications. I believe it would be irresponsible to appropriate more money to a project without a better understanding of whether the original project goals could be accomplished, a thorough review of the options ahead such as re-bidding the project, decreasing the scope, a different grade configuration, and a capacity plan across the entire district while we’re looking at the GM/MEH campus – otherwise, we’d be left with elementary capacity still unsolved and no money to address it. 

Expect continued discussion at Monday 3/20’s work session (after the Budget Open House) and a final vote on Monday, March 27.


What’s Coming Up (budget-related meetings in blue):

  • Today, March 17 – GMHS Economic Working Group (730 am, City Hall Dogwood Room)
  • Monday, March 20 – Budget Open House/Town Hall #1 followed by City Council Work Session (730 pm, Community Center then City Hall). Work session agenda posted.
  • Sunday, March 26 – Falls Church Women’s History Walk (2-5 pm)
  • Monday, March 27 – Pinwheel Garden Planting at Cherry Hill to recognize April as Child Abuse Awareness Month (7 pm)
  • Monday, March 27 – City Council Meeting – Budget Hearing (730 pm)
  • Sunday, April 2 – Budget Town Hall #2 (3 pm)
  • Monday, April 3 – City Council Work Session – CIP Review (730 pm)
  • Monday, April 10 – City Council Meeting – Budget Hearing (730 pm)
  • Monday, April 17 – City Council Work Session – Budget Review (730 pm)
  • Monday, April 24 – City Council Meeting – Budget Adoption (730 pm)