Updates from Letty – March 29, 2019 – budget edition #2

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,

For the first time in a long time – we voted on the annual budget, CIP, and tax rate at first reading without much fanfare or public comment; we’ll have a final budget vote on 4/22. What was a tougher conversation was a request to authorize additional money for the City Hall construction project. Read on for my thoughts behind the 5-2 vote, where I was part of the dissenting minority.

It was also a meeting chock full of important proclamations for April, including Child Abuse Prevention month which I wrote about last week. We jokingly refer to April as Proclamation Month, but sometimes the importance of each cause gets lost in the volume of proclamations, so I’ve included a few related links and follow up information below.

Finally, as we wrap up Women’s History Month in March – I hope to see you at Sunday’s Women’s History Walk to learn about notable local women who came before us. Wear white to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage on the walk.


PS – Did you see we received a high ranking again for being one of the healthiest communities in US News and World Report? This year, we’re #3, falling from our #1 spot last year. Word must have gotten out about our terrible snacking habits during late night city meetings! On a serious note, it’s worthwhile to note that our lowest score is in the area of housing, specifically the increase in housing prices and lack of affordable homes. How is housing related to health? For households who are housing cost-burdened, they may have little left in their budget for other necessities in life, such as healthy food options or medical care.


What Happened This Week

(1) Proclamations – April is…

2019 equal pay


(2) FY20 Budget

We voted to grant first reading for the FY20 budget, CIP, and no tax rate increase as proposed by the City Manager this week. That means that the final budget we adopt can have changes, but cannot have a tax rate higher than our vote this week. Between now and the final vote (second reading) on 4/22, we have another work session next week and budget mark up.

Letty’s thoughts: In my comments, I noted that I was largely happy with both the priorities we’re funding and this year’s budget process. On priorities, this budget funds our people and prepares for the future. Besides the enormous increase in debt service we’re adding to the budget (the key factor in the annual operating budget growing from $92M to over $99M), we fund comparable salary increases for both school and general government staff, adds one police officer, restores a HR Director which we had to cut in previous years, adds city inspection staff ahead of a lot of construction activity, increases senior tax relief, and puts more dollars against many of the priorities I’ve advocated for like traffic calming, spot improvements for walkability, and downtown commercial areas.

And we’re proposing to do all of this without a tax rate increase this year. We can thank a still-healthy economy driving higher property values (so if you are a homeowner, your tax bill will likely still increase), several years of preparation by managing operating budgets tightly, and directing two years of small property tax rate increases to fund the capital reserve. However, I did note that we’re not going to have it this good every year – we won’t be able to count on the efficiency savings, lower school enrollment, and a good economy every year – so I hope this year’s good vibes and collaborative process will continue in tougher times too.

(3) City Hall Project

In the latest discussion about the City Hall renovation and expansion project, we were asked to authorize an additional $350K for the project, the latest in a series of additional overages. The project had about $17M approved and has been delayed for various reasons – the original move in date in early 2019 is now late April. We’ve approved several overages, including two lease extensions for the temporary space while city staff is out of the building.

Letty’s thoughts:

While I appreciate that the project team is working very hard at completing the project and moving staff back into City Hall, we are all increasingly frustrated about the delay and additional expenses. Given how far along we are, there may not be any other options other than to fund the budget overages. However I am especially concerned in light of many more projects ahead of us, which is why I was in the minority 5-2 vote against the new expense.

Without a total cost for the project and its overruns, it is difficult to approve one-off requests especially if litigation will be involved. I’d like to see stronger root cause analysis and lessons learned to ensure the next capital projects don’t experience the same issues. Furthermore, the proposed funding for the project overages will come from underspending in this year’s budget. While underspending can be a good thing and I certainly applaud staff for not asking for new money, I believe using operating budget underspending is not as transparent – a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario. We have many unfunded operating needs and I don’t want to see those needs usurped to cover the overages in a capital project. We should be treating this as a big yellow caution sign ahead of starting the GMHS and Library projects.


What’s Coming Up

*Note that the April Sunday Series Town Hall meeting is actually on a Monday night to avoid conflicts with the FCEDF Home and Garden tour