Updates from Letty – May 1, 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 post is like a “feedback sandwich” – positive news bookending a morsel or two of not-so-great news in the middle. If your eyes glaze over whenever I write about the budget, you have an incentive to read to the end for a palate cleanser. This week’s post will cover the new business grant program, COVID updates, the new FY21 budget, and ends with good news on various projects.

To start, important PSAs for your weekend:

  1. Giving PSA: throughout this crisis, I continue to be uplifted by this community’s overwhelming generosity. Demand at our area food banks is at an all-time high. This weekend, a local Girl Scout troop is holding a canned food drive for Food for Others. You can drop off donations at collection bins at the houses listed at the end of this post. Direct monetary contributions to Food for Others are always welcome. Alternatively, if you’re a seamstress – the Kensington is now asking for community help to sew surgical gowns.
  2. Exercise PSA: with the sunny and drier weather predicted this weekend, I expect the W&OD Trail will be quite busy. I’ve re-routed my runs to neighborhood streets, and I especially appreciate the ones where I can easily detour onto the street or onto bike lanes to maintain social distance. Hillwood Ave and Roosevelt Ave both have dedicated bike lanes in the City – for which I have more appreciation than ever – they are multi-modal in function these days.
  3. Help the City win transportation grants: speaking of multi-modal…community support was instrumental in helping us win the $15.7M grant for walkability improvements at Haycock and Rt 7, now underway – and here’s your chance to do it again. The City has two transportation grants in the NVTA queue – pedestrian improvements on Shreve Rd that connect the W&OD to Rt 7 (a heavily traveled path for commuters and middle and high schoolers) and downtown improvements on Park Ave. Support one or both grants and email your support to SYPcomment@TheNoVaAuthority.org by May 24. Read on for two sample blurbs you can copy and paste.

Keep up the good personal hygiene, face coverings, and social distancing. As we approach 50 days of quarantine (!!) and warmer weather, I know patience is wearing thin and temptation is growing to resume our typical spring activities. We have a while to go, but we will recover and come out on the other side.

Take care,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Business Microgrants

At their Tuesday meeting, the City’s EDA (Economic Development Authority) unanimously approved a Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Grant Program that we previewed in last week’s City Council meeting, using $100K in EDA funds and up to $250K total. The goal is to get funds out to local small businesses, especially those impacted the most, as soon as possible – so the due date for applications will be quick – May 8th.

Businesses can be awarded up to $2K to use on business-related expenses. Eligible businesses must meet certain qualifications like having commercial space in the City, having between $50K and $500K gross annual revenues, experiencing at least a 50% reduction in gross receipts, and more. Click for the application, opening today, and more details on eligibility.

(2) COVID-19 Updates – ICYMI…

New symptoms – the CDC announced at the end of last week, six new symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste or smell

 Already on the list: fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Symptoms matter because as testing capacity grows, tests are still prioritized for those exhibiting symptoms and not asymptomatic residents yet.

New dashboard – the Fairfax Health Department has published a new dashboard of COVID data. Besides seeing the case numbers broken out by locality, you can also cut the data by zip code, race, age group, etc and see the epidemic curve. More detailed data matters because…

Virginia Re-Opening Plans – Governor Northam also released a “Forward Virginia” blueprint for re-opening last Friday that is responsibly anchored in data. To be clear, decisions to re-open in Falls Church will come from the Governor and in coordination with the DC region. The Governor has also appointed a task force of business leaders to work on re-opening plans. We are not there yet, but it’s important to lay out the criteria now. Key criteria for a Phase One reopening:

  • 14 days of a downward trend in confirmed cases as a percentage of overall tests (Letty’s note: this should be a better metric than measuring number of positive cases alone, which would naturally increase as more testing increases and I’d love to see the health departments’ dashboard match this metric.)
  • 14 days of a downward trend in reduced COVID-19 hospitalizations
  • Adequate hospital surge capacity
  • Adequate PPE for medical community and first responders
  • Testing 10,000 people per day (currently 4,000 per day)
  • Adequate contact tracing capacity                           

More information here

(3) FY21 Budget – a budget no one likes

The City Council received a revised FY21 budget that accounts for an uncertain and gloomy economic forecast, resulting in a budget that no one likes but is our reality for now. When so many other individuals and businesses are dealing with their own fiscal crises, we recognize that everyone is making sacrifices. Here is the City Manager’s letter and some highlights (er, lowlights):

  • $2.4M in budget cuts: The budget represents a moderate impact* scenario, with $1.36M less revenue than the current year and $5.4M less than the original FY21 budget that was presented in February. Due to $1M in mandated cost increases, in order to have a balanced budget, the overall budget has to cut $2.4M in expenses. *Note: this moderate scenario assumes this year’s local business taxes will be down 15% and real estate values hold as the current sales data shows. If real estate values weaken by next year’s assessments – of which taxes make up 60% of our total revenues – then the City’s finances will be in deeper trouble.
  • Not final: As actual revenue data comes in over the summer, we will revisit the budget in the fall to revise up or down as needed.
  • In good times…and in bad: in the spirit of a revenue sharing concept started last year, the School Board agreed to $500K less in city funding which is much appreciated.
  • Cuts proposed: no salary increases, no travel and training for 6 months, hiring freezes, and no funding for projects like Neighborhood Traffic Calming and spot improvements. Stormwater and sewer rate increases that were proposed are now removed, but that also means new stormwater projects proposed by the Stormwater Task Force won’t start.
  • Federal money: the budget doesn’t assume the federal CARES Act money will cover any revenue losses beyond direct COVID response costs. Should Treasury rules change or new federal legislation to support localities and states passes, we should assume we’re on our own for now.
  • Letty’s thoughts: I largely support the budget as it tries to preserve core services, prevents layoffs for now, and honors our debt service obligations, despite my disappointment in not being able to expand initiatives we had been looking forward to doing. That said, since the pandemic started, I’ve asked to make sure we are caring for the most vulnerable in the community. While Falls Church is an affluent community and our poverty rate is comparatively low, our vulnerable population will only grow. Many of our own neighbors are suddenly facing housing and food insecurity and unemployment. I want to make sure we can meet the increasing demand for emergency food, health, and housing assistance. Also, with traffic calming and stormwater projects likely on hold for the foreseeable future, yet they were our top citizen needs – I asked staff to plan for low cost efforts that can be done within existing operating dollars.

We voted 7-0 at first reading for the budget and to keep the tax rate unchanged, which sets the ball in motion for two more work sessions and two public hearings before a final vote on 5/26 (schedule below). You can submit your comments via email. Note that the CIP will be on a different, later timeline to account for pending transportation funding.

(4) Project Updates

We wrapped up our meeting with good progress updates on various projects. The library is about 80% through demolition. Many streets have seen pedestrian improvements, including Hillwood Ave with a complete re-paving, new ped lights at Great Falls/Lincoln, Annandale/Gundry traffic calming, and new crosswalks at Columbia/Van Buren and several in the neighborhoods south of Broad.

Letty’s thoughts: Public works projects like sidewalks and crosswalks, which dominated many of our pre-pandemic conversations, do seem trite now. But in our current reality, where most recreation and fitness options are closed and transportation options are limited, streets are a great equalizer. This City Council’s priority on walkability will hopefully pay dividends by making it easier for our residents to get fresh air and stay physically and mentally healthy.

Hillwood Ave

(5) Support Our Transportation Grants!

West Falls Church Connection to W&OD Trail Project:  

Install a new 10’ multi-use path and 6’ planting strip along Shreve Road between the W&OD Trail and Route 7, acorn style lights, crosswalk near the intersection of Shreve Road and Gordon Road, and benches near the entrance to the W&OD trail.

Sample Supporting Statement

“I support this grant application because it will support a safer pedestrian and bicycle friendly corridor for students, workers, and others who are traveling from the W&OD Trail to get to school, the West Falls Church area or the West Falls Church Metrorail Station. Also, this will help with economic growth, development of the new high school, and reduce congestion by implementing infrastructure for multiple modes of transportation.”

Downtown Falls Church Multimodal Improvements Project:

Install two midblock crossings, widen sidewalks and remove obstructions (including utility lines), install curb extensions, adjust intersection geometry, and increase visibility at six crossings/intersections on Park Avenue between N Washington Street and Virginia Avenue.

Sample Supporting Statement

“I support this grant application because it will support improved accessibility and safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders on the West Broad Street corridor. The project will enhance connections to the City’s civic, recreational, and cultural resources in Downtown Falls Church. Also, this project will help support economic development, City businesses, and reduce congestion by implementing infrastructure for multiple modes of transportation.”

How to Make Comments:

What’s Coming Up:

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here: http://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings

  • Monday, May 4: City Council Work Session: Budget
  • Monday, May 11: City Council Meeting: Public Hearing on Budget and Tax Rates
  • Monday, May 18: City Council Work Session: Budget
  • Tuesday, May 26: City Council Meeting: Public Hearing, Final Vote on Budget and Tax Rates; CIP Discussion
  • Monday, June 22: Final Vote on CIP