Updates from Letty – November 19, 2021

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,

We had a jam-packed work session this week. We have three meetings left in 2021 and expect similarly heavy agendas before we recess in mid December for the holidays. For the non-night owls, the good news is that you can always catch recordings of our meetings (or read these posts) and email us comments if you can’t join us live.

On the COVID vaccine front, Falls Church kiddos are leading the way! As of yesterday, over 55% of the 5-11 population in Falls Church has had at least 1 shot, which is more than double the vaccination rate in the health district and almost 4x the rate in Virginia. If your child needs a shot, a second shot, or if you need a booster – here are multiple options.

This week’s big topics:

  • Money matters – we’ll be voting on the next allocation of ARPA funding and the budget surplus I wrote about in October. (The final vote will be on 12/13, so you still have time to get in comments.) In all, the total appropriation is $14M which is one of the largest budget amendments I’ve seen – as context, the entire city’s annual operating budget that we spend each spring deliberating is about $100M.
  • Calling all Broadmont & Hillwood neighbors – do you know the latest plans for the Ring Road project at Seven Corners?
  • One City Center – updates since the last vote was deferred

With Thanksgiving, my next post will be the week of December 6th. I’ll post the outcomes of the budget amendment and other updates on my Facebook page so you can follow along there.

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving,

PS This weekend, the city gets a new historic marker. And save the date: Falls Church’s holiday lighting is coming back!

What Happened This Week:

(1) Money Matters

  • $14M in total funds to be appropriated (from two buckets: $10.8M from ARPA + $3.1M from FY21 surplus)
  • $3.1M surplus is derived from $1.67M in higher revenues + $1.4M in underspending
  • $10.8M of ARPA funds represents about 60% of the total $18M ARPA funds the city has/will receive. To date, we’ve allocated $1M of the $18M to the most urgent of priorities. That leaves $6M in ARPA funds that we have until 2024 to encumber and 2026 to spend.
  • By far, the largest component of funding will go towards stormwater infrastructure, followed by affordable housing, employee compensation, business assistance, and HVAC upgrades in the schools. However, note that this will only fund 3 of the 6 projects the Stormwater Task Force prioritized last year, due to the fed’s rules around eligibility. Remember ARPA is not a blank check for all infrastructure and projects have to meet various criteria.
  • Employee compensation is an important topic right now, and ARPA and the surplus represent a good opportunity to address our significant staffing challenges. Typically, it’s poor fiscal policy to spend one time funds like these on ongoing expenses, such as salaries. But with salaries frozen last year during COVID plus staff shortages, the city manager proposes a hybrid approach with 1% mid year salary increase + $1500 bonuses. In addition, employees that qualify as essential workers and worked in person last year would get an additional bonus. This hybrid approach is equivalent to the 3% salary increase in 2020 that was missed.
  • For the $3.1M surplus – per the informal revenue sharing agreement with the schools, the surplus revenues is to be split, so $800K of the $1.67M would be shared with the School Board. The city’s share of the revenue surplus, $800K, is proposed to go into the city’s reserves, in anticipation of needing matching funds for future federal grant programs from the Infrastructure Bill and to bolster reserves before the next payment at West Falls Church comes in next year (remember, the WFC project is helping offset the large debt service for the new high school). For the $1.4M in underspending, staff recommends a potpourri of one time items including an employee compensation study, 911 upgrades, replacement public works trucks, climate plan, and $100K towards sidewalks.

For more info on the specific appropriations, the presentation from the city’s CFO or the staff report have the details.

Letty’s thoughts: $18M from ARPA is a huge opportunity. Generally-speaking, the staff recommendations make sense and meet the guiding principles we outlined and the big needs we’ve heard from the community. That said, I have 3 main concerns:

1) Not enough stormwater projects are getting funded, so we’ll need a plan and alternative funding sources for the others. We’re keeping an eye on state ARPA funds and new federal infrastructure bill.

2) $100K for new sidewalks is simply not enough – pedestrian safety is consistently one of the top needs we hear from residents so this needs a bigger investment, whether it’s on sidewalks, enforcement, or traffic calming/road design improvements or all of the above.

3) Finally, we need to ensure that we have staff to deliver on all of these priorities, so I’m willing to make a bigger investment in compensation at mid year now, especially if next year’s revenue forecast remains strong. Pending the outcome of the compensation study, I would also support a more aggressive salary strategy starting in the next budget – similar to what FCCPS embarked on years ago, now putting FCCPS at one of the highest paid districts in the region and state.

(2) Seven Corners Ring Road

This week we received a briefing from Fairfax County on the Ring Road project proposed at Seven Corners, as part of a request for our endorsement of their application for a $95M transportation grant for the first phase of the project. While this is not a city project and mostly outside of our borders, it’s a huge and ambitious undertaking (over $700M total cost) and will have impacts on Falls Church, especially the eastern gateway of the city, Hillwood, Broadmont, and the Eden Center.

As proposed, the new Ring Road would directly connect Rt 50 and Rt 7/Broad St, helping drivers bypass the messy Seven Corners intersection and add sidewalks and bike lanes through the area. The first phase of the Ring Road would be the western part of the “ring.” For the city, it would intersect at the end of Hillwood and Broad St with new signalized intersections. Clearly there needs to be a mutually agreed upon route, outreach with surrounding neighbors, studies to understand traffic volume changes for Rt 7 and Hillwood, among many, many other details. The grant is for the FY26-27 timeframe, so even if the County won the grant, there is still plenty of time for that coordination.

(3) One City Center

As you may recall, we deferred the One City Center project back in October. (This is a mixed use project at the southwestern corner of Broad and Washington to S. Maple, wrapping around the existing office buildings above the 4Ps.) The majority of us felt that the project needed more work before we refer the project for review by boards and commissions, hence the deferral.

This week, we heard promising updates on a few fronts: increased affordable housing to 10% of the total units, firmer commitments on the ground floor uses, and improvements to the facades on the office buildings that would stay. I hope to see continued improvements on architecture and support from the impacted businesses before the project is back in front of us in mid December.

What’s Coming Up:

Saturday, Nov 20 at 1 pm – New Historical Marker Unveiling & Dedication (307 S. Maple)

Monday, Nov 22 – City Council Meeting*

Monday, Nov 29 at 6 pm – Downtown Holiday Lighting (Mr. Brown’s Park)

Monday, Dec 6 – City Council & School Board Joint Work Session*

Monday, Dec 13 – City Council Meeting*

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm at City Hall and livestreamed
You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings