Updates from Letty – October 9, 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 City Council work session was a potpourri of civic business, something for everyone:

  • Year end financial results, with the obvious punchline that many revenues in the 4th quarter of FY20 were severely impacted by COVID…with one exception;
  • Two of the top community priorities – traffic calming and stormwater and proposed bond issuance to begin funding the latter;
  • The latest on Broad and Washington project which is scheduled for its first votes next Tuesday.

A few call outs for next week: Monday is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Every year, I share this cartoon as a reminder of the importance of grappling with multiple perspectives in our history, not just the white-washed version. City Hall is closed in observance of the holiday and there will be no in-person, early voting on Monday (side note: as of yesterday, we had a whopping 38% voter turnout already!) Our City Council meeting is also moved to Tuesday night, where we’ll be piloting live public comment on a new virtual meeting platform. Read more and sign up here if you’d like to speak during our meeting. And of course, you can continue emailing us if you’d rather stick with written public comment.

Take care,

What Happened This Week

(1) FY20 Year End Report – TL;DR version:

  • Revenues came in $2.1M short, but with the vacancy and spending freeze implemented in the spring, we also had $3M in underspending, resulting in a $900K net underspending or “surplus”
  • Local revenues make up 25% of the city’s revenues. As expected, meals and hotel taxes were hardest hit categories. In the last 3 months of the fiscal year, meals tax came in between 35% to 67% of normal revenues and hotel taxes came in at approximately 10% of normal.
  • Surprising result: sales tax, boosted by grocery sales and internet sales in Q4, exceeded the budget by 14.4% and grew 7.5% over last year.
  • What will we do about the $900K underspending/surplus? As this is considered one-time money, we have informal policies that it can only be spent on one-time needs. Staff recommends $200K to be allocated to Next Gen 911 upgrades that we couldn’t fund earlier and the remainder to be put in fund balance to prepare for more financial uncertainty ahead.
  • Takeaways: while we’ve weathered the storm so far, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. These results show that our local businesses are clearly suffering – so keep spending local! With less money to go around, more competing demands with pandemic impacts, high debt service obligations, and continued uncertainty when the economy will recover – we expect the FY22 budget deliberations that start this winter will be tough.

For the folks who want the details on the financials, including the slides and staff report.

(2) Neighborhood Traffic Calming

Good progress: Since we’ve long asked to “clear the queue” of the backlog of projects – out of the 9 active projects in the NTC queue, 3 projects have been completed, 1 will be closed due to not achieving majority support from residents of the street, and the remaining 5 projects are under the community input phase. See here for designs under development. I know there is still more demand for immediate traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures, especially in anticipation of the current plan for elementary students to return to school in November – so this continues to be a priority for me.

Funding: We also supported releasing $350K in traffic calming funds that had been put on hold in the spring due to the pandemic, so now the 5 projects remaining in the queue can proceed. In addition you may recall we secured $636K in federal grant money, which will be dedicated to a bundled traffic calming project to collectively address all the streets off Rt 29.

(3) Stormwater and Proposed Bond Issuance

Staff is recommending we refinance $11M in old debt to take advantage of current low interest rates and pair that refinancing with a new bond issuance of $750K – for sewer ($250k) and stormwater ($500K) projects, previously discussed. The refinance will not extend the term of the bonds and result in annual savings, so will be a prudent move.

On stormwater, the proposed $500K in debt to be issued this fall would pay for engineering and design plans for 3-4 of the 6 projects evaluated by the Stormwater Task Force.

I continue to have reservations with the current approach where we only add or widen stormater pipes at 6 limited flooding locations. To be clear, I support stormwater investment as it’s a critical part of city infrastructure, but would like to see a more comprehensive and equitable plan that is not just about adding more pipes to carry water elsewhere. “Gray infrastructure” (ie, more pipes) needs to be coupled with upstream development policy reform – especially in residential neighborhoods, enforcement of such policies, penalties for exceeding maximum lot coverage or impervious surface limits, stronger incentives and credits to encourage more to put in “green infrastructure” to do their part, including preservation of mature trees. We should also be regularly re-mapping impervious surface calculations across the city so everyone pays their fair share.

Taking on these broader strategies is harder, but will set us up to be more resilient in the face of increasing frequency and severity of flooding – beyond pipes that are designed to only handle the current “10 year flood” standard.

(4) Broad and Washington Project

We heard brief updates from the developer since our last discussion in September: they’ve secured 65 replacement parking spaces in two parking lots across Park Place for the 3-6 months period during construction where the current onsite parking won’t be available and improvements to architecture. We expect more updates next Tuesday.

As you recall, the Broad and Washington project is a mixed use project with a Whole Foods anchoring the corner, apartments above, a new home for Creative Cauldron, and a proposal to buy the city parking lot on Park Place.

I’ve been asked several times about the “super-majority” and what that means. The project is currently scheduled for two votes next Tuesday night: a referral of the project to boards and commissions and a referral of the land sale to the Planning Commission. The terms of land sale, which we’ve only been able to discuss in closed session, are now public and posted in our Tuesday agenda. To advance, both of next Tuesday’s votes only need simple majorities. If the project proceeds, it will be reviewed by boards and commissions, their comments are shared with the developer, and then there is usually a final submission of plans by the developer. From there, the project and the land sale will be up for a second round of votes, with the final land sale vote requiring a super-majority (3/4 of the elected members of City Council, or 5 votes).

What’s Coming Up

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings including virtual Board & Commission meetings: https://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings