Updates from Letty – March 30, 2018 – Budget Edition #3

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,

Happy spring! While half of the Little City is away on spring break, we had some big news in town this week. If you haven’t seen it already, US News and World Report ranked Falls Church as the #1 Healthiest Community, out of 3000 communities in the US. Caveating that health and wellness often correlate to socioeconomic status (and as a whole, our community is quite affluent), I think we should be proud of this ranking and the investments and priorities that are behind this ranking. You’ve often heard me talk about improvements to quality of life and vibrancy like walkability – having good places to walk/bike to and ensuring easy ways to get there for everyone, investments in our parks and green space, environment and sustainability goals… For the breakdown of how we got the #1 spot, this interactive chart shows the 10 categories that contributed to our overall high score and you can see how our top notch education system, population health, economy, public safety, and infrastructure earned top scores. Of note is the housing score – which was quoted in the article as a common issue that plague other top communities. (More on that later.)

The other big news was our unanimous vote on the first reading of the budget with a proposed tax rate increase of 5.5 cents and what that means. I’ll share my thoughts below on why I supported 5.5 cents at this point in the budget process and key issues going forward.

Finally, a final media plug – FCC-TV interviewed me recently for a new show called “The Inner Loop” which is all about Falls Church issues. You can watch my interview all about city finances – the budget, CIP, taxes – on YouTube and it will air on FCC-TV (RCN 2, COX 11, Verizon 35) next Wednesday and Thursday at 530 pm.

I would love to hear your thoughts about our ranking, city finances, priorities in the upcoming budget vote, or other topics. You can always email me or see me at my next office hours on April 16.


What Happened This Week:

(1) Pinwheel Garden Planting – this week, we planted our 3rd annual community “pinwheel garden” recognizing April as Child Abuse Prevention Month (also Sexual Assault Prevention Month). Pinwheels represent what we want for every childhood – happy, carefree, and safe. In the era of #metoo, increasing awareness and maintaining vigilance that crimes to children and women can happen anywhere, and then believing them, is a first step. Check out the garden which will be up throughout April at the entrance to Cherry Hill Park.


(2) First reading votes on budget, CIP, maximum advertised tax rate – we voted 7-0 on the first reading for the set of FY19 budget items. For those new to the budget or following city business in general, we take 2 votes for each ordinance, budget included. The first reading on the budget ordinances is to advertise public hearings and the maximum tax rate, which will be set at our final second vote on April 23.

As you recall from my last two updates on the budget (update #1 and update #2), we have a big unknown about the budget (WMATA) and I’ve continued to be be concerned about macroeconomic factors + the risks involved in taking on our big CIP. On WMATA first – while we have good news that Maryland and DC have voted to put in their share of WMATA funding, the Governor of Virginia and General Assembly may still make amendments on the budget that will alleviate the burden of funding of WMATA from local governments. These amendments will be final potentially as late as June, but we are hopeful we will know more before our final vote in April. Because of this uncertainty, out of the 5.5 cents  that recommended by the City Manager, 2.5 cents is the “worst case scenario” needed for WMATA and the main reason why I voted for the full 5.5 cents at this point. To advertise a lower rate, without more information about WMATA, feels irresponsible.

I also voted for 5.5 cents because we have only had one work session and one meeting into the budget process – I have more questions and I think we have more work to do! Take note of the budget timelines below. We have two more work sessions, two public hearings, and a town hall planned in the remaining 4 of 6 weeks of the budget process. See this link for the running list of Q&A so far.

I have been disappointed that several high priority items are not funded at all or not yet funded at the levels I believe are important for the community:

1) Senior Tax Abatement. While an expansion of abatement is built into the budget, when we compare our program as a whole to our neighbors, I think we’ll find that we are far more stringent in both income limits and allowable abatement amounts. When our tax rate is that much higher and planned to increase farther, we need to be thoughtful about our abatement and deferral strategies vs what we can afford to do vs bigger jurisdictions. To quote Nancy Vincent, our director of Health and Human Services from the US News and World Report article, “There’s a group of low-income folks, and quite a few low-income seniors in the city. These folks are an important part of the community and culture of the city, and it would be a huge loss for them not to live here.”

2) Affordable Housing. We have a policy of that 6% of units to be offered as “affordable” in new developments, but that strategy is not doing enough and keeping up with the loss of affordable and market rate rental housing. Housing affordability continues to be a key concern for the entire region, and especially in Falls Church where a third of us are “severely cost burdened” by the cost of housing (ie, 1/3 of our income goes towards housing). Note – sometimes affordable housing gets a bad rep – what is being discussed is workforce housing -ie, housing for everyone – people who work in the city like our public safety officers, teachers, restaurant servers, etc should be able to afford to live locally. While we consider options for adding more affordable and diverse types of housing, preserving existing housing should be a top (and most cost efficient) priority and we have the opportunity to do so with The Fields. I expect more discussion in our budget work sessions to determine how we can protect the affordability status of the Fields and other options elsewhere.

3) Traffic calming and walkability – while the budget does fund the Neighborhood Traffic Calming program at the requested levels, the funding source could be in jeopardy depending on WMATA funding. And almost as regularly as I hear about traffic calming and taxes, I hear concerns about the state of our sidewalks and crosswalks especially in residential areas so I’d like to see a greater investment there.

Overall, as with every budget year, I expect we will have to make hard tradeoffs, but I think this is a perfect year to start making investments in broader city needs like the ones above. We actually have the perfect storm of conditions – with flat student enrollment, strong revenue growth, and leaner operating budgets (assuming WMATA needs will come in below the worst case scenario) we have a fortunate combination to create savings that help fund these items and conservatively leave enough taxing capacity in the next few years, with some larger unknowns and risks on the horizon as we take on an ambitious CIP. My hope is that in our final vote on April 23, we will come in below the 5.5 cents increase AND we will be able to take care of the overall health of the city and its sustainability.

(3) Other news – quick notes:

  • Note that nearly all of City Hall has relocated to 400 N. Washington for the City Hall renovation project for the rest of this 2018.
  • April 9th is a big meeting – besides public hearings about the budget, we’re scheduled to take our final vote on the Broad and Washington project (which will have a brief staff report at our work session next week) and a vote on the Spring 2018 set of bonds including – the first of 3 GMHS bonds, Library, and City Hall projects.
  • Next week’s April 2nd work session is jam packed (see agenda link below), so planning a 7 pm start to accommodate the hefty agenda

What’s Coming Up:

  • April 2 – City Council Work Session (note 7 pm start time)
  • April 8 – “Sunday Series” Town Hall Meeting (GMHS/WFC + FY19 Budget) at 2 pm
  • April 9 – City Council Meeting at 730 pm
  • April 16 – Letty’s Office Hours (9 am) – The Happy Tart
  • April 16 – City Council Work Session at 730 pm
  • April 23 – City Council Meeting (final budget adoption)