City Looking for ‘New Normal’ on Budget
By GEORGE BROMLEY
Falls Church Times Staff
February 2, 2011
City Manager Wyatt Shields advised residents at Monday evening’s town hall meeting that the days of 4.5% revenue growth are over and that Falls Church now is trying to define the “new normal” in the course of developing the FY 2012 budget. That may be a difficult task, as the City faces a projected budget gap of nearly $2.3 million between anticipated expenses and revenues.
As over 60% of the City’s revenue is derived from property taxes, the tax rate may rise from the current $1.24 in order to balance the budget. However, many of the attendees at the meeting expressed a willingness to pay higher taxes to sustain City services, for which they had unanimously high praise.
Education costs are the largest single budget item at 43%. Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin has recommended a transfer request of $27.4 million, reflecting a very slight decrease over the previous year, but she cautioned Monday that unrest in Egypt may result in more students in City schools as State Department families temporarily relocate from overseas to Oakwood Apartments or Pearson Square. Currently she projects an enrollment of 2,133 for the next school year, an increase of 3.8%. The City’s cost per pupil is $12,862, a substantial decline from four years ago, when the cost was $15,004.
Public safety costs are next highest at 11%. In response to a resident’s question, Mr. Shields stated that the unpaid detention center expenses due Arlington County have been included in the FY 2012 budget. These costs have been estimated at over $2.2 million, covering charges incurred during FY 2008-10.
The city manager also was questioned regarding the claims recently filed against the City’s water system by Fairfax County residents. Mr. Shields described the actions as “a whole new area of law for which there is no precedent.” “The matter is under review and we are working with the plaintiffs’ lawyers who have brought the claims forward,” he said. Concerning the now resolved litigation with Fairfax Water, Mr. Shields advised that the City is in compliance with Judge Ney’s order that it can no longer take a return on equity from the water fund. He said the impact of this ruling was factored into the FY 2011 budget.
Both Mr. Shields and Dr. Berlin acknowledged that the recent budget constraints have had an impact on the workforce. The city manager stated that there are 12% fewer employees than there were 18 months ago, resulting in greater workloads for those who remain. He said that a continuation of the two year wage freeze is under consideration and that managers have been instructed to “work through 10% reductions on a programmatic level.” “Our whole organization is being transformed through this recession,” he said. “It’s a strain, but employees are very motivated.”
Dr. Berlin said that many school employees, who also have had wages frozen, are taking second jobs. Some employees also have had days reduced, resulting in reductions in take home pay. She maintained there has been no impact on the quality of classroom instruction but that there has been an decline in morale. The superintendent noted that other local jurisdictions are proposing 1% to 3% raises. “I am always concerned about people leaving,” she said. “But people have come to Falls Church to teach due to the smaller class sizes, for the community, and knowing, when they’re hired, where their classroom will be.”
In his concluding remarks, Mayor Nader Baroukh identified three interlinked factors as driving the budget process for the next fiscal year and beyond: managing economic development, specifically sector planning ,which he recommended begin sooner than later; determining the shape of the “new normal” for Falls Church’s operations, both at city hall and in the schools; and finding the proper balance between fund balance maintenance and the debt service necessary for capital improvements projects.
Noting that there would be considerable discussion about tax rates in the coming weeks, the mayor also called on residents to ask themselves whether they would be willing to pay for the same services if they were just coming into the community, as compared to rates established in the neighboring jurisdictions.
Citizens’ Comments Encouraged
The city manager and the mayor encouraged residents to provide feedback on services, both those which they believe must be maintained and those which might be reduced or eliminated. Videos of both meetings are available at the City’s website under “City Webcasts.” A sample response form and a full slide presentation also are available as part of the meetings’ agendas.
Budget Calendar – City and Schools
2/08 – Public Hearing (School Board)
2/12 – School Board work session
2/15 – School Board presents budget request
2/23 – Planning Commission’s recommendations on Capital Improvements Program
3/14 – City Manager’s recommendations to City Council
3/19 – Saturday Town Hall meeting
3/28 – Public Hearing (Council)
4/11 – Public Hearing (Council)
4/16 – Saturday Town Hall meeting
4/25 – Public Hearing (Council)
4/25 – City Council adopts FY 2012 budget
7/01 – FY 2012 Begins
By George Bromley
February 2, 2011