CANDIDATE Q&A: Nader Baroukh
April 18, 2012
The Falls Church Times recently invited each candidate running in the May 1 election for Falls Church City Council to respond to a seven-part questionnaire. Today we publish the responses of Nader Baroukh, who currently serves as Mayor of Falls Church City.
[Baroukh's campaign website is www.naderbaroukh.com.]
1. Why do you want to be on City Council?
I want to continue the work we’ve done to stabilize the City’s financial situation.
When I ran for Council in 2008, my primary focus was the City’s approach to budgeting and real estate development. I was concerned that our actions in those areas were having a very negative effect on our finances, schools and services.
At that time, the Council’s normal budget process was year-to-year planning and forecasting, which precluded any real long-term planning and led to a number of future unanticipated budget shortfalls. I raised concerns about it, as did others. During my tenure on the City Council, we’ve moved to a multi-year budget modeling process, which provides better forecasting and thereby more stable planning. It allows us to be more proactive and review the City’s finances holistically, rather than considering expenses independently, on a year-by-year basis, and reactively. Since I became Mayor, we have provided the City Manager early budget guidance, which has allowed more time for community input and necessary modifications to the budget.
Regarding real estate development, I felt the City’s approach was not very holistic. The Council was approving virtually every proposed project in a vacuum, without considering how the individual projects collectively would change Falls Church in terms of impacting our schools, finances, and the general economy. Since then we’ve begun a process of area planning, which will create a redevelopment blueprint for the City– I’ll say more on that under Question 2.
As a City we’ve made progress in both of these areas, and I am running again to continue that work. In respect to the budget, I will continue to work to find the best possible balance for all. The schools are important, city services are important, city staff, infrastructure, our fund balance — are all important. There are lots of interests to consider, and we need to do right by all of them. It can be very tricky to assemble that puzzle, but it’s critical that we do it in a manner that weighs all of our priorities, and I am committed to doing that as we go forward.
2. Do you support the City’s current “area planning” effort and redevelopment of our commercial corridors? If not, why not? If so, what areas of the City would you focus on, and what kinds of development would you like to see there?
Yes, I am a big advocate of area planning, and I have been very supportive of our recent movement to an area planning approach. Basically, area planning is a process in which you consider the development of an entire area rather than focus on an individual project. In area planning, you step back and ask, “What do we, as a City, want to achieve in this area?” and then try to use new construction to achieve those goals. That contrasts with the project-by-project approach, which relies more on the vision of developers and what they want to achieve. As I mentioned above, we previously took the latter approach, which I think was flawed. Since I became Mayor, we have moved to an area planning approach, and a tremendous amount of work is now occurring in that regard.
I am very excited about our prospects using the area planning approach. The City of Falls Church has incredible potential, based upon our geographic location alone. When you consider that we lie within the Capital Beltway and have I-66 and two Metro Stations on our borders and are criss-crossed by several major state highways, it’s obvious that the possibilities are great. The areas around the East Falls Church Metro Station and North Washington Street are priorities, as is the commercial area of Broad Street.
As to the kinds of development that should be there, I don’t want to try to dictate the specifics. What I want is that combination of office, retail, restaurant and targeted residential that creates energy and synergy. It should be walkable, but also accessible by car, which means it must have aspects such as wide sidewalks for the pedestrians and inviting public spaces, as well as efficient and available parking garages for the drivers.
As we do all this, we must protect the things we don’twant to change. We have one of the best public school systems in the nation, but one that already is under pressure from a growing student population, so our development strategy must not overwhelm our schools. We have great places like Cherry Hill Park and the W&OD Trial which we must protect, and wonderful residential neighborhoods that should be preserved.
I think we can achieve this. In fact, I’m very confident that we will. We have a lot going for us, and we are doing the work to make it possible. I think we will have some very good area-planned developments in coming years, and I’m very excited about it.
3. What transportation improvements should the City make and why?
A smooth and efficient transportation system is an immense benefit to any community. Think of places you’ve visited with good transportation, and you typically have a favorable impression of those places and want to return. Conversely, if you think of places with poor transportation that give you a negative impression, you likely don’t want to go back. As I mentioned above, the City of Falls Church is blessed to be at the confluence of major transportation networks. What I want to do is utilize those networks to the fullest. There may be a time when we want to create new networks, and I’m not opposed to that. But first, I want to squeeze more value out of what we already have, and I want to find the most effective and least expensive way to do it.
In my view, that means two things. First, we need to improve our public parking so that it’s easy for people to visit, shop, and eat. That means ensuring accessible parking garages convenient to the major thoroughfares. Second, we need to facilitate the use of Metro to allow its users to visit our commercial areas. I think we can do that through “circulators” running between the two Metro stations. Not a George bus approach – that was too big and expensive. A couple of smaller vehicles running constantly between the Metro stops would, for example, allow auto-less DC residents to easily catch a concert at the State Theatre and help resident commuters cut their travel time. Future developments can help fund, expand and run these connector buses, which will create the needed synergy. In my view, these two improvements are the low-hanging fruit of transportation, and I would like to make them happen as soon as possible.
4. What should the City do regarding the unfunded liability of teacher pensions?
This is a very significant issue – its importance goes beyond the schools to possibly affect the financial strength of the City itself. Several years ago pension benefits were awarded without the necessary underlying funding. The State has resisted providing the necessary money to fund the liability, so City taxpayers could be on the hook. If not resolved, it could result in a tax increase or cuts in City services. Proceeds from selling the water system are a possible source, however, the amount of any proceeds remains an unknown at this point. For now, we must closely monitor the liability situation, be careful to avoid making it worse, and push the State for assistance in resolving the issue.
I think this points to the importance of closer coordination of the City and School budgets, as well as improved planning and forecasting. One improvement the Council has made is to work with the School Board to develop multi-year projection of the City’s financial situation (multi-year modeling). That change has helped stabilize the City’s overall finances. This multi-year planning and modeling will also help to facilitate long-term City and school infrastructure needs.
5. How do you propose to address recurring flooding issues experienced by some residents and improve storm water management throughout the City?
This is a long-standing problem that we’ve been working on for the last few years since I’ve been on Council. What is happening is that our stormwater system in some areas of the City can’t handle the runoff in heavy rain. Partially it’s an infrastructure issue, and partially it’s a watershed issue, but the result is that water backs up into residents’ yards and basements, and it’s a real burden. When the ground is saturated, it’s even worse. This has been happening for some time, but it’s gotten worse in some areas over the years, and now we are working to resolve it. We’ve analyzed the issue to understand the basics, like where the water drains from and to, and what can alleviate the problem area by area. While I’ve been on the Council, we’ve increased maintenance and made improvements to the stormwater system.
We also have adopted a Watershed Management Plan designed to make further improvements. That’s our roadmap for meeting watershed management needs and regulatory obligations for the next five to ten years. The goal is to reduce flooding, restore and maintain a healthy aquatic ecosystem, and cost-effectively comply with state and federal water quality and storm water management regulations. I am also supportive of finding dedicated funding to meet our challenges including establishing an enterprise fund. I’m optimistic that we will provide relief to hard-hit areas, and as we continue we will be assessing the impact to ensure we’re making headway. Those affected simply must have relief. I’m committed to helping them get it.
6. Should the City sell its water system? How should any proceeds be used?
Several years ago an earlier City Council entered into litigation against Fairfax Water over what the City viewed as an unjust encroachment on its service territory. Unfortunately, we lost the litigation and in subsequent litigation we have suffered court-imposed limitations on our ability to take a return on our investment. As a result, our water system is today a non-performing asset. I would like to see that asset converted into a benefit, and therefore I support the potential sale of the system. I think that is the best possible stewardship of the City’s assets on behalf of our taxpayers and customers.
It’s too early to decide how any proceeds would be used given that we have just recently requested bids for the purchase of the system. However, any proceeds from the sale should be used to help secure the City’s long-term finances. One option is investing the proceeds in the City pension funds, which will provide the highest return on investment, reduce the required City contribution to those pension funds, and thereby free up significant financial resources to meet the challenges faced by rising pension costs, and City and school capital needs. This course of action could mitigate expected future tax increases for City tax payers. Other options include using the proceeds to pay for capital improvement projects and school construction.
7. Are there any practices or programs you have seen in other communities – nearby or far away – that should be adopted by the City of Falls Church?
Another program we are reviewing is revenue sharing between the City and the schools. Basically, revenue sharing provides the schools a percentage of City revenue, which allows them to enjoy the benefits of economic good times on a percentage basis. The question about revenue sharing is what happens in the bad times when the formula gives the schools a big drop in their budget – or when City revenues remain fairly constant but enrollment surges, as it has this year. The difficulty is designing an agreement that works in all circumstances. Jurisdictions such as Arlington and Manassas Park have moved to revenue sharing, and we are analyzing their experience to gain insights. I am committed to providing our schools the resources they need to continue providing the excellent education to our students, and to balance those needs with City services, City employees, our legal obligations with pensions and benefits, our City fund balance and all of the other requirements we face. It is a challenge to do all of that, but I’m confident we can, and we certainly will not be shy about learning lessons from other communities anywhere we can find them. I am very optimistic about the City’s future and look forward to being a part of it.
This is the second of seven candidate questionnaire responses published by the Falls Church Times, and we would like to thank Mr. Baroukh and all the candidates for their participation. Below are links to the responses of each candidate.
The candidates also have provided responses for the Voters Guide of the League of Women Voters and the Candidate Q&A of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society. We encourage all registered voters to review these materials and vote on Tuesday May 1.
By Falls Church Times Staff
April 18, 2012