LETTER: Another Tax Increase?

By Kathy Rice
Special to the Falls Church Times
March 15, 2014

City Manager Wyatt Shields has presented a budget that will raise our real estate tax rate 4.5 cents per $100.


We will now have, by far, the highest taxes in the Northern Virginia area!

Real estate assessments have increased 6.77 percent this year (7.83% for single family homes), which already provides the City of Falls Church with a tax increase (revenue increase), even if the tax rate stays the same.

Additionally, the new stormwater fee represents another new revenue stream for the City. With revenue already increasing from both of these sources, why should we need to also raise the tax rate? Common sense would argue the Council should lower the tax rate to balance out the assessment increase.

The Council recently presented a chart of comparative tax rates, which shows that our surrounding jurisdictions — Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria City and Loudoun County have far lower tax rates.

Falls Church City $1.305/$100 Assessed Value
Arlington County $1.0006/$100
Alexandria City $1.038/$100
Fairfax County $1.085/$100
Loudoun County $1.205/$100
Leesburg $0.192/$100 (in addition to Loudoun’s rate)
Vienna $1.2288/$100

Obviously, these larger jurisdictions are able to achieve economies of scale in providing services that Falls Church City simply can’t match. That is, unless we try to achieve some modicum of efficiency by contracting out some of the city services that are so costly to provide on a small scale.

Does Falls Church really need to have its own arborist, for example, or would we be better served by contracting out our modest arboriculture requirements to either Arlington, Fairfax County, or even a private company?

The City Council needs to go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, looking for those services that would be more efficiently provided by contracting out. We simply cannot afford to continue to provide all of these services ourselves, and raise the tax rate over and over again to pay for these services.

A neighbor asked me if I am a tea party member. Far from it! I am a teacher and my husband is a federal worker. In no way do our raises mirror the tax increases Falls Church has demanded over the past several years. And we are not alone: many in FCC are managing with extremely modest income increases.

The Council cannot continue to raise taxes in this environment. Please consider contracting out more City services!


74 Responses to “LETTER: Another Tax Increase?”

  1. Brian Rye on March 22nd, 2014 10:01 pm

    …and less small, too, Andy. So the answer to a school system losing its smallness is to add 1000 additional apartments, none of which is anchored by a Metro stop and will thus be unattractive to childless, car-less professionals who have a multitude of more convenient places to rent? As someone who also moved here for a small school system, it seems odd to watch the City intentionally mitigate its biggest competitive advantage in the marketplace. We’re trying to be Clarendon when we’re really Del Ray.

  2. Bob Burnett on March 23rd, 2014 9:03 am

    @Sajeela- very well said. My comments about people being in the equation plays to the ability for this city to support just the types of business you mention. @Brian Rye-I agree about being more creative in how parking is used (your Target Mosaic comment) I also see no reason why we insist on being a regional cut-thru with Broad St. and can’t have on-street parking from the 100 block to roughly the 500 block after 7PM and on weekends to add options to the kinds of parking struggles you mention at Dave’s. Plus-you make great points about our lack of focus on transit-oriented development for higher levels of residential. I hope WFC becomes a place where that can change. @ Lou my life goal is to be a density know-it-all and not a dense know-it-all. Maybe one day I’ll come around on the Yankees, too.

  3. James E. Schoenberger, Falls Church City on March 23rd, 2014 12:45 pm

    I think the City Council is approaching the yearly budget development/tax increase scenario exactly backwards.

    Most prudent families when planning their budget for next year would sit down and figure their income is going to increase a set amount (let’s say 3%). They would then tailor their expenses for the amount of available income, thus achieving a balanced budget. They would not do the reverse and blindly make a list of all conceivable expenses and assume that the revenue will mysteriously materialize to cover those expenses.

    In the same vein, the City Council should decide what is a reasonable increase in real estate taxes before considering expenses (again, let’s say 3%). Thus, if assessments happen to increase 6%, the real estate tax rate should be set at about 97.2% of its previous value so that the actual taxes paid increase 3% (1.06 x .972 = 1.03). If the budget was not balanced with this amount of real estate tax revenue, the Council would either have to find more revenue from other sources (new developments or fees) or cut expenses, just like a fiscally prudent family.

    Such a method promulgated in advance would give citizens some certainty about their future taxes and greatly remove this hot button issue from the public discourse.

  4. Brian Williams (Falls Church City / EDA Member) on March 23rd, 2014 1:37 pm

    James — the challenge to that approach is that a family is better able to control their expenses day-to-day. For example, as kids move into the city (something we can’t control, especially with single family homes) we are obligated to educate them. As a community we have high standards for that education, so those costs go up as student population goes up. The same goes with other services — where and how would you cut? I’m not saying it can’t be done to an extent, but it’s different than a family cutting back on vacations or eating out.

    I will say that in the conversations I’ve had with city council members, they are aware that further tax increases are painful and are trying to avoid them. It’s a struggle because there are no easy answers. In my view the city’s taxes have been artificially low for decades and now the current residents are going to have to pay for it — infrastructure improvements, new high school, etc.

    Longer-term initiatives that can drive new revenue (e.g., new developments) take years — sometimes decades — to come together. I believe we’re making progress in those efforts more recently (e.g., small area planning, increasing density). It will take time.

    All that said, I do agree with you that we can do more to project our expenses, define our priorities, agree on our constraints, and try to make it all add up in a predictable way. I’m sure there are ways to make our schools and government more efficient, it’s difficult to say exactly how much savings are possible and how to get there.

  5. Lou Mauro on March 23rd, 2014 2:20 pm

    James. Note the typical useless, opaque, Polyanna-ish “I’m sure everything will work out” nature of Brian’s comments. Embedded therein, however, are two assumptions, one of which is dead wrong and the other of which is highly debatable and questionable. He says “we” can’t control “kids” moving into the City. That is true of single family homes. It is most definitely not true of kids in (born and unborn) condos and apartments built on commercial land, all of which “we” must approve before they can rise from the ground. Somebody in authority said that current students living in City-approved condos and apartments comprise “only 30%” of the recent surge in enrollment. “Only” 30%!! That’s a lot of students, and one wonders what the Superintendent would say if that number were deducted from the current enrollment figures. (If that number is incorrect I assume that another someone in authority will correct me. In that case we may at least get an official, if not necessarily accurate, number of students living in condos and apartments.) The second assumption is that “we as a community” (don’t you just love how he speaks for all of us?) have “high standards” for education. No doubt. But what are those standards? How are they determined? And by whom? Does everyone in the “community” have an opportunity for input in determining each criterion? Does everyone want to pay for the absolute best education possible in the whole world? Or is just plain old excellent OK? Or maybe even very good?

    Bob. Haha. Very good! A wordsmith. Well, I know we disagree on density, at least on how much is appropriate for a tiny jurisdiction like the City of Falls Church with limited land and resources. But I know we agree on other things, especially: Go Nats!

  6. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on March 23rd, 2014 3:19 pm

    Brian R. – the school system isn’t any less small (well, I guess if you could the preschool the system has grown). I have no problem with there being more students – at least as it relates to my desire to live in a community with a small public school system. Where else around here is there a school system with only 4-5 schools? Or 8-10 or 20-30 for that matter? So, for what I’m looking for, these apartments will not cause the schools to lose their smallness.

    I’m still unsure what the alternative is. We could hold out for developments with no residential – which is likely to take decades (if ever) and in the meantime we’d see even higher tax rates.

    Or, we could reduce school funding in order to save money and make the schools less attractive, therefore causing the student body size to shrink.

    I’m very much against that second option and going with the first option also seems like a bad idea to me. If there are other options, I’m curious to hear about them.

    Bob, I think the state has a lot of influence over what we can do with Route 7 and Route 29. I think on street parking would be great, but I’m not sure we could get Richmond to agree.

    James, what budget should we take as the baseline with this approach? Last years? Why not the year before or five years ago? It seems arbitrary to me to pick a year and say, “the City shouldn’t spend any more money than they spent this year.”

    Lou, I’m not sure which developments should be included in “City-approved condos and apartments” – do you mean just the recent ones or all of them, like Oakwood, Merrill House, etc? Presumably, those were all City-approved at one time or another.

    This year Byron, Spectrum, Broadway, Pearson, and Read contributed 149 of the 2,427 students in the system. Of those 149, 109 came from Pearson Square – which means the other 4 mixed use developments contributed 40 students.

    The increase from 2002 (1,802) to 2014 (2,427) was 625 students, so about 24% of that increase came from the 5 mixed-use projects (only 6% came from the four if you exclude Pearson Square). Clearly, a building like Pearson Square can attract a lot of school kids – the others, don’t seem to.

  7. Brian Williams (Falls Church City / EDA Member) on March 23rd, 2014 4:39 pm

    Hi Lou. I’ll take the high road and ignore your predictable childish insults.

    Yes, the new developments add school kids (as Andy’s very specific numbers point out, not as many as most people think). They also add significant tax revenue and millions of dollars in school funding. We go around and around on this. Overall, those projects make more money for the city than they cost. They take some away in terms of kids and services, but not as much as they put in. If I give you $10 and then take $5 you can yell all you want that I took $5 but … Now, you’ll claim “yeah but taxes have GONE UP even with all these projects” and I’ll say “yes, but without them they would have gone up EVEN MORE.”

    This is the part where you point out “but it’s not all about the money, what about quality of life?” and I’m all for discussing that — but it’s a different part of the discussion.

    You always ask for numbers and specifics, so I’ll ask you for some specifics. What would you cut from the school budget to save enough money to truly impact our tax rate? Don’t give an example like fewer bus rides to sporting events. Look through the budget, identify real savings, and explain how we can cut the budget while maintaining just good — not even very good — schools.

    You think I’m thick-headed but the fact is I’m always learning and shaping my opinion, and like everyone else I would love to pay lower taxes. I sincerely hope you can find some legitimate cost savings.

  8. Lou Mauro on March 23rd, 2014 4:50 pm

    Andy. Thanks for the numbers. Finally. Don’t know where you got them but I trust you. First, to me, 625 students of the increase from 2002 ( 24 %) is HUGE. Especially considering our present circumstances, which could easily have been predicted, as some of us did, and were rudely ignored. Second, you can’t keep discounting Pearson Square. Even if it had remained condo, considering its enormous size, it would have yielded a good number of students. But, of course, as it always has, the City bowed to the wishes of the developers and foolishly let them convert to apartments. And third, you don’t mention the near future, when the projects most recently authorized by the dunderheads (all of them) on the City Council come on line: Harris Teeter (288 units, more than Pearson Sq.), Northgate (95 units), and 540 South Washington (224 units). A total of SIX HUNDRED AND SEVEN MORE APARTMENTS. What then?

  9. Lou Mauro on March 23rd, 2014 6:40 pm

    Brian. You are a nice, seemingly bright guy in person. I characterized your comments as “useless, opaque and Pollyanish.” That’s my opinion and I see no reason to change it. Anyone who takes that characterization as a personal insult is the one who is being childish. I thought we were all adults here.

    Regarding your example: my “yeah but taxes have GONE UP [I would say skyrocketed] even with all these projects” is a proven fact. Your “yes, but without them they would have gone up EVEN MORE” is predictable [there’s that word again, lol] wishful thinking. ‘Nuff said.

  10. Brian Williams (Falls Church City / EDA Member) on March 23rd, 2014 7:13 pm

    Wishful thinking? How so? Go to the city. Talk with Tom Clinton (Commissioner of the Revenue). Talk with Rick Goff (Economic Development Director). Talk with Wyatt. Ask how much BJs pays in taxes. Or Mad Fox. Or Viget. Or any other business in town that’s in a relatively new building (and most likely wouldn’t be here otherwise). I don’t think any of those businesses paying real, measurable, trackable money would call it “wishful thinking” … they’d call it “taxes.”

    As for the apartments, my understanding is that the conversion of Pearson Square from condos to apartments was all part of the historic economic meltdown that was happening at that time. You can blame the city for mismanagement (something I’ve done and will continue to do when I see it) but it seems logical to me that we truly had no other choice, other than perhaps having a half-completed building sit for years. My understanding, though, is that when you factor in the all-commercial Tax Analyst building, which was part of that project, even with all those school kids it’s a net positive for the city.

    Looking forward, look at the mix of apartment sizes with the new projects. It’s different than Pearson Square.

  11. Brian Rye on March 23rd, 2014 8:59 pm

    Thanks for the info, Andy. Around 2020, it will be interesting to look back and see what the schools’ enrollment growth will have been with and without apartments. Pearson Square is an outlier, but given its experience, I remain irritated that there was a 20% last-minute increase in the number of 2-bedroom apartments at the Harris-Teeter project. No reason for that. None.

    More generally, and I hate to keep harping on this, but the apartments were a required add-on to te grocery store because of the underground parking requirement. Well, then why not drop the underground parking requirement and allow a similar 5-6 story structure with 3 stories of parking, a major retail store, and associated ground-floor retail? A developer was willing to do that at the new Target in Merrifield, after all, and the Winter Hill and Pearson Square complexes provide plenty of nearby residential traffic. Why do we make things more problematic by forcing more expensive underground parking? It’s not necessary.

  12. Brian Rye on March 23rd, 2014 9:57 pm

    Also, the condos haven’t added much to the schools’ enrollment, but as Lou noted, that’s not particularly relevant looking forward, as the nearly 1,000 units in development or planning (including the Broad/West complex) are all apartments. The economics from a would-be buyer’s or renter’s perspective are different. Pearson Square has been excused because of its 3-bedroom units; do we know how many of their 109 students come from 3-bedroom vs. their 2 and 1-bedroom units? Given the high cost of owning a home or condo, I fully expect those with kids to be more interested in these new apartments than unmarried or childless professionals who will be more drawn to Metro-anchored buildings in Arlington, DC, or even the new buildings going up along the Silver Line.

  13. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on March 23rd, 2014 10:06 pm

    Lou, as you know, I wasn’t around when the current mixed-use projects were debated and approved. If you predicted Pearson Square would have .47 students per unit and the other 4 would have only .10 then that really is impressive.

    Nowhere did I discount Pearson – a couple of times I pointed out how different it was from the others (which I think is important).

    We’ll have to see how many students end up in the new developments. I’m going to guess 90 from 607 new units.

    Brian R., I know some people have said the apartments were a necessary result of the underground parking – but I don’t think any of it is as simple as that. If a developer had offered to build just a Harris Teeter with surface parking the net fiscal impact on the City would be much lower than what this project will be. A development like what you describe might have had a decent fiscal impact – but there weren’t any developers proposing to build such a thing. It’s tempting to compare to the Mosaic in Merrifield, but the density of housing in the immediate vicinity up there is significantly more than the Harris Teeter site – maybe that influenced what developers wanted to build here?

  14. Lou Mauro on March 23rd, 2014 10:53 pm

    Andy. If you did not discount Pearson Square, I apologize. Perhaps I confused you with your brother. If so, I apologize for that too. Lol.

    Brian W. I can’t tell whether you actually don’t get it, or you are deliberately being obtuse. Neither you, or Rick, or Tom (it’s actually Cathy who collects our taxes) or Wyatt can say for a FACT that taxes would have been higher without the condos and apartments. Because that situation unfortunately has not happened. You can guess or estimate or assume, but you cannot say so for a FACT. Whereas my statement that taxes are much higher than before the existence of the Broadway, Byron, Spectrum, Read Building, and Pearson Square IS A FACT. Period. So maybe, after the next 607 units are built, we should try an all-commercial approach?

  15. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on March 24th, 2014 7:00 am

    Lou you’ve pointed out before that we can’t know for a fact that taxes would be higher if the mixed use projects hadn’t been built. I find it to be a strange way to think about things. While technically true it seems to reflect an unwillingness to think about and analyze a situation.

    If it’s important to know the fiscal impact of these projects then we should try to look at their costs and revenues. We should try and figure things out. The City has done this and I believe their assessment of their impact. As far as I can tell you’re unwilling to try and understand the impact. So, it’s fine to keep making your point that taxes are higher now than before but I really don’t understand your point or how it matters in this debate.

  16. Bob Burnett on March 24th, 2014 7:17 am

    Brian R.-I’m glad you’ve kept mentioning Mosaic for the way parking works . In addition to above ground for Target there’s the above ground multi-story shared parking too. Additionally, they’ve added on-street parking. Plus-I think their approach to density is a good model. Parking structures are ringed with boutique/specialty retail, services and restaurants. There’s a multi-story hotel in the mix, a small plaza adjoining a movie theatre/restaurant. The on-street parking and well-done sidewalks contribute to a very pleasant walking experience. Finally, a variety of residential options are built into the retail areas or are in close proximity. In terms of Falls Church scale, some of the building height would be deemed substantial (in part due to the way parking is above ground) but the sidewalk experience is exemplary so the focus is on the pleasant street experience more than the surrounding building height.

  17. Dudley McDonald, Mechanicsville, VA on March 24th, 2014 8:49 am

    Realtors have always used ‘location, location, location’ as the prime selling point. FC realtors have ALWAYS added ‘schools, schools, schools’ to the mix. Everyone who lives in FC loves to add ‘quality of life’ to the equation. Few like to add ‘real estate taxes’ to the equation. Somewhere should be a balanced equation that includes ‘value added’ to it.

    Good luck finding that happy balanced equation of living in the City of Falls Church, Va. It remains quite a favorable location for living the good life.

  18. John Wesley Brett/Falls Church City Schools on March 24th, 2014 3:14 pm

    I just wanted to share a document and some information which may be of interest to some of you in this wonderful discussion. We actually do a lot of data work in tracking where our students are coming from and are likely to come from in the future.

    Here is the latest Falls Church housing information we have: http://goo.gl/Xf3fFn
    It is also available on our website at http://www.fccps.org/budget

    We’ve shared it during our budget work sessions. But there are some who still may not realize it exists so please feel free to share it if you find it helpful.

    Finally, in the last 12-18 months we’ve also been tracking students by 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments. For instance currently at:
    1 Bedroom – 288 units – 18 students
    2 Bedroom – 104 units – 69 students
    3 Bedroom – 40 units – 71 students

    1 Bedroom – 63 units – 7 students
    2 Bedroom – 141 units – 61 students
    3 Bedroom – 25 units – 22 students

    We are tracking and analyzing these types of data to help us project as accurately as possible the enrollment impact likely when new developments such as Northgate come on line this Spring – or when Lincoln and Rushmark both come on line in 2016.

  19. Brian Rye on March 24th, 2014 4:05 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing that information, John. For all the talk about Pearson Square’s 3-bedroom apartments, it’s interesting to see that there aren’t that many of those 3-BR units and that the largest nominal number of students comes from the 2-BR apartments. I’ve read elsewhere that there are 109 students at Pearson Square; your number is 90. Is the 109 incorrect, or did you use some sort of longer-term average instead of a current-year number?

    I confess I’m not familiar with the enrollment history of Oakwood. Regarding the 158 students you reference coming from that complex, is that a historically high, low, or average number? What drives those changes, and what have recent trends been?

  20. Sajeela Ramsey on March 24th, 2014 4:10 pm

    Yes, really excellent info. Similar question to Brian’s. Do you have figures for the housing behind Taco Bell off S. West Street? (sorry don’t know the name of the complex…)

  21. Brian Rye on March 24th, 2014 4:37 pm

    I think you may be referring to The Fields, but others who are more knowledgable may correct that:
    While we’re at it, I guess there are other apartments around the City, too (Merrill House, Roosevelt Towers, etc.).

  22. Sajeela Ramsey on March 24th, 2014 4:56 pm

    Yes, that’s it, “the Fields”.

    I really hope someone who is good at this does even more of a comprehensive study on all apartments that are part of our tax base, plus affordable housing, etc., so we can figure out for certain if they are a boon or a bust when you consider variables such as school children, burden on the infrastructure, etc.

    I am rotten at these kinds of studies but I can conceive of some of the factors that add into a complex social system, and with everyone pitching in with what they think are variables we should consider, I think we can end up much more sure of our positions on this topic. Could be empowering. Thanks again to John for getting this data to us, and to whomever may decide to pick up the ball with or after him.

  23. John Wesley Brett / Falls Church City Schools on March 24th, 2014 5:56 pm

    First, thank you for your kind words.
    Regarding The Fields, Merrill House, Roosevelt Towers, etc. – all are listed in the data sheet I shared the link: http://goo.gl/Xf3fFn
    This report is updated frequently throughout the year and is current as of last week.

    Regarding the Pearson “bedroom” discrepancy: You are correct. The numbers I gave you were from the October 1st count. 109 is correct with the following updated breakout:
    1 bedroom – 63 units – 10 students
    2 bedroom – 141 units – 77 students
    3 bedroom – 25 units – 22 students

    Due to the time intensity of gathering ‘bedroom’ data, we are only doing these surveys for Oakwood and Pearson – where we have large pockets of enrollment – in preparation/anticipation for the other large pockets (Northgate, Lincoln, Rushmark).

    Regarding trends at Oakwood: Some history. If you look at the historical data in the housing spreadsheet provided, the compiling of this data began in 1989 by a couple of school board members who thought it important to do every 5 years or so. And thankfully they did or we would have no view like this of the past. When Dr. Jones arrived she and the School Board made it a priority to have this data gathered annually and updated frequently.

    So, long story short, we really don’t have enough data to identify a trend. But this data is incredibly valuable for us in showing us what is here now … and what is likely to come.

  24. Brian Rye on March 24th, 2014 8:42 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Brett. It’s interesting that students from SFHs grew by just 22% over a 12-year period from 1,225 in 2002 to 1,499 in 2014. In 2014, you have 177 students from Oakwood, 109 from Pearson Square, 90 from The Fields, 62 from Merrill House, 52 from Roosevelt Towers, but just 39 from the Broadway, Spectrum and Byron combined.

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