MAN ABOUT TOWN: Get Ready – It’s Coming to an End

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 25, 2010

James Thurber (who as a boy spent the summer of 1902 in Falls Church) wrote about the “Get Ready Man”: – a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. “Get ready! Get read-y,” he would bellow. “The worllld is coming to an End! “

And yes, I realize that, in Little Falls Church, I’m the modern-day “Get Ready Man.”  That wasn’t the plan when the Man About Town began his weekly musings more than a year ago. The column was intended to be light and whimsical, featuring such City phenomena as the duck tree and what-not, with political comment confined to the City’s ugliest buildings or the failed GEORGE bus.

But the introduction of the Falls Church Times dispelled my innocence (ignorance) of City politics. After only a short exposure to City Hall I was like Adam and Eve eating the apple: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.”

My first “Get Ready” proclamation came on September 21, 2009, when I wrote “Why Falls Church Needs Arlington.” I noted that Falls Church City’s tax rate, at $1.07, was “almost 25 percent higher” than Arlington’s. A year later, our rate is $1.24 and rising. But the tax rate is only a symptom of our City’s systemic problem.

When Hollywood Video filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the board of directors did what every board does in those circumstances: they fired the CEO and announced a restructuring plan. But it didn’t work, because Hollywood Video’s problems were not due to bad management — they were experiencing a “who moved my cheese” situation. The Internet and Netflix spelled the death of brick and mortar video rental stores, and the next to fall will be Blockbuster, which began bankruptcy proceedings last month — concurrent with firing its CEO and announcing a restructuring plan.

Falls Church City is little different. We’ve fired our CEO (mayor and City Council leadership) and begun a restructuring plan. The City’s been downsizing for more than a year, and recently began outsourcing garbage pickup. And if you believe what the ex-mayor’s husband writes (a risky proposition, but he does have a good source), our sheriff’s duties could be transferred to Arlington County and our Commissioner of the Revenue and Treasurer offices could be combined.

It won’t work. Downsize and outsource all you want – the City remains unsustainable.

People refuse to accept this, arguing that Falls Church is no different from hundreds or even thousands of other municipalities currently struggling to balance their books. But as I’ve been shouting through my megaphone, Falls Church is different – very different – from almost any other municipality in the country.  Creating that difference is the state of Virginia, which historically has required its cities to be independent of surrounding counties. That works, more or less, for larger cities like Alexandria, but the knockout punch for small cities came in 1987, when the General Assembly imposed a moratorium on city annexation of county land. (Not that it matters for Falls Church – our opportunity to grow was lost years earlier when Fairfax County developed sufficiently to offer competing services.)

The problem in a nutshell is this: no viable municipality can fund services primarily on the backs of its households. A commercial component – the larger the better – is required. Normally, a commercial sector grows naturally within a municipality. But little Falls Church’s 2.2 square miles are largely residential and becoming more so. We shop across our borders, in Fairfax and Arlington counties, and no “restructuring” can change that.

Unsolvable problems create stress. As our plumber commented upon our purchase of a 1923 beach house, “the fun is just beginning.”  Yes.  Or in the case of Falls Church, the fireworks are just beginning. The acrid smell of gunpowder will be particularly pungent during encounters between the City Council and the School Board. This is most unfortunate, because these are good people. But the School Board faces rising enrollment and a shrinking budget, while the City Council needs to raise the tax rate another 5 cents just to get us through the fiscal year.

And that’s just the beginning — there’s little provision for capital improvements, not to mention school expansion, and City pension contributions are running low as well. Add it all up and you need at least a $1.50 tax rate. Whoops, forgot about the pesky 12 percent fund balance requirement which is still running on empty. Better aim for $1.55.

Foreseeing this, and remembering the English Queen Mary’s marriage for political purposes to Prince Philip of Spain, the Man About Town urged that, to forestall a school war, the former School Board chairman be made the new mayor. Instead, my friend and neighbor Nader Baroukh was anointed – something I wouldn’t have wished on him. He’s doing a great job and I salute him, but, oh dear, the fun is just beginning.

Get readd-y.

October 25, 2010 


15 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Get Ready – It’s Coming to an End”

  1. Steven Valley on October 25th, 2010 5:57 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more George.

    But… doesn’t any changes in a city borders have to be voted on and approved by the VA state legislature? Not that it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen, it would just be a lengthy and involved process? And time is a resource that the city doesn’t have. Being a part of Arlington though makes sense, and in all honesty is a better option that being sucked up by Fairfax, but would they (Arlington) want us?

    I think people think this concept is nutty because the steps leading us to this point in time requires acknowledging past mistakes, and a certain amount of resignation to a darker future. The nuttier part of this though is that I am pretty sure that when taxes were at .75¢ no one ever dreamed that $1.24 could ever be possible… or necessary, now look? With that said, there are some out there who feel that if $1.55 tax rate would solve our fiscal issues?, then-by-joe, we should do it.

    And there appeared on the wall from the disembodied hand the words “Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin”

  2. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 25th, 2010 8:41 am

    Dang, I read through all that hoping for something new. Maybe next week.

  3. Stephen Siegel on October 25th, 2010 9:02 am

    Yeah, it’s like Groundhog Day. Although no one knows the future (except perhaps George), it is interesting to note that my hometown, along with many others in the same area, maintains it’s own top-ranked school system with a lot less (that is to say, virtually no) commercial development inside its borders. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do. So it can be done.

  4. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on October 25th, 2010 9:10 am

    Unsustainable? My City of Falls Church is sustained by the demand for our schools and our neighborhoods, and this has only strengthened even amidst the fiscal crisis affecting us and essentially the whole world.

    Do you want to live in a place where only 20% of the tax base is commercial sources, and the school budget is just another piece of meat to trim? That is Fairfax County, and there are lots of great places to live there, but remember Vienna and Herndon are some of the only places with HIGHER taxes. Arlington is also a great place, and a fiscal wonder because of uniquely capitalizing on urban density opportunities along the Metro line. I suppose just dissolving the City into Arlington County is the only scenario where we would “solve” our fiscal woes, but who would support giving up the only thing that really distinguishes us for pennies or a dime on the tax rate? What are the risks for property values if Falls Church is just a quaint little crossroads where there used to be an Episcopal Church, and where the forward-thinking leaders in the early 21st century decided that we could not afford a unique, world-class school system? Is this some kind of biblical test to see if we would all sacrifice our children on the altar of the almighty dime?

    The City has a quarter of a billion dollars of under-utilized assets, plus a location worth even more in development potential. I for one hope that our Council chooses to lead rather than to surrender.

  5. Mike Smith, Falls Church on October 25th, 2010 9:11 am


    Remember, the Get Ready Man was doing his thing a century ago and we still haven’t seen the end of the world. Unfortunately, under current management we are like a ship sinking and all we can think of doing is throwing out all the cargo even though the real solution is to pump out the water. We have been promised long-term thinking by the recently elected Counci members and all we have gotten is sterile and nasty discussions of when we will hold elections. The latest brilliant idea is to concentrate yet more power in the hands of our failed City Manager by getting rid of the independent Treasurer and Commissioner of Revenue (note: Arlington has the independent offices are runs much better than Fairfax which got rid of them.)

    If we want to survive as a city we don’t need to “get ready”, we need to act on what we know we need to do. We need to take all these long-term plans off the shelves they are on and actually translate the “Little City” concept into a real live City.

  6. Robyn L. Roche on October 25th, 2010 9:34 am

    I enjoyed your pieces on City’s ugliest buildings and the duck tree! Maybe every once in a while you can write something about the other oddities (non political or budgetary) of Falls Church.

  7. Steven Valley on October 25th, 2010 11:20 am

    Let’s see…

    How much was the 2010 budget shortfall?

    Was the shortfall a surprise for everyone?

    How many “services” have been reduced/cut/postponed due to that shortfall?

    Is there another shortfall looming?

    Who holds the distinction of having the highest property taxes in NoVA?

  8. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on October 25th, 2010 12:37 pm

    MIke Smith, as a former Damage Control Officer on a US Navy ship, I would recommend patching the leak rather than just pumping the water.

    Where did this idea of dissolving Constitutional officers come from? Can that even happen? Or is this just fear mongering in order to further discredit the current Council?

    I agree with Dan – I hope that the City Council moves forward on more commercial development. A good start would be to locate high density commercial (and yes, mixed use) development near the metro stations. Start with the Gateway project. Get the EDO to aggressively market the city and its commercial real estate. We’ve already shown that we can get good restaurants. Now lets diversify.

  9. Brian Williams (City of Falls Church) on October 25th, 2010 12:57 pm

    George, please write about ugly buildings again. Or, how about some research and analysis about what would actually happen if we did merge with FFX or Arlington? I don’t believe that it would be very pleasant.

    You don’t get as many comments on your dooms-day posts anymore. How about some analysis on why that is? Is it because everyone agrees with you and is busy trying to sell their homes? Is it because no one agrees with you so they find it boring to re-hash the same arguments over and over?

    For what it’s worth, I remain optimistic about the future of our City. You are right about us being very unique, which is of great value and attracts people like me who want to live and work in a real community with real challenges and opportunities. It’ll take strong leadership and community involvement to pull through the tough economic time we face currently. Having a “counter-voice” at the Falls Church Times wouldn’t hurt either, since you guys have managed to build up a powerful voice over there (kudos) — maybe at your next staff meeting you can suggest someone takes you on with a regular “counter point” column?

    GEORGE RESPONDS: Brian, thanks for bringing up the “counter-point” idea. We already offer that opportunity — it’s called COMMUNITY COMMENT, where we print column-length opinions about City issues. And you don’t need to be a staff member to write one. Shorter admissions are welcomed as LETTERS. But the fact is that most people just don’t have the time to write a long, reasoned thesis. So they post a short comment, which we also welcome. But I do wish we received more COMMUNITY COMMENTS and LETTERS.

    Oh, and by the way, we do have a COMMUNITY COMMENT scheduled for Tuesday on the subject of City fiscal matters. Watch for it!

  10. Mike Smith, Falls Church on October 25th, 2010 1:02 pm


    I agree, patching the holes is an even better idea than tossing things overboard. Dan’s point on moving ahead with sustainable development is just that.

    The thing about eliminating the elected offices is in George’s column quoting the Little City Weed (available elsewhere and everywhere). The Weed seems to think it is part of a plot to eliminate Democrats in Falls Church, I think if it is really being proposed (and there is scant evidence now that I reconsider the source) it is a move to eliminate independent voices regardless of party.

    George: as always, you give us much to discuss. I did like the duck tree bit.

  11. Angie Mellon, Falls Church City on October 25th, 2010 1:20 pm

    It seems to me like FCC loves to plan & talk, plan & talk, plan & talk. Planning & talking are good, but we need to move on to the executing piece by getting quality commercial development in our city. We have such wonderful location that can attract the types of development we want & get the added $ to save our residents’ pocketbooks.

    As for Arlngton, Arlington has its own issues. When we lived there 3 years ago, the N. Arlington school we were slated to attend was very overcrowded & had tons of kids in trailers…the grass is not always greener!

    Lets work on executing & stop just talking, talking, talking!!!

  12. George Southern (Falls Church City) on October 25th, 2010 2:13 pm

    Responding to my friend and colleague, Steve Siegel: I’ll take the comparison to “Groundhog Day” as a compliment — it’s a popular movie that has even entered the lexicon. And we all know the most important key to learning, so I won’t repeat it here. Now, to the assumption that if Weston MA is sustainable, then Falls Church VA should be too: As a former resident of Brookline MA, with in-laws living in the “3-Ws” area of Massachusetts, I have a passing familiarity with the area. Here’s the Great Schools website take on Weston:

    Weston is similar to Falls Church in size, but more like McLean in other aspects. It is the wealthiest suburb of Boston and one of the most affluent towns in the United States. Yes, Falls Church is up there, too, but our real estate doesn’t compare with Weston’s, where the median home value is over $1 million. But enough — if we can borrow tricks from Weston in order to become sustainable, let’s do it. I just don’t know what they are.

  13. Melvin Rice on October 25th, 2010 6:42 pm

    George, don’t you get it? Pay more taxes and don’t keep saying the things you do. Remember the councilman who basically said that City residents have enough income to pay higher taxes. I have lived here for over 40 years and that has to go down as one of the most memorable statements ever made by an elected official – and the biggest gaffe, too.

  14. Stephen Siegel on October 25th, 2010 7:01 pm


    Thanks for the shout out. You are right that Weston has higher real estate values. But FCC has a lot more commercial. And many of my old rival schools have independent school systems and lower real estate prices. So it isn’t just Weston, and it isn’t just high real estate values. Maybe I’ll do a piece on it.

  15. Dimitr[ Gekas on October 26th, 2010 11:53 pm

    The economic problems in Falls Church mirror Greece and the joke is:
    The PM gets up in Parliament and because of the harsh mesures that must be followed asks the Parliament to vote on replacing the wall to wall red carpet with blue (the national color ) so their countrymen will feel better. They vote and it passes. The leader of the opposition asks to vote on singing the national anthem twice so the populace can be poor but feel proud. They vote and it passes.The leader of the Communist Party asks the Parliament to vote on flags all around the foyer of the building. They vote and it passes. The PM spots a cleaning old lady in the back with a bucket and mop looking preplexed.
    He approaches and asks why is she so confused. And her answer goes like this”Mr.PM before I was hired as a cleaning lady by the Parliament I was a cleaning lady in a house of ill repute and when business was down we did’t change the wall to wall we changed the prostitutes”

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.