Budgetary Sweet Spot: Residents Weigh Values/Dollars

Falls Church Times Staff

February 14, 2010

Dear City of Falls Church Residents,

Here is the question at hand: what matters to you?  What services does the city provide that you truly value?  We’re pretty sure you can think of 70 or more but in the interest of prioritizing those that you believe are absolutely essential – and in acknowledgment of our nine million dollar budget gap for fiscal year 2011 – please list only your top five.

And just to be sure we’re all on the same sheet of music, please understand the following examples are all separate services:

  • police patrols;
  • fire and rescue services;
  • solid waste disposal and recycling;
  • snow and ice removal;
  • street and sidewalk maintenance;
  • operating hours at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library;
  • co- and extra-curricular activities in the schools;
  • curriculum, instruction, and  assessment in the public school system.

Questions like this get to the heart of the budget challenge confronting City leadership. If the facts of life associated with closing the budget gap require the reduction or elimination of City services, precisely which services should be the first to go?  Can some services be saved through increasing the real estate tax rate: $300,000 in revenue is generated for every one-cent increase in the tax rate.  For the median homeowner, that one-cent increase costs an additional $60.

“As we solve our challenges together, we must make sure we also identify our priorities together,” City Manager Wyatt Shields declared Saturday morning to approximately 80 of the City’s citizens assembled in the community center for the first of two budget forums.  Both Shields and City Schools Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin gave presentations to a group which included the entire City Council, several declared and undeclared Council and School Board candidates, City professional staff, and a broad cross section of concerned citizens and community volunteers.

Shields’ bottom line during the forum, which will be repeated on Thursday, February 18th, was that $57.5 million in revenue does not cover $66.5 million in expenditures so how do you close the $9 million gap?  His $9 million estimate assumes no tax or fee increases, no pay increases for City personnel, and the carrying forward of fiscal year 2010 reductions.

On the fourth slide of his presentation, he depicted the impact increasing the real estate tax rate would have on the budget gap.  A 20-cent increase would reduce the gap to $2.9 million and leave the median homeowner with a $7,500 dollar tax bill, up from $6,300.  A 30-cent increase would close the gap entirely and the median homeowner would pay $8,100 annually.

Berlin reminded those assembled that “85 percent of our [schools’] operating costs are people.”  She also provided an itemization of $380,300 in reduced revenue from outside the City that plays into the 2011 planning.  That is almost a 5 percent reduction in funding from federal, state, and other sources.

The School Board heard Berlin’s four-tier recommendations linking reductions to decreasing support from the City appropriation during a January 12th work session.  Tier one has the least impact and assumes a decrease in the appropriation of $270,700 or 0.9 percent.  Tier four reductions would result in a public school system unrecognizable to many in the City today and assumes a decrease in the appropriation of $2.8 million or 9.5 percent.

Berlin was very straightforward as she addressed the forum stating that at tier three, reductions begin to impact key priorities and objectives for the school system.  “These cuts at this level get to the heart and soul of what we do as a school system,” she said.

Both the City Manager’s and the School Superintendent’s presentations appear below.  A Falls Church City Public Schools press release on the school system budget was published in the Falls Church Times on January 25.

Following the presentations, small break out sessions were conducted at eight tables throughout the room.  The exercise being conducted at each table was immediately recognizable to anyone who has been locked in a conference room with business consultants and ordered to accomplish Lean value stream mapping.

The City identified 68 individual services provided to the community which were grouped under nine overarching headings that included education, public safety, human and community services, and development.  Each table was asked to work and play well together as they attempted to achieve consensus in answering the question:  Based on the economy and the financial challenges described earlier, what are the top five City services/programs that our group values the most and should be retained? After 20-minutes, a spokesperson for each table was given two minutes to report the results of their discussions to the forum.

As the spokespersons rose in turn to address the group, it was clear each of the eight tables had been engaged in a classic City of Falls Church public discourse.  It was similar to a classroom filled with precocious and enthusiastic students, none of whom is willing to color inside the lines.

Table one couldn’t see how you could have a City without “each and every one” of the 13 services under public safety so with a quick accounting sleight of hand, 13 became one in their voting.  Table three questioned the validity of the entire exercise and presented both what they valued most and what they thought should be cut. All of the tables reported experiencing challenges and frustration with the exercise.

Despite the contrarians, teeth gnashers, and out-of-the-boxers, it was possible to discern what consensus did exist throughout the room and that boiled down to schools, businesses, and safe, clean streets.  Specifically:

  • Education
    • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment
    • Staff recruitment, development, and retention
  • Development
    • Economic development and business retention
  • Public Safety
    • Police patrol
    • Fire and rescue services
  • Environmental
    • Solid waste and recycling collection
  • Transportation
    • Streets and sidewalk maintenance

Each participant was also asked to individually distribute a total of five votes across the 68 City services in a separate exercise.  One could choose options for assigning votes from five votes for a single service to one vote for one service.  A review of this voting – results that weren’t influenced by the consensus required during the individual table discussions – mirrored what each table reported to the group but also reflected support for the library, storm water system management, parks maintenance, the community center, and the Cherry Hill Farmhouse.

The concluding portion of the two-hour budget forum was set aside for public comment, questions and answers.  Many participants were talked-out by this time although six questioners did ask about specific approaches to closing the budget gap.  These included City employee furloughs, leveraging regional economies of scale with other government entities, and transferring City courthouse functions to Arlington.  Shields acknowledged all the proposals were either already in place or on the table for discussion.

At the end of the day, the forum participants were left recalling one of Shields’ opening remarks.  He said, “We are a little city.  Not matter what you feel about that phrase, it is factually true.”  And it is now collectively up to The Little City to decide how to balance the services they value against a real estate tax rate that is fifth lowest in the region.

Berlin and the School Board will make a recommendation on the schools’ budget to the City Council, which must incorporate it into the City budget.  The City Council will make its final decisions and adopt the budget on April 26, 2010.  The fiscal year 2011 budget covers July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011.

Falls Church City Budget Presentation – Feb. 13, 2010
Schools Budget Presentation-Feb. 13, 2010
View more presentations from Falls Church Times.

And the Other Groups Were:

Melissa Teates presented Group 1's results . . .

Melissa Teates presented Group 1's results . . .

John Coleman chaired Group 3 . . .

John Coleman chaired Group 3 . . .

Tom Clinton held forth for Group 4 . . .

Tom Clinton held forth for Group 4 . . .

Bernadette Fancuberta spoke for Group 5 . . .

Bernadette Fancuberta spoke for Group 5 . . .

Danny Schlitt chaired Group 6 . . .

Danny Schlitt chaired Group 6 . . .

Allison Brown delivered for Group 7 . . .

Allison Brown delivered for Group 7 . . .

And Philip DuBois wrapped it up for Group 9 (Group 8 got scratched).

And Philip DuBois wrapped it up for Group 9 (Group 8 got scratched).

While the entire City Council watched, including Lawrence Webb, Dave Snyder, and Dan Sze.

The entire City Council watched, including Lawrence Webb, Dave Snyder, and Dan Sze. (Staff photos by George Southern)

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By Scott Taylor
February 14, 2010 


2 Responses to “Budgetary Sweet Spot: Residents Weigh Values/Dollars”

  1. Brian Williams (The Little City of Falls Church) on February 14th, 2010 2:37 pm

    Thanks for providing this summary. I attended the meeting but couldn’t fully participate as I had my 3 year-old with me (which, as an aside, is why I chatted with a few folks – including city council members – about supporting more of this kind of discussion online in addition to in-person meetings).

    It seems to me that after all is said and done, in the short-term will modestly trim the schools & city services and end up with a big jump in taxes to cover the shortfall. While that will be painful, it won’t be out-of-line compared with other local areas (see slide #8 in the first presentation above), and therefore will have less of a negative long-term impact on home values compared to slashing the schools and services.

    Then, in the long-term, we will have to decide as a city how we want to survive. We’ll either need to (a) have high residential taxes but great schools & services to justify it, thereby keeping our home values high (but probably forcing out some current residents who can’t afford it and limited new ones who can move here). Or, we’ll need to (b) develop and execute a plan to encourage significant commercial development to generate tax revenue to offset the cost of schools and services. Arlington & Alexandria, which boast the lowest tax rates on slide #8, seem to accomplished this very well. Unlike other areas far outside the beltway where this strategy is unrealistic, Falls Church has all the elements needed to make such a plan effective.

    With either long-term strategy, I would hope that these short-term challenges will force a degree of efficiency and careful consideration with all City expenditures. We should operate as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, regardless of what’s going on with the budget. Transparent government, strong leadership, and an active citizenry is essential to that end.

  2. Melissa, City of Falls Church on February 14th, 2010 6:21 pm

    Scott – This is a great summary of the forum, the results and the moods.

    I found that when presented with the 68 options that it was very hard to narrow it down to 5 choices. 75% seemed essential to our daily lives and/or economic viability. I did see some functions that started out as volunteer led that had migrated to staffers that were not essential and needed to become volunteer led again, but the cost savings there are very low.

    We are in for a tax increase of some kind to meet our budget gap and to keep services at the level citizens desire. The local real estate taxes chart in the city budget presentation shows our taxes are relatively low compared to localities our size. We need to get real and adjust our tax rate, while we cut what we can.

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