The Fairfax City Council adopted its Fiscal Year 2020 budget, last Wednesday, May 8, and it contains both good and bad news for the residents. The bad news is that the real-estate tax rate is rising; but the good news is all the things that additional money will enable the City to do, to both continue and improve the quality of life residents here have come to expect.
“What’s in our budget reflects our core values as a community,” said Mayor David Meyer. “There’s a tremendous respect for the fiduciary responsibility our elected officials have toward managing our residents’ money.”
When City Manager Rob Stalzer initially presented his proposed budget in February, he recommended increasing the real-estate tax by 2.75 cents per $100 assessed valuation. So the adopted budget actually contains a smaller increase than it could have been.
AS IT IS, the new budget raises the real-estate tax rate from its current $1.06 to $1.075 per $100 of assessed valuation. The 1.5-cent increase will mean the average residential homeowner will pay $104/year, or about $8.67 a month, more in real-estate tax. Also figuring into that amount is the fact that homes here have seen a .53-percent rise in assessed value. The average tax bill for commercial-property owners will jump 2.9 percent.
The budget also includes specific, tax hikes already planned as part of the City’s ongoing obligations. A 1-cent increase in the Commercial and Industrial (C&I) real-estate tax will take it from 11.5 cents to 12.5 cents per $100 assessed valuation. And a wastewater utility rate jump of 10 percent will support the City’s share of capital project costs required for the Noman Cole Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The budget further dedicates 25 cents more from the real-estate tax rate for the Stormwater Fund. The money will help improve the City’s aging infrastructure and will also meet federal and state regulations dealing with stormwater management.
In addition, the transportation tax fund will rise from 11.5 cents to 12.5 cents for commercial and industrial properties. All residential properties are excluded from this tax. The money is used solely for transportation and transit purposes and allows the City to qualify for matching funds for various transportation projects. The new rate is anticipated to generate some $2,393,727 a year.
Overall, the Council adopted a $145.5 million General Fund operating budget – an increase of $3.5 million, or 2.5 percent. from the 2019 fiscal year. The total, approved budget for all funds is $170 million, down 1 percent from last year’s budget.
Also significant is that the FY 20 budget reflects the Council’s strategic goals of delivering services more efficiently and increasing the City’s commercial base. As a result, the Department of Community Development and Planning, the Economic Development Office, and the Economic Development Authority will all receive additional resources. It will enable them to create and implement plans for key commercial centers, especially Northfax and Old Town.
Public Works will get money to hire a project manager to manage the City’s transportation-construction projects, help with strategic planning, secure funding and provide critical, program administration. The Police Department will be able to implement a new, e-ticketing system to help keep neighborhoods safe. And the City Jobs program, in conjunction with the Lamb Center, will receive $60,000 to keep it running.
An enhanced tax-relief program will enable more City residents to qualify for it. And a 2.6-percent cost-of-living increase (COLA) in Fairfax employees’ salaries will help maintain regional compensation parity and support the City’s recruitment and retention efforts.
During the Council’s budget-adoption meeting last week, Stalzer said, “We included $435,000 over the 12-percent, excess fund balance for a budget-stabilization fund. And we included $185,000 for security-program development and implementation at all City facilities and a $400,000 deposit for the West Drive property acquisition.”
Councilwoman Janice Miller wondered if these items could be funded later on, once the City sees if it’s getting a school-tuition refund from Fairfax County. “But the tuition number keeps fluctuating,” replied Stalzer. “The $435,000 is a hedge against what we anticipate as we build the budget for FY 21.”
He also said the $185,000 is an estimate, but he urged the Council to approve it. “We’ve experienced security challenges, and I want our employees to feel safe and focused on what they do,” explained Stalzer.
Councilwoman So Lim was disappointed that “some items worthy of funding were cut from the budget, but the real-estate tax would still rise.” Stalzer said he felt bad about it, too, but said funding them would have required an even higher tax rate.
Councilman Sang Yi made a motion to reduce the COLA from 2.6 percent to 1.3 percent, but it failed. He also moved to set the real-estate tax rate at $1.055, but it failed, too. The Council then voted 4-2 to approve the budget and the $1.075 real-estate tax rate, with Miller and Yi voting no on both.
Afterward, Yi commented that the Council received “changes at the last minute and last-minute priorities, such as funding for 12-hour police shifts – which we didn’t discuss until last night. And looking at 10 years of budget adoptions, I can’t see how this process works. Every year since 2012, City staff received pay increases, [but] an across-the-board pay increase doesn’t address income inequalities between the highest- and lowest-paid employees.”
Furthermore, he said, “We need to monitor our grant programs and keep them accountable. I want documentation [of their results]. And I’d like any duplicate programs and spending in our budget reduced. I fear that raising the tax rate will be a slippery slope and hurt the City’s affordability – especially now that we’ve adopted our highest tax rate in the City.”
However, Councilwoman Jennifer Passey said, “I’m fully energized by our budget, which invests in economic development, commitment to City staff and planning for the future.” And she thanked the residents, Council and mayor for their input and efforts.
Councilman Michael DeMarco was pleased that City Jobs was funded and liked Stalzer’s idea of immediately beginning work on next year’s budget. And while some believed the City’s surplus was $2.2 million, he stressed that it was actually just $765,000 – 60 percent of which went into the budget-stabilization fund. About the COLA, he said, “We still have a fair amount to do for our public-safety employees.”
Miller was glad this budget provided money for education, economic development, communications, public-safety needs, plus recreational, cultural and historical activities. But, she added, “I think we could have maintained the $1.06 [tax rate] by digging a little deeper. And I’m concerned we’re going to bond on a number of issues we haven’t discussed yet.”
Before adopting the next budget, said Councilman Jon Stehle, “How we handle grants is something we should discuss.” And while Lim liked money going toward economic development and City Jobs, she said Fairfax should have a plan for helping other nonprofits, in addition to The Lamb Center.
MEYER noted that, as the City changes, so do the demands on it. For example, with 29 percent of the population born elsewhere, he said, school employees, police and firefighters need to speak different languages. Plus, Fairfax is required to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. And with more people buying things online, many of the City’s retail buildings need renovation or replacement.
Also important, he said, is designing new commercial areas without adversely affecting traffic. Some 38 percent of Fairfax’s tax dollars goes to education. But, said Meyer, “The revenue sources – including federal and state government – to cover all those changes are declining. New revenue sources are needed, and new commercial projects will help create these sources.”
“For the first time, we have significant funding for economic development in Northfax and downtown,” Meyer continued. “We’re moving forward on relocating the City property yard on West Drive, working with the county to do so, so we can get this industrial use and its trucks out of the City. And COLA for our employees isn’t a raise, but a way [to help them keep place] with rising costs. It’s also to keep our salaries competitive and retain our high-performing employees.”
Residents Weigh in on Proposed Budget
Seek funding for jobs program, CFTC and firefighters.
Before the Fairfax City Council adopted its Fiscal Year 2020 budget last week, local residents had one last chance to express their views about it during a Wednesday, May 8, public hearing.
They spoke on a variety of topics, and especially near and dear to several of their hearts was Jobs for Life, a partnership between The Lamb Center and the City of Fairfax. The Lamb Center is a daytime shelter for poor and homeless people, and its staff and the City’s Parks and Recreation Department manage the jobs program together.
It’s referred to by those involved with it as “City Jobs,” and its pilot-program funding came from Fairfax’s budget. And the first speaker, Lamb Center volunteer Martin Lockerd, urged the Council to approve further money for this program in its new budget so it can continue.
“It mostly supports those who are homeless and lost,” he said. “I’ve been a Lamb Center volunteer for six years, and I’ve seen the good it does. Before going out to work, they’d tell me, ‘I used to be somebody; I must do this.’ And after returning, they say, ‘I can do this well, and I’m contributing to the community. I’m about to become somebody again.’ This program incentivizes them to get full-time jobs and contribute to the community.”
LAMB CENTER VOLUNTEER John Riley agreed. “The City can be really proud of City Jobs,” he said. “I work Monday mornings in the kitchen. We go there intending to serve others, but we end up being restored, ourselves, by hearing that someone needing a job or medication got it –and we all celebrate. And now we celebrate City Jobs. When people come back from working, they’re inspired.” So, he told the Council, “Thank you for making it work. And the Parks and Rec crew also deserves thanks for its enthusiastic support.”
Next speaker was Ken McMillon. “As a former homeless person, I know how you lose your dignity when you fall so far,” he explained. “When you’re homeless, you can’t get an ID to get a bank account, so you can’t cash a check.”
Furthermore, he said, “It’s so important for people’s mental stability to be lifted up while they’re down. And I hope your program becomes a model for the rest of the nation. I was considering suicide, and The Lamb Center saved my life, and then I got a job.”
Also speaking on behalf of City Jobs was Eric Hanneman, a former Lamb Center guest and the current fleet supervisor for the City Jobs crew. “I’ve seen how much the program improves both [the workers’] lives and the City,” he said. “And some of these people – who were longtime homeless – got permanent jobs. One man in his 20s, who was addicted, said it taught him there’s so much more to look forward to in life.”
Hanneman said City Jobs helped the workers “find their place and get back on track. One man also got a full-time job and a steady income, and he’s now mentoring others. And City Jobs made this all possible for them. Thank you to the City and to the Parks and Rec Department.”
Michael O’Dell, board president of the City of Fairfax Theatre Co., came to the public hearing with a couple dozen people to show how much CFTC values receiving some of its funding from the City. “We’re not asking for a handout,” he said. “We’re looking to be contributing members in a collaborative effort.”
IN RETURN, Mayor David Meyer said, “You share your gifts and talents with the community in a unique way and help make this a vibrant community. And we’ll continue to look for ways to support the theater.”
Meanwhile, Joe Charlie, vice president of the City of Fairfax Firefighters and Paramedics Union, also had a request. Said Charlie: “We support the city manager’s proposed budget and urge you to consider employee compensation and benefits as a top priority.”