The Falls Church City Council voted 6 to 0 Monday night not to change the city's ward boundaries or polling places, opting instead to spend up to $5,000 to build a wheelchair ramp at the Boy Scout Clubhouse at 128 S. Spring St. to conform with new federal guidelines.
The guidelines stipulate that all polling places in the country must be made accessible to the handicapped. Council members directed Falls Church City Manager Anthony Griffin to contact the Boy Scout Clubhouse Association to find out what kind of help that group could offer to reduce building costs.
The council's decision means that the city will still be divided into five wards and will retain its current five polling places: Thomas Jefferson School, Oakwood Apartments, the Boy Scout Clubhouse, the Falls Church Community Center and the American Legion Post. The City Council is elected at large.
The council's decision also ended months of citizen debate on how best to comply with the federal guidelines.
Last fall, the city's administrative staff determined that four out of five of the polling places were already or could easily be made accessible to voters in wheelchairs. Only at the Boy Scout Clubhouse, which has steep steps leading to a front porch, would it be difficult and costly to build a wheelchair ramp, the staff said.
In January, the Falls Church Electoral Board, a three-member citizen committee, recommended dropping the clubhouse as a polling place and redividing the city into four wards.
At that time, in response to citizens who argued that the matter should be given more consideration, the council approved the formation of a five-member citizen committee to investigate further.
In March, that group also recommended dropping the clubhouse as a polling center. But it recommended redividing the city differently and substituting two of the remaining four polling places for two more centrally located buildings.
Mayor Carol DeLong said that the council's decision Monday was at least partly a reflection of concern that changing the city's voting ward boundaries and polling places could reduce voter turnout. In the last two presidential elections, almost 90 percent of the city's registered voters turned out, according to Falls Church Registrar Deborah Taylor.
"One of the things I've gradually learned is that decisions get improved by having a lot of ideas," said Vice Mayor Robert Hubbell. "The existence of those committees has helped us."
In other action, the council held the second of three public hearings on Griffin's proposed $17.6 million operating budget.
Six of the seven speakers supported the School Board's proposed $7.4 million budget, which calls for a $5.7 million city appropriation. The School Board's budget calls for about $500,000 to be used during the next fiscal year to pay higher salaries to the school system's about 80 teachers, six administrators and 59 support staff members. The School Board's budget would increase pay for new teachers from $15,700 to $18,040.
At the meeting, Falls Church School Board Chairwoman Ellen Salsbury told the council that the School Board needs $62,000 less from the city than it originally requested, partly because the school system is expecting more students living outside the city to pay tuition next fall.
DeLong has predicted that the council will approve the School Board's budget.
"My expectation is that they will essentially get what they are asking," she said.
The council will hold a final public hearing and act on the budget April 28.