Our View: Proposed tax ceiling is too vaulted

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Well, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson deserves credit for audacity.

That’s the nicest thing we can say about his staggering proposal to advertise raising property taxes for Alexandrians by 5.7 cents per $100 of assessed value. The total hit to taxpayers’ wallets will be even more if council passes this hike as part of the fiscal 2018 budget, as taxes were already rising from slightly higher assessments and proposed fee increases for sewers and storm water.

The average city property owner would pay a whopping $600 more under Wilson’s plan than last year, and more than $200 above City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed budget that contained a 2.7-cent tax increase. And, of course, this follows last year’s 3-cent tax hike, when Jinks initially recommended a 1-cent increase and council added 2 cents more for good measure.

We begrudgingly agreed with Jinks’ proposal this year, an enormous raise in itself, because of the various operational and capital expenses the city faces. However, Wilson’s tax hike is simply over the top. In short, this proposal is bad for business, bad for homeowners and bad for Alexandria’s future prosperity.

We fear that businesses and residents are literally being taxed out of the Port City. Imagine if you own a business and its building on King Street. You are going to be hit by this property tax spike and, in all likelihood, another 10 percent increase in your tax bill if the proposed Business Improvement District comes to fruition. Businesses that are marginally profitable or struggling would have to think about closing or moving.

Some homeowners also may give up on our city and its seemingly endless appetite for tax dollars, particularly residents who have been in their homes a long time and may be living off of retirement funds.

It’s also disturbing that council approved such a high tax ceiling without a serious attempt to rein in spending. In part, this stems from the groupthink that comes from having the mayor and all six city councilors from the same political party. Political diversity matters and our council sorely lacks opposing perspectives.

But the seemingly blithe manner with which Wilson and five of his colleagues voted in favor of an advertised tax ceiling of 5.7 cents — with Mayor Allison Silberberg the only voice for restraint — also reveals a glaring flaw in the composition of this council: no one’s primary job is in the private sector.

The insights that come from running a business or struggling to make payroll are invaluable to good financial decision-making. Past councils have had members who worked for banks or were financial advisers, were realtors or ran their own businesses. They knew the direct impact of tax-and-spend policies on their companies.

This council has a lobbyist, educators, federal or local government employees and members with political and nonprofit experience. There’s nothing wrong with these professions, but the lack of business knowledge is glaringly obvious come budget season.

Elected officials are in office to make difficult decisions from among competing interests. In Alexandria, there’s no shortage of needs vying for limited dollars, from Metro operations and a new station at Potomac Yard to repair of city building, fixing sewer outfalls and needed improvements to our schools.

However, this proposal doesn’t make the hard choices. Instead, Wilson is trying to fund too much at once — and that’s simply not wise.

Here are a few suggestions, given Alexandria’s poor history with school facilities maintenance and capital spending cost overruns:

  • Hire an independent, outside audit of the overall schools budget, both operating and capital, rather than the “audit of processes” that’s currently done. Before spending another half billion dollars on schools, let’s get an impartial opinion on our prior spending.
  • Take City Councilor Tim Lovain’s suggestion and hire an outside czar to oversee capital improvement projects.
  • Or, as former schools PTA head Melynda Wilcox suggested in a recent blog, have the city take over facilities management and construction oversight from the schools.

What we need is a true, unbiased picture of schools spending and competent management of school facilities. What we don’t need is over-the-top taxation and the sense we are pouring good money after bad. Surely we can do better than this.

 

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