Opinion: Pursuing a proactive, prudent budget

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Allison SilberbergBy Mayor Allison Silberberg

We are in the thick of the budget process. This is a time for all of us to focus on the choices before us as a community. A city’s budget reflects our values and priorities.

Our city is at a crossroads due to the special fiscal challenges that have been festering for years, including: fixing all four sewer outfalls, handling the storm water issue, addressing school capacity and deferred maintenance, and paying Alexandria’s share of Metro’s budget. We are tackling these challenges head-on, and together we can move in a direction that is reasonable and balanced. I am writing today about what I believe is a reasonable course of action for our city.

Just as we sit down at our own kitchen tables and figure out our household priorities and what we can afford, we must do the same as a city. In our own lives, we know that we cannot do all that we want as soon as we want. The city is no different.

In February, our city manager, Mark Jinks, proposed a budget to address our fiscal challenges in a proactive, yet prudent way. He proposed a 2.7-cent increase in the real estate tax rate plus new fees, which are primarily for mandated sewer and storm water remediation. This would mean the tax rate would increase from $1.073 to $1.10 per $100 of assessed value. I support his proposed budget, because it would provide resources sufficient to make tangible progress on the most urgent issues, putting our city on a path forward that taxpayers can better afford. To accommodate the affordable housing building at the Church of the Resurrection and a few other needs, I strongly support trimming back on other less urgent projects.

This 2.7-cent increase would mean that the average homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $197, plus the new fees, which will be the equivalent of an additional 3-cent increase. Based on the most recent data from the budget director, all combined, the 2.7-cent increase and the fees would mean that the average homeowner would pay an additional $370.

In March, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson proposed an alternative maximum tax rate of 5.7 cents, plus the fees. The council voted 6-1 for this proposal. I was the lone dissenting vote. If adopted, this proposed tax increase of 5.7 cents would be one of the largest in the city’s history. When combined with the new fees, the 5.7-cent increase would mean the average homeowner would pay an additional $535. All of this comes at a time when property values have stayed the same or risen slightly, plus there is financial uncertainty for many of our residents.

Respectfully, I submit that the 2.7-cent increase plus the fees will handle what we need and accomplish a tremendous amount. It is in fact bold and ambitious.

As far as fully funding the school board’s budget request, on the capital side, the schools requested a 125 percent increase over last year’s 10-year request, an unprecedented increase for capital spending. Our city manager’s budget proposal calls for a 62 percent increase for schools capital spending, the largest dollar increase by far ever proposed for ACPS’ capital needs by any city manager.

All of us believe that our children deserve an excellent education. There are two huge challenges facing our schools: school capacity and deferred maintenance. With a 2.7-cent increase, our school board would have ample funds for a rebuild of the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus, a middle school, and an elementary school, plus $80 million for deferred maintenance. By far, this would be the most allocated to schools ever.

There is wisdom in moving forward at a steady pace that addresses priority infrastructure needs, while simultaneously being sensitive to the costs taxpayers are being asked to shoulder. The issues that are deferred will not go away, but as the city manager has made clear, they can and will be addressed sequentially. So for now, I believe a 2.7-cent increase, plus the fees, is a more prudent and responsible approach to tackling our fiscal challenges.

The budget and the tax rate will be on the agenda for discussion at the council public hearing on Saturday, April 22. As always, we need your input.

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