By James Cullum | email@example.com
The Alexandria City Council voted 6-1 to adopt a $728.1 million general fund fiscal year 2018 budget on May 4. This represents a 7.3 percent increase over last year’s budget, and raises the city’s real property tax rate to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value — a historic 5.7 cent increase that was originally proposed by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson in March.
Mayor Allison Silberberg cast the lone dissenting vote, and said after the budget passage that the 5.7 percent increase was too onerous on Alexandria taxpayers.
“This is far too much a burden on our citizens all at once. To me, this is just not acceptable,” she said, adding that she thought the original budget proposal from City Manager Mark Jinks, which included a 2.7-cent real estate tax rate increase, was proactive and prudent. “Make no mistake, it’s a historic tax rate increase.”
Wilson said that the city needs a new budget process, and is interested in pursuing multi-year budgets for council.
“The budget asks a lot of our taxpayers, no question about it. I don’t think anybody minimizes that impact,” Wilson said. “In the end, for me, this came down to a choice between a significant revenue increase this year or a much more painful revenue increases in the future, and quite honestly more expensive ones to deal with a set of deferred items that have gone on for far too long…. Our residential real estate market is stagnant. While it’s a slight growth this year… we’re seeing still challenges in the commercial real estate market. Our retailers are hurting, and I think the way we drive and support, quite honestly, continued growth is with investing in our infrastructure.”
The budget includes a $242.6 million operating appropriation for the city transfer to the Alexandria City Public School system. Council also approved the school system’s 2018-2027 Capital Improvement Program allocation of $373 million, a $238 million reduction over the Alexandria City School Board’s March recommendation of $611 million. This year’s CIP allocation is $19 million – $13.5 million less than the superintendent’s original proposal to the city manager. Council also identified $11 million to be held in contingency for School and City facility needs, which may or may not be released at a later date.
The budget leaves the school system with a $2.1 million gap in its approved operating budget, and the school board and superintendent will begin the public process of identifying potential reductions within the next two weeks. Those reductions include delaying a full step increase for ACPS staff, cutting staff positions and putting facility modernization efforts on hold.
“The aim will be to protect our classrooms as far as possible and impact staff as little as possible. However, 88 percent of the entire Operating Budget for the schools is personnel-related,” according to an ACPS release.
Council also approved the creation of a joint Ad Hoc Alexandria Municipal Facilities Plan Task Force to work with the city manager to prioritize and coordinate capital spending within the city and school system. Nominations are being sought for nine highly qualified or disinterested persons who live or work in Alexandria and do not hold or have held elected office. The group will prioritize spending for approximately $700 million in capital improvements to the city.
Silberberg supported the creation of the task force, but not the six-figure price tag that went along with it.
“We should not use these outside consultants that will be charging us about $300,000,” she said, adding that constituents have emailed her complaining about the increases in taxes and fees. “We’re getting emails from a number of longtime residents who feel extreme stress, and now that they are actually considering moving.”
For Alexandria taxpayers, the budget means the average property owner will pay about $459 more in taxes and fees next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, over FY 2017. The total would have been $70 higher, except the city waived the first installment of the biannually billed storm water fee to give itself time to establish processes for accepting payments from residents.
The fee and tax increases have alarmed some city residents. Former city councilor Frank Fannon, a Republican, said that council has lost its sense of fiscal responsibility.
“The city manager came out with a sensible budget, and the council members just did what they wanted,” he said. “It is very disappointing to hard-working Alexandrians that there is a total tax and spend mentality on the current city council.”
Bert Ely of the Old Town Civic Association said that taxes have driven away many of his neighbors.
“I own two properties. I have not even opened up the tax assessments. I’m scared to look,” he said. “Other people tell me that they are going to have to move out of Alexandria. For sure, it’s going to be a lot more interesting to live in Alexandria.”
City Councilor Willie Bailey said he doesn’t want to pass the buck on future capital improvements.
“It costs to use the words ‘historic’, ‘charming’ and ‘unique’ when you talk about the city that you live in. It costs. The Arlington’s – they don’t say that. Fairfax – they can’t say that. Prince William, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County – you don’t hear that,” he said. “We’ll sit back and brag all day and say, ‘Hey, I live in historic Alexandria.’ It’s time to pay up, and to keep that title we have to do something about it, and basically that’s why I’m supporting this tax increase – as difficult as it is.”
City Councilor John Chapman likened the budget to getting the roof fixed on his house.
“As a young homeowner, I do understand how much my taxes do have to go up and what I have to do to make ends meet,” he said. “It’s not fun whatsoever to raise taxes… As unfortunate as it is, we are the generation to set Alexandria on its path forward.”
The Alexandria City School Board will conduct a budget work session on Thursday, followed by two add/delete sessions on May 18 and May 23