Schools, DHS plead budget cases to council


As the date for voting on a budget for next year grows closer, the Alexandria City Council continues to hear presentations on the need for more money to meet critical needs. Last week, the Department of Human Services and the Alexandria City Public School system made clear the competing priorities with which Council is wrestling.

On March 28, Council met with the Alexandria School Board. Board Chair Arthur Peabody made the schools case for $6.8 million more than City Manager Jim Hartmann is recommending.

First, we are starting from behind with our revenue, Peabody said.

He presented data showing that local revenue is down by $2.52 million and state revenue by $0.64 million. The school system thus, according to Peabodys numbers, is behind in revenues by $3.16 million. Instead of the increase of $5.6 million in the citys budget target, the increase is $2.42 million.

Mayor William D. Euille asked for an explanation. We had operating funds left over in our FY 2005 budget that we were able to use this year, said Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry. We had less money in FY 2006 for use in the FY 2008 budget.

City Budget Director Bruce Johnson explained to Council and to the superintendent. If the school system has money in their operating budget at the end of the year, they can apply to City Council to use that money not in the immediate year following that but in the next budget year. So, funds remaining from FY 2005 would be allocated for use in FY 2007, he said. In FY 2005, ACPS had just under $4 million in their operating fund balance. In FY 2006, the fund balance was $1.4 million.

Instead of setting aside some of that money, the school system has requested the use of all of their fund balance each year, Johnson said. Basically, they start with an amount, look at how much less they will receive from the federal and state governments and expect the city to make up the difference.

Must do list
The city is asking for less from the fund balance than they have required in many years. Last year we asked for just over $7 million and the year before that a bit over $8 million. This year we are requesting $2 million. That means that we wont have to worry about how to make up that difference next year, Johnson said.

Peabody said that the $2.42 million will not meet the needs of the system. The must do list requires $6.75 million. That list includes a mandatory increase in Virginia Retirement System payments of $1.12 million; tuition for special education students who are placed in Fairfax County in the amount of $285,000; increased employee participation in health insurance plans costing $921,661; step increases for employees in the amount of $3.69 million; operating cost increases of $407,000; increased cost of building maintenance supplies of $125,000 and transportation for homeless and special education students of $100,000.

As you can see, we were below the target before we added the step increases for our employees and we need those to remain competitive in this increasingly competitive market, Peabody said. In addition to step increases, ACPS has also included a two percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all staff.

Peabody said that there are very few new initiatives and that ACPS staff have deleted many items. I wouldnt even call these new initiatives, he said. I would say that we are correcting problems, particularly with our literacy initiative, strengthening our middle school curriculum and our elementary school science curriculum. These are important in making sure that all of our schools remain accredited.

 We would certainly like to give all of our employees cost of living adjustments, said Councilwoman Redella S. Del Pepper. I hope that before we set the tax rate on April 10 we can have a discussion about our options in this regard.

Euille cautioned Council members and school board members about any budget increases. The city manager has made budget recommendations for the city and the schools and the school board has requested additional funds. I would caution anyone about making promises that we may not be able to keep. The school board has made a compelling presentation and I am certain that any of our city departments could make equally compelling presentations about the need for more money. This is a difficult year and we are going to have to make hared choices.

We cannot tell the school board how to spend their funds but we can engage in a dialogue so that we are aware of their needs. Everyone here is supportive of the school system and we will continue to be supportive. We will do the best we can with the limited resources we have available to meet the needs of all of our citizens, Euille said.

Human Services
On March 29, Council heard from DHS Director Deborah Collins. Collins showed a change of minus 3.9 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2008, a decline of $989,757. This does not call for significant increases in childcare subsidies meaning that, for the first time in some years, there will be a waiting list for childcare for those receiving welfare.

This change resulted in a recent budget transfer to cover some children. We are doing what we can to make up at least some of the difference but there is no way that we can cover it all, said Councilman Rob Krupicka. This is of grave concern, though, because there will be a domino effect. If families cannot get affordable childcare, some parents will lose their jobs. If they arent working, they will require even more support from the human service system.

Its not just the change in federal regulations but the number of human service programs that have been supported by grant funding, said Councilman Paul Smedberg. It is increasingly difficult to obtain grant money and the city cannot possibly take on all of the programs that have been utilizing this type of money. We are going to have to have a conversation about what programs we want to keep and which ones may have to be cut. One of the things I would like to see us do is look for ways to maximize our resources through joint programs with other jurisdictions such as Arlington and Fairfax, he said.

Council will hold a public hearing on the F Y 2008 budget on April 9. Those who wish to testify can sign up by calling the clerks office at 703-838-4500.