State budget leaves mixed bag for city

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Depending on whom you ask, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) first and last hack at Virginia’s budget, which passed Sunday, is either a bright light amid a dark economic landscape or a dim attempt with misplaced priorities that will prove detrimental to Alexandria.

But one thing the city’s elected representatives seem to agree on not that it was a secret is that cuts are an inevitable element to this year’s $4.2 billion state deficit that Alexandria will have to reconcile with its own $44 million gap.

Public school funding was a major fear factor for Alexandria throughout this year’s General Assembly session. Local officials are still sifting through the budget line by line, looking for its effects on the city, but overall education funding appears to be less of an issue than expected.

House Republicans threatened a policy change that would have taken funding for communities with significant populations of poor students, like Alexandria, and divvied it up equally among state localities based on enrollment numbers instead of socioeconomic considerations as it does now.

“One of our successes was highlighting that poor policy choice and getting House Republicans to capitulate on that,” said Del. David Englin (D-45), an Alexandria representative who voted against the budget along with Del. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria.

Part of Englin’s reasoning for voting against the budget echoed by some City Council members revolved around the decision in Richmond to scale back its contribution to the Virginia Retirement System by about $620 million over the next two years. He likened the possible fallout to budget issues in California, where the government essentially gave retirees I.O.U. vouchers.

City and school employees benefit from the retirement fund and officials worry that putting that pension system on shaky ground with less state contributions could make that money hard to recover.

“The problem is, if you don’t fund your liability, you create an unfunded future dilemma,” Vice Mayor Kerry Donley (D) said. “You’re passing the buck onto next year and the year after that. And that’s just irresponsible.”

Alexandria stands to gain about $30.5 million from the state for public education, about $3 million more than it received last year, according to estimates from a state budget document that highlighted the budget discussions. Alexandria and other Northern Virginia localities may fare better than counterparts from around the state but the pension issue could lead to more severe shortfalls a couple of years from now unless the economy bounces back “like gangbusters,” Englin said.

Still, many of Alexandria’s elected officials are wary of the state budget’s fallout on the city. 

Englin remains ardent in his misgivings on its “misplaced priorities” that he says are incongruent with tenets of responsible government. He loathed the idea of funding the state’s movie industry while reducing funding for health care for the poor, for instance, and spoke out against the General Assembly’s decision to pass a budget that takes money from Planned Parenthood which cannot be used for abortions but maintains funding for state employee insurance that covers drugs for erectile dysfunction.

“Talk about an example of misplaced priorities,” he said.

Until the budget is analyzed locally state representatives had only an hour to analyze it in Richmond before the vote its exact effect on Alexandria is still up in the air.

The city’s public safety and social service realms will be greatly affected, though it is not yet clear exactly how, officials said.

“It’s going to be a little while before we see exactly how it trickles down to us,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka (D). “I think for most of the things Richmond cut, we are not going to have the ability as a community to pick up the pieces because we just won’t have the resources.”

Councilman Frank Fannon supported the budget, saying that he would reach out the private sector to try to fill the holes in the social safety net.

“On the social service end, it really comes back to calling on the community to doing what they can and hopefully make up the difference with charity as opposed to taxation,” Fannon said.

“A lot of people are saying we’re balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, but not really,” said Del. Charniele Herring (D-46) of Alexandria, who supported the budget. “We’re maintaining programs to help the poor.”

Herring was surprised, she said, that she was able to help maintain funding for homeless prevention programs with a budget amendment. And while she was upset about an overall cut to the city’s social service departments like Human Services and the Community Services Board, she said her constituents did not want a tax increase, which McDonnell delivered.

“We either have to raise taxes or make cuts,” Herring said. “And I supported the budget because I don’t think it was appropriate to raise taxes on people when they’re trying to struggle to make ends meet already.”

Officials said they hope to have a more succinct analysis on the budgets effects within the next two weeks.

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