School, Metro dollars drive budget uncertainty

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Less than a week before the City Council is scheduled to adopt its budget and close a $44 million deficit, several funding adjustments that would meet that threshold are still up in the air.

Among the starkest issues still being debated line by line are the city’s contribution to the public school budget and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metro’s rail and bus service.

The real estate property tax rate is key in determining whether revenue will be available to fund Metro, the Alexandria City Public Schools and the rest of the city’s responsibilities adequately.

Until the rate is established, fine-tuning funding for schools, Metro, public safety and other city services is a yeoman’s job.

“They have to decide how much they want to spend,” said Bruce Johnson, the city’s budget director. “I’m not saying they decide that first and plug the rate in. But they haven’t quite figured out what the budget is.”

The school system receives the bulk of the city’s general fund budget but operates independently. When ACPS adopted its new budget in March, it met the city’s target of a maximum 2-percent increase on the previous year.

But the city reneged on that figure during a budget session on Monday in which each Council member suggested funding cuts for every line up for debate in the budget. The seven members, including the mayor, advocated cutting an average of $6.4 million from the city’s $167.9 transfer to the schools, but those figures are malleable as discussions continue this week.

“I don’t think that money necessarily leads to better education,” said Councilman Frank Fannon (R). “Our cost per pupil is one of the highest in the region,” he added, noting that the school system is struggling by state and federal standards.

Fannon and Councilwoman Alicia Hughes (I), who both ran for office on a cost-cutting, fiscally restrained platform, advocated cutting significantly more school funding than their Democratic counterparts. Their presence on the Council alters a budget-season dynamic that was decided by all Democrats from 2003 until now. 

“We gave the schools a target to meet and they met it,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka (D). “It’s inappropriate to throw new cuts at them. It sends a mixed message to the community to cut funding while the schools are struggling.”

The figures are still preliminary and Mayor Bill Euille (D), who “didn’t do this lightheartedly,” said discussions would continue this week in order to come to a necessary consensus. There seems to be at least some agreement, though, that the schools will endure at least some cuts.

Meanwhile, a Metro system in the red is taking a wait-and-see approach to its budget, which depends heavily on antes from Washington-area jurisdictions. Their spending plan won’t be passed until Alexandria and its neighbors outline their budgets, complete with their contributions to the region’s transportation infrastructure.

In a tight budget season, the additional $1.6 million that the majority of Council seems intent on adding to its Metro funding could mean the difference between a balanced school budget and one that requires more cuts to reconcile the government’s other responsibilities.

“Metro funding is what’s driving this,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley (D). “If there is a change in Metro, there’s a possibility of restoring money in schools.”
But funding Metro indirectly funds the city’s desire for urban growth and revenue. 

“Anybody who supports economic development and not Metro is confused because the two are inextricably linked especially in Alexandria,” Krupicka said.

The unknown property tax rate is the elephant in the room. The city manager originally proposed a 7-cent increase that would increase the average homeowner’s bill by $103 per year, though an increase of 10 cents is possible to reap more revenue for the city.

But Council, which has all but made official that there will be no add-on commercial real estate tax this year, seems content with a rate around or below the 7-cent proposal. Individual opinions range from a 4.2-cent increase (Hughes) to an 8-cent increase (Donley).

Council is scheduled to finalize its budget Monday during a final work session and adopt it later that evening.

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