City taxes, spending to rise with new budget

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Attempting to close a deficit of more than $44 million, the Alexandria City Council adopted a budget on Monday that raises taxes and cuts funding and positions for several city departments while increasing its spending slightly over last year’s financial plan.

The budget, which goes into effect July 1, passed 5 to 2 in favor of Democrats, with minority Council members Frank Fannon (R) and Alicia Hughes (I) voting against the spending plan because of higher taxes, loose spending and what Fannon said amounted to insufficient compromise. 

Most members played down politics’ involvement in the first non-unanimous vote on the budget in several years.

“This budget any budget for a community like ours is a nonpartisan budget,” said Mayor Bill Euille, who later said the vote’s outcome was unfortunate. “It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with where we want to be as a city.”

About $17 million in cuts and $27 million in new revenue sources combine to close the gap.

A 7.5-cent hike in the property tax rate will help pay for the $531.6 million operating budget (0.6 percent higher than last year’s), including a significant stay for public safety funding and a larger school budget the city’s biggest expenditure that increases by 2 percent, or $3.3 million.

Property taxes comprise the city government’s largest revenue source each year, accounting for more than half of its total income. The residential hike will produce about half the revenue needed to fill the budget gap, according to the budget document.

A half-cent of the rate will go exclusively toward overdue enhancements to the city’s sewer and storm-water treatment infrastructure.
The new tax rate is the lowest property tax rate in the region, according to officials.

The plan identifies $2.8 million for city employees to receive their first merit-based pay raise in about three years, pleasing department heads and workers but increasing personnel costs and the overall tab. 

“They’ve gone too many years without it,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “I think the morale and efficiency and effectiveness of our staff warrants the reward that this merit pay gets them, though we’re still far from where we need to be.”

The bill was too expensive for Fannon, who said he could not bet on the trifecta of higher taxes, increased personnel costs and an overall spending increase. 

The Council voted to do all three, but also came up with money for two ambulances and five emergency medical employees. It also restored two of three community police officer positions in danger of being lost.

“I really wanted to go to the citizens and say we adopted a budget for one Alexandria, but unfortunately I won’t be able to do that,” Fannon said. “My vote against this budget is not a vote against the core services provided by the city, but a vote against a lack of compromise.”

The budget’s final balancing hinged on the city’s $1.6 million contribution to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro. Euille is on their board and said some of that money could be refunded once WMATA finalizes their budget.
DASH, the city’s bus service, lost about $200,000 in funding.

“We really need to be promoting bus and public transit if we’re going to be an eco-city,” Councilwoman Del Pepper said.

The city cut about 60 full- and part-time positions, 50 of which were vacant, and trimmed from the budgets of major departments like Human Services and Transportation and Environmental Services Department. 

Parking in meters will jump 75 cents to $1.75 for an hour, which will generate $1.5 million in revenue. Residents who utilize the city’s trash pickup service will have to pay an additional $5 to fund larger recycling bins, which officials said will deter litter.

While the Council did not come to a consensus on the bottom line, some members said the budget process went better than it could have given two first-time members who ran on platforms of fiscal constraint.

“I think there was a fair amount of compromise,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “But a vote against the budget is in fact a vote against the budget. You vote against all the stuff that’s in there. 

“We’re getting more public safety services and essentially spending the same as we did last year. That’s the bottom line.”

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