Groupthink’s enemy

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The City Council adopted its budget Monday, the same day that marked Mayor Bill Euille’s 60th birthday. His present? The end of lengthy deliberations on a challenging spending plan that forced the city to close a deficit of more than $44 million. But what does Alexandria get?

On the surface residents will see a significant hike in their property taxes and various fees. Your dollars will provide the city’s general fund with about $27 million in additional revenue to provide for city services you’ve come to depend on. The city also “cut” about $17 million by trimming department budgets and eliminating mostly vacant positions in its workforce (10 of which were filled). 

Yet this year’s operating budget is 0.6 percent larger than last year’s. So cuts were made but expenditures namely to maintain and bolster public safety, a sacred untouchable of government responsibility and enhanced revenue sources have inflated the final product to $531.6 million.

Arriving at this number was not done arbitrarily. Five Democrats, a Republican and a fiscally conservative Independent discussed, conceded and compromised to grind out a comprehensive plan of attack to maintain the city’s quality of life during a harsh period of economic darkness. No Council member will say that any voice went completely unheard, but better compromises could have been made.

Republican member Frank Fannon voted against the budget in a move symbolic of his belief that the city simply spends too much money and does not look for efficiencies in governance. He said he would have voted for the budget if the spending level did not increase, which it did slightly. The supermajority Democrats could have found ways to come down on the final number slightly, if only as a symbolic gesture a nod toward good faith in less partisanship and more productivity down the road.

Council members agonized over cutting program budgets with a surgeon’s scalpel, examining each line item and debating the merits of each. Of course they, along with the city manager, found crevices to decrease funding and this should not go unnoticed. 

Further, a major win for the city comes in the form of two new ambulances and five emergency medical technician employees to bring Alexandria’s emergency medical response time up to an acceptable 6-minute level. 

Different philosophies on government operations yield different opinions on this budget. It’s expensive to run a city. Some residents believe we could eliminate entire departments and decrease taxation that infringes on personal wealth. Others believe the city offers its residents an ideal array of services and social prosperity, and cutting spending is an affront to the city’s collective quality of life.

These ideas and their shades of gray were fleshed out with a bipartisan Council that had been dominated by one party for several years. The Council needed the tension inherent with different political philosophies to avoid groupthink, even if no one member was wholly satisfied and they were not. Though the two minority members voted against the budget, their voices were heard in that respect and their fingerprints joined their colleagues’ on the final product.

Seeing as how the new budget’s final effects will not be seen for another year, that collaboration is, right now, the greatest success of this budget season.

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