Finding another vehicle to fix Alexandria’s transportation woes


Talk of an add-on tax aimed at businesses stirred debate and protest for months, but when it came time to pass the citys budget the commercial levy was nowhere to be found. 
Instead officials settled on raising taxes citywide, to 99.8 cents per $100 of property value, and designated some of the money toward much-needed transportation projects. The unanimous decision came after the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce led a full-court press against the proposal, including covering Old Towns storefronts with anti-tax posters.  
Had city council gone with the levy, like neighboring Arlington and Fairfax counties, they could have raised taxes on commercial property owners up to 12.5 cents per $100 of their propertys worth, for an estimated $110 million in the next decade. 
So what happened? Though the add-on tax had long been seen as the leading way to overhaul Alexandrias transportation infrastructure, once city council agreed they needed to raise dollars it became a matter of looking at acceptable alternatives, said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.
The debate in previous years was more along the lines of whether we do the commercial add-on or not, said Donley, a proponent of the commercial tax. The debate this year, because we started talking early, really focused on the need for long term transportation investments. The commercial add-on was merely a vehicle.
Officials will now turn to a mix of tax revenue, debt and savings to fund a lengthy list of projects expected to ease travel around the city. While the money comes from different sources, the end result wont change, said acting City Manager Bruce Johnson, who served as Alexandrias chief financial officer during the budget process. 
The downside, Donley said, is that future boards will have to stay committed to upgrading city transit. Unlike the add-on tax, which must go to capital projects, there are no such stipulations governing what another city council might do with the money down the road. 
I think the challenge is going to be [whether we can] sustain this over time, Donley said. One of the advantages of the commercial add-on was that it was directed at new transportation projects. Relying on general revenue, we dont have that caveat.
Councilman Paul Smedberg raised another potential pitfall during the budgets passage, wondering whether omitting the tool could cause a political problem for Alexandria in the General Assembly down the road.
But fellow council member Frank Fannon rejected Smedbergs concern. Yes, Richmond gave Alexandria a tool to pay for capital improvements, but the city came up with its own solution, he said. 
We were able to figure out our own way, he said. Thats an option the General Assembly gives and thats why they dont say you have to do this. Thats why we have local, elected officials.
Councilwoman Del Pepper agreed with Fannon, saying the idea Richmond would revoke Alexandrias ability to levy an add-on tax in the future was never a concern.
Each jurisdiction is different and each has to do what works for them, she said. The Arlington business community is different from Alexandrias.
Residents expressed surprise in the councils sudden reversal on the add-on tax. Donley said some form of the levy was incorporated into budget scenarios until nearly the end of negotiations. 
Fannon and Pepper credited the business community with changing minds on the city council. They made the case an extra tax would put many of them in the red permanently.
The reality of it is if businesses fail in this community the tax burden will continue to shift back to the residential property owners, Fannon said. Its very important that we are able to go out there and show our job creators that theyre an important part of the community. There were a lot of people one tax increase away from going out of business.