City council approves $636.8 million budget

City council approves $636.8 million budget
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors adopted a $636.8 million budget last week, making permanent a half-cent hike in property taxes and a slew of other levy and fee increases, nearly without incident.

A year ago, several city councilors voted in favor of a budget without realizing it eliminated an automatic tax set-aside for affordable housing. When the break in tradition came to light, they decided to add a bit of daylight between the final round of negotiations and the budget approval vote.

Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg said the change ensures that both city councilors and residents know what will be in the final budget before the final vote.

“Now everyone gets the chance to make sure that everything is correct, and the people of the city deserve that,” she said. “It’s good for transparency in our democracy.”

But the new approval process did not keep a few city leaders from trying to pull a fast one on residents, if you ask City Councilor Justin Wilson. Wilson was visibly annoyed during last Thursday’s meeting after Silberberg voted against a piece of the budget that extended parking meter hours across the city.

That Silberberg did not remove the $500,000 in additional projected revenue from extended meter hours in her budget memos lay at the heart of Wilson’s objection.

“When we all submit our amendments to the budget, let’s say we oppose something like the parking meter expansion,” Wilson said. “If you oppose that and don’t want it to happen, you need to find an alternate way to find that $500,000.

“I was very upset because she was being disingenuous, because she spent that $500,000 [in her budget proposal] and later voted against the ordinance that made the policy change. She would have unbalanced the budget.”

Silberberg, who said she voted against the expansion because she thought it was anti-business, said she didn’t include revenues or cuts to make up the difference because she thought other councilors would reject her proposal. She pointed out that she argued against the measure during a policy discussion last month.

“I included a great deal of things in my preliminary add/delete [documents], and I mentioned it to staff about the meters, but it had already been decided,” she said. “I think I turned in a very thoughtful add/delete. I worked extremely hard on it.”

But Wilson said other city councilors cast protest votes during the final budget approval, but were more consistent in their positions. For example, City Councilor John Chapman voted against an ordinance increasing fees for activities at the department of recreation, parks and cultural activities.

“We actually talked after the meeting, the three of us, right after we adjourned,” Wilson said. “If you look at [Chapman’s] add/delete sheets, he did not use the money generated from the fees, he found the money alternatively. She was attempting to have it both ways.”

But Silberberg believes that having a thorough discussion of the merits of extended parking meter hours — and whether it hurts businesses or improves customer turnover — required the measure be decoupled from budget talks.

“We are told by staff that their studies show that turnover is important and I understand that totally,” she said. “[But during budget season] it becomes about revenue, and extending meter hours is ultimately about raising revenue.”