Editorial: City budget faces double crunch

Editorial: City budget faces double crunch
File Photo

File photo

Alexandria’s fiscal 2016 budget is being squeezed locally by a projected $16 million deficit and by unfunded mandates from the Virginia legislature. Guess what that means, Port City residents? Your property tax rate likely will rise next year.

While an increase in the tax rate is no big surprise — it happens almost every year there’s not a big jump in property assessments — it would be unusual in an election year. In 2012, the last year Alexandria held city council elections, councilors held off on raising taxes. That fiscal restraint was a one-year event, as the newly elected, one-party council raised the property tax rate by a whopping 4 cents in June 2013.

So, what should we make of this early warning of a tax hike on the horizon? First, if it’s included in budget guidance at this early stage, it’s highly likely to happen. The vote gives City Manager Rashad Young the leeway to raise taxes from the start in his budget proposal, rather than requiring him to first submit a revenue-neutral plan. What city manager, if presented with an easier way to craft a budget, is going to choose the harder path of making painful cuts in some areas to pay for increases in others?

Second, the 4-3 vote reflects a philosophical fault line in this council, with the three “no” votes coming from the group’s “green eyeshade” contingent: Tim Lovain, Justin Wilson and Paul Smedberg.

These three argue, and we agree, that even if a tax hike is ultimately the best course of action, a revenue-neutral budget should have been required first. Such a document would plainly spell out for city residents the budget cuts required to fund city services at the levels of previous years, while also including a wage increase for public safety workers. It would have made holding the line on taxes more feasible, and ultimately would have made a tax hike an easier sell.

Without the process of clearly identifying budget tradeoffs, council will open itself to charges of being just another “tax and spend” collection of elected officials. This surely is not a label councilors would welcome come election season, especially given the tiny margins that generally separate winners from losers in council elections.

Lovain and Wilson narrowly lost their seats in 2009, when, like the upcoming 2015 election, the contest didn’t coincide with a presidential contest (which in Alexandria tends to increase voter turnout enough to lift all Democrats into office).

It is unfortunate that Alexandria is being fiscally squeezed both from stagnant local property values and from Richmond’s mandates — which are constant while their funding continues to dwindle. It leaves our city manager and elected officials in a budget bind that may require a tax hike to solve. But including the hike in the initial document was the wrong first step.