Setting the city’s General Assembly agenda

Setting the city’s General Assembly agenda

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As lawmakers prepare for January’s session of the Virginia General Assembly, city councilors have one thing on their mind: getting Richmond to pay for its own agencies.

Council is preparing to adopt its state legislative agenda next month, and many of the items are tied to the city’s growing subsidy of state services.

During the budget process last spring, city officials added funding to keep compensation for staff at the city courthouse, who are state employees, competitive with neighboring jurisdictions and their federal counterparts. And upgrades to the combined sewer system in the city required by the state remain an unfunded mandate, despite previous requests for appropriations.

But at a meeting with Alexandria’s state lawmakers, councilors said the biggest thumb in their collective eye is the “local aid to state” program. Alexandria is required to send $633,464 to Richmond each year to help cover state contributions to local programs.

“I was saying earlier, aren’t a lot of legislators [in Richmond] formerly local officials?” said City Councilor Tim Lovain. “It’s like they’ve forgotten their roots.”

“We have our own budget problems,” said Bernie Caton, the city’s top state lobbyist. “We’d rather not have to bail out both the city and the state.”

The program has been a sticking point with municipalities since former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) first implemented it in 2008, said Mayor Bill Euille. Some cities have made a joke out of the situation, sending in massive checks, like those used at press conferences for charities and contest winners.

“Maybe we should just send them a mountain of unwrapped pennies,” Euille joked.

This focus on fiscal issues is not happenstance. Alexandria is slated to face a $16 million budget deficit next year. City council has authorized City Manager Rashad Young to raise taxes as part of his proposed fiscal 2016 budget, due out early next year.

City Councilor Justin Wilson said the state’s unwillingness to increase the pay of state employees in Northern Virginia — where the cost of living is highest — means turnover in the courthouse is inevitable. And it makes it even more difficult to address the lack in compensation for city employees, particularly in the public safety sector.

“We had to increase our own allocation in [local] court clerks, because they were making $15,000 less than clerks in the federal court just up the street and after a year or two, they just go there,” he said. “All of these state agencies serve us — the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, the public defender, the health department — and that means we end up heavily subsidizing state programs. It’s something all of Northern Virginia is dealing with.”

Wilson said the state’s refusal to pay for its own programs amounts to passing the buck onto city governments.

“Basically, what they’re saying is: We won’t cut the programs or raise the taxes to pay for it, but we’ll make you do it instead,” he said.

The agenda also supports the usual gander of causes de celebre, from an increase in the minimum wage and expansion of Medicaid to the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons and banning the box, the moving of the question of whether a job applicant has been convicted of a crime to later in the hiring process, from employment applications for state jobs.

Although city leaders focused on the fiscal issues, their state-level colleagues warned them not to expect much on that front.

“I think legislators and representatives from Northern Virginia know it’s a problem, but down in Richmond, they’re still all too happy to pass the buck on to local governments and property taxpayers,” said Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45). “All of these state agencies end up subsidized at much higher levels at local government, because the alternative is that the locals stop using state services, but since we need things like the health department, that’s just not viable.

“Local governments highlighting the issue is helpful, but people are being sold a bill of goods. The state gets to say, ‘Oh it’s just those evil local governments raising your taxes.’ But in reality, they’re the ones forcing local governments to do it.”