No new taxes in city budget proposal

No new taxes in city budget proposal

By Erich Wagner and Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)

Despite facing a $31 million budget gap as recently as December, Acting City Manager Mark Jinks proposed a balanced budget that not only keeps tax rates flat but also funds school enrollment increases and a pay rise for police officers.

Jinks presented the $647.9 million proposal for fiscal 2016 to city councilors Tuesday, a 1.7 percent increase from the 2015 fiscal year appropriation.

The budget includes $197.8 million for Alexandria City Public Schools, a $6 million increase — 3.1 percent — from 2015. Schools officials had requested an additional $9.1 million over the current fiscal year for a total city allocation of $201 million.

Jinks said the city is increasing its investment to the district by designating 55 percent of all new general fund revenue to the schools.

“School needs are coming first,” Jinks said.

But Superintendent Alvin Crawley stressed not fully funding the budget would be a direct hit to classrooms.

“Funding less than the requested amount would impact our ability to have a highly effective teacher in every classroom, provide necessary specialized instruction and support the needs of diverse learners,” Crawley said in a statement.

Over the past several months, city police have lobbied elected officials for pay increases, something they have not received in years. The budget calls for an additional $2.1 million to fund a 4.5 percent pay raise for all police officers. Entry-level pay for officers has been increased by 9 percent. The increases would make local law enforcement salaries more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions.

Although he had the option to increase residential and commercial property tax rates, Jinks said he wanted to avoid it, given the approximately 3 percent growth in assessments announced earlier this year.

“We worked on it and we worked on it, and we were able to do it without the tax increase,” he said. “It’s sustainable. There are no short-term gimmicks.”

And Jinks said the budget proposal puts the city on better fiscal footing in the years to come. He said all transfers of programs or positions from the general fund to other grants and funding sources can continue in future years.

“There’s no prior year fund balance use; there’s no dip into our savings or our rainy day fund,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a city manager do this — not use [one-time] fund balances — in recent years.”

So how was city staff able to cut what was most recently projected as a $31 million budget shortfall? Jinks said it was just a lot of little initiatives, from using dedicated transportation funding to pay for Metro expenses to revising a plan to rework the intersection of King Street, Quaker Lane and Braddock Road.

“With the original resizing, we would have had to spend $7 million to take the surrounding properties, so we asked: ‘How much benefit would we get for that $7 million?’” Jinks said. “Now we’ll put in a new signal and new mast arms, and it’ll cost $2 million instead of the original $7 [million], and we’ll get most of the same desired effect.”

Jinks said staff also was able to find savings by finding more efficient garbage pickup routes, revamping how to use contractors for repaving — city workers now will fill small potholes, while contractors will be paid for larger repaving work — and bringing the cleaning of sewage storm basins in-house.

“You know, it’s harder and harder to find these kinds of efficiencies year after year [as budgets shrink],” he said. “But the opportunities are there and new ideas come to the forefront.”

Other ways to close the gap include bringing ambulance fees in line with Fairfax County and further increasing fees for services in agencies like the city department of recreation, parks and cultural activities.

The budget includes a number of adjustments in staffing of city agencies, mostly involving vacant positions. The net change in full time positions is a drop in four positions, but only “one or two” of them are currently filled, Jinks said.

The new Fire Station 210, opened last year in the West End, will go another year without fire apparatus. Jinks’ proposal calls for the same staffing levels for the facility — a medic unit.