City council formally approves fiscal 2016 budget

City council formally approves fiscal 2016 budget

By Chris Teale (File photo)

At a special meeting of Alexandria City Council on May 7, City Manager Mark Jinks recalled that in December 2014, the city faced a $31 million deficit based on then-proposed budgets for city departments for fiscal 2016.

Jinks asked city staff and officials in the office of management and budget to suggest ideas to reduce the shortfall, ideally so that no additional taxes would be levied on citizens.

Just four months later, city council unanimously passed legislation approving the new budget without any tax increases but with a modest increase in spending after a budget season with relatively little drama compared to previous years.

The city’s overall budget totals $816.3 million, with $649.2 million in the operating budget. That represents an overall increase on the 2015 Fiscal Year overall and operating budgets of 1.4 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively.

Within that, approximately $1.3 million was added to staff Fire Station 210 on the West End between December 2015 and March 2016, after it opened last month without any firefighters. Alexandria City Public Schools will receive a total of $198.8 million, which includes an extra $1 million granted in the add/delete work sessions.

The Maury Schoolyard Initiative from Matthew Maury Elementary School parents received $250,000 from the capital budget to aid improvements to the school’s playground. The combination of private and public funds to aid the project drew praise from city councilors, as did the group’s constant involvement in the budget process.

“For Maury School, you have been with us always,” said City Councilor Del Pepper in council chambers after the budget’s approval. “I particularly feel a good bit of warmth towards that particular project because there were so many parents that were involved in this.

“At the very beginning, when it looked like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ they still had the hope and they still kept pushing. When a community goes out like that and really fights for something they have to have, and if you’re meeting us part-way, that really is incentive for sure.”

“We really applaud all that you’re doing and have done already,” added Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg. “I also love the fact that the children have been involved. Anywhere in the city where we have similar situations, coming forward as a community and working with us hand-in-hand is definitely welcome.”

The budget invests $2.1 million in the pay of police officers to try and regain regional competitiveness. After years without a pay rise, officers lobbied City Hall for an increase and under the 2016 budget will receive a 4.5 percent raise across the board. Entry-level pay for officers will increase by 9 percent.

Finally, the city’s transportation improvement plan has been given $1.85 million for its top three priorities to improve city infrastructure, while the Alexandria Law Library received $60,000 to continue operating, albeit with reduced hours.

The budget process underwent some changes late last year to prevent the tension and freneticism of past cycles, as city councilors looked to find funding for projects late on. City Councilors Paul Smedberg and John Chapman pushed successfully for a new process that looks to garner citizen input much earlier, with a requirement that city councilors fill out a form on a deadline explaining how a proposal for funding aligns with the city’s strategic plan, with two other city councilors as co-sponsors.

Smedberg noted at the May 7 meeting that while the process is still not perfect, it ensures that the responsibility is with city councilors to ensure they are communicating effectively with each other and with the public, and that issues are debated in a timely manner.