By Chris Teale (File photo)
Alexandria’s budget for the 2016 fiscal year moved closer to approval Monday night as city councilors and staff completed their final add/delete work session with little drama in City Hall’s council chambers.
City councilors arrived at the session following a preliminary discussion last week when they decided upon a number of ways to make use of a combined $4.38 million surplus available from the operating and capital budgets. Based on their conversations that evening, city staff prepared a revised and balanced list of appropriations for final approval.
Included in that revised list is an additional $1 million for Alexandria City Public Schools, about $1.3 million to staff Fire Station 210 on the West End and $250,000 in contingent funds for the Maury Schoolyard Initiative set aside until there is a comprehensive plan for the project and an agreement to allow the city’s parks and recreation department to use the field outside of school hours.
$55,000 in extra funding was approved for nonprofit ALIVE! Alexandria. On the capital side, $1.85 million was freed up under the city’s transportation improvement plan to be spent on the transportation commission’s top three priorities. Commissioners wrote in a letter to city council that they wished to see funding to the tune of $160,000 on an additional 16 Capital Bikeshare stations, $660,000 on a replacement DASH bus and $100,000 to complete funding of the Cameron Run Trail design. The remaining $930,000 would be held in reserves for the next year’s budget.
All the items on the revised list received unanimous sponsorship and approval from city councilors under the new budget process, which sets a firm deadline on add/delete proposals and requires the support of at least three councilors, thereby eliminating much of the last-minute horse trading that has plagued past budget processes.
That new process meant just two proposals were left Monday, both of which put forward by Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and co-sponsored by two other city councilors: approximately $15,000 to allow the Ramsay Recreation Center to stay open on Sundays and approximately $180,000 to eliminate or reduce the 29 seniors and those with disabilities on the rent relief waiting list.
But city councilors struggled to find any additional budget cuts that could be made from the revised add/delete list, a process Mayor Bill Euille described as “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.” The only reduction that gained consensus was taking $10,000 from the AlexTV cable television station, the funds of which will be placed in a contingency fund for the parks and recreation department to determine where it can be best spent, as opposed to being put solely towards funding Ramsay on Sundays.
The conversation on AlexTV brought some tense discussion between Silberberg and Euille — opponents in the upcoming Democratic primary in the city’s mayoral race — with Silberberg expressing her desire to cut to funds for the station and redirect them towards the Ramsay Recreation Center. Euille countered by saying that in the past, the vice mayor had been keen to explore new ways to improve its content and spend money on AlexTV, to which Silberberg responded that she merely had wanted to look into replaying meetings and other events rather than examining new productions.
While councilors agreed in principle on the funding for the staffing of Station 210, there was a testy exchange after City Councilor Justin Wilson suggested the money be placed under contingency funds given that the cost is still what he described as a “squishy number.”
Wilson received support in his proposal from City Councilor John Chapman, who suggested that putting the money in contingency would enhance transparency and allow the general public — especially residents of the West End — to follow the progress of the station’s staffing. City Councilor Del Pepper, a West End resident herself, agreed on the importance of transparency.
“All eyes are going to be on this,” she said. “This is a neighborhood in uproar.”
Those two exchanges were the only real moments of tension between city councilors, a departure from the April 28 work session when things got particularly heated in chambers after some last-minute requests for nonprofit funding were brought forth.
City councilors said they were concerned that requested funding for some nonprofit projects submitted at the last minute would be financed via savings from the capital budget, something they try and avoid.
Silberberg’s proposal to fund more rent relief and Pepper’s proposed increase to ALIVE! funding could have been financed by taking money from the project to update the intersection at King Street, Braddock Road and Quaker Lane. City Councilor Paul Smedberg was particularly vocal in his opposition to taking money from the capital budget and moving it to the operating budget for the proposals.
“I do not think that is a good practice for us to be in, and I would be really concerned about it,” he said. “[The King Street, Braddock Road and Quaker Lane] project is not a piggy-bank. It has been on the books for a number of years now, it’s already been re-engineered and re-evaluated I don’t know how many times.
“I know we can’t do the full project right now, but that doesn’t mean it becomes the piggy-bank. If anything, that money should go into capital-related projects. This process we put in place is not that difficult, it’s not that onerous, and it’s to prevent these last-minute additions so things could be talked about in their entire context of the budget.”
Wilson agreed with Smedberg’s sentiment, while Chapman argued that a lack of communication between council and the community about the revised process had also played a role. Later in the discussion, Smedberg continued his criticism.
“There are numerous discussions that happen on all kinds of worthy causes in this city all year long,” he said. “I’m not disputing any of the facts. The process, in effect, has not changed all that much. The only thing that has changed is the form, getting a threshold [of co-sponsors] so we’re preventing this kind of thing from happening. That’s the only point I’m trying to make.
“If you have an issue, if you’re concerned about hunger and you knew about this, you should have brought this forward in a [previous budget] work session. It’s that simple; this is not that hard a process. I’m sorry, it just isn’t.”
With the work sessions now over for this budget session, the fiscal 2016 budget will be formally voted on for approval at 6:30 p.m. tonight at City Hall.