When budget season rolls around, we always talk about the difficulties of balancing competing priorities, interests and causes in an effort to balance the city’s ledger. In Alexandria, there is always a cavalcade of worthy causes, but not enough money to aid them all.
What’s more important in any given fiscal year? Public safety spending increases, maintaining affordable housing, nonprofit contributions; all sound deserving of tax dollars on their own, but the decision becomes more difficult when considered together.
In previous budget cycles, an avalanche of last-minute budget requests made it to city councilors’ dais during their final add/delete session for the fiscal roadmap. Councilors struggled to balance the various proposals and the debate often took a turn toward the raucous.
And last year, it even led to a tax increase. City councilors had stressed publicly that they did not want to raise taxes last spring and advertised a half-cent property tax hike “as a precaution.” But after a marathon final add/delete session, council voted to implement the precautionary tax increase to help fund last-minute funding additions.
This was no way to discuss serious issues of funding local departments, projects and services. So councilors introduced a new process for making changes to the budget this year: All proposals needed the endorsement of three city councilors and had to be submitted by April 23.
As a result, Monday’s final add/delete session was rather tame in comparison to past years. Councilors had to prepare their ideas earlier in the process, and run them past their colleagues to gain their support. What resulted was not only fewer last-minute changes, but also a more thoughtful and informed discussion of the ones that did make it to the table.
Council did not elect to raise taxes this year either, although that was already predestined — they voted not to advertise a possible tax hike weeks ago.
This is partially the result of governance during an election year. City councilors have been loath to impose themselves upon taxpayers’ wallets when their names are on the ballot, although they have had no trouble doing it in each of the last two years.
Still, council faced some quandaries in its last budget work session this week. It could add funding to staff Fire Station 210 this fiscal year, it could pay to remove 29 residents from the waiting list for rent relief for seniors and people with disabilities, but councilors couldn’t do both without pulling money out of the capital budget.
Council made the right decision. As we have said in past editorials, Fire Station 210 needs fire suppression capabilities as soon as possible, and that service will improve the quality of life for the many residents on the West End who already feel the sting of a perception of inequitable distribution of local services.
And pulling money out of the capital budget — even if it is from a project that has suffered delays or needs re-evaluation, like the renovation of the intersection of King Street, Braddock Road and Quaker Lane — is bad practice and would set a bad precedent.
Thanks to this new process — and the politics of an election year — council was able to have a focused and well-informed debate about these competing priorities, and came out with the right answer.