Our View: Looming property tax hike is a bad case of deja vu

Our View: Looming property tax hike is a bad case of deja vu

(File photo)

Strike up the band, Sam, and get ready to play it again. The “it” in question is the entirely predictable, post-election property tax increase in Alexandria.

Informed city residents are surely as unsurprised as we are to learn that, for the second election cycle in a row, after city councilors did not raise the tax rate in the calendar year of voting, they could plan to sock it to property owners at the first post-election opportunity.

For grins, here’s what we said in this space in February 2013, when a monstrous 5.5-cent tax increase was being considered: “Council members don’t have to face the voters for another three years, so if they’re going to raise taxes, this year is politically best for them. They gamble that voters have short memories, and if they hold taxes firm in the next election year, which is not until 2015, most voters will forgive them this transgression.”

That political gambit proved a fruitful one. The all-Democratic council that was elected in November 2012 ultimately passed a 4-cent increase that, coupled with rising assessments, lifted the average Alexandrian’s property tax bill by $315. And they paid no political price for the move, as all five incumbent city councilors were re-elected last month, and the sixth, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, is the city’s mayor-elect.

So what’s next for local taxpayers? It appears we will find out in January, when City Manager Mark Jinks is expected to unveil his fiscal 2017 budget proposal. Council unanimously agreed late last month to allow Jinks to raise taxes if he deems them necessary to balance the budget. There was no tax rate parameter attached to council’s approval, meaning residents may be in for a whopper of an increase.

To be fair, Jinks was given the same leeway last year but still returned to city council with a budget that did not raise tax rates. But there were further indications from the November 24 council meeting that a major tax expansion could be on the way. Most instructively, city councilors vied to establish spending priorities:

– Justin Wilson urged that all new revenues be earmarked for capital improvement projects.

– Paul Smedberg led the pushback against emphasizing capital improvements, arguing such a move would hamper the ability to pay for programs in the operating budget.

– Tim Lovain paved the way for a funding increase for Alexandria City Public Schools when he proposed, and council passed, an amendment that allows inflation as well as enrollment growth to be considered in formulating the allocation to city schools.

And so, with the holiday season in full swing, Alexandria residents can warm themselves with the knowledge that, as they shop for Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, our local officials are planning a post-holiday spending spree of their own.

The best it appears city residents can hope for is that the coming tax increase is spread out over the next couple of years rather than dropped in one fell swoop. We would like to think that the massive tax surge of 2013 was a one-time thing. But as the singer Suzanne Vega advised, one-time things tend to “happen a lot.”