Taxes likely to increase in city budget

Taxes likely to increase in city budget

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Alexandria residents’ tax bills are slated to rise in fiscal 2017 as part of a plan city leaders say will maintain and improve services for residents.

City Manager Mark Jinks unveiled his proposal for the fiscal 2017 budget Tuesday night, which would raise property tax rates by 1 cent for a total operating budget of $671.6 million, an increase of $22.4 million over the current year.

Included in Jinks’ proposal is a $9.9 million increase in the allocation to Alexandria City Public Schools, $900,000 to make city firefighters’ pay more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions, $5.1 million in merit-based pay increases for city employees and a $1 bump to the hourly living wage for city employees and contractors.

Jinks left city councilors with the option to raise taxes by an extra 1 cent, and gave them a series of options for where the extra money could go. Under the 1-cent tax increase — to $1.053 per $100 of assessed value — the average homeowner would see their tax bill rise by $171 per year, while under a 2-cent hike they would see an increase of $221 per year.

Jinks told reporters that city officials began the budget process by asking departments to submit plans to reduce their budgets by 5 percent. Then, they asked departments to suggest ideas to improve their delivery of service. Of the $13.5 million in proposals, $2.7 million made it into the city manager’s budget, and others are included in the list of possible funding targets if city councilors opt to increase taxes further.

“We wanted to propose a budget that is bare bones, but meets our core needs responsibly, while also laying out ways to meet the city’s broader goals,” Jinks said. “[We] didn’t just say, ‘Add to your budgets’ [to city departments]. We asked for options of ways to reduce their budgets before saying, ‘OK, what are your needs.’”

The proposal includes $206.6 million in funding for ACPS, less than $1 million short of the allotment initially requested in Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s proposed budget for the school system. Jinks said growing school enrollment continues to be a major driver in city spending.

“Forty-four percent of the revenue growth [in the budget] is going to schools, and it becomes much higher when you look only at tax rates,” he said.

In the 10-year capital budget, Jinks said his proposal funds every initiative endorsed by ACPS for fiscal 2017, except the dedicated pre-Kindergarten facility, which would have cost $8.3 million that year to lease and renovate a space.

“The pre-K facility is the biggest and most visible new item, but it’s been added without a lot of discussion within the community or by city council,” Jinks said. “It wasn’t in last year’s budget, and it’s not a million dollars — it’s more than $8 million. … There’s no reason to rush into something without thinking through all of the possible consequences. They have the concept, but not the specific proposal yet.”

Jinks also outlined how pay raises would affect the Alexandria Fire Department. Each firefighter and fire officer would receive a 2.5 percent raise, and officers would be eligible for a raise of around 5 percent on top of that.

“Our goal is to be in the middle of the road compared with our five surrounding jurisdictions,” Jinks said, referring to the six fire departments surrounding Washington, D.C. “Fairfax County and Montgomery County in particular pay more — and significantly more — than we do, but this puts us back in the middle.”

Also in the budget proposal is an additional $1.1 million to go toward parking and speeding enforcement in residential areas, as well as the addition of new city positions like a building engineer, IT analyst and traffic engineer, and an inflation-based increase in the library materials budget.

Among service cuts are an elimination in vacant positions at some libraries and at Charles Houston Recreation Center, reducing hours at Charles Barrett and the Nannie J. Lee centers to scheduled activities only and a consolidation of senior centers open in the city.

Jinks said he was confident his budget proposal aligns with the service requests of residents and the guidelines put forth by city councilors last fall.

“This budget is enough to make things work and we’re lean, as we should be,” he said. “It would be easier to work with more employees, but this is a responsible number [of city workers].

“Hopefully this proposal represents the specific and general guidance given to me in November [2015] and that it is based on their plans and recommendations. I’m confident that this is close to the priorities set forth by council, the community and stakeholders.”

Jinks will make his first presentation on the budget to the public 7 p.m. today at Beatley Library. The first budget work session will be held at City Hall March 1, while a public hearing devoted to the budget is slated for 4 p.m. March 14 at City Hall.