City council raises tax ceiling

City council raises tax ceiling

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors voted unanimously Tuesday night to advertise a maximum property tax rate increase of up to 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, for a total maximum tax rate of $1.073.

The increase is two cents above what was initially proposed by City Manager Mark Jinks in his fiscal 2017 budget proposal, and one cent above an optional increase Jinks outlined when he unveiled the fiscal roadmap.

City councilors cited a public hearing held Monday on the city’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget, which saw parents come out in droves to support filling the budget gap between Alexandria City Public Schools’ funding request and what was included in Jinks’ budget, most of which exists in the 10-year capital improvement plan and includes $8.3 million proposed for a centralized pre-school program.

Those parents feared that not fully funding ACPS, and its capital budget in particular, would lead to further delays to long-needed school upgrades, like those planned for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

“When we first came to MacArthur, there was mold in the kindergarten classrooms,” said Crystal Gaines, president of the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School Parent Teacher Association. “The following year, we lost the teacher’s lounge to create a new classroom due to being over capacity. In 2012 and 2013, the band moved into a physical education storage closet for two years, although it is now in a learning cottage in a temporary space.

“[In] 2015, the school board proposed a new building. That needs to occur on time. It is time to forget the Band-Aid fixes put in place [in recent years], and that means we need a swing space [while the school is under construction.]”

“My family and many others at [Matthew] Maury Elementary School willingly contributed private funding [last year] for the installation of a proper playground, and we thank you and the city for your contribution to that project,” said Matthew Carr, a Maury parent. “We’re blessed to have the ability to do that, but the adequate funding of school facilities is your responsibility. It is disappointing that we’re still being told that portions of ACPS’ reasonable budget request are not ready for funding.”

City council is required to advertise a maximum tax rate increase weeks before a final decision is made on the budget. Under a 1-cent tax hike, the average homeowner will see their tax bill rise by $171 over last year, but under a 3-cent increase, that bill would jump by $271.

Mayor Allison Silberberg opened the discussion Tuesday by suggesting that city councilors consider the options Jinks laid out for a 2-cent tax increase.

“We have had meetings with the schools, and the schools are in need of our help,” Silberberg said. “When students are in hallways trying to learn, it’s not just unfortunate: it’s really unacceptable. With deferred maintenance, deferred infrastructure and all kinds of issues that we’re facing, I would suggest to my colleagues that we consider that second cent [tax increase] to be primarily focused on our schools to help them if possible.”

But Vice Mayor Justin Wilson proposed a tax rate increase ceiling of 3 cents, and argued that council should use the additional funds to help tackle the city’s lagging infrastructure needs, both schools-related and otherwise.

“I remain very concerned that we have underinvested in capital projects for far too long,” he said. “These bills do not get smaller; they only get bigger over time as we defer projects. Regardless of what number we put out for consideration over the next couple of weeks, it’ll be insufficient. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

City Councilor Del Pepper echoed others’ desire to use additional funds to tackle long-deferred infrastructure projects.

“The capacity crunch really is extraordinary, and we have to pay attention to that,” she said. “In addition to the schools, we have our own city facilities to deal with. That’s just mentioning two things that need to be addressed in this budget, as opposed to any other budget.”

City Councilor Paul Smedberg advocated for funds over the 1-cent tax increase proposed by Jinks to go to capital investment.

“Any increase, if it’s sort of targeted toward capital, would also give the city manager flexibility on the operating side in future years,” Smedberg said. “This doesn’t mean to say we don’t have operating budget issues, but if we do 2 cents [in tax increase] or 2 and a half or 3 or whatever it ends up as, we should tend to focus on the projects that have the most meaning.”

And City Councilor Willie Bailey said council should tackle the city’s infrastructure needs, lest they be remembered for letting Alexandria’s buildings crumble.

“I keep hearing about how past councils didn’t make these projects a priority and could have done better,” Bailey said. “We were elected to make the hard decisions. Those city councilors 10 or 15 or 20 years from now shouldn’t be saying that we should have done it. I don’t want to look like I didn’t do the right thing.”

Silberberg argued that councilors should stick to a 2-cent tax increase at most, but eventually voted along with the rest of council to approve advertising a maximum 3-cent tax increase.

“These projects come at us for many years, and it takes time to correct, to move our course and forge a new path,” she said. “One thing I’m mindful of and I think a lot of us are is that there are so many folks concerned about being taxed out of their homes. This is a really big concern, and we just went through a litany of how the tax rate in the last five or six years has gone up and many of the values of [residents’] homes also often went up, which is sort of a double tax.”