Our View: City council should show post-election spending restraint

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Our View: City council should show post-election spending restraint
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(File photo)

That old, familiar, not-so-sweet song is being played again by Alexandria’s city council. It begins with an election-year decision not to raise taxes. With everyone safely re-elected for another three years, it morphs to a post-election major tax hike.

Again and again, this is what our local leaders do. They calculate, with what from here looks like raw cynicism, that a significant tax increase now won’t hurt them politically three years hence. Given that all six incumbents were either re-elected to council, or in Allison Silberberg’s case elected mayor, it’s hard to argue with their logic.

So, just like in the post-election year of 2013, Alexandria’s residents are going to feel a tax increase that includes a double whammy of increased assessments along with a major hike in the tax rate.

What this means in real terms is that the average Alexandria property owner’s tax bill would increase by $121 this year just from the 2.81 percent rise in assessments. Yes, our city officials would have almost 3 percent more in real estate taxes, which equates to $18.6 million more in the budget, to spend next year even if they kept the tax rate as is. For comparison, the nationwide inflation rate for 2015 was just 0.7 percent, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator.

Adding in a 3-cent tax rate increase would raise the average Alexandrian’s property bill by another $150, for a $271 overall tax increase.

What’s most troubling about Tuesday’s decision to advertise up to a 3 cent tax hike — a final decision won’t be made until the budget is approved — is it is 2 cents more than City Manager Mark Jinks asked for in his initial fiscal 2017 budget proposal.

It’s like a perverse game of poker — with residents’ tax dollars — in which council said, “I’ll see your one cent, and raise you two.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a game, but real money coming out of residents’ pockets.

And make no mistake, this increase in the tax rate is here to stay; it’s not only for this year but for future years as well. Even if home values rise tremendously, as they did in the early and mid-2000s — thus generating more tax revenue without a rate hike — the tax rate itself rarely goes down.

Yes, the extra spending would be for good causes. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who proposed advertising the higher tax rate, justified the major hike by saying “we have underinvested in capital projects for far too long.” Silberberg argued for a slightly smaller tax rate increase of 2 cents, citing the need for more spending on school maintenance and infrastructure.

There are always a multitude of competing causes when it comes to government spending. What Alexandria doesn’t need is a post-election spending celebration that leaves taxpayers with the tab. The city manager’s proposal of the assessment increase coupled with a 1-cent tax rate hike — with an option for a second cent — seems reasonable.

This is one time when we wish city councilors wouldn’t add their two cents.

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