City councilors support tax hike for infrastructure

City councilors support tax hike for infrastructure
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Chris Teale (File photo)

A proposed real estate tax rate increase of 3 cents to help pay for capital projects in the city received strong support from city councilors at their preliminary add/delete budget work session Tuesday night at City Hall.

In his proposed budget unveiled in January, City Manager Mark Jinks proposed a 1-cent property tax rate increase. City council then set the maximum increase at 3 cents at a March
meeting and directed Jinks and his staff to provide options for spending the additional cash on capital projects.

City staff recommended using $6.8 million of the projected $10,245,600 in extra revenue from the additional 2-cent increase as cash capital to fund transportation and facilities projects as well as improve broadband Internet. Staff recommended that the remaining $3.4 million be spent to fund Alexandria City Public Schools’ proposal for a centralized pre-K facility. An additional $5.2 million would be borrowed to fund the total $8.3 million needed for the retrofitting of the leased space.

Councilors agreed that investments had been put off for too long, and investing now would prevent an even larger bill down the road.

“Deferring … only drives the cost up and only exacerbates the problem we find ourselves in,” warned Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.

Within the plan, $730,000 would be spent on additional funding for the Complete Streets program; $2.3 million on renovations of the city’s court house; $1.4 million on replacement DASH buses; $450,000 on energy retrofitting city facilities; $996,000 on repairs at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and Gadsby’s Tavern; $570,000 on street repairs; and $400,000 on municipal broadband Internet engineering.

Mayor Allison Silberberg argued for deferring some of the projects and spreading them out over more years, especially the work on the courthouse and at the apothecary museum and Gadsby’s Tavern. Silberberg said having slightly less of a tax burden on households — even by a half-cent — might make things easier financially in the long run, especially for those on fixed incomes who have seen their property values rise but their income not keep pace.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg said that in light of recent fires and other incidents at Gadsby’s Tavern, some of which have caused significant damage, the city could not afford to wait any longer.

General services director Jeremy McPike said conditions at the courthouse got so bad that a courtroom needed to be shut down due to humidity, while a lot of equipment is reaching the end of its expected life.

“We have neglected this area for an extremely long time, and it’s what people come to see when they visit Alexandria,” Smedberg said.

In the operating budget, councilors found preliminary consensus around several other areas, including having all city libraries open on Sundays. Currently, only Beatley Central Library is open on Sundays, and under a proposal by Wilson, the Burke, Duncan and Barrett branches would open too. The cost is projected to be $79,862 for fiscal 2017 and increase to $83,056 in fiscal 2018.

Smedberg questioned whether usage would be high enough in the summer months with schools out of session, which city budget director Morgan Routt said would be analyzed further. Several councilors said investing in the libraries would be helpful for the future.

“Those kids in the summertime need as much as they can have in terms of places to go,” said City Councilor Willie Bailey.

“This is an opportunity to do pleasure reading and to keep kids up to snuff, so when they go back in September they haven’t got lost along the way,” added City Councilor Del Pepper.

Silberberg argued strongly in favor of keeping fire hydrant maintenance at its current levels, rather than a reduction that has been proposed. Currently hydrants are maintained every five years, but under a proposal by city staff that would be extended to every 10 years. Silberberg said it should stay as it is, at a cost of $100,000 a year.

“We spent a lot of money on our new fire station [210 on the West End] and equipment, but this is a basic maintenance issue,” she said. “I would just like to err on the side of caution.”

A proposed 11-cent increase in the city’s per-pack cigarette tax would be used to increase the city’s contribution to the Neighborhood Clinic by $102,641 and rescind a proposed cut of $57,914 from the city’s contribution to the Northern Virginia Dental Clinic. Both are programs that offer treatment to patients from across the region. The rescinded cut appears set to be placed in contingent reserves.

The clinic is slated to relocate from Bailey’s Crossroads to Merrifield in Fairfax County, and City Councilor Tim Lovain said he wished to see further analysis on how the city’s contribution is spent.

There also was agreement on allocating $50,000 to city tourism authority Visit Alexandria, a partial funding of the $75,000 originally proposed by Jinks. The money would allow the authority to refresh its digital advertising, something councilors said should help drive more visitors to the city.

Councilors and city staff will now work together to balance proposed expenditures and cuts ahead of the final add/delete session on Monday. The budget is slated to be approved at a special meeting on May 5.