My View: Decisions on city spending must be a balancing act

My View: Decisions on city spending must be a balancing act
Allison Silberberg (Courtesy Photo)

By Mayor Allison Silberberg

The vote for Alexandria’s budget is around the corner. This is the biggest vote of the year for city council. Our decision will have a sizable impact on the quality of residents’ lives as well as the pocketbook of each household in our beloved city.

It is a balance that we must seek — a balance between what we need and what we want. We must focus on what is mission critical, such as education for our children, repairs for our crumbling roads and support for our libraries, to name a few priorities.

Our budget is a reflection of our core values. I would like us to envision together what an even greater Alexandria would look like and how to get there. Friends from all over the country have come to visit me here in Alexandria, and they always marvel at how beautiful and historic our city is.

We have a great deal for which to be grateful. We have inherited a phenomenal city that requires keeping an eye on both short-term and long-term goals.

City council has been holding work sessions to review all aspects of the budget since it was introduced in February. In mid-March, we held a budget public hearing for four hours and heard from around 70 citizens.

On April 16, during council’s public hearing, around 60 residents spoke to us about their concerns, including the need for human services, more pre-K programs, library support and bike trails, among other issues. Every year, it is a tough set of choices. Many of you have taken the time to write us at City Hall, and we hear you. Your input is important to us.

We must do what we can for our schools, which are in serious need of attention after years of deferred maintenance, and we are maxing out in terms of space and class sizes at a number of schools. We all want our children to have a great education.

Last year, police pay was brought in line with neighboring jurisdictions, but that issue had festered for years before we acted. This year, we will tackle the issue of firefighter pay. I hope there will be unanimity among council to bring back Sunday hours at three of our libraries. The fourth library, Charles Beatley Central Library, has been the only location with Sunday hours for many years.

Further, we can all see the deterioration of our roads. Let’s tackle this together. In large part because of the economic downturn, the city has deferred maintenance, leading to a growing list infrastructure needs. Now is the time to pull it together.

As in recent years, this budget is extremely tight, and all of us are well aware of competing interests. Last fall, we directed City Manager Mark Jinks to come back with a budget proposal with the option to raise taxes.

After hard work with staff, he proposed in February that we could achieve our city’s goals by imposing a 1-cent property tax rate increase. He also provided a list of what we could achieve if we raised the tax rate by 2 cents. In mid-March, in order to have some leeway, council set a maximum property tax rate increase of 3 cents.

To provide perspective, if your home’s value is $521,000, then including the average increase in assessments, a 2-cent increase would mean an additional $223, and a three-cent increase would be an additional $275. First and foremost, a majority of our citizens have already seen their real estate assessments go up this year, which is an effective tax increase in and of itself. We must be cognizant of this.

Second, given Jinks’ budget expertise I have argued that we ought to take heed of his recommendation of a 1-cent tax increase. Third, it is clear that the city’s deferred maintenance and crucial infrastructure needs over a number of years have come home to roost. Jinks has tried to balance all of these factors in his recommendation.

The 2-cent increase is a good compromise between Jinks’ initial recommendation and the maximum of increase of 3 cents, thereby enabling us to focus on our most urgent infrastructure needs. Imagine sitting at your kitchen table when you have competing priorities, trying to decide what to spend. It is the same at City Hall. One long-term answer to our revenue struggles is to increase our commercial tax base.

So there is the dilemma. We must do what we can and be bold, but we also must be realistic about what our citizenry can handle financially. And we must live within our means.

We cannot make up for lost time in one fell swoop or in one year. But we must begin. We must make a commitment to envision what can be achieved together. We would not fix everything in our own homes all at once, but we can begin today to make things better.