City council set to pass 3-cent tax hike

City council set to pass 3-cent tax hike

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

After months of deliberation, city council is poised to approve a $678.5 million operating budget that includes a 3-cent property tax rate hike and devotes $10.2 million in new revenues to capital projects.

City Manager Mark Jinks initially proposed a property tax increase of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value, while providing optional spending increases if city council opted to add an additional cent. Councilors reached agreement to raise taxes by three cents in an attempt to get a leg up on infrastructure and school construction costs and are expected to finalize the
fiscal road map tonight.

Under the agreement, $6.8 million in new revenue would go to down payments on transportation and facilities projects, as well as the city’s effort to improve broadband Internet offerings. Another $3.4 million would be spent on Alexandria City Public Schools’ proposal for a centralized pre-K facility, while $5.2 million would be borrowed in the capital budget to fund the retrofitting of leased ACPS space.

While the majority of spending proposals were settled at a work session last week, Mayor Allison Silberberg, who opposed a full 3-cent property tax increase, spent most of the final add/delete session Monday night arguing for finding $50,000 in spending to fund maintenance of fire hydrants. Going into the meeting, council had a $17,000 surplus in unaccounted for spending.

“If you take out the painting [of reconstructed hydrants], you end up with about $67,000 that has been cut from the repair and rebuilding of fire hydrants,” Silberberg said. “In emergencies, seconds matter. Looking at the way we’ve always done it, the difference is $67,000. With a $17,000 surplus, that leaves a $50,000 gap on this item. … We’ve always had high standards on fire safety and it’s never been an issue.”

City budget director Morgan Routt said that staff in the city department of transportation and environmental services and the Alexandria Fire Department had the discussion internally, and that staff recommended a 50-percent cut in funding, which would slow the replacement of fire hydrants from a five-year cycle to a ten-year cycle.

“I think it’s reasonable to say that with an extension in the time for rebuilds, there may be a drop off in the level of service,” Routt said. “But T&ES monitors the condition of fire hydrants, so we could monitor it over time and increase funding next year.”

Alexandria Fire Chief Robert Dubé said that while the department would prefer the maintenance schedule remain at five years, it could live with the reduction.

“It is preferable to keep the schedule as is, but we rarely have an issue with fire hydrants, although we do have an issue from time to time,” he said.

City Councilor Tim Lovain tried to forge a compromise, arguing for the $17,000 surplus to go toward fire hydrant maintenance.

“This kind of thing is totally scale-able,” Lovain said. “If we add $20,000 or $40,000 to the budget, we get that much more maintenance. Even with an additional $50,000 we would have a six-year frequency [of repairs]. So if we dedicate that $17,000, that would get us down to an
eight-year cycle and that still is a significant impact. It’s not a binary yes-or-no choice.”

And City Councilor Paul Smedberg suggested delaying the hire of a motor officer sergeant — an Alexandria Police Department officer assigned to supervise traffic officers with the increase in those hired to handle traffic and speeding enforcement — to pay for the proposal.

“To be clear, this measure is not jeopardizing the operation and function of the fire hydrants,” he said. “We did have other choices. And one is the motor officer sergeant. We’ve been told that by the time we hire and have trained the officers [requiring a supervisor], it will have been at least a year.”

But that idea garnered little support. Silberberg expressed fear that in some residential neighborhoods like her own area of Parkfairfax, if one hydrant was not functional, fire fighters would struggle to find the next closest. City Councilor Willie Bailey, a Fairfax County fire fighter, moved quickly to assuage such concerns.

“If a hydrant is non-functional, fire fighters will find a backup,” Bailey said. “They are all
within 500 feet of one another. You may not know where the next hydrant is, but fire fighters get paid to know.

“I’ve come across this problem once in my last 12 years of service, and I found another one and we did fine.”

Councilors agreed to apply the entirety of the unaccounted for $17,000 to fire hydrant maintenance, but declined to divert money from other programs to further supplement it.