Our View: Two cheers for Alexandria’s fiscal 2017 budget

Our View: Two cheers for Alexandria’s fiscal 2017 budget

(File photo)

Longtime readers probably will be astonished to see us laud a hefty tax hike on these pages. And yet, we begrudgingly admit there is more to like than criticize in the fiscal 2017 budget, slated for final approval tonight.

What’s more, we think that most of you feel the same way. Normally, we are deluged with letters from residents complaining about paying higher taxes, but we have not received more than a handful this year. Residents were spared an election-year tax increase last year — no big surprise there — and the majority of Alexandrians to testify before council appear to agree that deferred maintenance really does need to be addressed.

Two things we like in the budget are an increase in funding for Alexandria City Public Schools to keep pace with climbing enrollment and a pay raise for Alexandria’s firefighters to bring their compensation more in line with neighboring jurisdictions. But these items were accomplished in City Manager Mark Jinks’ original spending proposal that kept the property
tax increase to 1 cent per $100 of assessed value plus the rise in overall assessments.

What makes the additional spending more palatable is that about two thirds of it is going to fund long-delayed core needs rather than to create new programs that would require sustained and growing annual funding. These include transportation and facilities upgrades and improvements to the city’s broadband Internet capability — improvements that will benefit all residents.

Where we find fault — and why we withhold the proverbial third cheer — is with the last third of the spending. We think the tax hike could have been held to 2 or 2.5 cents, giving residents a bit of a break.

The final $3.4 million of additional spending is destined for a new centralized preschool building for Alexandria’s 4-year-olds that, as we said in our editorial two weeks ago, is a terrific idea, but one that should not have been funded until several vital questions were satisfactorily answered.

The most pressing concern is whether it is viable on a cost basis or from a practicality standpoint to transport hundreds of children across the city each day to one pre-K facility. And we are no closer to answering this question now than we were then.

This innovative idea to us appears unfinished and rushed. Jinks appeared to agree, as in February he said the pre-K facility had “been added without a lot of discussion within the community or by city council. … There’s no reason to rush into something without thinking through all of the possible consequences.”

We concur that centralized pre-K needs more study before being implemented. City council should have at the very least held those funds in contingent reserve until these crucial details are ironed out. Approving spending for a project before developing a clear plan is not our vision of good governance.

But aside from the preschool issue, this is a solid budget that addresses long-term and important needs. In the end, two cheers are better than none.