By James Cullum and Erich Wagner (File photo)
City Manager Mark Jinks has released his $712.5 million fiscal 2018 budget, and residents could see a property tax hike when the city council finally approves it in May.
“The city is at a crossroads,” Jinks said. “In the face of anemic revenue growth and increasing expenditure demands, we can choose the path of reduced services and foregone investments in public buildings and infrastructure. … The other path is to take a future-oriented view.”
Under the plan, general fund spending would grow 3.5 percent over the current fiscal year, and Jinks proposed an increase in the real estate tax rate of 2.7 cents, from $1.073 to $1.10 per $100 of assessed value. That means Alexandria residents could see an average increase on their tax bill of 3.5 percent, or around $197 per year.
Jinks said major drivers behind spending increases this year were city schools and a 21.2 percent increase in the annual operating budget request from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The operating budget includes a 3.6 percent increase, or $7.5 million, to Alexandria City Public Schools for a total of $214.1 million, or 30 percent of city spending. Enrollment is projected to increase by 400 students next year, and Superintendent Alvin Crawley and the school board requested a $9.6 million funding increase over fiscal 2017.
“This is a well-deserved increase for the schools,” Jinks said. “We will be able to fund 99 percent of the superintendent’s proposed budget.”
But schools officials expressed grave concern about the plan.
“This is not the budget that we had hoped for,” ACPS officials said in a statement. “There is no doubt that if this budget is passed without changes, it will directly impact schools in a negative way, both in terms of elementary school capacity projects and the modernization of our aging facilities, and in terms of supporting teachers and students in the classroom. We look forward to working with the city to resolve some of these issues.”
Further complicating the city’s fiscal situation are unfunded state and federal mandates on environmental issues. To deal with increasing state and federal mandates to treat stormwater and clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Jinks proposed a new dedicated stormwater utility fee, which would raise $4.2 million in fiscal 2018, costing the average homeowner $140 per calendar year. Non-residential properties also would pay a fee, based on the amount of impervious surface area they contain.
And in order to pay for the acceleration of the city’s plan to upgrade its four sewer outfalls as is likely to be mandated by the Virginia General Assembly, Jinks proposed a 30 percent increase in the sanitary sewer fee from $1.40 to $1.82 per thousand gallons. He said residents should expect to see double-digit increases to this rate every year for the next decade.
“It is reasonable to accelerate the plan, but the problem is the bills are overly aggressive, and in some cases, physically unfeasible,” he said of various plans moving through the state legislature.
Mayor Allison Silberberg stressed that the proposal is merely the start of the conversation.
“This is the beginning, really the kickoff, of a process,” she said. “We welcome the public’s input. We encourage you to weigh in and let us know what you’re thinking.”
While the city faced a $25 million shortfall going into the budget planning process last fall, Jinks included $5 million in annual merit increases for eligible city employees, but no cost of living increases. The budget accounts for 2,564 full-time city employees, a net decrease of one employee from the current year.
“The recent federal hiring freeze and the potential for other major changes in federal policy have created unpredictability that will impact local and regional revenues,” Jinks said. “Federal aid is not increasing, and will likely decrease as the president and Congress set new budget priorities.”
The proposal spends $1.5 million to accelerate the hiring and training of city police officers to better fulfill goals around community policing and the city’s new Vision Zero policy, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries. And a newly implemented patrol schedule — where officers serve 11 and a half hour shifts instead of 12-hour shifts — will save the city about $300,000 per year in overtime costs.
Jinks also proposed increasing pay incentives and bonuses for the hiring and training of dual-role firefighter-medics in order to stay competitive in the region in the face of a national and regional medic shortage.
The 10-year capital budget also sees a confluence of needs hiking costs, as spending over the next decade would increase by 20 percent — from $1.6 billion in last year’s plan to $2.0 billion this year. As a result, while some long-planned projects are now left on the chopping block.
The largest capital improvement is the planned upgrade of the city’s sewer outfalls, which would cost $386 million over the next decade. Jinks also included $373 million for ACPS projects, which he said would be enough to pay for a number of capacity projects, including the construction of a new ninth grade center, a new middle school, and eventually a new elementary school as enrollments continue to rise. But it would not be enough to pay for the district’s plans to renovate five existing elementary schools.
The proposed $15.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pool at Chinquapin Park Pool and Recreation Center has been shelved, as well as planned allocations of $4.3 million on affordable housing and $8.2 million on open space preservation.
Jinks did include $106.5 million for renovations and maintenance of the city’s various aging public facilities, particularly City Hall. And the capital budget includes $160.6 million over the next decade for WMATA safety and reliability repairs, which he described as a development investment.
“A dependable transit network is important not only for passenger safety and convenience, but also as an economic engine,” Jinks said. “About 95 percent of all new office construction in the region is within a half mile of a Metro station.”
To deal with the increase in capital spending, Jinks proposed increasing the city’s self-imposed
debt ratios from 1.6 percent to 2.5 percent for debt to tax base and the percentage of the operating budget devoted to debt service from 10 to 12 percent.
Jinks will host a public budget presentation tonight at 7 p.m. at the Beatley Central Library, and city council will hold its formal budget public hearing on March 13.