By Erich Wagner (File photo)
City councilors voted 6-1 to advertise a maximum property tax rate increase of 5.7 cents per $100 of assessed value at their meeting Tuesday night, 3 cents above the hike proposed by City Manager Mark Jinks.
The decision came just one day after dozens of parents and children implored city officials to fully fund a capital budget proposal by Alexandria City Public Schools aimed at addressing capacity issues and modernizing aging school buildings.
Council is required to advertise a maximum tax rate weeks ahead of making a final decision on the budget and city taxes in May. The increase is part of a proposal put forward by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson to set up an independent commission to develop a more transparent, predictable and sustainable plan for capital spending.
“The thing I’ve taken away from what we’ve been doing the last couple weeks — and last couple years, really — is that what we’re doing right now is not working,” Wilson said. “We’re going to be in this situation every single year, with significant tax rate increases on the table to try to deal with this stuff. We’re also going to see very dramatic changes to the [capital budget], and that’s just not good from a planning perspective.
“We’ve got to get to a level that’s sustainable and stick to it.”
Wilson’s proposal stipulates that all revenue from a property tax increase above Jinks’ proposed 2.7 cents per $100 of assessed value must be put toward cash capital to help pay for infrastructure projects.
It also would create a joint ad hoc Alexandria municipal facilities plan steering committee that would develop a plan for prioritizing capital spending for the fiscal 2019 budget, as well as recommend policies and processes to govern capital planning, funding and implementation of projects on an ongoing basis.
Jinks’ proposal estimated that with fees, the average homeowner’s tax bill would increase by around $369 per year. An additional 3-cent property tax hike would add more than $200 to that figure.
City Councilor Paul Smedberg said he was supportive of the concept of a commission examining how Alexandria plans and funds capital projects, but said it needs to be truly independent, and council must fully heed its recommendations.
“I’m so tired of the conversations we have had over the years on the capital budget, particularly with the schools. That whole dynamic — that whole relationship — has to change,” Smedberg said. “I think the way that conversation plays out is not respectful to anyone involved in it and I’m just tired of it.
“[It] has to end. It simply has to end. So as we go forward, I think the idea of looking at the debt policy and everything is a good one, as long as we’re looking at a truly blue ribbon group, a total group. … And what’s most important is sticking to this, whatever they come forward with, and whatever the city manager comes out with, that’s it, period. If that doesn’t happen, I’m not supporting something like this.”
Smedberg noted that although he voted for Wilson’s proposal, he remains wary of the tax rate increase associated with it.
“Personally, I would have separated the tax rate issue from the proposal, although I know that can be difficult to do,” he said. “I’m open to something potentially lower than 5.7 cents, because I think when you look at it in its totality, it’s a big request in light of everything. What [Jinks] has put forward is very responsible, reasonable and quite generous to a lot of important areas by any measure.
“I’ll be supportive, but I think there’s more discussion to be had — quite a bit, actually.”
Mayor Allison Silberberg cast the lone dissenting vote, and said she thought Jinks’ proposed 2.7-cent tax hike was a more reasonable figure. She said she is still considering the commission idea.
“While the advertised maximum tax rate doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the rate we adopt in May when we vote on the budget, history tells us that this is often the most likely scenario, or at least close to it,” Silberberg said. “I appreciate the spirit in which this is offered, but to have that 5.7-cent increase on top of new fees is a great deal to ask of our taxpayers to shoulder all at once.
“As we have discussed and seen in various news reports, this is a time of great economic uncertainty for us. And there are many needs that we all would like to fund, but we know we cannot do everything all at once as we would like to.”
City Councilor Tim Lovain said in addition to improvements in how officials plan and fund projects, the commission could foster better collaboration between city government and ACPS and lead to more efficient spending on projects after they are approved.
“If any money is provided for the cost of the building of schools, I want some input from the city on construction management,” Lovain said. “A school construction czar would be an ACPS hire, but the idea is to try to find a way to do some efficiencies and cost savings, looking at projects together, since lessons learned from one project can be applied to another.
“And we can look at city facilities as well, co-locating city and school services and saving money that way. Yes, we have a lot of silos now and specialists in this and that, but we have to look at new thinking, outside experts and what others are doing.”