The concept of stewardship should be central to any discussion of city council’s historic 6-1 vote at Monday night’s add/delete session to raise local property taxes by the full advertised 5.7 cents per $100 of assessed value. When combined with increases in sewer fees and rising property values, this means the average Alexandria property owner will pay 8 percent more over last year.*
As defined by Merriam-Webster, stewardship means, “The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Our current – and past – mayors and councils, city managers and city staff should all be considered through the prism of their stewardship of city property and residents’ tax dollars.
Did past leadership whiff on stewardship by not better addressing school capacity issues, crumbling city buildings and polluting sewer lines? Undoubtedly, yes. The proverbial can was kicked down the road many times. Past leadership failed both in their unwillingness to address accumulating infrastructure needs and also by not establishing better processes to limit project cost overruns.
But is it good stewardship to attempt to fix everything all at once by gifting residents with an unprecedented, and to some, overwhelming, tax increase? Don’t forget, this year’s almost nine-cent total tax hike (when rising fees are included) comes on the heels of last year’s three-cent increase, along with rising assessments.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, the architect of both this and last year’s tax hikes, on the facing page explains why he believes this council is exercising leadership by acting boldly to tackle long-neglected problems. He is right that these issues need addressing, but we disagree with several aspects of his approach.
- First, we shouldn’t go from zero to 60 in an attempt to right past wrongs. Addressing infrastructure needs is not an all or nothing proposition. Just because previous councils punted doesn’t mean this one has to tackle everything at once.
- While Wilson is right that it took political courage to vote for a tax measure that’s sure to be unpopular, we argue it would have been more courageous to stand up to Alexandria City Public Schools advocates and say “No, you don’t get to increase your 10-year Capital Improvements budget by 40 percent in one year.”
- We see a lot of spending, but no cutting. In the add/delete budget sessions, there were only adds and no deletes passed. Indeed, Mayor Allison Silberberg was the only council member to even propose any deletes or a lower tax rate. She was also the only member to vote against the final tax rate, but unfortunately was unable to convince any colleagues to support her. Do the other six members of council really think nothing in the city budget needs to be cut?
- It’s not just what hasn’t been cut from the budget that’s a problem, but what’s been added. Residents and businesses are being taxed beyond what some can pay, and yet council had no qualms about approving $300,000 in consultant fees for a new city-schools task force. In the midst of a massive tax hike, we find that excessive and wasteful.
- Finally, and most importantly, this council took no action – just like their predecessors – on the issue of controlling cost overruns for capital projects. This is an enormous issue for Alexandria, as past project overruns have cost the city tens of millions of dollars. We have to do better on spending oversight. And yet, amid the planning to tax and spend for capital projects, council ignored this chronic issue.
True fiscal stewardship involves tackling important problems in a measured way, having the courage to stand up to powerful interests, cutting as well as adding spending, and making sure that what’s spent is well-managed. By these measures, we believe this council, like its predecessors, comes up short.
* Explanation of math: The average FY2017 tax bill, according to the city’s website, was $5,616. A $459 increase is an 8.17 percent hike. The waived additional $70 storm water fee would have raised the average bill by $529, or 9.42 percent higher than last year.