By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
City Manager Mark Jinks formally presented his proposed operating budget to members of city council at a special meeting Tuesday night.
Jinks proposes a $742.3 million FY2019 general fund budget, which is 1.9 percent higher than last year’s approved budget. It would add $14.1 million in new spending. He also proposed an all funds budget of $909.6 million, representing a 2.2 percent increase. The all funds budget includes the general funds allocation and also money from things like federal and state grants, funds from sewer fees and internal service funds transferred between departments.
The increase in proposed general funds dollars will largely go toward transit services and fully funding Alexandria City Public Schools’ requested budget. The city manager’s budget doesn’t contain an increase in the tax rate, which was raised by 5.7 cents to $1.13 per $100 in assessed value in FY2018 following approval by city council last May. However, the average city homeowner’s tax bill would still rise by $199 this year because real estate tax assessments have increased by 2.34 percent year-over-year. Proposed general fund revenue for FY19 is $742,254,131 compared to the projected FY18 revenue of $730,957,749.
Jinks proposes a transfer of $223.8 million to Alexandria City Public Schools, which meets the requests made by the school board in their proposed operating budget and CIP plan. The FY19 budget represents the first time Jinks has recommended fully funding the schools’ budget and comes a year after the city declined to fully fund the school board’s proposed operating and $611 million CIP budgets.
He said the school board’s proposed budget this year is thoughtful and transparent and that the city and schools will take into account the recommendations of the joint city-schools task force, which were presented earlier this month. Jinks indicated communication is better between the city and the schools.
“The relationship has substantially improved and this [proposed budget] reflects that,” Jinks said at a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
The proposed budget also calls for an 11.7 percent increase in transit services, an additional $3.2 million, $2.75 million of which will go toward the city’s contributions to WMATA for the Metro. A smaller amount is dedicated to improving the city’s DASH bus fleet, which is transitioning to using clean diesel buses and eventually to electric buses, and a smaller amount which will go toward implementing the Vision Zero initiative after city council approved its action plan in December. A new stormwater utility fee, which was approved by council last year, will also go into effect for homeowners and will result in a $140 per year bill for the average homeowner in June. There will also be an increase of 25 percent to the sanitary sewer maintenance and capital fee, which also rose by 30 percent in FY18. The average homeowner will pay $25 more.
The hike in this fee follows a mandate signed last year by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe that requires Alexandria to fix its aging outfalls system in Old Town by 2025. The budget calls for a 0.3 percent increase to the city government’s budget, which would put it at $378.3. The proposal includes an allocation of $1.5 million for improving public safety and employee retention for uniform, police and sheriff personnel. Jinks said that proposal isn’t intended to go toward an across-the-board pay raise for all public safety employees, but, rather, to go toward an as-yet-to-be-determined method to attract and keep talented employees in an environment that’s growing increasingly competitive with expansions in Fairfax County and Arlington.
“Retaining is going to be important, particularly in the police department, where we had vacancy in positions three, four years ago. Forty-five percent of our police have been here five years or less. There’s a danger of people asking, ‘Do I want to make my career here or go somewhere else?’” Jinks said. “ … We are in a region where supply and demand aren’t balanced. We need to study it and make changes and make sure we’re getting the best and the brightest. The shooting at Simpson Field this past June is a living example of why we need to be able to recruit and retain the best in our police and fire and sheriff’s office.”
Jinks is also proposing funding a six-week paid parental leave program for city employees. He said city employees have had to “cobble together” accumulated leave days to take parental leave up to this point. Other city projects Jinks proposes funding include a $110,000 expansion to English language training through the city’s Department of Health & Community Services, a $5 million payment installment for a fiber network, funding for a dedicated standalone Emergency Operations Center, which will be installed in an existing building most recently occupied by the sheriff’s department and a new Cameron Mills Fire Station.
Jinks also recommended funding for getting the website operated by the Alexandria Clerk of the Courts back online for users. Jinks said, though the website is still accessible to city employees, the city removed access to the public more than a year ago due to security concerns.
The budget also contains $350,000 for the King Street Retail Corridor due to the city’s waterfront Fitzgerald Park opening later this year. The King Street Retail Corridor would, Jinks said, address the unresolved issues that a business improvement district would have dealt with had it been passed last year. The initial funding would go toward targeted marketing, special events partnerships and aesthetics like the installation of banners and flower baskets. Jinks said the city’s investment would be matched by private sector funds that Visit Alexandria is in the midst of recruiting. Jinks said the city is still determining an ultimate use for the park and said it’s in talks with ice skating vendors to bring in a temporary rink to test it out.
“We’ve got competition. You go down to the Wharf and you see that they did a good job with aesthetics. The early reports are that it’s very successful,” Jinks said. “We’ve got to up our game and get our current visitors to stay and attract additional visitors as well.”
Jinks is also recommending $350,000 for the construction of a dock for the USS Providence replica, which the Tall Ship Providence Foundation is bringing into Old Town. The budget for Alexandria’s opioid treatment program, which has faced both funding and staff constraints as the opioid crisis has continued to grow, is also proposed to increase by $204,126 for two senior staff therapist positions. The city manager proposed placing $100,000 in a contingency fund for opioid treatment. City council members largely praised Jinks’ proposed budget, with particular focus on city departments cutting $4.3 million in expenses for FY19.
“I’m impressed how we’re able to do more with less,” Mayor Allison Silberberg said at the meeting. “ … It makes me wonder, frankly, in the past decade, if we could’ve already been doing it, figuring out a better way, even though in past years, maybe a decade ago, it wasn’t as crucial due to different economics.”
Councilor Del Pepper expressed concerns about the lack of allocation for affordable housing in the budget.
“One of the things I think has become a reality for all of us is understanding that we do appreciate every last unit we receive from developers – our problem is that’s not getting us anywhere to actually meet the need we have and to replace some of the units we have lost in the last 17 years,” Pepper said.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson expressed interest in continuing to grow the city’s revenues and in finding more ways to invest money.
“As we learned a couple of weeks ago when we dealt with assessments, we’re asking for more than we’ve ever had for residential taxpayers,” Wilson said. “I’m hopeful as we continue, we’ll continue to work to find more ways to invest.”
Councilor Paul Smedberg said the budget was realistic, despite the constraints.
“One thing that did strike me — and it’s a trend — is we should encourage taking a very strategic approach to the budget and looking at longer-term goals,” Smedberg said. “It means there might be competition amongst departments, and it’s going to require innovation.”
Jinks will present his budget to the public on Thursday night from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Charles Beatley Central Library at 5005 Duke St. City council will hold ten work sessions throughout the spring before voting on the budget on May 3.