Council raises proposed maximum tax rate

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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

City council voted to increase the advertised real estate tax rate for Fiscal Year 2020 by a half cent, from $1.13 to $1.13 ½ per $100 of assessed value, at its legislative meeting Tuesday night.

While City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed budget had not recommended increasing the real estate tax from last year’s rate, Tuesday’s meeting was council’s last chance to establish a tax rate maximum before proceeding further into the budget add/ delete process.

Council approved the increase by a vote of 6-1, with Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker dissenting. The vote does not guarantee that council will adopt the rate increase when it signs off on the budget on May 1. However, it provides council the flexibility to increase the rate up to that amount.

During discussion, Councilor John Chapman led those in favor of increasing the maximum. He repeatedly said that allowing for the possibility of an increase was a matter of good practice.

“Legally, this is the only opportunity that we have to set the ceiling,” Chapman said. “So if something comes tomorrow or later down the line that is going to bust through that ceiling, we have to be mindful of that possible chance.”

Councilor Del Pepper was among those opposed to raising the ceiling.

“I feel like every time we do this, we say, ‘Well, this doesn’t mean we’re going to raise the taxes this high’ and then we do,” Pepper said. “It seems to me whatever we set, that’s the one we go for.”

Jinks confirmed that more often than not in past years, city council had adopted the maximum tax rate that had been advertised.

Chapman countered that increasing the advertised rate would give council flexibility when unfinished discussions about topics such as schools and public safety resurfaced. He said it was a cushion for extenuating circumstances, not a guarantee, and that with smart budgeting, council could avoid implementing the increase.

“This is an issue of councilmember self-control,” Chapman said. “… When folks bring their add/delete sheet forward, make sure you have a necessary cut that equals [each addition]. By doing so, you will not increase the tax rate. I think that’s what we want to change the trend of – from what Mrs. Pepper has talked about – so our community knows that we’re using best practice, but also not looking to sneakily increase the tax rate.”

Bennett-Parker questioned council’s self-control.

“If we give ourselves room, we will take it,” she said.

Upon initial discussion, Bennett-Parker, Pepper and Mayor Justin Wilson spoke against raising the maximum and voted against Chapman’s original motion to increase the rate by a half cent. During the vote on the final motion, however, Pepper and Wilson shifted to vote in favor.

The vote also increases the maximum vehicle personal property tax rate from $5 to $5.56. The increase is associated with Jinks’ proposal to repeal the requirement to display a vehicle tax decal, but to maintain the revenue generated from the decal.

Wilson said if council eventually chooses to increase the vehicle personal property tax rate by $0.56, it would eliminate the decal fee, and the change would be a revenue neutral move for the city.

Before council approved the rate maximum on Tuesday, it held a public hearing on Monday to gather feedback on the proposed budget.

The hearing only attracted a group of eight speakers – an all-time low, according to Wilson.

Representatives from the Commission on Aging, Friends of Beatley Central Library, Alexandria City Public Schools, IAFF Local 2141, the Alexandria Community Services Board and the Children, Youth & Families Collaborative Commission spoke to thank city council and staff for allocating funding for their organizations or causes.

While the majority of feedback was positive, resident Dino Drudi expressed concern about increases in DASH fares, and Ingris Moran, lead organizer for Tenants and Workers United, spoke about concerns related to Amazon and affordable housing.

“We need you, our local government, to protect and preserve our neighborhoods,” Moran said. “Amazon will displace our communities. This is not a fear or a guess, it’s based on our history. … We need you to demonstrate your leadership and demonstrate commitments to an anti-displacement fund for our communities to mitigate and to preserve affordable housing.”

Council will hold a public hearing on the maximum tax rate, as well as add/delete proposals, on April 13.

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