Our View: A good budget

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With apologies to J.K. Rowling, we are tempted to say, “You’re a wizard, Mark.” How else to view Alexandria’s fiscal year 2020 budget, passed by city council last week?

For those not paying close attention, and not many of us enjoy deep dives into budget minutia, City Manager Mark Jinks pulls off a notable trifecta in this budget. City general fund spending grew year-over-year at a rate lower than that of inflation. The tax rate was not raised and the Alexandria City Public Schools budget requested by Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D was fully funded. That’s impressive.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at each of those accomplishments. The national inflation rate for the 12 months ending March 31, 2019 was 1.9 percent, which is low and healthy. But it’s difficult in a city as large as Alexandria to grow the budget by such a small amount because of built-in pay increases, even if your other costs only increase at the rate of inflation. And yet Alexandria’s budget rises by only 1.75 percent in FY2020.

Second, the tax rate remains at $1.13 per $100 of assessed value for the second year in a row. While the tax rate in stand-alone terms is high – and got to that level on the heels of the outrageous 5.7 cent hike in 2017 – it’s striking that the rate wasn’t raised in the budget following a local election. Normally taxpayers’ wallets take a big hit at this point.

Mayor Justin Wilson and city council deserve credit for their restraint, as it must have been tempting to rush in with a stack of new, costly initiatives, or to want to fix every pre-existing problem right away.

To be clear, Alexandrians’ tax bills are going up in FY2020, by an average of $118, because the continuing strong economy and the Amazon/Virginia Tech announcement caused property values to climb. This raised more than $12 million in additional revenue for the FY2020 budget. But the tax hit to residents certainly could have been much worse.

Finally, this budget includes $231,669,496 for ACPS operating expenses, an increase of about $7.8 million, or 3.5 percent, over FY2019 funding. Jinks’ proposal also recommended funding more than $28 million in schools-related debt service. After years of acrimony between ACPS administrators and city staff, in which the two operated more like independent silos than partners, they now seem to be on the same page.

People can, and undoubtedly will, quibble about items that are and aren’t in the budget. Eliminating custodial positions within ACPS is tough in personal terms, but is within the rights of ACPS administrators. The plight of DASH bus drivers is another matter, and the bill for years of underpaying them is about to come due.

Then there’s the add/delete process, which was an exercise in cutting back on additional spending rather than cutting what was in the initial budget, because of a half-million dollar windfall in extra revenue.

We think Jinks and his staff made the most of what they had to work with, as did Hutchings. Kudos all around.

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