By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City Manager Mark Jinks presented his Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal, which includes a 2-cent real estate tax increase, to city council on Tuesday.
The proposed operating budget for FY2021 totals $799.9 million, a 4.5 percent increase over last year’s adjusted $765.4 million operating budget. In addition to the tax rate hike, the proposal includes full funding for Alexandria City Public Schools, the expansion of several city programs and employee benefits and no major city service reductions.
The proposed tax rate increase from $1.13 to $1.15 per $100 of assessed value is especially significant considering the increase in the city’s real estate assessments this year, which were released on Feb. 11. The average assessment for all residential property types increased by 4.62 percent, to $582,636. This increase, on top of the increased tax rate, means the average property tax bill in Alexandria is $6,700, an increase of $428, or 6.8 percent, over last year.
Jinks also proposed raising the real estate tax by 2 cents in 2023 and again in 2025 to account for increasing construction costs and the long-term needs for the Capital Improvement Program budget. However, during this budget cycle, council will only vote on the initial tax increase in FY2021.
“Nobody likes to say that there are more tax rate increases coming down the road,” Jinks said. “Clearly when we get there, there will be different circumstances – we’ll have to reweigh it – but I thought it was important in laying out. … It needs to be clear that there needs to be a way to pay for these projects.”
The proposed budget notably includes the full $241.4 million in requested operating funds for Alexandria City Public Schools, a $9.8 million, or 4.2 percent increase, over FY2020 funding.
ACPS was also a significant part of the city’s 10-year, $2.1 billion proposed CIP budget, largely due to several new school buildings and modernization projects that are set to begin in the next few years.
Long-term costs associated with the construction of new school buildings and repairs to public buildings is the main reason for the 2-cent increase in the real estate tax this year, as well as the potential future increases, Jinks said.
“The dollar amounts that we’re facing to do our school investments and investments in city infrastructure are substantial,” Jinks said. “Construction cost increases have gone up 15 to 20 percent since we basically repriced our CIP three years ago.”
The real estate tax increase would generate an additional $8.5 million in revenue in FY2021, all of which would go toward funding city and school capital improvement projects. The Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild project and a new building on T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard campus are already set to cost $227 million.
In crafting the FY2021 budget, city staff remained focused on ideas that governed their decision-making in last year’s budget process: to make the city smart, green and equitable.
To keep the city up to date, Jinks’ proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes funding for the rollout, maintenance and staffing of Alex311, a new online service launching this month that provides residents with a new way to submit service requests.
There is also $100,000 in contingent funds for FY2021 and $13.7 million in the CIP set aside for newly elected Clerk of Court Greg Parks to implement a new Justice Information System. New security efforts, like more security positions at city hall and enhanced cybersecurity, are also included in the budget for next year.
As part of an effort to decrease the city’s environmental footprint, Jinks proposed $110,000 for the implementation of the Energy and Climate Change Action Plan as part of the city’s Environmental Action Plan 2040. Jinks also proposed $100,000 in funding for the maintenance of six waterfront parks.
DASH’s budget was fully funded through FY2021, although the proposed budget would eliminate the DASH AT4 route between the Braddock Road Metro Station and city hall.
The city recently acquired Freedom House, the historic site of a former slave trading firm at 1315 Duke St., and the budget includes $92,000 for maintenance of the site and $108,000 for an expansion project manager position. The city is also anticipating $2.44 million in state funds for the preservation project.
Freedom House is one of two historic preservation efforts the city is undertaking. The proposed CIP budget also includes $760,000 in capital preservation funds for the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House, a historic wooden house located at 517 Prince St. that the city purchased in 2017.
To expand the city’s representation of its African American history, the FY2021 budget includes $53,000 for Visit Alexandria to produce new video, photography and promotional materials.
Some of the most impactful equity efforts in the operating budget are $505,500 in funding to expand early childhood services like summer school and after school programs – although the fees associated with these services would increase by $100 – and additional human services positions. These would include two new benefit program specialists, expanded hours for an opioid treatment pharmacist and four permanent positions in parent infant education and youth intellectual disabilities programs.
About 30 percent of the proposed operating expenditures in FY2021 would go to city personnel, and Jinks’ proposed budget aims to retain employees in positions that typically have a high turnover.
“These are the people on the front lines. They’re first responders when it comes to public safety. They’re first responders when it comes to child safety. They’re the people who our community members trust their children to in after school programs,” Jinks said.
Jinks proposed funding an annual performance-based increase for all eligible employees – about 80 percent of city employees are eligible for such increases – in addition to $3.5 million to fund a 1.5 percent increase on all employee pay scales.
The proposed budget would provide targeted pay increases for specific public safety jobs, four new overhires in the Sheriff’s Office and six new reserve firefighting positions to reduce overtime and improve health and wellness.
The city would also reinstate the down payment assistance program for city employees, which was cut during the last recession, since only 20 percent of city employees live in Alexandria, Jinks said. The city would also reduce employee health insurance premiums from 20 to 15 percent for 1,000 employees who make less than $70,000 per year.
Jinks also presented the FY2021-2030 CIP budget to city council. It represents the first significant update to the 10-year plan since fall 2017, with a majority dedicated to the increased cost of construction, waterfront flood mitigation and the renovation of public buildings.
“I think we’ve got a responsible and, I think, an aggressive CIP in regards to trying to do a far better job of taking care of our buildings. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t,” Jinks said.
The proposed CIP includes the full $530.7 million in funding for ACPS’ requested 10-year plan, 53 percent of which is set to be used in the first two years and $198.8 million of which is set for FY2021.
Other proposed CIP budget items include $318.4 million to fund the city’s capital facility maintenance programs, $93.7 million in funding, or 75 percent of projected costs, for waterfront flood mitigation and city hall renovations.
Affordable housing remains a challenge for the city. Although Jinks said that the city is exploring other ways to fulfill affordable housing needs outside of throwing money at the problem, there is $9.6 million in dedicated funding for investments in affordable housing proposed for FY2021, with $69.3 million spread over the next 10 years.
The proposed CIP budget also includes $6 million for the reconstruction of the Holmes Run Trail after it was damaged by intense flooding in July 2019 and previously in 2018.
Ahead of council’s adoption of the budget on April 29, there will be a budget public hearing on March 9 and a public hearing on the tax rate increase and preliminary add/delete items on April 18. Residents can submit comments on the proposed budget at www.alexandriava.gov/Budget.