Some people re-post the same photo each year on Facebook, which provides reminders of the anniversary of prior posts. Likewise, it seems as if we run a variation of the same editorial this time each year in the Alexandria Times after City Manager Mark Jinks shows yet again that he truly is a master budgeter.
While Jinks provided three budget options for City Council to consider, he recommended the Goldilocks version: a two-cent drop in the real estate tax rate. Of the other two versions, one doesn’t provide any tax relief to homeowners who have just been hit with a massive 5.7% increase in property assessments used for tax purposes, and the other provides a larger, six-cent decline in the tax rate but would require cutting city services.
This year’s budget process is likely to be calmer than last February, when the FY2021 budget had just been unveiled before the tsunami of the new coronavirus pandemic slammed into the United States and upended life as we knew it. The effects of the virus’ arrival left individuals, businesses, hospitals and government at all levels scrambling.
It is worth noting that largess or excessive spending from the federal government – take your pick – is the main reason local tax bills won’t rise much this year.
Federal dollars have propped up the D.C. region’s struggling Metro system, meaning local governments don’t have to spend extra funds there, while the COVID-19 relief bills provide billions in funding for states and localities. This, of course, is not free money, and that bill will eventually come due to taxpayers.
But none of that is Jinks’ doing, and as usual, he has played the budgetary hand he’s been dealt extremely well.
Our one significant quibble with this budget is that the numbers are predicated on an expectation that City Council will vote on Saturday to double the city’s stormwater fees.
Like many Alexandria residents, we would have little argument with this huge fee increase if all of the money was earmarked for rapid improvements to the city’s sewer infrastructure and flood mitigation. But it’s not.
Instead, a significant portion of the new funds are intended to hire 18 new employees in the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services and to fund unnecessary projects like the “restoration” of Taylor Run. We hope members of City Council have the courage to redirect any fee increase away from those uses.
Despite those reservations, we do think it’s a job well done. Balancing a budget of any kind is not easy, but each February we are surprised anew at Jinks’ ability to make it look that way.