By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
After another financially uncertain year due to the pandemic, City Council unanimously adopted its fiscal year 2022 budget on May 5.
Council approved City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed $770.7 million operating budget as well as the $2.66 billion FY2022-2031 capital improvement program budget, with $293.1 million set for FY22.
Despite a 2.3% increase over the $753.3 million FY21 budget, the FY22 budget includes several forms of financial relief for residents and business owners, as the city continues to confront the real ities of COVID-19 and move out from under the shadow of the pandemic.
“It’s really been a very special [budget session] actually because as I read the good things that we’re going to be able to do – never mind that they’re grants and may not be continuing – it gives us an opportunity to really surge forward, move the city forward. That’s really what’s important,” Councilor Del Pepper said at council’s May 5 meeting.
This was Pepper’s 35th and last time going through the budget process; she will retire at the end of her current term.
In order to fund some of the policy reforms and changes in the FY22 budget, including the elimination of DASH bus fares, Jinks and his staff made budget cuts across every city department. Jinks said he tasked city departments with cutting their budgets by 10% in order to help fill an estimated $41 million budget gap leading into FY22.
“The philosophy we had was ‘Plan for the worst and hope for better,’” Jinks said in an interview.
Between 38 vacancies across departments that freed up $12 million, Metro’s decision to not increase subsidies required from local governments and a smaller-than-normal hike in the Alexandria City Public Schools’ budget – $5 million instead of the typical $10 million increase – the city was able to find additional stop-gap solutions, Jinks said.
Notably, the FY22 budget includes the first real estate tax rate decrease in 15 years in the city, a move which aims to offset the increase in residential property assessments caused by a booming real estate market.
Council approved decreasing the real and personal property tax rate from $1.13 on each $100 of assessed value to $1.11. Based on the city’s average real estate assessment for all residential property types, which rose 5.7% from last year to $615,858, the average homeowner’s property tax bill will come out to about $6,836, an increase of about $253 from FY2021.
“It’s not a lot, but every little bit helps,” Jinks said in an interview.
Councilor Amy Jackson emphasized the value of a tax rate decrease during the May 5 meeting.
“I think this is the year that [the tax rate decrease] is most needed, when residents are looking at other avenues of how they are going to save money, how they’re going to pay their bills, how they’re going to feed their families and continue their jobs,” Jackson said.
The city is also set to receive $59.6 million from the federal American Rescue Plan. City staff will present a spending plan for the first half of the funding to council in July.
However, with the decreased tax rate also comes an increase in the residential refuse fee, which rose from an average of $460 per household to $482.22 per household. The average refuse fee for commercial properties remained at $411.
The city also provided a financial shot in the arm for its employees in the form of a 1% bonus. All regular full-time and part-time city employees are eligible for the bonus, which is a minimum of $500 and is pro-rated for part-time employees. Employees of the Alexandria Health Department and the state court who work in local courts are also eligible for the bonus.
“We’ve had a tough year. We’ve ended up in a bit better financial situation than we thought, and so therefore it seemed appropriate to share some of that with our employees,” Jinks said.
There were no raises for employees or adjustments made to employee pay scales, but as part of the budget, the city did unfreeze step increases for city employees.
Two of the most significant changes made in the budget were additional items proposed by members of council.
The first, which was unanimously supported by council, was Mayor Justin Wilson’s proposal to eliminate DASH bus fares, which was approved and takes effect on Sept. 5. The city will make up for the $1.5 million cost of eliminating bus fares by using a mix of state transit aid and contingent funds in the budget.
Council directed the DASH board to determine whether the change will be permanent or temporary. Jinks, who called council’s decision “long overdue” and a “a bold step,” expressed support for keeping the change in perpetuity.
“If we’re going to get people on transit and out of their cars, fares are a psychological barrier and, for some people, an actual financial barrier,” Jinks said. “When something is free, that takes down every barrier.”
The more contentious change to the budget was proposed by Councilor Mo Seifeldein and resulted in council’s decision to reallocate $800,000 in funding for the Alexandria Police Department’s school resource officer program to contingent reserves.
Council ultimately approved the budget item by a 4-3 vote, with Wilson, Jackson and Pepper in opposition, a decision which was in direct opposition to the School Board’s 6-3 vote to reestablish a memorandum of understanding with APD in October 2020.
“We respect the City Council’s decision and will be working with our team to continue to maintain a safe and secure environment for students and staff in our buildings,” ACPS said in a statement.
While School Board Chair Meagan Alderton deferred to the above statement, Vice Chair Veronica Nolan pushed back against council’s decision.
“This [APD] partnership has long been established as a tool that promoted school safety, student support services, mentorship and was a successful deterrent to discipline situations – to name but a few of the benefits,” Nolan said in a statement. “… Without surveying the larger community, [council] made a decision that frankly their backgrounds don’t qualify them to understand the ramifications of their actions.”
The money will remain in a non-departmental reserve until staff presents a proposal to council on July 6. As directed by council, city and school staff will work alongside APD to craft a proposal that includes potential funding for mental health resources for students, the Teen Wellness Center, an additional behavioral health specialist and the co-responding pilot program.
“Restorative solutions such as funding mental health programs will produce positive outcomes for our children,” Seifeldein said in a statement. “We hope to send a clear message to the parents of the children in our community that we are serious about dealing with the myriad of social, psychological and emotional issues their children face through the prioritization of adequate mental health programs.”
Whatever path council decides to take, the six SROs assigned to the city’s middle schools and high school will be reassigned within the police department, APD Chief Michael Brown said.
The elimination of SROs is an extension of ongoing efforts to reform the city’s police department, including the creation of a community police review board, in the aftermath of national calls for increased police accountability and reevaluations of the roles police should inhabit in communities.
Despite council’s final decision, the conversation around the role police officers should or should not have in schools is ongoing.
Students and teachers were divided in their feelings about the SRO program in the months leading up to council’s decision.
Specifically, some students and community members of color came forward and provided anecdotes detailing how having police in schools is a psychological disruption for them or their children.
“Our youth have been intimidated for decades, and I say intimidated because we’ve been hiring police for years and spending money on an unnecessary program, such as having police in schools,” resident and ACPS parent Maria Pilar said at a May 3 council add/ delete session.
“We as a community know what’s best for us to improve the practices that have been implemented for many years now and we know that reappropriating of the funds [from] this program to mental health resources is just the start,” Pilar added.
Others pointed to data that shows the presence of SROs exacerbates existing inequities around policing and disciplinary action.
A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology and Public Policy found that in public schools that increased their SRO staffing, there was also an increase in drug and weapon-related arrests and exclusionary disciplinary actions. The study found that SROs increased the criminalization of school discipline, particularly for students of color and LGBTQ+ youth.
“Generally, these arrests are for minor offenses, causing more children to [be] unnecessarily exposed to the criminal [and] legal system,” Ashley Moore, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center who worked with Tenants and Workers United to oppose the SRO program, said.
The mayor, who maintains his objection to council’s decision, argued that removing SROs from ACPS will not address these concerns.
“The schools need to have a conversation around what types of infractions at the school can be referred to law enforcement because here’s the problem: Even with SROs removed, police are still going to come to the school and are still going to get called to the school,” Wilson said.
According to data provided by ACPS to the U.S. Department of Education and acquired by TWU through a Freedom of Information Act request, of the 409 students that were suspended during the 2019-2020 school year, 57 were referred to law enforcement. Twenty-five of those referrals were for Hispanic students, 23 were for Black students and nine were for white students.
Wilson also asserted that there are situations where having specially trained officers who know the ins and outs of a school is valuable. In lieu of SROs responding to calls for service, patrol officers will now be dispatched.
“If it’s a non-emergency call, we’ll treat it like any other non-emergency call. We’ll try to get somebody there who at least understands the school, although there’s no guarantee on that,” Brown said. “Certainly, with a 911 call, you’re going to get whoever happens to be on duty. If it’s a minor event, which is normally handled by an SRO, it will be handled by a patrol officer.”
Supporters of the program cite the close ties that have been established with the officers stationed as SROs and concerns around security at school facilities.
In a letter to council written after the budget was approved, John Porter, the former principal of T.C. Williams High School, stated that the decision to remove SROs from ACPS was “a major mistake in relation to the safety/security of students and staff as well as having taken a major step backwards in advancing police-community relations.”
According to data obtained from APD through a resident FOIA request, which Times staff has reviewed, between Jan. 1, 2015 and May 5, 2021 there were 1,275 calls for service from police at T.C. Williams High School. Of those calls, 414, or 32% of the calls, were made outside of school hours.
According to Brown, calls and cases that occur outside of school hours generally don’t involve students.
“[Cases] may be on school property, but if they’re after hours, chances are they may not be students,” Brown said.
Out of the 1,275 calls, 733 were classified as criminal offenses and APD opened 649 cases, 172 of which involved arrests. In total, 105 of the offenses involved simple assault or assault and battery; 186 involved some kind of larceny, including 127 cases of grand larceny; 24 were associated with a weapon violation and 10 cases involved a sexual offense, including seven cases sexual battery and one rape.
The majority of incidents that police responded to involved minor offenses, such as possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct, car accidents or lost property.
Since the SRO program is funded through APD’s budget, ACPS is unable to reallocate money to refund the program without obtaining council approval, according to Jinks. Such an action would likely have to be taken in the FY2023 budget cycle.
Council also approved the 10-year CIP budget on May 5, which involves significant investments in infrastructure.
“‘Largest ever’ can [precede] a lot of the planned investments in those areas,” Wilson said on May 5. “… We are making some very serious investments in our infrastructure, and you all know that is something I care a lot about, so it’s nice to see that in this budget.”
Of the $2.66 billion that will be spent during the next 10 years, $267 million will go toward stormwater projects, while $27.5 million of the $293.1 million set aside for FY22 CIP projects will be used to address stormwater. According to Jinks, this money will go toward a combination of larger, long-term infrastructure projects and smaller spot projects.