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Council Grapples With Budget

Support for Additional Tax Cut Grows

As the city’s budget process winds down, Council members met on April 29, to discuss their add-delete lists.

"We each had an opportunity to discuss those things we wanted to add and to share with our colleagues how we were going to pay for them,” said Councilman David G. Speck. “I would like to believe that we all took a careful look at the items and weighed the pros and cons of including them based on good, responsible government. And, of course, there is a little bit of horse trading.”

The rule is that if a Council member wants to add something, he or she must find a way to pay for that program so that there is no net increase in the bottom line.

The largest item that was discussed at Monday night’s session was cutting the real estate rate by an additional one or one half cent. The current proposal includes a provision for cutting the rate from $1.11 per $1000 to $1.09 per $1000. The new proposal that is supported by a number of Council members would cut the rate further to $1.08.

“I believe that most of us would really like to cut the rate further,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “We don’t, however, want to cut the rate this year and then have to raise it in future years and I believe that this is possible.”

A reduction of one cent more would cost the city a bit over $2.5 million. “The city manager already set aside $1.5 million to cover expected cuts in the state budget,” Donley said. “Our best estimate is that we will only need a bit over $700,000 to cover the actual state reductions. That gives us $800,000 to use toward a real estate tax reduction if we want to go that way.”

Additionally, Donley said that there will be a savings of $350,000 in the cost of health insurance for city workers. “The bids just came in lower than we expected,” he said.

WITH OTHER SAVINGS, Donley said that there would need to be only about a $700,000 transfer from the current fund balance to pay for the rate reduction. “Whether we want to do a whole cent or half a cent, I don’t know,” he said. “But there does seem to be a feeling among Council members that we want to do more.”

Councilman William D. Euille agreed. “I really would like to see a further rate reduction,” he said. “All of us know that, even with the rate reduction, the tax burden for citizens of the city is increasing. I’ve taken a look at projections for the next couple of years, through fiscal year 2004, and I think that we can reduce the rate without harming the city’s financial picture. I believe that property values are going to increase by more than the five percent that we are currently projecting so that we won’t be put in the position of having to raise the rates in the next couple of years.”

Speck was a bit more cautious. “I certainly think that we would all like to further reduce the tax rate,” he said. “However, we must take a look at what is really fiscally responsible here. We have been very conservative in our projections and with our financial policies and that is why we have a AAA bond rating. We don’t want to jeopardize that in any way. I am not interested in helping anyone write his campaign brochures. I am interested in governing responsibly.”

COUNCILWOMAN Joyce Woodson is supportive of paying for healthcare for UNITY childcare workers. This is a group of independent contractors who provide childcare to children whose childcare costs the city subsidizes. UNITY estimates the cost to be $500,000 per year but city staff say that the cost would be much higher.

“They really want us to cover family healthcare and that cost is much higher,” Donley said. Staff estimates that the cost would be in excess of $1.5 million per year.

“It’s not that I don’t sympathize with them,” Donley said. “I do have several concerns, though. First, the ongoing cost is quite high and, perhaps more importantly, the policy implications concern me.”

They concern staff as well. In a budget memorandum staff prepared on this item, staff expressed a concern about providing health coverage for one group of independent contractors and not for all independent contractors who receive city dollars.

“If we give it to these childcare workers, should we provide health coverage for private daycare providers who also accept children who are subsidized by the city,” Donley asked.

Euille asked for the Budget and Fiscal Advisory Committee to study the issue. “They seemed willing to undertake a real review of this matter and will report back to us,” Euille said. “I really do sympathize with them but believe that we need to study the matter much more thoroughly than we have, especially with respect to the public policy issue. Council always has the option to fund something later should we deem it appropriate. I don’t believe that we need to set aside money at this time.”

Woodson had asked that the city set aside $350,000 in contingent reserve as a show of good faith that the city is serious about looking into the matter.

OTHER ITEMS THAT WERE discussed were much smaller. Speck is proposing to add $120,000 for Dash About, the bus that runs along King Street at 15-minute intervals. The $120,000 would pay for nine months of funding for the program. An additional $30,000 would pay for the bus to run at 10-minute intervals. “This has been a very successful program and we need to fund it,” Speck said.

Most Council members appear to agree, although Councilwoman Claire Eberwein thinks that $120,000 is adequate. “I think every 15 minutes is just fine,” she said.

Speck has also asked for $15,000 to pay for an irrigation system at King Street Gardens, an area that has concerned him for some time. “If we are going to be stuck with it as it appears we are, we need to make sure that the plants live,” he said.

Speck also wants $35,000 to increase funding for the Alexandria Commission on the Arts. “This is part of a three-year plan to increase the city’s support for the Commission to $200,000 a year,” Speck said.

With seeming unanimity, Council has agreed to fund an additional salary step for school system employees who are at the top of their salary range. “We will spend about $400,000 in city money and the school will need to spend about $285,000 out of their own budget,” Donley said. “I think we all agree that is something that needs to be done. We are doing it for other city employees and should do so for school employees.”

A TRASH CAN is a $50,000 item. “We have about 600 trash cans on streets throughout the city and we have only been able to replace about 60 of them,” Euille said. Last year, he expressed concern about the condition of the city’s street cans. “The tops are broken and they are rusting and just look unsightly,” Euille said. At a cost of between $800 and $900 per can, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services will be able to replace 50 to 60 additional cans this year.

Eberwein hopes to increase the Planning Department’s budget by $50,000 so that Planning Director Eileen Fogarty can move forward with planning for the Eisenhower Valley in a more expeditious manner. Support for this expenditure is by no means guaranteed. “Compared to the cost of the other requested budget items, this is one of the smallest and yet it is one of the most basic in addressing quality of life issues in Alexandria,” she said. “There is icing; there is cake. This is the cake plate. We have implemented a new citizen inclusive development process that requires a good deal more staff time up front, if we want to succeed. We are incredibly back logged in terms of local area studies that lead to the economic and aesthetic revitalization of various neighborhoods and business districts. It is my hope that we will be able to start some of the projects that are on hold such as planning for Eisenhower Valley West, the Duke Street business corridor and various in-fill projects. This money is a small investment that will accrue great dividends to the city.”

Council will vote on final budget adoption on Monday, May 6.