Budget Cuts, Needs Perplexing Puzzle for Council

Budget Cuts, Needs Perplexing Puzzle for Council

For the first time ever, the Alexandria City Council held budget hearings before the staff begins preparation of the FY2004 operating budget and the next six-year capital improvement program. And while Council seeks ways to please everybody, many were asking for more.

Anna Liter, who represented the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee told City Council they must pay close attention to revenue diversification, managing the fund balance and to the rising cost of employee compensation.

"Eighty percent of the school system’s budget is personnel and 60 percent of the city’s budget. Healthcare costs are rising at a rate that is greater than that of other related costs … Council should not plan to use money from the fund balance to pay for programs and should adhere to the strict guidelines regarding bonding,” she said.

That having been said, 39 other speakers stood up to ask City Council for more money for a variety of programs.

School supporters spoke about the need to fully fund the school system’s operating budget and their request for an increase in capital expenditures. There is currently $35 million in the CIP for renovating or rebuilding T. C. Williams High School and the actual cost is now estimated to be around $75 million.

A number of nonprofit agencies sent representatives to ask for an increase in the community partnership fund. This year the fund awarded $875,000 in grants to agencies. Applications exceeded $1.9 million. Aaron Spevacec, executive director of the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, said, “Nonprofit agencies provide services far below the cost of those provided by public entities.”

THE COMMUNITY SERVICES BOARD has already faced some state cuts. “Thank you for your support and we hope for your continuing support,” said Phil Bradbury, a member of the Board. “We have been cut by $384,000, and we can make up about half of that from contingencies. We have also cut three positions by attrition. Now, we have no option but to cut services, such as eliminating the shelter workshop and replacing it with less expensive options.

"We must also cut crisis beds and long-term assistance. We have not had to eliminate any customer from the program but some of them will experience a cut in the level of services that they are currently receiving.”

Representatives from the Arlandria and West Potomac Business Associations and from civic associations throughout Arlandria spoke in support of the Arlandria Plan. Judy Bliss is the president of the Arlandria Civic Association. “We agree with the Arlandria Plan for Redevelopment,” she said. “Our community is a gateway to the city of Alexandria.”

Oswald Salinas is a restaurant owner in Arlandria. He told Council, “We thank you for your support and we hope that you will continue to fund the Arlandria Plan,” he said. “We feel that we have been neglected for the past few years and that we are just as important as Old Town.”

The Arlandria Plan is a work in progress. It has been a cooperative effort among city staff, community residents and business and civic leaders. One of the cornerstones of the plan was the purchase and demolition of the old Datatel building. There is also a plan for redeveloping that site in conjunction with the Safeway site that is now leased to three businesses.

Nina Weissberg is the owner of the Safeway site. She said, “I have enjoyed working with the city and the community on the Arlandria plan,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with all of you toward long-term redevelopment of this area…”

Weissberg expressed concern about the intersection of East Reed and Mt. Vernon. Motorists have grown accustomed to cutting through the Safeway parking lot instead of going through this intersection and then to West Glebe.

“The traffic pattern has changed with the opening of two of the three stores there last week,” said Richard Baier, the city’s director of Transportation and Environmental Services. “The first thing that we should do is put up some signs that say 'No Through Traffic' and see if that doesn’t deter some people.”

Other traffic calming measures are needed. “We want to put some speed tables on Four Mile and Old Dominion, change the parking on Executive Avenue, put an extension of Four Mile Road into the park and redo the intersection of Mt. Vernon Avenue and Russell Road,” said Tom Cullpepper, the deputy director at T & E S.

Because the plan is not complete, cost estimates are broad. Culpeper estimates the mid-term costs to be about $325,000 and the long-term costs to be an additional $1 to $2 million.

ONLY ONE SPEAKER proposed raising taxes. “We need to think seriously about raising taxes,” said Katy Canady, a long-time civic activist. “I don’t mind paying more gas tax and I wouldn’t mind seeing that three percent reduction in our real estate tax revoked. We homeowners are a privileged minority and people who have needs beyond trash collection and pothole filling are not us. They are those other people who need the safety net. I want the safety net and if I pay a little more taxes for that, that’s fine with me.”

The state must make further cuts in next year’s budget, meaning that the city will receive less money from that source. By the time City Council receives the FY2004 proposed budget from staff in March of next year, those cuts should be clearer.

“I am glad to see us having this kind of a hearing at this time,” said Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland. “I hope that this is the beginning of a tradition.”