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Votes

Council Gets Input Over Budget

Priscilla Goodwin asked City Council to not spare anything and to fully fund the school budget. She has three children in the city school system and she wanted to make sure Council heard her message.

"My children are thriving because they have good teachers, small classes and nice buildings. I'm grateful that we live in Alexandria where our City Council understands the importance of educating all of our children. I would like to ask you to fully fund the school budget.

"We are in competition with a number of school systems to attract and retain good teachers. I urge you to fund the new compensation package ... We are very concerned that you support the building of a new T. C. Williams because this is vital to our city," she said.

Goodwin was among 30 Alexandrians who spoke to City Council last Wednesday to express their opinions about the city manager's proposed budget. Other topics on the agenda in addition to the school budget were proposed funding of the open space fund and taxes.

PTA representatives from many of the city's 17 schools asked Council to support the proposed operating and capital budgets. Goodwin represented George Mason Elementary School.

Cheryl Gorsich, the president of the Mt. Vernon Community school PTA, echoed Goodwin's words.

"Each year, more Alexandria schools are added to the list of fully accredited schools. Mt. Vernon Community School was just two test scores away from full accreditation. Several more of our schools are close. Our schools are strong and continuing to improve because of the strong financial support that you have provided. They are deserving of your continued support," she said.

GARY FINTON, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority asked City Council to continue supporting the regional park system. "We have 10,700 acres of park land in Northern Virginia and we rely on the local jurisdictions for 20 percent of our operating budget," he said. "That requires us to raise $325,000 each year, which is difficultk, but we do it. We ask that you continue to support the regional parks."

Judy Noritake spoke on behalf of the city's parks and recreation commission. "The commission wholeheartedly supports Councilman Speck's proposal to use one cent of the real estate tax to purchase open space," she said. "We are also very pleased to see that the city manager is recommending capital funding to make much needed improvements at Charles Houston and Patrick Henry Recreation centers. We ask that you include $100,000 in the FY2004 budget to hire a design consultant to begin working with the members of these two communities. We also urge you to move forward with funding renovations and expansions at Chinquapin that will allow us to expand services at Chinquapin as recommended by the recreation needs assessment," she said.

VICE MAYOR Bill Cleveland proposed capping assessments in response to concerns about the rising tax rates. "Assessments are sky high and I am concerned about people losing their home or rental units in Alexandria because they can't pay their bills," he said. "I think we need to cap the total tax bill. This would give homeowners some certainty and help to address their fears about how high assessments could go and how they are going to pay their bills. It is my understanding that we can cap the aggregate on how high the rates can go and I would like to get some reaction to that."

Mayor Kerry J. Donley reacted to the proposal by saying, "Just because we hold the average increase to say, five percent, that doesn't mean everyone's assessments will go up that much," he said. "Why don't we get a budget memo on this so that we can make some decisions. We need to see how much we would have to cut the budget depending on where we cap the tax bill. Based on this seven percent suggestion of Mr. Cleveland's, let's look at how much we would have to cut the budget and where we would put the tax rate."

Councilman David Speck expressed concern, saying, "I think that if we place some artificial cap on the tax rate, we abdicate our responsibility as elected officials," he said. "It is important for citizens to understand why we raise taxes. We raise taxes to pay for services and for our capital needs.

"In 1991, when property values declined for the first time in 50 years, we were able to keep from placing a heavy burden on our citizens by not raising the tax rates significantly. Then, in 1992, the property values declined again..."

CITY MANAGER Philip G. Sunderland offered a word of caution. "We need to remember that projected revenues for next year, with the exception of real estate, are flat," he said. "That means, if expenditures go up, we don't have 11 or 12 different sources that we can go to find that money. We only have revenue from real estate. As you make decisions about the tax rate, you need to keep this in mind."

Councilwoman Redella S. "Del" Pepper expressed concern about services. "If we can't keep libraries open seven days a week or if we have to cut other services, we're the ones who are going to take those calls," she said. "We have to be very careful here."

And there were people asking for increased funding. Linda Couture is the president of the Senior Services Board of directors. "We have a core of aging volunteers who are preparing sometimes all of the meals for our Meals on Wheels program," she said. "We need an additional $20,000 to pay for a part time coordinator to help recruit more volunteers and to coordinate meal preparation."

Aaron Spevacec, executive director of the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, asked for increased funding for the Youth Fund. "Right now, you have $350,000 in programs that are going to be applying for $255,000 in available funding," he said. "This means that city staff are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. I urge you to take a hard look at increasing the level of funding here."

Council will continue looking at the budget and will vote on final passage of both the operating budget for FY2004 and the Capital Improvement budget for FY2004-2009 on April 29. In the meantime, they will hold additional work sessions throughout the month.