This year’s budget message from the Alexandria City Council during an election year was “Everyone got something and no one got everything.”
In the end, Council passed a FY2004 budget of $476 million with $394 million coming from the city's general fund. This represents a 5.6 percent increase over last year.
Mayor Kerry J. Donley, voting on his last city budget as mayor, focused on the positives. “I prefer to focus on what is in this budget and not on what is not,” he said. “We have given our citizens some tax relief, making ours the second lowest tax rate in the region. We have funded 99.8 percent of the school-approved budget, much more than most of our neighboring jurisdictions. We have increased our community partnership fund, which is our mechanism for supporting the non-profit community.
"We have increased our support for the city’s childcare providers. We have expanded our tax deferral program for our elderly and disabled citizens. We have done all of this and still passed a fiscally responsible budget. And we have passed this budget unanimously, which we have done more often than not in the past 10 years."
Councilwoman Joyce Woodson was not as pleased as the mayor. “While I am pleased that we are able to fund open space, I don’t believe that this is the answer,” she said. “I know that there are some people who wanted this but I do not believe that there was a groundswell. I am pleased that we were able to do more for the childcare workers but believe that we could have done even more. While reducing the tax rate may help a broad group of our citizens, I do not believe that it helps the people who faced the largest increases in their assessments — the working poor who own their homes. I am pleased that we reduced the amount of funds that we cut from the school budget but believe that it should have been fully funded…” she said.
BECAUSE OF pressure from the school community, Council cut the city portion of their $142 million budget by only $900,000 instead of the proposed $1.5 million. With additional state aid of $670,000, the net cut will be $230,000.
To accomplish this, Council reduced the tax rate by two and-a-half cents above the three –cent reduction that was proposed by the city manager. Council had planned to reduce the rate by three cents. One cent of the two-and-a-half cent reduction was then added back to pay for open space. Thus, the tax rate is now at $1.03.5, a net reduction of 4.5 cents from the current $1.08.
The cost of living adjustment for both city and school staff was reduced from the manager’s proposed 2.25 percent to 2.0 percent. The city’s operating budget was reduced by $1.5 million. The city manager will report to Council on how he plans to accomplish those reductions at a June meeting.
By expanding eligibility criteria for the city’s tax deferral program, Council added $200,000 in expenses to the operating budget. The ordinance to change this program was the only piece of the budget that did not pass unanimously. Woodson had proposed expanding the tax deferral program to include some members of the general population in addition to the elderly or those with disabilities. Council proposed putting $50,000 into a staff study of such an expansion.
“Using $50,000 for this purpose is a misuse of funds,” Woodson said. “Why study something that we already know exists?”
Council added $200,000 to the $100,000 in subsidies that the city already provides to contract in-home childcare providers. This will increase the per child, per day rate that the providers are paid by the city in combination with the state.
COUNCIL GAVE THE department of recreation an additional $200,000 to begin work on renovating Patrick Henry and Charles Houston recreation centers. That work was planned but this funding will allow preliminary design work to begin a year earlier than originally anticipated.
“While I am going to support this budget, I had hoped that some of my colleagues would join me in presenting an alternative budget,” said Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland.
“I had hoped to have at least two or three members join with me so that we could present a totally different budget and then someone would have to decide which one was best. That didn’t happen because it is going to take a totally different mind-set than we have now on Council. I had proposed a budget in which we would have been able to reduce the tax rate by three additional cents and still fund open space out of cash capital.
"We would have been able to fully fund our public school system. While I appreciate the mayor working with me and compromising with all of us, I believe that we could have done better.”
Councilman William D. Euille, Cleveland’s mayoral opponent, disagreed. “I think that we have done the very best that we can for everyone,” he said. “We weren’t able to provide as much of a cost of living adjustment as we would have liked to do but we were able to provide two percent. We are very fortunate to have been able to continue to provide tax relief to our homeowners by further reducing the tax rate.
"Our revenues from real estate cannot continue to increase at the rates that they have been increasing. In the future, we may even be faced with raising taxes. For now, though, we have done the best we can in balancing the need for tax relief and the desire to maintain services.”
Councilwoman Redella S. “Del” Pepper gave the budget mixed reviews. “While people want tax relief, they don’t want any reduction in their services and programs and certainly not in their quality of life,” she said. “Given that, I am very pleased that we are able to begin to address the need for open space and I am pleased that we are able to minimize the cuts to our schools."
Councilwoman Claire Eberwein also supported the budget. “This is a good, fiscally responsible budget,” she said. “I do believe that reducing the tax rate helps those people who were hardest hit by rising assessments —condominium owners. I am also pleased to support Mr. Speck’s proposal on funding open space. A number of us have worked hard for a couple of years to get something done and this is a beginning. As for the schools, we have done very well by the schools. I am sorry that they felt they had to resort to the kind of tactics that they chose but we have done very well by them.”
COUNCILMAN DAVID SPECK summed it up by saying, “A budget tells a story,” he said. “It tells a story of how public officials balance competing desires. Our citizens have expressed a desire for retaining open space. In perhaps one of the most important policy decisions that this Council has ever made, we have ground a way to begin to address that desire.
"This is the last time that Kerry and I will vote on a budget and it is the last time for at least one other member of this Council. I would like to thank the staff for all of their hard work and I would like to thank the mayor for his leadership in what has been a Herculean effort.”