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Budget Packs Chamber

Public hearing marathon debates how much is needed.

Well before the opening of the City Council's first public hearing on the proposed 2006 municipal budget and its accompanying revenue package, Council chambers and the adjourning workroom were filled to overflow capacity with citizens from every interest group in the city. Most were proclaiming sanctity for their particular slice of the fiscal pie.

"No one will be pleased with the final outcome, because there are going to be a lot of cuts. Don't expect that your request will be fully funded. We will cut the tax rate to do what it takes to help the property owners," said Mayor William D. Euille at the opening of the marathon session.

Prior to the hearing's Monday's 4 p.m. start, nearly 100 speakers had signed up to make their plea or give their opinion of the fiscal blueprint proposed by City Manager James K. Hartmann which proposed a four-cent cut in the present real estate tax rate. Council had previously announced they hoped to increase that to eight cents from the present .995 cents per $100 of real estate assessed valuation.

Almost in defiance of Euille's warning that suffering was going to be citywide, the first speakers were a teacher and two students from Douglas MacArthur Elementary School who urged "full funding of the Alexandria Public Schools budget." They were followed by Susan Johnson, chair, Early Childhood Commission, also in support of more money for education.

JOHNSON WAS FOLLOWED by local attorney Catherine Puskar, who normally represents developer clients before the Alexandria Planning Commission, speaking as a volunteer with Healthy Families Alexandria and seeking extended benefits for that program.

"Our children are our future. This is a program that really works. Healthy Families has lost financial ground over the last year due to cuts in Title IV," Puskar said.

From cuts in federal programs to new restrictions imposed by state government on the use of oil-based paints, the pleas continued. Asking that council cut the rate in excess of eight cents to possibly 12 cents, Michael Wink, Parkfairfax board member said, "Assessments are up a total of 28 percent."

He noted that the 1,700 unit, 3,000 resident condominium community is being forced to repaint the entire complex with latex paint due to new state regulations against oil based paint. "This will force us to raise condo fees" on top of the increased real estate taxes, he said.

However, Wink admitted that listening to the previous speakers on schools and family needs made his request harder. He then proposed that the rate reduction be limited to eight cents with another two cent reduction next year.

Following Wink came Amber Nightengale and Nathan Allen making their case for citizens with disabilities. Nightengale was urging for the expansion of residential services for such citizens. "Group homes are not the best environments for people with disabilities," she said.

AS IF TO HIGHLIGHT the choices facing the council was the juxtaposition between those speaking for increased support of Alexandria Senior Services and Alexandria Chamber of Commerce's insistence on not creating revenue streams that would thwart business/commercial growth and development.

Paramount to the Senior Services argument was the Senior Taxi Service which provides elderly free transportation for food shopping and medical appointments. Personifying their case was an 85-year-old city resident who said, "Without that service I will have to depend on neighbors to get me to the doctor and store. I am the last of my family."

Bill Harris, president, Alexandria Senior Services, urged a six percent increase in the budget for the taxi service. This was buttressed by Eileen Longstreet, executive director, Alexandria Senior Services.

On the flip side of the humanitarian appeals was that of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce which urged that the budget be viewed in the light of not harming business or "discouraging business and commercial growth in Alexandria." They were particularly adamant about possible imposition of an admissions tax.

"Alexandria business keeps our city financially sound. Half of the tax and non-tax revenue to Alexandria comes through businesses. A healthy business community keeps Alexandria healthy," said Charles Collum, chair, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the Board, Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Company.

"The Chamber encourages you to give more consideration to programs that encourage business," Collum said to the council. He was supported in that by his predecessor, Joan Renner, Chamber past president. "The best way to increase revenue is to grow business," she said.

RENNER ALSO suggested that other revenue sources be explored such as increasing the sewer tax rate. She further noted, "Even if the rate is cut by eight cents that's still a 12 percent increase."

This brought forth a comment from Councilman Andrew Macdonald. "We do need to explore all options. How do you feel about a 50 cent increase in the car tax?" he asked. Renner offered no opinion.

Lonnie Rich, another speaker on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce encouraged the use of development bonds to raise revenue to finance affordable housing. The need to provide more money and incentives for affordable housing was also the primary impetus of testimony by those representing the Tenants and Workers Support Committee.

The one item which the Chamber and those speaking for nonprofit charitable organizations were unswervingly opposed to was the origination of admission fees. "Admission fees place a burden on nonprofits," said John Renner, president elect, First night Alexandria.

"If an admission tax is passed nonprofits will have to write another grant proposal to get the money back," he said. He urged raising taxes in other areas such as the sewer tax paid by property owners.

HOWEVER, the potential initiation of an admission fee was supported by the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, a citizen-based all volunteer group that analyzes the proposed city budget revenue sources and makes independent recommendations to council. "We have always supported diversification of revenue sources," said the group's spokesperson.

They also urged council to be cautious of over extending on new construction such as T.C. Williams High School, suggesting possible delay on some capital improvement programs. The commission will make its final recommendations to the council April 27 prior to Council's May 2 vote on the budget and new tax rate.

"This group works independent of council and gives us an in-depth analysis of the budget. They are all volunteers and spend countless unpaid hours on their work," Euille said.

There were those who came out in support of Hartmann proposal to cut the tax rate by only four cents. "You only hired this man and you did that to have him manage the city. So let him do his job. Give the city manager what he needs to do that job," said Del Ray resident Vic Glassberg.

"Even with only a four-cent reduction we remain at the bottom of the heap in tax rates compared to our neighbors. Even with Hartmann's budget nobody will get what they really need," he said.

THIS POINT OF VIEW was also held by Joseph Bennett. "I have received several e-mails urging me to support a cap on the tax rate. I find this to be a very unimaginative approach. It's better to take the city manager's approach of looking to future needs and base your calculations on that," he said.

Adding to the list of desires were speakers representing such diverse interests as the Regional Park Authority, Arlandria Health Center, the Campagna Center, Farlington Citizens Association, the Volunteer Bureau, those speaking for a tax cap, and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, among others.

Council will hold two additional budget work sessions on April 6 and 11 with the next public hearing scheduled for April 16 in Council Chambers at 9:30 a.m. This will be followed by another work session on April 27. On May 2 a final work session is scheduled for 6 p.m. with a final vote at 7 p.m.

Alexandria's fiscal year 2006 budget and tax rate as proposed by Hartmann calls for a spending package of $471 million General Fund Operating Budget and a $565.7 million All Funds Operating Budget with a four-cent reduction in the real estate tax. This is an 8.2 percent increase over the present All Funds budget and 8.7 increase over the present General Fund budget.

Copies of the FY06 City Manager's Proposed Budget can be viewed on the city web site www.alexandriava.gov. Copies are available in the Office of Management and Budget, City Hall, Room 3630, 301 King St. For more information call 703-838-4780.