With the City Council deep in budget negotiations, several civic and homeowner associations are asking for austerity. Some of their members were shocked that the city manager would propose an 8-percent increase in city spending for next year. And they weren't happy that the City Council advertised a 6-percent increase. They want a 3-percent increase, and they are signing a resolution to ask the city government to go back to the drawing board.
"We are challenging the city to come up with some better solutions," said Seminary Hill Civic Association President Joseph Gerard. "The rising tax bills are hurting people whose primary investment is their home."
Gerard has joined with fellow Seminary Hill Civic Association member Carl Smith and longtime Old Town resident Chip Carlin, who have formed the Coalition of Alexandria Associations for the 3% Cap Resolution. In its first nine days, six Alexandria associations have endorsed the coalition's resolution. Seven more associations have expressed an interest in joining the resolution.
"Over the last six weeks, a groundswell of activity has occurred in the city focused on requesting that the City Council take decisive action to reduce the tax burden on property owners," Carlin wrote in the opening letter of the coalition's resolution, which is dated April 1. "We sense a keen interest in the need to take decisive action together regarding this issue."
Associations that have signed the resolution are asking the City Council to restrict growth in the budget to no more than 3 percent above the previous year and undertake a serious and intensive investigation into restraining growth in the future.
A public hearing on the tax rate at City Hall is scheduled for Saturday morning at 9 a.m.
THE COALITION'S CAMPAIGN to ask associations to endorse the resolution comes at a time when individuals are circulating a petition that asks City Council to cap its budget increase at 3 percent. The petition, which was written by west-end resident Lou Cordia, has received more than 700 signatures from individuals in the city. And Cordia expects to collect more than 5,000 before the May 2 deadline.
"Alexandrians who generally are familiar with federal, state and local budgets know that serious professionals in city government are able to prepare a budget that increases 3 to 3.5 percent — especially after five years at 8 percent growth each year — if they were directed to do so by City Council," said Cordia. "After all, the city has asked families to actually cut our family budgets over the years to pay for ever-increasing city budgets. If families can find ways to cut, then city officials can find a way to live with a 3 to 3.5 percent spending increase for one year."
The petition includes language that is critical of City Manger James Hartmann's boast that a tax rate of $0.955 "would render the lowest tax rate in more than 50 years." It points to dramatically increasing tax bills, which continue to rise despite the city manager's optimistic language. Hartmann's rate would have increased the average tax bill by $595. The City Council's advertised rate of $0.915 would raise the average property tax bill by $418.
"It is intellectually dishonest to call huge tax increases, 'tax relief,'" the petition states, "A real tax cut would lead to our paying less taxes than the year before. Council would have to impose a tax rate of 79.4 cents per $100 to get real 'tax relief.'"
THE MOVEMENT to cap spending increases at 3 percent is a culmination of several years of frustration among property taxpayers who are concerned with rising tax bills. Since 2000, the city's budget has increased an average of 8.4 percent every year, and the average property tax bill has increased 13 percent every year. Organizers of the resolution and the petition are planning to continue collecting signatures until May 2, when the City Council will vote on a final version of the budget.
"I know people who have decided to forestall having a second child because they're not sure if they can afford to stay here," said Carlin. "It's time for a time out, and the City Council needs to commit to a soul-searching process."
Associations that have signed the resolution and individuals who have signed the petition are asking temporary measures. The resolution describes it as a "stopgap measure," and the petition describes the 3-percent movement as an "immediate, short-term, stop-the-bleeding solution."
"We don't want to be like California, where they cap city spending in perpetuity and it cripples the effectiveness of the government," said Kathleen Burns, secretary of the Brookville-Seminary Valley Civic Association. "I hope that City Council is responsive to the citizens of the city, who are asking for some tax relief."
THE PARKFAIRFAX Condominium Unit Owners Association did not sign the coalition's resolution, but it did vote to ask City Council for a tax rate of $0.875 for every $100 of assessed valuation.
"We've got to expand our tax base," said Matthew Natale, the association's president. "We think the city has got to look for new revenues — an admissions tax, a cell phone tax or a tobacco tax."
Like others who are asking the City Council for tax relief, Natale has no specific suggestions about what to city from the city manager's proposed budget.
"We understand how hard this is for the City Council," he said. "Every element of the budget has got to be looked at and evaluated."