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Waiting Game

Advocates of curtailing city spending test their patience at public hearing.

A public hearing on the tax rate packed the council chamber Saturday, and about 50 people were wearing red stickers that said "3% Makes Sense." The hearing was the public's opportunity to speak specifically about the tax rate, which many in attendance wanted to lower from $0.995 to $0.86 — a 3 percent increase in city spending.

But adherents of the 3-percent movement would have to wait.

The controversial issue of the property tax rate, which most people had arrived to speak about, was scheduled as the 13th item of discussion. It came after lengthy discussions about recommendations from the Planning Commission and the Board of Architectural Review, which included hours of debate about the necessity of replacing windows in a south-side apartment building and the proper dimensions for a garage addition that might be built on North Patrick Street.

As the discussion involving the garage addition lingered on, many of the people with red stickers seemed to be losing patience. Some left to get lunch and never came back.

"It's not fair and it's not right for them to talk about someone's windows for several hours before discussing the most important issue before the citizens of this fine city at a public hearing," said restaurant owner Pat Troy, who plans to run for City Council next year as a Republican. Troy had to leave the meeting before he was given an opportunity to speak. "These people have got to learn to curtail their spending, and they should have scheduled a meeting where the citizens of Alexandria could come to City Hall and speak about this issue. This should have been the first matter of discussion."

MORE THAN FOUR HOURS after the public hearing began — and after a five-minute break — the public discussion about the property tax rate finally began. The crowd had dwindled — about half had left during the debates about replacement windows. But even though many potential speakers left because of how the meeting had been scheduled, several speakers took the podium to ask the city government to cap its yearly spending increase at 3 percent — a temporary solution they say is needed in this time of rising tax bills.

"As a former drunken sailor — and speaking on behalf of drunken sailors everywhere — we're appalled at the increase in city spending," said Dan McLaughlin. "The rising tax bills are creating a city of haves and have-nots."

McLaughlin's lighthearted remark about drunken sailors — a traditional feature of port cities such as Alexandria — created a brief moment of levity in what was otherwise a grim public hearing. The long afternoon of debate over whether a garage on Patrick Street blocked the view for a disgruntled neighbor had already drained the meeting of much of its liveliness. And the threat of ever-increasing property tax bills darkened the mood.

"Serious professionals in city government are certainly able to prepare a budget that increases 3.5 percent — especially after five years at 8 percent growth — if they were directed to do so by City Council. And we respectfully request that you direct them," said Lou Cordia, whose petition to ask City Council to temporarily cap this year's budget increase at 3 percent and over the coming year investigate ways to control spending and limit property tax increases in the future. The petition has now received 1,945 signatures. "After all, the city has asked families to actually cut our family budgets over the years to pay for ever-increasing city budgets."

After he spoke, cries of "here here" were heard from the back of council chambers, a dramatic departure from the hum-drum regularity of most public hearings at City Hall. This year's budget cycle is different -and not just because of the petition.

Cordia's citizen petition has coincided with a coalition of associations that are also asking the city government to cap its budget increase at 3 percent. Chip Carlin, who is one of the major organizing forces behind the coalition's resolution, also spoke at the public hearing. He named seven civic associations and homeowners groups that have adopted the 3-percent resolution, which is similar to the petition that is being circulated to members of the general public. Since Saturday, one more association has adopted the resolution.

"As taxpayers, we feel the need to take some collective action," said Carlin, noting that a diverse group of citizens has come together to support temporarily capping increases in city spending at 3 percent. "What we are asking for is some restraint."

Twelve people asked the city to cap spending at 3 percent. Others challenged City Council to lower the tax rate and restrain spending. Only one speaker opposed the 3-percent cap.

"That 3-percent compromise, which could result in a reduction of my real-estate taxes, sounds really good on the surface — but I have to ask myself: If this cap is put on the city budget, what services will be eliminated or not implemented," said Mariella Posey. Will the purchase of open space be cut back? What about all the other services the citizens expect the city to provide?

THE CITY ESTIMATES reducing the property tax rate from $0.955, the city manager's proposal, to $0.915, the City Council's advertised rate, will deplete revenues by $16.4 million. According to Bruce Johnson, director of the Office of Management and Budget, reducing the tax rate to $0.86 — the rate mentioned in the 3-percent petition — would deplete the city manager's budget by $22.6 million.

"They seem to think it can be done without any pain," said Johnson. "But the people who are being served by these city programs would find themselves significantly impacted by cuts of this magnitude."

"The three-percent compromise gives the city $18.4 million more than last year," said Cordia. "So saying that an $0.86 tax rate will cost the city $22.6 million is looking at the glass as half empty, not half full — and it's because Johnson is counting backward from an obsolete budget that's a wish list from the city manager."

Even if the City Council ignores those asking for a 3-percent increase in the city's overall budget, council members must still find ways to cut the budget to arrive at a 4-cent reduction in the tax rate.

The city manager's staff has investigated programs that might be postponed or eliminated to meet the desire to reduce the tax rate. These recommended cuts total $16.4 million, the money that would be needed to reduce the tax rate to $0.915 for every $100 of assessed value.

One way of accounting for the reduction in property tax money is to look for money elsewhere. The City Council has considered creating several new taxes that would provide new sources of revenue. These new taxes would target cell phone users, smokers and movie theaters — potentially bringing in as much as $5 million next year.

"I would have to go out of business if the city creates an admissions tax," said Old Town Theatre owner Roger Fons, noting that studios already take a significant portion of his ticket sales. If the price of a ticket is increased by a 50 cent admissions tax, the studio would get 25 cents more per ticket. "I can't see any justification for hitting the entertainment industry this way. There's no way I could keep the theater open if the city passes this tax."

CITY STAFF also suggested eliminating several new full-time and part-time positions, including a telecommunications position, a research analyst, an events administrator and a volunteer coordinator. Three of the four JobLink positions may also be cut after the federal grants that paid for them expire. Eliminating these positions would save the city $332,000.

Another cut being examined by city staff includes reducing the school's budget by $1,160,000 — including saving $300,000 by eliminating new "out-of-classroom" positions requested by the School Board. City staff estimates that it can reduce the school's budget by $700,000 by reducing the funding for the school's Supplemental Retirement System.

"The city is free to recommend whatever they think we need to do in taking a reduction, but it's the School Board's responsibility to determine what cuts will be made to the school system," said School Board chairman Mark Wilkoff. "They can give us a bottom-line figure to cut, but we'll decide whether or not we want to cut the out-of-classroom positions."

City staff has also recommended potential cutbacks in the Capital Improvement Program, the city's five-year plan for meeting growing infrastructure needs. Cuts to the capital program amount to almost $5 million worth of reductions. The recommendations include delaying several projects.

Capital programs that may be postponed include the new Police headquarters ($2 million), the city's information technology plan ($1 million) and the project to move Old Town utilities underground ($1 million). The recommendations would delay, not eliminate, these programs.