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Final Stretch

Council plans to adopt budget on May 2, but property owners are concerned about tax bills.

Rising property tax bills in Alexandria have created a contentious budget season. Property tax bills have doubled over the past five years, and taxpayers have played a central role in this year's budget cycle -- asking city officials to lower their tax bill and find ways to curtail spending.

The city's current property tax rate is $0.995 for every $100 of assessed valuation. Considering that assessments have increased an average of 21 percent this year, City Manager James Hartmann recognized the need to bring the tax rate down. But his four-cent reduction in the city's property tax rate was not enough, so the City Council advertised a rate of $0.915 for every $100 of assessed valuation. This rate would increase the average tax bill by $418.

"A real tax cut would lead to our paying less taxes than the year before," reads part of the Alexandrians for a 3% Compromise petition, which has now collected 4,422 signatures. "We need to preserve our community and stop the exodus of those Alexandrians who cannot stay because they cannot pay."

THE DEMAND for a lower tax rate has not gone unnoticed at City Hall.

"That's a message that we're heard loud and clear," said Councilman Paul Smedberg, who was one of two City Council members to suggest further lowering the tax rate during this week's add/delete process. He and Councilman Rob Krupicka both included a $2,760,000 proposal to lower the tax rate to $0.905 for every $100 of assessed valuation. "We want to make sure that people who have lived in Alexandria for a number of years are able to stay here."

A tax rate of $0.905 would increase the average tax bill by $374.

"Reducing the tax rate below $0.905 is going to be very challenging," said Councilman Ludwig Gaines, noting the difficulty associated with cutting popular city programs. "But I and other council members are actively engaged in finding additional tax-rate reductions."

None of the City Council members seemed willing to set a tax rate of $0.86, which is the rate that is being requested by citizens who have signed the Alexandrians for a 3% Compromise petition.

THE THREE-PERCENT movement began after February's assessments were mailed to city property owners. That's when Seminary Hills homeowner Lou Cordia swung into action with a plan to collect more than 5,000 signatures -- a goal that he plans to achieve this weekend. His petition calls for capping the increase in city spending at three percent this year and asking the City Council to prevent property tax increases from spiraling out of control again by examining ways to curtail city spending.

Several civic associations and homeowners groups also wanted to express their concern with rising property tax bills, so long-time Old Town resident Chip Carlin and others began circulating a resolution to be discussed at association meetings. Thirteen associations have endorsed the resolution.

"The City of Alexandria budget has increased an average of 8.4% per year since 2000," reads the petition. "If individual property taxes continue to increase at the rate they have in recent years, many more Alexandrians may be forced to sell their homes and move elsewhere, and even fewer families of low or moderate income will be able to afford to remain in our city."

THE IDEA that capping increases in city spending is the answer to anxiety caused by rising tax bills has not met with universal praise.

"An artificial cap is nothing more than a poor excuse for someone who doesn't understand the budget process," said former mayor Kerry Donley, who recently accepted a position as athletic director at T.C. Williams High School. "When I was on City Council, I tried to cap spending at 6.4 percent and people thought that was draconian. That was a time when city spending was increasing at eight to 10 percent every year."

But others think that a one-time cap of three percent would give the city needed time for reflection.

"The motto of this City Council is to spend without a rhyme or reason -- spend without results," said former mayor Frank Mann at an April 24 public forum on tax relief at the Durant Center. "The real solution is to stop the reckless spending. One of the things we've got to do is stop electing officials who don't know how to save."

"There are no villains in this story unless it is all of us," said Richard Moose of North Old Town Independent Citizens. "Most property owners want their taxes lowered and they don't really care how that's accomplished."

THE CITY COUNCIL plans to adopt a final budget after a work session on May 2. At press time, council members seemed unwilling to reduce the tax rate to $0.86 -- the tax rate that is requested in the citizen petition and association resolution.

"The City Council is moving in our direction, but only May 2 will tell the true tale," said Cordia. "February's sticker shock from the city's historically high assessments coupled with the city manager's proposed budget on March 8 that called for the largest tax increase in Alexandria history caused 'April showers' of complaints from thousands of Alexandrians that our property taxes are too high. The Alexandrians for a 3% Compromise petition and Coalition of Associations for the 3% Cap resolution will hopefully persuade City Council to vote on May 2 for a reasonable spending increase of 3 percent to 3.5 percent."