Public Concerns

Public Concerns

City Council members hear from the public about the budget.

Monday’s public hearing on next year’s budget brought a community-wide clash of interests to City Hall. Although some people wanted the city to spend more money, others demanded that their tax bills should be lowered.

In February, the city manager proposed a plan to spend $503.5 million, an increase he described as a 7-percent increase. This plan would raise the average property tax bill $427 from $4,035 to $4,462. With the average real-estate assessment rising 20 percent, many taxpayers are concerned about the growing size and scope of government in Alexandria.

“You have no sense of reality,” said Vincent Argiro, who said that he was retired and on a fixed income. “We want you to stop spending money.”

This view stood in stark contrast to others, who wanted to make sure that certain programs received more funding. Union leaders spoke in favor of raises for public-safety officials, and historic preservation advocates spoke in favor of maintaining old buildings. Many speakers asked the City Council to make sure all teachers received a raise this year.

“Forget what’s tight and do what’s right,” said Francis Chase, president of the Education Association of Alexandria. “We don’t do this for the money, but we shouldn’t be punished for it. We should be compensated.”

In January, the School Board adopted a plan that would spend $2 million to increase the pay scale for 349 teachers with a bachelor’s degree and $6.8 million to increase the salary scale for 902 teachers with a master’s degree. School administrators say their plan would be compromised by potential cuts to the schools outlined by City Manager Jim Hartmann’s “alternative budget” as one way to reduce the cost of government.

SALARIES WERE a major source of conversation, and raises for teachers and other city employees were a concern for many. Vice Mayor Del Pepper explained that it was important for the city to keep Alexandria’s salaries competitive surrounding jurisdictions. She said this was an area of the city’s budget that is problematic, creating the possibility of losing many of the city’s employees.

“The salaries that we are offering are just not competitive,” Pepper said. “Other jurisdictions will grab our employees right out of our training academies.”

This was a view that was shared by many city employees, who are often faced with the possibility of making more money elsewhere.

“Don’t let us become a training ground for the region,” said Timothy Dickinson, an employee of the Alexandria Police Department. “We need cost of living increases that are equal to the rate of inflation.”

Salary adjustments for city employees have not kept up with the pace of inflation since the late 1980s. Last year, for example, inflation was 3.7 percent while the average city employee’s salary increased 2 percent. The year before that, inflation was 3.6 percent while the average employee’s salary increased by 2 percent. One of the potential cuts listed by the city manager in his “alternative budget,” which suggested several ways to reduce the cost of government, was to reduce the cost-of-living increase for city employees from 3 percent to 2.5 percent.

MEMBERS OF THE Alexandria Chamber of Commerce presented a proposal to reduce the rate of spending to a 5-percent increase. Five speakers presented a plan to require city employees contribute 1 percent of their salary to health-care costs and make across-the-board cuts to the city’s spending plan. They also asked the city manager to set a goal of reducing next year’s budget to a 4-percent increase.

“It’s not just the residential community that is concerned about this,” Rich said. “It’s also the business community.”

Joan Renner said that asking city employees to contribute to their health insurance was a responsible way of bringing down the rate of increase in the cost of government.

“Employees everywhere are asked to pay for a portion of their health insurance,” she said. “One percent would cost about $20 per pay period.”

SEVERAL SPEAKERS accused City Hall of playing a “numbers game” with the budget, giving a false impression of the rate of growth in city spending. They were particularly concerned with the claim that this year’s budget increased spending by 7 percent — a number they say is underestimated.

Bruce Johnson, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that the 7 percent figure was calculated by comparing the city manager’s proposed budget with the amended budget, which includes additions that were made after the City Council approved the budget in May. He said that comparing this year’s proposed budget to the budget that City Council voted for would be a 7.6 percent increase in the “general fund” budget. Furthermore, when all the state and federal funds are accounted for, the budget increased from $562.9 million to $615.1 million — a 9.3 percent increase for the “all funds” budget.

“My concern is that a numbers game appears to be afoot — a numbers game that obscures realities and impairs sound decision making,” said Richard Moose. “Spending must be reined in. Either this council will do it, or another one may be elected that will.”

Lou Cordia, who organized an unsuccessful petition drive last year to persuade council members to limit spending to a 3 percent increase, once again returned to City Hall to ask for austerity. He said that council members are spending too much, and he asked them to consider reducing the amount of increase in this year’s budget.

“We’re asking for one lean year after eight fat years,” Cordia said. “Families find ways to live within their means, and we’re asking council to do the same.”

ONE SPEAKER advocated extending domestic-partner benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. He said that the city government should follow the example of other jurisdictions that have taken this step.

“Hundreds of towns, cities, counties and a handful of states like Maine, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont, Rhode Island and Illinois already provide domestic partner benefits,” said Kalay Simon. “Start treating all city employees equally.”

The director of the Office of Management and Budget confirmed that this was an issue that was being investigated at City Hall, and he said that a formal investigation into the possibility of extending domestic-partner benefits to same-sex partners would be forthcoming during the budget process this year.