Tightening the City's Money Belt

Tightening the City's Money Belt

Public hearing on the budget brings warnings for less and pleas for more.

The budget forecast is bleak at City Hall, and budget officials are bracing for a difficult budget season next year. Yet service providers and nonprofit agencies are asking for more money — a situation that is quickly creating a collision course for city leaders who must balance the need for services with the limitations of real-property taxes.

“This is going to be a very challenging budget,” said Deputy City Manger Mark Jinks during a presentation to City Council members Tuesday night. “We’re going to have some tough choices to make.”

Jinks said that council members can expect a 3-percent increase in revenues — a much smaller increase than the city has seen in recent years as the red-hot real-estate market has proved a windfall until now. Last year, for example, the city had a 10-percent increase in revenue mostly because of rising land values.

“The city needs to diversify its revenue sources,” said Tracy Rickett, a member of the city’s budget advisory committee. “We need to take a long-term perspective.”

This year’s budget season will feature a radical new initiative from City Manager Jim Hartmann — price tags. The budget document he will release in February will put a cost on every action taken by City Hall, a departure from the previous organizationally based format that often clouded how much money was being spent and how. Chamber of Commerce Chairman Lonnie Rich praised the new process, which Hartmann calls the “Managing for Results Initiative.”

“One example would be a program designed to prevent teen pregnancy,” said Budget Director Bruce Johnson. “Council members would be able to look at the budget documents and see how much that specific activity costs and then decide if they want to keep it.”

TUESDAY’S PUBLIC MEETING brought out scores of speakers who advocated funding a host of programs. Police officers and firefighters asked for raises that keep pace with the rising cost of living, and members of the St. Martin de Porres Senior Center asked for increased funding for programs and services. Several nonprofit organizations asked the city to continue its support, including the Campagna Center and Northern Virginia Family Service.

“We’ll be asking for a significant increase from the city,” said Steve Hart, president of Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services. “You should see our waiting room. It’s full every day.”

Several speakers bemoaned the lack of sports fields in the city, and asked city leaders to increase funding for turf replacements. These groups included the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, the Del Ray Citizens Association and Alexandria Youth Sports. One man who described himself as a frequent tennis player encouraged members of City Council to decrease funding for plastic surfaces and increase funding for lighting and maintenance on the city’s tennis courts.

Many speakers advocated funding for the arts. They represented a wide array of the city’s arts community, including the Alexandria Arts Forum, Alexandria Commission for the Arts, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra and Springwater Fiber Workshop.

“Funding for arts could help diversify the tax base,” said Mollie Danforth, executive director of the Alexandria Symphony. “Our studies indicate that 60 percent of the people who come to the symphony eat out. That’s a lot of restaurant tax revenue.”

Members of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce encouraged the council members to live within their means and refrain from raising the tax rate. Chairman Lonnie Rich said that a 10 percent increase in revenues would give the city $15 million, which he said was enough to put together a responsible city budget. Chairman-elect Rick Dorman said that City Council members should have an eye toward the future, planning for a future that will include a new National Harbor on the other side of the Potomac River. He said that the city should consider installing a trolley or jitney on King Street so that shoppers would have easier access to Old Town locations.

“2008 will be too late,” Dorman said. “We must prepare now.”