A public hearing on the city manager’s proposed operating budget brought 59 speakers to City Hall in a four-hour, free-for-all discussion on Monday about programs, taxes and values. The city’s elected leaders remained mute for the most part as citizens and city employees gave their opinions on a wide range of financial issues. Eleven speakers implored the City Council members to fully fund the School Board’s $162.3-million budget — a spending plan that came in $6.8 million over the target of $155 million set by council members last year.
"Requiring schools to meet arbitrary targets is shortsighted," said parent Margo Williams. "Why should school have to pay for a downturn in the real-estate market?"
The topic of school funding dominated the meeting, with a plurality of speakers imploring City Council members to abandon the target they set last year and allocate $162.3 million to Alexandria City Public Schools. During one part of the meeting, as the president of the Education Association of Alexandria was speaking, several people in the back of the chamber held up signs that demonstrated the passion that many feel over the issue.
"What message does 3.75 percent send to parents and teachers," one sign read, referencing the target. "Send your kids to Fairfax and teach in Loudoun."
"It’s a shame that dogs are more important than teachers and kids in Alexandria," read another sign.
NINE SPEAKERS advocated adding $1.1 million to the budget for Hopkins House, an Alexandria-based nonprofit organization that provides education programs and services to economically disadvantaged children and their families. Hopkins House President Glenn Hopkins said that the money would clear the waiting list of all those who are trying to get access to child care.
"This is a key instrument to moving out of poverty," Hopkins told City Council members.
But adding $6.8 million for schools and $1.1 million for child care providers such as Hopkins House would increase the budget by $7.9 million — an addition that would increase tax bills for homeowners who have seen the average tax bill double over the past six years. Seven speakers asked City Council to remain within the targets set last year, which will not increase tax bills for most homeowners.
"The task now is not to set a new target, it’s to prioritize," said homeowner Tom Parry. "If you don’t respect the target, the budget process is a sham."
"I don’t want to respect the process, and I don’t want to respect the target," responded Mimi Carter, president of the Mount Vernon Community School Parent Teacher Association. "I want to talk about kids."
A HOST OF other speakers advocated for more spending for a number of programs and services: early childhood funding, historic preservation, soccer fields, Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, Senior Services of Alexandria and the Small Business Development Center. Two speakers even advocated for more funding to save Metrobus Route 7B from being eliminated — a decision Mayor Bill Euille said that the City Council was not authorized to make.
One issue that many speakers were prepared to speak on was a cost-of-living increase for city employees. Known by the acronym "COLA," the yearly salary increases are usually a staple of the budget process although the city manager’s proposal did not include one. Euille said that those who had arrived at City Hall to implore for a COLA didn’t need to speak because he had already heard their arguments.
"There will be a COLA," Euille said to the delight of the city employees. "It won’t be more than 3 percent, and it won’t be less than 1 percent. But I can tell you that we will include a COLA in this year’s budget."