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Votes

Resetting the Zero

City manager puts together a budget plan that would lower bills for most property taxpayers.

This year’s budget is different. Really different. For starters, most tax bills will be lower this year — a welcome relief after years of spiraling assessments and mounting pressure on taxpayers who have seen their bills double over the past five years. But even on a superficial level, the budget documents look different. Gone are the spiral bound documents that were easy to fit into a backpack or a briefcase. Hello giant three-ring binder.

“That’s the first budget cut,” joked Mark Jinks, deputy city manager, during a budget briefing at City Hall last week. “The spiral bound books fell apart. Besides, it’s cheaper to do it this way.”

According to page 7-67 of the oversized binder, the city plans to save $15,000 by presenting budget documents differently this year. The savings will come from printing hundreds of fewer hard copies, a trend that many city leaders see as the wave of the future by encouraging the use of compact discs and online material. But the savings don’t stop there. City Manager Jim Hartman also plans to eliminate an assistant city manager position, deny city employees a cost-of-living increase and save money by leaving Fire Department equipment outside instead of renting storage space until the new station is built in Potomac Yard.

“Virtually nothing is going to be the same,” said Budget Director Bruce Johnson. “We have a new budget process, and the information is being presented in an entirely new format.”

The elimination of the assistant city manager position is indicative of Hartmann’s philosophy — finding a way to tighten the belt during a time of reorganization while fostering a grassroots-style leadership model. The position, which oversaw several important facets of the Human Services budget, has been vacant since he took over in early 2005. Instead of hiring a new person to fill the position, he delegated many of the duties outside the city manager’s office.

“Not every decision needs to be made in this office,” said Hartmann. “We want to push down decision making.”

HARTMANN’S BUDGET is a 3.1-percent increase over the $493.7-million budget City Council members voted for last year. The proposed “general fund” budget of $508.9 million met the target for city spending of $353.4 million and school funding of $155.5 million — putting Hartmann at odds with the elected leaders who control the city’s public education. Last month, the School Board narrowly approved a $162.3-million budget in a controversial five-to-three vote, putting their plan $6.8 million over the target.

“Of course, some of you are asking why we couldn’t have cut more,” said School Board Chairman Arthur Peabody before the vote last month. “But the truth is that many of these costs are simply out of our control.”

The city manager’s proposal keeps the current property tax rate, which is 81.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value. Because most residential property values declined this year, the average property owner’s tax bill will lowered by $124 if the City Council decides to keep the tax rate at its current level — a goal that the elected leaders set forth in November when they passed a resolution setting targets for the city manager and school system. The last time that the average real-estate tax bill declined in Alexandria was 1994.

“This is a very conservative budget,” Hartmann said. “It resets our zero.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the budget is that it does not include a cost-of-living adjustment for city or school employees. Hartmann said that eliminating the adjustment — known as a COLA — was a difficult decision but one that was necessary to meet the City Council’s target. The blow will be softened somewhat by introducing a new alphabetical “step” increase for senior-level employees, creating a “Q step” and setting aside $530,000 at the top of the pay scale for city employees with the most experience.

“We value our city and schools workforces and have worked hard in recent years to provide them with fair compensation in this high-cost region,” said Hartmann. “But given other priorities and mandated spending levels, current fiscal constraints prevent me from being able to recommend a COLA for the next fiscal year.”

WHEN THE PROPOSED budget was presented to City Council members last week, they expressed support for Hartmann’s willingness to meet the target they set in November. Several members expressed a willingness to find a way to grant a cost-of-living increase for city employees, but doing so without raising the tax rate would be difficult.

The biggest question before the city’s elected leaders now will be what to do with the schools. Several children attended the budget presentation at City Hall with fluorescent green signs reading “No More Cuts to the Schools.” Mayor Bill Euille, who served on the School Board from 1974 to 1984, said he appreciates the fix its members have found itself in — although he cannot recall a time when a School Board did not unanimously approve a budget.

“Perhaps they tried,” said Euille. “But they just couldn’t get there.”

After Councilman Tim Lovain challenged council members to refrain from requesting too many budget memorandums — financial questions that are formally answered in written form — Councilman Rob Krupicka made the first request of the budget season.

“I know that I have a reputation of requesting a lot of budget memos, but I’m going to go ahead and make my first request right now,” he said. “I would like to see a list of the programs that the School Board would have to cut to meet the budget target.”

THE MANAGING FOR RESULTS initiative brought a new level of accountability to the process, with a price tag being placed on 507 activities and 153 programs. For the first time in the history of Alexandria, the veil of organizationally based budgeting was lifted in favor of a new model — one that is activity based and accountable. Among the disclosures: the city attorney’s office spends an average of 75 hours on each request for legal counsel; each docket item for the City Council meetings cost the city clerk an average of $190; and the Police Department spends an average of $916 every year per vehicle to maintain its fleet of 312 cars.

“Our Managing for Results Initiative is a long-term effort to influence our organizational culture to focus systematically on measurable indicators of performance and to help achieve better results with limited resources,” wrote Hartmann in the introduction to the document.

The initiative’s disclosures also reveals the broad outlines of larger trends that are at work in the city. In the city’s justice system alone, Hartmann’s new format has exposed a number of trends: court administrators expect the number of civil cases will increase from 7,703 in 2006 to 12,000 in 2007, but they also expect the number of land recordation documents processed to decrease from 44,844 in 2006 to 39,333 in 2007. They have accounted for an average civil case to cost $91 and an average criminal case to cost $138.

“Measures of efficiency and service quality are provided for each activity along with measures of what items or services are being produced,” Hartmann wrote.

Other areas of the city business have also benefited from the spotlight bestowed by the Managing for Results Initiative include the following: the cost of registering voters will increase over the next year from $9.23 per voter to $12 per voter; the cost per meal of inmates at the city jail will remain relatively constant at $3.52 in 2006 to $3.50 in 2007; the number of complaints to the Office of Citizen Assistance will drop precipitously from 383 in 2006 to 250 in 2007; and the number of automotive vehicles inspected to meet Virginia safety and emissions standards will drop from 690 in 2006 to 387 in 2007.

“To provide increased transparency and accountability for the use of public funds, we will issue regular reports to City Council and the public using this performance information,” said Hartmann his presentation to council members drew to a close last week.