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Letter: Commentary On the Budget

To the Editor:

I write today about the budget city council recently passed largely for two reasons. First, the public deserves to know my views. Second, we have received numerous e-mails, some from ACPS PTSA parents and school board members urging council not to cut the ACPS budget. And third, to address concerns/beliefs that action by council to cut the ACPS budget was intended as a punitive measure to punish the school board for not firing the superintendent.

Last year, council directed the city manager to return a base budget that did not contemplate an increase in the tax rate. Admittedly, due to an increase in real estate values and therefore, tax assessments, even with a flat tax rate, the average tax bill would increase by approximately $52. Though I would have preferred guidance for a decrease in the tax rate that would keep tax bills flat, aware of the political climate we operate in and also in honesty and fairness to my colleagues, knowing that Virginia Retirement System [“VRS”] annual mandated contributions and WMATA subsidies rise every year, I also understand the roles of pragmatism and compromise in governance.

While pure ideology has its place in politics, it continues the elusive search for permanent home in government when there is a two-party system and elected representatives from both, such as we have in Alexandria. I remain assured that this two-party representation indeed suppressed a rate increase this year and held things down last year, too.

City Council’s guidance to the city manager provided for a merit pay increase to city employees (a $3.3 million line item in our base budget), a percentage increase in the allocation to ACPS based upon projected schools population growth and an increase to the base for public safety. Much to our chagrin, we later learned that the General Assembly passed legislation that would require all local jurisdictions providing retirement benefits through VRS to increase salaries by 5 percent to accommodate state-mandated employee contributions to VRS. This was an unbudgeted expense that at maximum will cost $5.5 million over 5 years and minimally, $600,000 to the city, excluding the schools, this year and $500,000 to ACPS if doing the 1 percent phase-in the city was opted rather than biting the bullet to do the 5 percent total this year.

Based on revenue re-estimates and a projected FY2012 surplus, city council was given an add-delete spreadsheet that factored in the $600,000 needed to provide city employees a 1 percent down payment mandated by the VRS pass-through contribution. Even with this $600,000 built in, there was an overage of $980,000 for us to use to restore funding previously cut and to use to honor some requests we have received during budget season, without increasing the tax rate. Admittedly, this $980,000 surplus was the result of pulling back $1.2 million previously dedicated to meet the ACPS budget request.

The decision to do so was not taken lightly nor was it a retaliatory measure. It was done knowing that ACPS did receive $1.3 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia. So though the funding source may have changed, the budget did remain whole. As a matter of fact, it was better than whole as council also transferred dedicated CIP funds to the tune of $800,000 to construct an artificial turf field at a school site. As a fourth generation educator, I retain a very firm and strong commitment to education but I also understand the reality that as long as an institution can rely on receiving money that it is not personally responsible for generating the revenue for, it will continue to spend it and find ways to justify the need for more. It is not lost on me or members of the public at large that there have been financial mismanagement issues at ACPS that folks believe should have been better managed by the school board and superintendent but our budget action was not a response to that. My response was to categorically appropriate funds to address that issue, but the motion failed for lack of a second. To those who have castigated council for our budget choices I say yes, our cost per student is coming down in ACPS and yes, we do spend 32 percent of the city’s overall budget on education while others in the region are purportedly spending 40 percent to 50 percent of their budget on education. But I ask the same folks sharing these numbers to reconcile how despite spending 32 percent of our budget to their 40 – 50 percent, how are we still the second highest per student expenditure at $17,500 per year?

I wholeheartedly lack an appreciation for being cast as against our children and for the fanning of flames we have witnessed as a council collectively and for some individual members of council saying I have created the problem by not wanting an increased tax rate or that failure to increase the tax rate caused an inability to fund critical social programs. We can always find ways to spend more, but that isn’t fair to taxpayers from whom we’d have to collect more to spend more.

I was pleased that we were able, among other things, to support Senior Services to provide Meals-on-Wheels for Sunday service beginning fall and find funds for an additional pre-K classroom to reduce the backlog of children who can benefit from school readiness measures. I was dismayed that we did not trade some of our add-ins on transportation for traffic calming ($532,000 above and beyond the $7.5 million already dedicated to transportation thanks to the 2.2 cents across the board add-in carried over from last year in our base budget) or the additional $500,000 built in for salary adjustments (we already dedicated $3.3 million for merit pay in the base budget and an additional $400,000 to fix pay compression issues in public safety, which I believed long overdue) to set money aside for the new supercommittee on Children Youth & Families to make determinations on how we could effectively work to reduce the pre-K backlog. I remain hopeful that moving forward we will work creatively to find a solution.

At the end of the day, my view remains that budgets should reflect the values and views of the communities they are intended to benefit, balancing consideration to our taxpayers as our number one priority.

I congratulate my colleagues on working collectively to achieve that goal in a budget that in the end, with none of us getting all we wanted, we unanimously supported. No, political ideology did not win out at the end of the day. But in my humble opinions, it is the people who count, all Alexandrians, who did.

Alicia Hughes

City Councilwoman