The high-water mark of Tuesday’s City Council candidates forum was a clash between former Councilman Justin Wilson and two incumbent members, Councilman Frank Fannon and Councilwoman Alicia Hughes, over taxes and spending, a key issue that hits voters in the pocketbook each year when property tax bills are issued. After Fannon and Hughes spoke about fiscal restraint, Wilson went on the attack.
“There they go again,” said Wilson. “Just like in 2009, Councilman Fannon and Councilwoman Hughes are resorting to the same, tired national talking point about taxes.”
Wilson said that months after being sworn in, both Fannon and Hughes proposed a higher tax rate during the add-delete work session. Fannon and Hughes ended up voting against the budget that year, but Wilson says their willingness to propose a higher tax rate during the budget negotiations demonstrated that they were trying to have it both ways. He also criticized Republican candidate Bob Wood for suggesting that having developers spend money should be a “last resort,” which Wilson said was an irresponsible way to approach governing.
“Mr. Wilson voted for a tax hike the week before he lost the election,” responded Fannon. “Without me on the City Council, you will continue to see your tax bill rise.”
THE DEBATE ABOUT taxes and spending is at the heart of the campaign this year, with candidates taking various positions on a number of issues. Libertarian Robert Kraus, for example, has repeatedly said that he wants to revert to 2007 spending levels. But when asked about which line items he would cut to make that happen, Kraus says he won’t know specifics until an audit is conducted.
“I’m running for City Council because I’m angry,” said Kraus. “I’m angry as a homeowner because we are paying too much taxes.”
Unlike issues such as development, where local politics is reversed from the national trend, issues of taxes and spending are falling along traditional party lines this election cycle. Republicans charge Democrats with being wasteful, and Democrats charge Republicans with being unreasonable. When the debate erupted over the council’s recent past, Councilman Paul Smedberg offered a defense of the council’s recent spending priorities.
“It’s very easy to say you are going to cut taxes,” said Smedberg. “But if you look at the city’s budget, a local budget is about the priorities the city sets. It’s not about something they do at the national level or even the state.”
AGAIN AND AGAIN, the clash between Wilson and Fannon hogged the spotlight at the Tuesday night debate. Wilson continued to attack Fannon for proposing a higher tax rate during the budget negotiation. Although Fannon did not respond during the debate, he said afterward that it was “ridiculous” to charge him with proposing a higher tax rate because of a proposal that was aimed at facilitating negotiation. When Wilson suggested that the city offer childcare at public meetings, Fannon shot back.
“Getting people to the meetings is an important thing,” said Fannon. “But I don’t propose raising taxes to pay for babysitters as Mr. Wilson just endorsed.”
“Mr. Fannon apparently doesn’t want to raise taxes to provide for increased community engagement,” responded Wilson. “But in his first budget he did want to raise taxes to provide money for the Alexandria Pipe and Drum Corps.”
That comment sparked an immediate response from the crowd, which began booing and hissing the former councilman. Then Hughes jumped into the fray, criticizing Wilson’s repeated attacks on Fannon.
“It’s vitriolic,” said Hughes. “And it’s something that does not reflect the best that we have to offer.”
“Telling the truth is not vitriolic,” Wilson responded after the debate.