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Letter: Letters to the Editor-Underspending On Capital Needs

To the Editor:

The April 8 meeting of the Del Ray Citizens Association explored a major reason why the city’s tax rate and our taxes are going up again this year and why they will probably continue to go up in the future.

The short answer is the city’s capital budget, or its investment in new and existing public facilities.

The city has had a major backlog in capital projects for many years. A basic reason appears to be that past city councils have chosen to allocate more to social services than to new and existing facilities.

But this tradeoff between the operating and capital budgets has caught up with the city.

Perhaps the most glaring current example is aquatics facilities. Despite the fact that all of the city’s swimming pools, except for the recently built small pool at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, are literally falling apart and need to be replaced, the city currently has no money for aquatics in its decade-long capital budget.

This is why the Warwick Village pool will need to stay open not only this year, but probably for years to come, despite the fact that maintenance and upgrades will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in coming years.

A city-funded, consultant-prepared aquatics study in 2012 found that, with the exception of the Charles Houston pool, the city’s other pools are all 30-plus years old with outdated infrastructure that does not meet either current standards or user needs. The study recommended a nearly $50 million long-term plan in which all of the city’s aquatic facilities would be replaced or transformed.

Possible funding for aquatics, including the long-planned rebuilding of the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center, have been delayed in recent years because of a number of megaprojects, including the new T.C. Williams High School, the new police headquarters, and the new Charles Houston Recreation Center.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the schools has grown by about 2,600 students during the past five years, creating a pressing need for expanded or new schools.

Alexandria has had a difficult time determining exactly why enrollment has increased at such a high rate. Because of this uncertainty, the city has formed a committee that is studying the factors driving school enrollment and trying to answer a key question: Will Alexandria eventually see student population decrease again, or are we seeing a new normal of continued enrollment growth?

There are other pressing capital needs as well, such as the city’s current project to upgrade and separate the sanitary sewer and storm water systems. Alexandria has budgeted a large amount of capital funding to continue this mandated project over the next decade, but, as a recent staff budget memo states, this investment will not come close to adequately addressing the federally mandated environmental requirements the city will need to meet. These requirements may total hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two to three decades.

Despite budgeting for these needs, Alexandria continues to significantly underspend on public investments compared with neighboring jurisdictions, as Councilman Justin Wilson pointed out in his newsletter to constituents last week.

According to Wilson’s figures, in the coming fiscal year, Fairfax County will spend $678 per person on capital expenditures; Arlington County, $1,381; Loudoun County, $799; Prince William County, $611; and Alexandria, just $467 per person.

“Decades of underinvestment in our basic infrastructure is forcing our city to face large capital needs; needs for our schools, our roads and bridges, our sewers, our public safety services and our recreation facilities,” Wilson writes. “These are not needs that go away with delay. These are needs that get more expensive with delay.”

So what is to be done?

In his budget for fiscal year 2014, City Manager Rashad Young proposed a tax rate increase of 2.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value, plus an optional 3 cents that would be devoted to additional capital projects, including $25 million over 10 years for aquatics facilities.

The city has subsequently advertised a maximum rate of 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value for the fiscal year 2014 budget. It is not clear to what degree, if any, additional funding will be allocated to capital needs.

Should civic associations such as the DRCA consider supporting a tax rate increase along the lines of what the city manager proposed to meet our growing capital investment deficit?

One way to highlight the need for more spending on city facilities would be for the council to sponsor a nonbinding referendum on capital projects. Alexandria is currently not legally required, as are counties such as Arlington, to ask voters to approve bonds for new capital projects. Yet this requirement appears to have helped Arlington win voter support for much more robust investment in new and existing public facilities. It appears that when voters explicitly see where their tax dollars are going and how they will benefit, they are more willing to support higher taxes.

The Alexandria City Council should have significant reason to sponsor a nonbinding referendum that would pave the way for a more robust capital investment increase in fiscal year 2015.

Bill Hendrickson

President

Del Ray Citizens Association