Alexandria Column: Decision Time on City Budget Deliberations

Alexandria Column: Decision Time on City Budget Deliberations


The vote for our city’s budget is around the corner. This is the biggest vote of the year. Our decision will have a sizable impact on the quality of our lives as well as the pocketbook of each household in our beloved city.

It is a balance that we must seek — a balance between what we need and what we want. We must focus on what is mission critical such as education for our children, our crumbling roads, as well as our libraries, to name a few priorities. Our budget is a reflection of our core values. I would like us to envision together what an even greater Alexandria looks like and how we get there.

Friends from all over the country have come to visit me here in Alexandria, and they always marvel at how beautiful and historic our city is. We have a great deal for which to be grateful. We have inherited a phenomenal city that requires an eye on short-term and long-term goals.

The City Council has been holding work sessions to review all aspects of the budget. In mid-March, we held a budget public hearing for four hours and heard from about 70 citizens. Last Saturday, during our monthly Public Hearing, approximately 60 citizens spoke to us about their concerns, including the need for human services, more pre-K programs, library support, and bike trails, among other issues.

Every year, it is a tough set of choices. Many of you have taken the time to write us at City Hall, and we hear you. Your input is important to us.

We must do what we can for our schools, which are in serious need of our attention in terms of deferred maintenance, plus we are maxing out in terms of space and class size at a number of schools. We all want our children to have a great education.

Last year, the police pay was brought in line with neighboring jurisdictions, but that issue had festered for years. This year, we will tackle the firefighter pay issue.

I hope there will be unanimity among the council to bring back Sunday hours at three of our libraries. The fourth library, Beatley, has been the only one with Sunday hours for many years.

Further, we can all see the deterioration of our roads. Let’s tackle this together. In large part because of the economic downturn, the city has deferred maintenance and had growing infrastructure needs. Now is the time to pull it together.

As in recent years, this budget is extremely tight, and all of us are well aware of competing interests. Last fall, we directed our city manager, Mark Jinks, to come back with a budget proposal. After hard work with staff, he proposed in February that we could achieve our city’s goals by imposing a 1-cent tax increase. He also provided a list of what we could achieve if we raised the tax rate by 2 cents. In mid-March, in order to have some leeway, the council set a maximum tax rate increase of 3 cents.

To provide perspective, if your home’s value is $521,000, then including the assessment, a two-cent increase would mean an additional $223, and a three-cent increase would be an additional $275.

First and foremost, a majority of our citizens saw their real estate assessments go up in value, and that is a tax increase in and of itself. We must be cognizant of this.

Second, given Mr. Jinks’ budgeting expertise, I have stated that we ought to take heed of his recommendation of 1 cent.

Third, it is clear that the city’s deferred maintenance and crucial infrastructure needs over a number of years have come home to roost. Mr. Jinks has tried to balance all of the above in his recommendation.

The 2-cent increase is a good compromise between Mr. Jinks’ recommendation and the maximum of 3 cents, thereby enabling us to focus on more of our most urgent infrastructure needs.

Imagine sitting at your kitchen table when you have competing priorities. It is the same at City Hall. One answer over time is to diversify our revenue base, meaning increasing our commercial tax base.

So there is the dilemma. We must do what we can and be bold, but we must also be realistic about what our citizenry can handle financially. And we must live within our means. We cannot make up for lost time in one fell swoop nor in one year. But we must begin. We must make a commitment to envision what can be achieved together.

We would not fix everything in our own homes all at once, but we can begin today to make things better.