Building the Budget Better in Alexandria

Building the Budget Better in Alexandria

Capital planning task force begins looking at process improvement.

The opening salvo of Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force subcommittee meetings last week probed into potential areas for improving the capital planning process.

“I think success is that we leave behind a recommended process for the city and the schools that provides more coherence to the capital planning process and that provides a better framework for making the difficult decisions that are ahead of us,” said task force member Eric Wagner.

Task force members expressed a desire to see more project alternatives considered, as a matter of course.

“There are tons of solutions that I haven’t heard put on the table because … there was some unacceptable barrier … to some constituency, and therefore it just got redlined completely, at the start, without really evaluating what the risk and reward trade-off was. And instead we went to the solution that had almost no downside, but the cost was so exponentially high,” said task force member Dwight Dunton. “My mission is to get us focused on taking a little bit of risk.” He applauded the school system’s acquisition, at a relatively good price, of a West End office building, which it plans to convert into a new school. “I would repeat that process over and over again… [W]e’re not always going to be right. But, in aggregate, the rewards are going … to create space to accomplish all these other needs that are currently not even under consideration,” such as public and affordable housing.

Additionally, the city could potentially sell City Hall and the Torpedo Factory in Old Town and purchase the Victory Center on the West End — what task force member Dave Millard called “sell high” and “buy low” opportunities, respectively. And a “swing space” school that could also become a permanent school would free up over $40 million for other uses, said Dunton.

With respect to design and construction methods, “I’m encouraged because it sounds like all of the infrastructure, legislatively, is in place to consider a lot of different options,” said task force member Mignon Anthony. This includes processes for joint and collocated projects. For example, the city is exploring an opportunity to put a city building — perhaps affordable housing — on top of a privately developed parking garage, said planning and zoning’s Jeff Farner.

Rather than being “ad hoc,” the process for considering alternatives “could have some more rigor,” occurring “with every one of the projects that comes forward,” said Wagner.

Alternatives could be “other than a material solution,” such as changes to “doctrine, organization, training,” said task force member Elliot Branch; or “regional approaches,” such as partnered ventures with Fairfax and Arlington Counties, said Wagner.

Task force members also expressed a desire to see certain changes in terms of timing.

Last year, the city and school system first interacted in October, when the latter proposed its Capital Improvement Program (CIP), said Michael Herbstman, the schools’ chief financial officer. A joint City Council-School Board work session followed in January. “As we think about governance of the overall process … it makes no sense to me that we’ve got two groups that are kind of independently doing stuff … but there’s been so much work that gets done on the individual pieces before it comes together,” said Wagner. It “would make some sense” for the entities to interact at “an earlier stage.”

Additionally, he suggested that City Council hint “in advance” how much money council will raise and allocate for capital projects. In the last budget cycle, City Manager Mark Jinks spent the winter building a budget around his proposed 2.7-cent tax increase. The 5.7-cent tax increase that council ultimately adopted was not suggested formally until March.

Wagner also suggested a “feedback loop” between the CIP and the city’s top-level plans in order to ensure that strategic priorities are either translated into line items or reevaluated. “If it ain’t going to happen in 10 years, it’s probably not going to happen. And we shouldn’t have people waiting for it.”

Albeit in what Wager called “a bit of a siloed process,” city staff must show each year that their departments’ proposed capital projects support the city’s published strategic plan. The CIP Steering Committee — an interdepartmental team of city staff, though no school staff — and other entities also weigh in.

But “we’re not checking to make sure everything that’s in the master plan got into the CIP,” said Morgan Routt, the city’s management and budget director. “I suppose the reason we don’t do that is the recognition that there are needs in all of the master plans that, if you added them up, are well beyond what we can afford in the CIP.”

“While it is true … that the feedback loop related to the objectives in the various master plans for projects not in the CIP is not a formal part of the CIP process, there are a number of ways in which the plans are reviewed and evaluated on an ongoing basis by staff that inform the CIP each year,” said planning and zoning’s Carrie Beach in an email. Departments also review the various master plans about every 5-10 years, though not all together, said Jeremy McPike, the city’s general services director. And the city revisits its small area plans, though the interval can exceed a decade, said Beach.

Overall, Branch wants “a process that is coherent and is traceable” through all projects’ “critical stages,” and that allows “the flexibility to adjust those projects”. He wants it to be forward-looking, accounting for “notional needs that may be out 35 [or] 40 years from now to form, if you will, the seed” for future CIPs.